By Yilin Wang
This interview was conducted in 2015.
Tony He graduated from Johns Hopkins Applied Maths Department and Economics Department in 2014. His freshman year was a year of endless video games and after he bought a car in sophomore year, that year became a year full of later-night food time. But in fact he was thinking about doing a startup while playing video games, and even with those frequent later-night food time he managed to find an internship at JP Morgan during his sophomore summer. As he became an upperclassman, the powerful academic spirit of Hopkins finally began to sink in and he started to frequent the school’s library. In his junior year, Tony got an internship opportunity at Morgan Stanley and he worked there in his junior year summer, receiving a return offer at the end of the internship. He is the kind of person who values the quality of his life, but deep inside he is always ruminating and coming up with different novel ideas.
Tony has left Morgan Stanley to follow his startup dream. He co-founded Amber AI, a fintech company with impressive achievements. In 2019, Tony was honored as a “Forbes 30 Under 30” successful entrepreneur.
“I thought about dropping out of school to do startup.”
Q: I saw your LinkedIn profile where you said you built a website chihuo.com in college. Why did you want to do startup at that time?
A: I intended to attain more experiences when I first had the idea of running the website. Investment banks value people with entrepreneurial spirits. The more time you spend on a job, the more you feel integrated into the company. You will realize that the boss is not the sole decision-maker, because the things you do can also promote the development of the company. Therefore, investment banks find it important to look for “entrepreneurs.” Since the industry is ever changing, the companies prefer the ones who are innovative to the “working machines.” Otherwise, they can simply replace their staffs with robots, right?
I learned about the website “deliver.com” from my friend at New York City, then I came back to Hopkins to find a similar website in the area, “eat24.com”. These are two useful food-delivery websites, and I became instantly engaged with the idea of “getting everything to eat delivered while sitting at home”. I lived in a remote area in Nanjing, and during the summer vacation I was desperately in need of food-delivery services. So I started to build a food-delivery website with a friend. We encountered a great number of problems, and we realized that thinking was so much easier than actually handling things. For personal reasons, we did not make to official opening of the business. Although the O2O (Online to Offline) industry has been developing wildly in recent years, it was still less-known back then. The website “Eleme”, one of the most successful O2Os nowadays has already reached an estimated value of over one billions dollars.
What a regrettable fact… Had I dropped out of school and continued with the business, I might have attained great success, as well. But since the industry was getting more and more competitive, it was hard to define the result, but it would certainly enrich my experiences.
Q: If you had the chance to start over, would you drop out of school for the business?
A: I was willing to take risks, but my family would not agree with me. I could have taken a gap year for the business. If I had stuck to the idea of starting up my business, how beautiful the memory would be years later! For me, working for a leading company is not as attractive as running my own business. These are totally different experiences. Working for a big investment bank certainly has its bright sides, though. Now, working for an investment bank like this, I am always surrounded by elites and successful figures. Their attitudes and working manners have influenced me a lot. If I had the chance to start my own business again today, my way of thinking would certainly be more comprehensive than before. “Over the counter,” my transaction job now is to compete with other big investment banks. In this cruel world of business, only the strong could survive, and such a competition environment is different from that during school time. You learn to think twice and probe into questions more carefully, and I think all these are valuable assets for my possible future career of startup.
At the JP Morgan internship in his sophomore summer, he roughly learned about HK investment banks
Q: You did an internship at JP Morgan during your sophomore summer. How did you feel after this first-hand experience of life as an investment banker?
A: I took part in an internship program at JP Morgan, targeted at sophomores. This program was different from the internship for juniors, since the purpose of the sophomore program was to enhance the interns’ general understanding of the industry. Every day there were staff members from the IBD department to explain their daily jobs to us, and our jobs were to shadow and observe. To be honest, I didn’t learn much knowledge from this internship, but I got to know the investment banks in Hong Kong better as a really cool job and realized the differences between these investment bankers and Chinese brokers. The industry appeared fascinating to me. Although I realized that the real life as an investment banker was completely different only after I actually graduated from college and went to work, back then I felt the job as an investment banker at HK was what I want.
So, I applied to Morgan Stanley during my junior year. I initially applied to both the IBD and the Sales and Trading Departments, but the latter one accepted me first. I thought the job at Sales and Trading was more related to economics, so I was more confident to apply what I had learned in college at my job. That was why I chose to do Sales and Trading. The internship was not easy. The trader was not always in a good mood since their work was very stressful, and not all the staff members were approachable as they were all very occupied with their jobs already. The interns were assigned to different groups or projects, and had the opportunity to nurture professional communication skills by observing the actual trading and transactions processes.
