Joanna Lau’s investment banking career was on an upward trajectory after graduating with a B.S. in finance and statistics from a prestigious university and successful tenures as a trader at Goldman Sachs, J.P. Morgan and BNP Paribas. However, while she gave it her all, Lau eventually decided she had to scratch the persistent entrepreneurial itch that never went away.
About a year and a half ago, Lau quit her banking job, moved back to New York and launched her own company, the JEMMA handbag brand. So was that a decision that she’ll come to regret or the beginning of an exciting new career path with herself in the driver’s seat?
“Before I started Jemma, I was in finance – I was an FX and rates trader for close to five years,” Lau said. “I was working in a male-dominated environment, and I noticed that men working in finance had cool briefcases, satchels or backpacks, but women didn’t have that, so I created a brand that caters to working women’s needs.
“We [women] carry laptops, tablets and smartphones around all the time, but [women’s] handbags are typically either too small or they break when too many things are in it – they’re cute but don’t have functionality,” she said.
JEMMA manufactures and distributes designer handbags for working women that Lau claims are not only beautiful but functional. They are designed to fit a laptop, tablet, books, wallet, cellphone and keys, whatever most working women would want to keep in their bag.
Lau attended New York University’s undergraduate business school, Stern, which U.S. News & World Report ranks in the top 5 and Bloomberg ranks in the top 10.
“At the time I was pretty determined to be in the finance industry,” Lau said. The finance and statistics classes were very hands-on and practical as compared to some of the other economics classes.
“I could apply the skills I learned to my internship and eventually my fulltime job,” she said.
In a bit of foreshadowing, while she was studying there, she interned at apparel brand Tommy Hilfiger.
For two consecutive summers while Lau was studying at NYU-Stern, she interned at QVT Financial, a multi-strategy hedge fund, which gave her exposure to the trading world. The buy-side perspective and experience trading derivatives helped her to understand how the industry works.
“During my early years in college, I was learning about the markets and getting a grasp of the trading role,” Lau said. “I was on the buy-side, where I gained a lot of understanding of the interactions between hedge funds and banks, as well as how trades were executed and decisions were made by portfolio managers.”
The summer before graduation, Lau landed a summer internship in the credit trading division at Goldman Sachs.
“I wanted to understand the other side of the equation, the sell-side,” Lau said. “I focused on both high-yield and investment-grade credit, but now from the opposite side of the trade – I learned how to reach out to clients on the buy-side and make money from credit trading.
“It was a very different experience, managing money at a hedge fund versus market making at an investment bank,” she said. “Investing and managing money are a lot more about your views on the markets, while market-making is about finding opportunities and pricing products.”
Upon graduating with her Bachelor’s degree in finance and statistics, Lau joined J.P. Morgan’s emerging markets FX trading division in New York.
“It was a market-making role, pretty similar to my role at Goldman,” Lau said. “For example, we traded Asia and LatAm securities in central and eastern European currency.
“It wasn’t really a shock, because I knew what I would be doing at J.P. Morgan after my summer at Goldman,” she said. “I knew I was in the right role, and I liked the risk-taking.”
Originally from Singapore, Lau accepted a position back home as an emerging markets rates trader at BNP Paribas.
“I basically went back to work there to get great experience in the same area I was trading in New York, but more on the rates side of the business at BNP Paribas,” she said.
It wasn’t long, however, before Lau’s urge to break out on her own became irresistible. She had always wanted to start her own business. After being in the finance industry for almost five years, she felt it was right time to go out and do her own thing.
“I was doing my own research beforehand on the handbag industry, which has always been a personal interest of mine, then I felt I was ready to do this, and I never looked back,” Lau said.
Lau moved back to New York, which she calls “the fashion capital of the world.”
“I always knew that if I launched a fashion brand I would probably do it in New York,” she said.
While trading and fashion seem to be polar opposites, Lau does draw parallels between finance and entrepreneurship in terms of what it takes to be successful: getting an adrenaline rush from risk-taking.
“When I was fresh out of college, I never really knew how I’d do until I became a trader and had to take risk, and at that point I knew it was something I enjoyed and did well,” Lau said. “It’s similar now as an entrepreneur starting a business, except that I’m taking a risk with my own money – that part of my personality has stayed consistent even though I changed careers.”
When you run your own business, you have limited resources, so you have to work around that and manage your time and money properly to grow the business.
“Entrepreneurship requires learning as you go and getting exposed to new things every day, with new challenges cropping up all the time, whereas trading gets pretty predictable after a while, and the challenge is making money in volatile markets,” Lau said.
The most common question that people ask Lau is why she would want to leave a lucrative banking job to go off on her own to start something completely different. Students and friends have asked her, “Is that something everyone should do?”
“My answer is, I think it’s great, everyone should do what they love, but entrepreneurship isn’t for everybody – it depends on your personality,” Lau said. “We shouldn’t all be entrepreneurs – that’s definitely not the case.
“It depends on whether you think you can do it, because it’s not the most straight-forward route, and it’s the most risk I’ve taken, even compared to trading,” she said. “It’s your own money on the line, which is very different from trading at a bank.
“I encourage people to do it if they feel it’s right for them, because life’s too short.”
Photo courtesy of Lau