By SHIRLEY FOO Wall Street investment banker turned Silicon Valley product manager Vivian Fried-Chung knows exactly how she likes spending her weekends, and it has nothing to do with work. You’ll find her hiking, playing tennis, or hosting dinner parties––activities she could never make time for during her “crazy and infuriating” six-year stint working in financial services for investment banking firms Goldman Sachs and the Macquarie Group.
The life of a high-strung workaholic was not for her, even with an out-of-college salary of $60,000, not counting the whopping year-end bonuses. After six years of being a slave to the spreadsheets, she decided to enroll in the University of Pennsylvania’s business school for an MBA focusing on entrepreneurial studies with her soon-to-be wife, whom she met while living in the same residential hall at Dartmouth College. Their love of hosting dinners began with their engagement party before graduate school started; a simple affair involving both of their families and some honey Sriracha chicken.
After her graduation and Long Island wedding in the summer of 2015, Fried-Chung shifted jobs and coasts. She is now a product manager at Focus Product Design, a tech start-up firm in San Francisco, while her wife works in sales at a data company. Often sporting casual button-down shirts and an easy grin, Fried-Chung emanates the kind of laid-back vibe you wouldn’t think to associate with an ex-banker.
Q: We’ve all heard the Wall Street horror stories. How much of it is actually true?
A: All of it! I’d be in the office by 9:30 a.m. and home by 3:00 a.m. Bad days involved all-nighters. I never had a weekend during my first year at Goldman Sachs and I spent Christmas and New Year’s Eve in the office. I never cooked at home because I was never at home. I could never see my friends because no one wanted to have a drink with me at 2 a.m., which was when I got off work. I craved human contact and I didn’t know how to work in an industry that cared so little. But I went to the gym everyday between 7:00 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. because there was a culture of being fit and looking a certain way at Goldman. It was the only socially acceptable way to leave the office for 90 minutes, but then I would return immediately to eat dinner and work.
Q: But you eventually decided you’d had enough. What was the breaking point?
A: The worst part was the lack of control over my own life. I never knew when I could actually have a weekend. I was made to feel like there was nothing sacred about my personal life. I tried to have a housewarming party one Sunday but had to cancel it because of work. It was so upsetting. Another day, I was spending time with my parents who had come to visit me from out of town. It was 10 p.m. on a Saturday and my boss called me saying, “We need you to do this right now.”
Q: So then you decided to switch up your career path and now you’re working at a tech start-up. What triggered you to go in this direction?
A: I was really exhausted working for big firms. I had just spent a summer interning at Amazon while completing my MBA. I hated how gigantic it was and how difficult it was to get anything done. Now I work with engineers and designers to build all kinds of products, like cell phone cases with new functionalities and medical devices that are sold to hospitals, to name a few.
Q: What’s it like being a millennial in the workplace?
A: I think it’s an advantage. The way we work is different and so is our work culture. We tend to seek more mission-based work. We want more out of work than previous generations and we like to work in teams. Previous product managers at my firm have been fired before, even with twenty years of product management experience, because they didn’t know how to work in a team. I was hired because I could work in a team even though I didn’t have any product management experience, and I think it’s working. My team of designers and engineers build products that fulfill customer requirements and I translate what the market and the customers want in the product to make sure it’s successful. It’s a back-and-forth conversation that needs teamwork. I’m doing well at my job, and that’s because I’m here not just to make money but to fulfill myself throughmy job.
Q: Your work has mainly been in male-dominated fields like finance, investment banking, and now tech. How has being a woman of color in your profession affected you?
A: We’re not given as many chances to succeed. To do well in these industries, you have to be exceptional, not just average. It’s created a very competitive culture between women in the workplace, and many women treat each other quite poorly. Since there are so few of us, we feel the need to outshine everyone else. At Goldman, I was hired along with 500 analysts and split into “groups.” A hundred women were hired, and out of that number, ten were Asian. During the recession, one person from each group was let go. Many, many women were cut, and of those ten Asian women, eight were let go. I wasn’t the one in my group to be cut though––the black guy was.
Q: Where do you see yourself in five years?
A: My dream is to be the CEO of my own start-up. I don’t know what that start-up does yet but I know I want a strong team of people who believe in me as their leader, and I want to make a social impact. In terms of my social life, maybe my wife and I will have a kid by then, and so will our friends, so we can do boring parental things like having play dates on weekends. Geographically, I don’t know where we’ll be or whether we’ll have the same jobs as we do now. We might move back to New York to be closer to family, but nothing is set in stone. A lot can happen in just two years.
Q: If you could go back to one point in your career and redo it, what would you do?
A: I would’ve quit finance a lot earlier. I applied to Google in 2007, when everyone wanted to work for Goldman Sachs. Since I’m from Hong Kong, I didn’t get very far in the application process because I needed visa sponsorship. If Google had worked out, I would be much farther along in my product management career and I could have saved myself many years in finance. I hated looking at spreadsheets day in and day out, and I never want to do it again. I prefer figuring out creative solutions to problems and I love being able to actually make something tangible. I love the creativity product management has brought to my life, but I’m still very open to other career paths and I’m still not sure where life will take me. When I was younger, I had this notion that I had to know what I wanted to do, but even at thirty, I haven’t figured it out yet.
Q: If you could give younger millennials one piece of advice, what would it be?
A: This sounds clichéd but a lot of my peers who didn’t work for brand name firms and instead pursued what they wanted to do without caring about prestige are now so much higher in the industries they actually want to be in. My friend from college who loves skydiving started a company that organized professional skydiving events. It expanded to six different cities and was eventually bought by a bigger company a few years ago. Now she contributes to a lot of start-ups in Silicon Valley and is very well connected. Many of my peers who took the traditional banking and consulting routes are unhappy in their field and don’t know what they want to do long-term. Economies and trends change all the time. What’s competitive now will change in five years and you can’t predict what that might be. If you pursue the latest “hot” job that everyone wants, you’ll be fighting for something you don’t really want, and that’s an exhausting fight. Think about what actually fulfills you and pursue it even if it seems risky.
Edited and condensed.