October 2011 Issue
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Trading Places

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The trading floor at Citigroup is already buzzing with life at 7:30 am. The summer intern weaves her way across the voluminous room filled with rows and rows of undersized desks, each dwarfed by multiple monitors strategically placed throughout. Television screens, showing how the stock market is doing, hang from the ceiling. Amy Kao navigates her way to where Residential Mortgage-Backed Securities Trading and Securitization takes place. There, she is elbow-to-elbow with that group’s managing directors and analysts, ready to soak in another frenzied day-in-the-life.

It’s not Kao’s first lesson outside her Pittsburgh classrooms. The Tepper business administration major, with a concentration in general management, studied abroad for a semester at Oxford University. In fact, it was a finance seminar she took there that got her hooked on the kinetic energy of securities. Back at Carnegie Mellon, she made sure not to miss presentations from financial institutions. She listened to the way the speakers described their work environments—dynamic, challenging, exciting, intellectually stimulating. Wall Street, she decided, was where to spend the summer after her junior year.

It certainly hasn’t been a summer vacation. Work days, she has discovered, morph into work nights. Calling it quits at 9 pm is the norm rather than the exception. During the 14-hour daily routine, she barely has time for lunch, usually gobbling up a sandwich at her desk. And for dinner, her securities team often orders take-out together so they can keep working while they eat.

Still hooked on a life in finance?

“Absolutely,” says Kao. “It is incredibly exciting being able to work alongside the best and brightest and most accomplished people who are pretty much transforming the financial landscape. At [Carnegie Mellon], we know what’s going on by always reading The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, but to actually be a part of finalizing deals that I read about two weeks ago is an indescribable, priceless experience.”

But the bottom line for her is more than numbers in financial statements, which explains why she’s drawn to a new division at Citigroup that combines finance with community outreach. “The group’s primary focus,” she says, “is to make strategic capital investments and lending transactions that meet the Community Reinvestment Act standard. So, for instance, transactions include the launching of proprietary loan funds to support small businesses across the country, investments in private equity funds that will finance charter school facilities, and the launch of a partnership to purchase and preserve affordable housing properties in New York City.”

It’s no wonder that she almost sounds like a walking brochure for the division. Her long-term goal is to be a social entrepreneur—to create innovative business ventures as a way to champion practical social change. For example, she says, she wants to someday enable developmentally disabled youth to live independent and meaningful lives.

Kao is no stranger to benevolence, a singular focus, and long hours. In fact, the combination may be pivotal to her many successes.

As soon as her fingers had the dexterity to push down the keys of a piano, her mother, a Juilliard-trained pianist, began teaching her to play. By the age of 5, when most of her peers were only expected to maintain their focus on a task for 20 or 30 minutes, she was accomplished enough to perform a 25-page piece of music for a benefit concert. When she was 8, she could check “playing Carnegie Hall” off her bucket list. She performed there as part of a winners recital after a New Jersey-wide piano competition. She played Doll’s Dream by German composer Theodore Oesten, a popular recital choice for young girls that begins at a slow dream-like pace and quickens to a light-hearted dance tempo to show off nimble fingers. “It was a little bit intimidating at first going on stage and playing the piano at such a young age,” she remembers. “Afterwards, I realized that this ability to focus under pressure has really helped me even within the academic environment.”

There were other life lessons as well. “When I was younger, I used to practice hours and hours on the piano for literally a two-minute performance,” she says. “When I think about it, it’s not really about the two-minutes on the stage when I am playing the piano. It’s about the four to six years, the hours of dedication, time, and effort it took to get me there. The destination no longer becomes the true focal point. It’s really about being able to enjoy that entire journey.”

Playing piano also provides a way for Kao to slough off pressure. “When I find myself in a stressful situation, I pop into the piano room and play a romantic song like Love Story, and my emotions and attitude and stress level immediately soothe. When playing the piano, you enter this different world, and I sort of wish that I had more practice time like when I was young. Looking back on it, I am very, very grateful that I have the ability to play the piano; it’s provides my equilibrium.”

Interestingly, music, for her, has run on a parallel track with service. The 25-page piece she learned to play when she was 5 was for a concert benefiting a children’s orphanage in China. In high school, she organized and performed in concerts for the American Cancer Society and other charities, as well as participated in and hosted international cultural exchange concerts in Shanghai and Venice.

“Music has been a great outlet for me to give back to the community,” she says. Still, she’s managed to find many different ways to give back. In high school, she led Helping Our World from Edison, N.J., a hometown chapter of People to People International. PTPI was founded by President Dwight Eisenhower to promote friendship and understanding among the peoples of the world through direct, people-to-people community service and humanitarian projects.