Q: What did you do at your junior internship?
A: There were two groups: IBD and Trading. I was given all kinds of tasks. For example, I was once asked to find import and export information of a country. They would assign jobs to us as soon as they had a new idea. I must take all these tasks seriously, because these were all useful information for the decision-makers. My primary jobs were to collect and categorize data. I had developed relevant skills when taking classes at Hopkins. I also rotated between the two groups, and was given many writing assignments. One of my biggest projects was to analyze the real estate situation in Mainland China. These tasks were very detailed, as opposed to other standardized types of job. Whether you can handle it or not depended on the skills you nurtured in your college. Although Hopkins is not finance-oriented, it certainly provides a good environment for its students to acquire these skill sets. The more assignments you do, the more areas you learn about, and the more you are used to deal with multi-task situations. Moreover, the Trading Department values the communication between people. They love gregarious people who also work hard and carefully. I got the return offer at the end of the internship.
Current Work at Morgan Stanley
Q: It has become a common knowledge that people in finance are insanely busy. What do you think?
A: It depends on your task. It is pretty intense and exhausting doing sales and trading. You have to stay by your table all the time during work, and you would live on take-out food. You would even need to ask your colleague to cover for you for a while when you have to use the restroom, just in case the clients demand for a price. Whenever something major happens, you are supposed to stand by, make transactions or take appropriate actions in time, in order to avoid unnecessary loss for your company. I am in charge of the foreign exchange market, and the market operates 24 hours a day. As it is impossible for one person to work all-day, we have three shifts according to three time zones, namely Asia, London and New York. Each time-zone shift lasts for nearly 12 hours, from 7am to 6:30 pm, and there is usually no work during weekends.
Follow up: Do you feel exhausted from such heavy workloads? Or do you enjoy it?
A: In college, the school always started at noon for me, so I had to adjust myself when I first took the job. But I am quite used to the routine now. I have to do lots of data reading and to brainstorm for trading ideas. The task is not physically demanding, but it certainly requires tons of thinking. The longer you work, the more you obtain, and thus the easier the work becomes. I would not say that my work is easy, but I am adapted to the job now.
Q: What do you usually do off work?
A: I usually work out with my friends after work, and I video chat with my girlfriend every day. I was very into playing video games when I was a student, but I have less time to do so ever since having a job. However, I still watch movies and video clips that interest me from time to time.
Q: When did you decide to work in the finance industry?
A: I really wanted to make money when I was young, so my family suggested that I should
enter the finance industry, since it is most related to money. However, there are different kinds of finance jobs, such as sales, trading, IBD, asset management, and some other technical work. In fact, I did not decide which direction to take until I entered college and took several internships. But as I had developed this basic idea of pursuing finance-related jobs early in high school, I already started taking internships for the brokers, and getting to know the periphery areas of the finance industry back then.
Q: Do you have plans for the future? Are you planning on staying in the finance industry?
A: It is hard to say how my future will be like, since the industry is changing so rapidly. For example, my company reduced staff by 25% only last week, and a lot of my colleagues around me have left. The finance industry changes every second, and the mobility of staffs is extremely high. The ones who have stayed in one company for 3-4 years are counted as “the old members.” There are plenty of possibilities everyday. Meanwhile, the managers would love to reduce the mobility of young staff members in the company. As the training of young staff members could be time consuming, the management layer tends to keep the excellent trainees in the company. In this industry, your bosses basically define your experiences since they play a major role in your career. Fortunately, my supervisor excels in his field and is very approachable. I have learned quite a lot from him, and I might have a totally different experience under the supervision of another manager.
I do not have a specific plan for the future right now. I always have the idea of starting my own business, but in a different way from the time when I was in college. If I were to do a startup, I would approach to people similar to me, and see if they think the same way I do, and then I would start the actual work. In my company there are lots of brilliant young people and I would discuss about different entrepreneurial ideas with them: Which idea is unique and worth putting actual work in it? Which idea has already been carried out by a lot of people? I would wait until everything is prepared to begin.
Hopkins and Finance
Q: Has Hopkins provided you with necessary resources related to the finance industry?
