Donald Tang '86, Chemical & Materials Engineering
Vice Chairman, Bear, Stearns & Co.
Chairman, Bear, Stearns, Asia
Nearly 25 years ago, Donald Tang found himself taking public transportation across Orange County on his way to daily English language classes in Mission Viejo.
“The bus to the school was full of retired senior citizens,” Tang says. “They rode every day to Laguna Beach to relax, shop and visit museums.”
Tang's fellow passengers grew interested in the Chinese teenager who was a daily companion on the bus. “They began talking to me, asking me questions, and before I knew it, I was speaking broken English,” he says. “I later realized I learned more English on that bus than I did at the thousand-dollar-a-month language school.”
Today, the 1986 chemical & materials engineering alumnus is a vice chairman of Bear, Stearns & Co. and chairman of Bear, Stearns, Asia. The same determination he employed to master the English language helped him conquer Wall Street as an investment banker. While on Wall Street, he established a widely recognized reputation for his finesse in structuring complex transactions, particularly between the United States and Asia.
But his initial journey to California from China was the result of a boyhood crush that would change his life.
“I was 14 when I first met my future wife, Jean, at a math competition,” he says.
Because she was a grade ahead of him, he devised a plan to win her heart by studying all summer and prevailing upon the school's dean to let him skip a grade. Tang had top scores in all subjects except English and chemistry but promised the dean he would improve with the help of the class deputy, who just happened to be Jean. Although not initially impressed, Jean was eventually won over by Tang's forthright determination.
“Then the unthinkable happened. Her whole family was moving, not to another city, but to America!” he says. With the same tireless resolve he would put to use multiple times during his life, Tang found an “emergency” number for the U.S. consul general's office and pleaded his case with the consul himself.
During Tang's first years in the United States, he learned English, married Jean, and the couple enrolled at Cal Poly Pomona — both majoring in chemical engineering.
“The most important thing for us to survive was to get good jobs. A doctor or lawyer required more schooling, but we could finish engineering degrees in four years,” he says, adding that he worked as many as 80 hours a week as a restaurant manager while taking 18 units a quarter.
They chose Cal Poly Pomona because it provided a “pragmatic, real-world education, and not just theory,” he says. “It was a happy campus and very diverse — people of different origins and colors coming together to gain real-life knowledge and exchange views.”
When they graduated, Jean found a job right away, but Tang went on 50 interviews and never scored an engineering job. The indiscreet look on his face when he'd hear that the engineering salary was less than his restaurant job must not have helped matters.
“Jean brought her salary home every two weeks, and my sole responsibility was to deposit it. Between unsuccessful job interviews, I watched soaps on TV,” Tang says.
However, a financial-markets TV channel caught his attention, and he began to study the stock market. He opened a Merrill Lynch account and did quite well.
“After a month of day-trading, my broker called and said, ‘you're pretty good at this — how would you like to be a broker?'”
His restaurant experience had given him the confidence to launch his new career, and he quickly earned the trust and respect of his superiors with his tenacity and ambition. He learned on the job and credits much of his success to the mentors who bet on him, even as a newcomer.
“I was enthusiastic enough to embrace anything in front of me, and after a while, I started to take calculated risks, which requires passion and confidence in who you are and what you're doing,” says Tang. “I acquired a lot of knowledge through failures, too, but if you work extra hard, opportunities will not miss you.”
Several years ago, Tang moved back to California, applying his full-speed ahead style to fostering relationships among different cultures within the region and abroad. As chairman of the Asia Society of Southern California, he arranged a trip last year accompanying leaders of the Los Angeles Urban League to meet with leaders in China. He also hosts high-ranking Asian officials and helps them experience and understand the Southland's cultural mix, which in turn provides opportunities for people both in California and China. The Los Angeles Times recently profiled Tang and his long list of inter-cultural efforts, stating: “Tang blew into town in 2001 and set to work using the sprawling, ethnically diverse city as a Petri dish for improving relations between China, his homeland, and the United States, his adopted home.”
“Sometimes people have insecurities, but if you apply those insecurities in a good way, you will have success. For me, it's the fear of letting people down,” says Tang, who recalls the folks on the bus, the consul, his professors, his mentors on Wall Street and his family. “I want to prove people were right to have confidence in me.”
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