May 22, 2024

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When high achieving Asians get lost in banking careers

4 min read
When high achieving Asians get lost in banking careers

If you’re an Asian banker wondering whether you might want to do something other than working in financial services, you may already be familiar with Jennifer Ong. She’s a one woman whirlwind who left BlackRock’s Hong Kong office four years ago and who’s spent the past three years as a career coach with a self-professed focus on ‘high achievers stuck in corporate jobs.’

Speaking on a video call one Friday afternoon in late August, Ong says there are plenty of these people in Asian finance. She knows, because she herself was one. After studying at the Hong Kong International School, Ong went to Columbia University in the US. “I wanted to study art history, but at Columbia I majored in economics,” she says. “I grew up with a very traditional idea of what a career should be and what you should study at school to achieve that.”

Ong’s dilemma isn’t unheard of in the West, where students often end up making equally pragmatic degree choices based on parental and societal pressures, but she says it’s even more of an issue in conservative cultures in Hong Kong and Singapore. “Growing up in Asia, there’s an expectation that if you go to a good school, you should get a good job afterwards – that you should work in finance, law or engineering, or become a doctor. I optimized the first part of my life for that definition of success and made a lot of my decisions based on that.”

After leaving Columbia, Ong worked for BlackRock in New York and Hong Kong, in analytics and then fundamental equities. She acknowledges that she was lucky to get the job and says the people were nice and the hours manageable, but that something was still off. “Sometimes you get overwhelmed,” says Ong. “I’d gone into finance because I was confused and didn’t know myself well enough – I didn’t know what I was good at or what I was interested in, let alone how to translate that into a career. Finance was one of the few careers I’d been exposed to that was aligned with what I was taught a successful career should look like.”

In 2019, she decided that she didn’t want to do fundamental equities. Thwarted from studying art history at university, Ong decided to follow her other passion – fashion. “It was the right time – I knew that if I stayed, I would regret staying more than I would regret leaving.” She made a “leap of faith,” took a huge pay cut, and went to work for a start-up renting high-end women’s bags, which she then launched in Hong Kong and Singapore. That led to a lockdown podcast about career change, which was an unexpected hit, and which itself led to another career switch into coaching. 

It all started with my podcast Ctrl Alt Career, where I interviewed people about their career journeys and it really took off,” says Ong. “Strangers started writing to me, thanking me for inspiring them to change and asking me for career advice. It all grew organically – I started coaching them on an ad hoc basis and built a program as word spread. Today I’m lucky enough to have enough clients to have built a full time career coaching business and am now at the stage where I’m employing other coaches to work with me.”   

Many of Ong‘s clients are high achieving Asians like herself. “They resonate with my story and appreciate that I understand the nuances,” she says. “There’s a lot of cultural pressure and societal expectation if you’ve grown up in an Asian household, and it helps to have a coach who understands that.” 

In some ways, Ong is Asia’s answer to Khe Hy, the 44-year-old son of Cambodian and French parents who grew up in the US and spent eight years working for BlackRock in New York before leaving and preaching the benefits of doing something else instead. These days, Hy is flaunting his six-pack and his fulfilling lifestyle while running a newsletter for corporate overachievers who feel they’re missing something. 

Hy’s latest newsletter says the reward of a corporate lifestyle isn’t always worth it. Ong agrees, but she acknowledges, too, that rewards are important. “A lot of coaching is really about getting to know yourself better.”

“People often think decisions are binary – that you have to decide between either a job that pays or a job that they’re passionate about when in reality it’s not about extremes – if you follow your passion, and it doesn’t fulfill your values of financial stability, you may be more miserable than before. What I explore with my clients are the shades of gray in between.”

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