When Kao arrived at Carnegie Mellon, she attended the first available student activities fair, hoping to connect with a campus branch of PTPI. None there? No problem. She’d just start one. Perhaps some of her confidence and I-can-do-anything attitude comes from competing successfully in regional pageants. (She was New Jersey’s Junior Miss 2008 and Miss Pennsylvania American Teen in 2009.) So, during her first semester at Carnegie Mellon, she wrote a student organization proposal, created bylaws and articles, gathered 10 students interested in participating, and submitted an application to the Committee on Student Organizations. By the beginning of her second semester, the Carnegie Mellon chapter of PTPI was official.

Within just a few weeks, it had its first project—putting members’ culinary skills to the test as they made and served a tasty, hearty meal of pasta and garlic bread for families staying at the McKee Place Family House, located just a few miles from the Pittsburgh campus. The family house provides a place for patients and families to stay when they have to travel to Pittsburgh to be treated in the region’s hospitals for serious illnesses.

The food theme continued in PTPI’s work with the First Trinity Homeless Ministry; members there made sandwiches and distributed them to homeless people they encountered on the streets of Pittsburgh. That experience was a world away from the Citigroup trading floor. “I witnessed a lot of things that I probably wouldn’t have ever seen just walking down a regular street,” she says. “Once we met up with homeless street people, we asked, ‘Is there anything else that you need?’ For most people, it was like a toothbrush, toothpaste, socks, a nice clean shirt, soap, just things like that. So within our care package, along with a sandwich and a bottle of water, we would also include those kinds of basic necessities that we take for granted but that people, with no home to call their own, consider a luxury.”

The heart of PTPI is the one-on-one interactions. One encounter, in particular, left Kao with a lot to think about. “There is this one person I met who is rather enthusiastic about his way of life, he has an uplifting spirit,” she says. “He is blind, he is homeless, and he sings on the streets. He is also probably one of the nicest people you would ever meet. He said, for him, homelessness was his choice because he wanted to experience first-hand what it would be like to live without all of the necessities in life. For me to be able to befriend him and witness his positive outlook has given me a lot of positive energy as well.”

Well into its third year, PTPI now has more than 60 members, and programming has included:

  • Tutoring children
  • Organizing a benefit concert for the Rwanda Humanitarian Relief Fund
  • Visiting patients admitted to The Hospital at The Children’s Institute
  • Collecting school supply kits for underserved children in Iraqi schools
  • Mentoring young girls at a local shelter for battered women
  • Helping women in the shelter launch their careers by providing career developmental workshops and appropriate attire to obtain employment within the workforce.

Kao’s efforts have not gone unrecognized. One day, before the summer began, when she was home on spring break, she received a telephone call from Liberty Mutual, the insurance company that employs more than 45,000 people throughout the world. The Boston-based company offers an annual undergraduate $10,000 scholarship award to five students nationally. Here is what the scholarship committee looks for:

People get opportunities to do responsible things every day. And when a small act grows into a big result, it deserves recognition.

More than 1,000 college undergrads, including Kao, had submitted applications to the Liberty Mutual Responsible Scholars program. Liberty Mutual reported that it had some tough choices:

“The scope and reach of the contributions all these students make in their communities is astounding, and their essays were inspiring. Yet, even within this field of excellence, the activities of the five scholarship winners stand out. Because of their efforts, their schools and communities benefit from significant and sustainable services that make a difference.”

Kao learned in that phone call she was one of the five 2010-2011 awardees. Needless to say, she was delighted. “The award has given me encouragement to continue exploring. I even wrote in my essay that life is about getting up every single day and knowing that what you are doing is contributing to a greater purpose.”

She also wrote:

Believe in yourself and you can accomplish anything you put your mind to. That is my policy on life and the message I try to convey to my peers every day. If you take initiative to inspire change in the community, you will be amazed at the extraordinary difference you can make. ... I am proud to say that PTPI is growing strong roots at Carnegie Mellon. Our efforts have been recognized by the campus and applauded by the community. We have hopes of tripling our membership within a year and extending our influence to more countries and communities abroad. Experiencing such success within PTPI has really given me the confidence to pursue individual projects of my own to continually impact the community. ... I will continue to dedicate my life to the service of others and apply the invaluable lessons I have learned to make a difference for the greater communities.

Having completed her internship at Citigroup, the budding social entrepreneur says, now more than ever, she knows her purpose. She says she isn’t going to rely on the government or business sectors to solve problems. She plans to spark change within parameters that stretch from the financial world to homeless shelters. As she concluded in her Liberty Mutual essay:

I hope that my policy on life of believing in yourself and taking initiative to inspire change spreads throughout our campus and greater communities, for the success we have experienced within the organization started with believing in ourselves to initiate change for those less fortunate and turning those dreams into reality.

Sally Ann Flecker is an award-winning freelance writer. She is a regular contributor to this magazine.

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