A: To be honest, not enough, but when I look back, I think that Hopkins has prepared me for Finance in another way. In such an academic-driven school, for each year class there are only around 50 people who desire to pursue careers in Finance. However, when you choose a concentration and take more specializing upper-level classes during your junior or senior year, you will start to realize that you are always in two or three classes with the same group of students interested in doing finance, accounting, or actuary. You will see that it is this group of people that want to pursue careers in these industries. The group I was familiar with in my year class had almost all found a satisfactory job in the finance industry.
Hopkins has a good reputation for its engineering education, and most students are very self-motivated and concentrated. Had I chosen a party school other than Hopkins, I would possibly be less motivated and more hedonistic. Luckily, the excellent study environment at Hopkins influenced me a lot in a positive way. Although Hopkins does not offer many courses in Economics and those courses are not designed to prepare students for the relevant job market, they actually equipped me with a firm knowledge background for the comprehension of the finance industry.
Q: Did you take part in the fraternities at Hopkins, especially those with a business or finance focus?
A: I went to several fraternity parties when I was a freshman, but I didn’t join the club. It was still relatively rare for Chinese students to join fraternities at that time. I would not recommend the fraternities focused on social events, but the engineering and business fraternities might be useful in terms of their professional and academic events. Although a lot of students with their eyes on careers in business or finance would join the fraternities focused on business or finance, I refused, as I always had done, to do the same thing as other people. This might seem a bit rebellious, but I tend to think in my own way, and I think this way of thinking is reasonable in a way. If everyone has the same item on their resumes, then why should the company chooses you over others?
[Note: the engineering-focused fraternity is The Ta Tau, and the business and finance-focused fraternity is Alpha Kappa Psi. Both are popular fraternities at Hopkins.]
Q: Since you didn’t join any fraternity in college, did you take part in any extracurricular activity that prepared you for your professional career later?
A: I attended the “financial market group,” a market-oriented group whose founder was a trader at Goldman Sachs. The community was small, with only about ten members with focus and strong interests in the financial market. We always discussed major issues and current events like the exchange rates of foreign currency, price of gold, and the stork market. Such group was rare among Hopkins students. Most members in the group had their eyes on IBD, though. Personally I think IBD does not offer me enough space to fully apply my knowledge, since most of the tasks are assigned by the manager. However, I can decide what to trade on my own right now at my job instead of taking orders from others.
I also joined a group focused on startups, and a part of the members had already started their own businesses. The members gave presentations every week. I preferred the small activity groups to the bigger ones. I joined a great amount of groups in my freshman year, but later I gave some of them up and only stuck to those I was really into. I spent a lot of time having fun in college, but even now I found that the correct thing to do since I barely got time to have fun now.
Follow-up: So what exactly did you do for fun in college?
A: We only had less than ten Chinese students in our year class, so I had to spend a lot of time with students from other countries. Many schoolmates of mine desired to pursue academic paths then, but I wasn’t fond of that. I wasn’t a person who could sit at one place and do research for all day.
I liked to play video games, so my roommates and I would play the game “League of Legends” (LOL) together a lot. We would go to the library to play LOL since the Wi-Fi there was better. Unfortunately, playing video games in library is no longer allowed now. It was actually fun to have 6 people playing games in the study room.
I remember buying a car when I was a sophomore, and life became much easier. We would even go to the Korean restaurants at midnight.
I really miss my days in college, when I could simply have fun. There was a leader in our company who also graduated from Hopkins. I met him during a meeting in Hong Kong and we had a great talk. Most alumni love Hopkins and miss their time at this school.
Q: Could you name some interesting courses or courses that can be helpful to careers?
A: Financial Accounting and Corporate Finance are both among those many basic level courses that laid solid foundation for finance-related knowledge. The most interesting class I had taken was Oral Presentation, where I met Professor Pam Sheff who was extremely helpful. I was not good at public speaking at that time, but the professor taught me a lot of speech giving skills. I also remember taking a relatively practical class, taught by Professor James Knapp. The professor divided students into four groups and made every group a company. We had to come up with our own business decisions every day, to hold weekly meeting, and to set prices for our products. A computer simulation gave us the expected results when we input our data. In this class we had to consider our company’s situation, while monitoring other companies’ performances.
Q: Anything to say to current Hopkins students?
A: Do take advantage of your college time. Experiment with what you want to explore. Travel to as many places as you can when you have time. I believe you all will be fine with your academic performances and your internships. Spend more time meeting different people. You will always miss this good old time.