Wall Street’s historic involvement with the Chinese elite has not been a gilded one. Accused of favoring Chinese candidates with family connections over candidates with genuine ability, they have been probed, scrutinized and quietly fined. And yet banks continue to hire Chinese students into roles in London and on Wall Street. Not because their parents are in the Chinese government, but because they’re good. Very good. And, they really, really want to work in financial services.
“Chinese students tend to be quite pessimistic and risk averse,” says one Chinese national who’s been educated at elite colleges in both the UK and the US and has a list of banking and private equity internships that would make the most impressive young bankers squeak with envy. “Their parents came through a difficult time that included revolution and famine and they’re less likely to encourage their children to do something different.”
By way of comparison, he says Americans students are more optimistic and risk-seeking: “You see this percolating through to career paths. They’re more likely to be entrepreneurs. Chinese like banking because it’s a fantastic career outlet when you’re very risk averse.”
Wall Street banks certainly have their share of elite Chinese students. This year’s summer analyst classes at Goldman Sachs, Evercore, J.P. Morgan, Morgan Stanley and just about every other bank you can think of, are replete with Chinese nationals. Most of them have one thing in common: they’ve studied overseas. A typical career path involves a first degree at the London School of Economics, followed by a postgrad at an American school like Columbia or Duke. On the (rare) occasion that they were educated in Asia, they typically studied at the privately run Anglo-Chinese school in Singapore.
Michael Karp, chief executive of the Options Group, an NYC financial search firm, says they’re seeing a lot of Chinese competing for associate level jobs on Wall Street. “It’s grown tremendously in the past 10 years. A lot of these kids are very strong in computer science and math and that really helps.”
Another Chinese national, who works in the technology business of a European bank in London, and was educated in both China and the UK, confirms this stereotype: “The Chinese are very well trained in maths. I did my A level further maths without a calculator.” He adds that the Chinese who make it to London are the best of the best. “The Chinese who come for further study in the UK survived intense competition in China. They are smart and hard-working. Their only problem is the cultural gap.”
If you’re a very bright, very driven, very well-educated Chinese national, it helps too that banks will often help you surmount immigration obstacles. “I was looking to work in a tech firm when I graduated,” says the Chinese banking technologist, “But none would sponsor my visa. So I compromised and applied to banking – Chinese are very pragmatic.”
As Chinese talent moves up the corporate hierarchy, excellent students need to develop different skills. Pragmatism, hard work and excellence are fine, but they won’t get you to the top slots of investment banks. Of 10,000 managing director (MD) CVs in our database, just 7% are from native Mandarin and Cantonese speakers. “We’re too humble,” says the technologist. “We still haven’t found our place in this society.”