By Beth Senko
In a recent round-table of derivative portfolio managers of the largest insurance companies, Esther Yang found herself being the only female among this male dominated profession. How did she get to where she is now?
Esther Yang did not have a conventional route to success in financial services. In fact, she didn’t begin college or her career with intentions of entering the field at all. However, Yang used her instincts and willingness to try new things to guide her into the position she currently holds.
From Biology to Math
Yang started out with the goal of being a biologist. While studying at Peking University she discovered that while she was fascinated by theory, she was not as interested, or skilled, in the more practical laboratory work. “I was too clumsy!” Yang remarked. But she persevered, graduating with a degree in molecular biology.
Shortly thereafter, she moved from China to Canada to get married to her fiancé. It was a time of unrest after China’s student protests in 1989 and Yang was excited to start a new family in a new country.
After moving to Canada, at the age of 23, Yang was a busy first-time mother and felt frustrated by the poor prospects of finding work in biology. Searching for a new career, Yang learned about actuarial science, so she decided to enter this new field by pursuing a new degree.
So with one toddler (and one on the way), Yang completed a masters in actuarial science at the University of Waterloo in Canada. She delivered her thesis and her second child within the span of the same week in July 1997.
Yang’s family soon moved from Canada to the U.S. – Chicago to be precise. Armed with her newly-minted degree, she found her first actuarial job with a health insurer – a job like many first jobs that wasn’t particularly interesting or challenging. “It was a lot of data entry.” She found the pace too slow and too confining for her natural curiosity. Soon she knew she had outgrown the role and started looking for her next move.
Through a friend, she learned of an opportunity working on asset liability management issues for a large insurer in Chicago. She described the role as “closer to what I wanted but still not my dream job.” But proving that good things can come out of a not-quite-right situation, while working in this job, Yang found both a mentor and the type of work she wanted to do.
She recalls, “I worked hard to obtain my actuarial accreditation. As the final requirement I had to come up with a project and find an actuary who would oversee my project.” Yang found her mentor in an actuary working in the derivatives unit of the insurer. In her first meeting with her mentor, Yang was convinced that capital markets were her calling. “Soon a position became available in my mentor’s group; I applied and got the job!”
Her capital markets tenure in Chicago ended when Yang and her family moved to Atlanta and she found her position at Voya Investment Management. Yang recalls, “I applied to Voya when I first got to Atlanta. They didn’t have a role for me at the time, but I knew it was where I wanted to be.” While waiting for a suitable position to open up, Yang spent time working for a large consulting firm (which she described as really exciting but with an “overwhelming amount of travel”) and as an independent consultant. Yang knew that a corporate role where she could balance family and work was best for her, and when Voya Investment Management called with an opening in 2006, all the pieces came together.
Eight Years and Going Strong
Since 2006, Yang has been thriving in her work, “even under a very volatile market environment, I can handle it with calmness and endurance.” Yang recalled her most challenging days during the financial crisis.
Yang is celebrating eight years at Voya Investment Management and says that she remains happy and challenged in her role as a senior trader on the derivatives desk of the global rates team. Every year, the derivatives desk sees hundreds of billion dollar flows of different types of derivatives, and executes a trade every few minutes.
She relishes being close to the markets because “everything is always changing.” She is constantly learning new things and is fascinated by the “intricacy of the changing market dynamics.”
Yang likes the added opportunity and challenges of working for a firm that is building on its recent independence (IPO) as it gives her the chance to try new strategies and see how they can help grow the business. “I not only have the pleasure of working with a great team but they are also very supportive of work/life balance, which I have found key to my success.”
Advice for Other Women
“Pursue your dream” says Yang. She believes that the biggest hurdles for women are often psychological. “Focus on the dream, not the difficulty. Take whatever steps you can, no matter how small.”
She urges women who want to succeed in business to follow the words of Steve Jobs and “Stay hungry. Stay foolish.” She feels it is important to never lose one’s curiosity.
Outside the Office
But even with demands at work and home, Yang finds time for herself. She swims whenever she has the chance and loves to read. Her family also participates in a Christian outreach program for international students in Atlanta, helping the students to adapt and succeed in a new country.
Throughout our discussion, Yang brought up how having a supportive spouse is invaluable. And in case one might think that her career is made easier by having college-aged children, Yang and her husband had two more little girls since she joined Voya Investment Management and they now have a three year old and a one year old in the house.