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Korean-Americans on Wall Street

Korean social network-turned-Wall Street gateway

Jan 25, 2021 (Gmt+09:00)

KFS fellows in front of the Bank of America Tower in New York City
KFS fellows in front of the Bank of America Tower in New York City

Korean investment bankers are more visible on Wall Street than ever before. Between 2010 and 2020, some 120 bankers, of Korean origin, landed coveted jobs at so-called bulge bracket banks such as Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley and JPMorgan Chase.

Aside from increasing English proficiency and US education, a 10-year-old mentoring program for Korean Americans, run by Korea Finance Society (KFS), was credited with the rapid rise in the number of Korean bankers on Wall Street.

The nonprofit networking group KFS has two goals: to provide a platform where Korean bankers share their experiences and knowledge; and to offer education and career development programs to young bankers and university students of Korean origin to help them achieve career success.

KFS originated from a small gathering of Korean American bankers, led by Mike Joo and Sandor Hau. As co-chairs of the social group, they have together led KFS’ networking events on a regular basis for the past decade.

Sandor Hau (left) and Mike Joo at a KFS networking event (Courtesy of KFS)
Sandor Hau (left) and Mike Joo at a KFS networking event (Courtesy of KFS)

Sandor Hau, managing director of Charlesbank, oversees the investment firm’s opportunistic credit investing. Previously, he had been with Nomura Securities as managing director and head of corporate credit and special situations and also with Goldman Sachs as managing director and head of credit investing and private equity within the principal strategies group.

Mike Joo is managing director and chief operating officer of Bank of America’s global corporate and investment banking. He worked at Goldman Sachs and Credit Suisse after receiving an undergraduate degree in biology from MIT. Moving to the US at the age of seven, Joo is among the most successful Korean immigrants there, rising to the top of the investment banking hierarchy.

At the age of 25, during his stint at Goldman Sachs, Joo led the advisory team for the South Korean government’s sale of $4 billion sovereign bonds in the wake of the 1997 Asian financial crisis.

Joo is also a member of the Council of Korean Americans, which aims to advance the national voice, interest and influence of the Korean-American community. Back in 2017, he was one of a few Korean investment bankers invited to a formal dinner hosted by South Korean President Moon Jae-in for Korean residents and expatriates in New York, on the sidelines of Moon’s participation in the UN General Assembly session.

Kyung-Ah Park, head of Goldman Sachs' environmental markets and innovation in the sustainable finance group, is another key member of KFS. She also attended the President Moon-hosted dinner in 2017.

FELLOWSHIP PROGRAM

Drawing a clear distinction from other social networking groups for Korean Americans, KFS runs investment banking fellowship programs. They pick a select group of Koreans, or Korean descendants, residing in the US, wanting to work for investment banks and help them land a job.

To do so, a team of three mentors is formed for each mentee and provides harsh training. The mentor group is composed of two junior investment bankers and a senior mentor with a vice-president or higher position.

KFS fellowship program information session (Courtesy of KFS)
KFS fellowship program information session (Courtesy of KFS)

Around the summer vacation of their junior year in university when undergraduates usually apply for summer internships, the teams of mentors volunteer to provide the job seekers with tailored support ranging from mock interviews to network-building for their mentees’ target investment houses.

Typically, global investment banks offer 10-week internship programs to undergraduate and graduate students, and about half of their summer interns are hired as analysts, or associates.

During the hiring process, the job applicant’s networks are valued as a competitive edge: how much information the applicant has gathered about the divisions where they want to work; and if they have built networks with working-level employees at the divisions. KFS’ fellowship programs, supported by the volunteer work of the mentors, have proven invaluable in that regard.

SENSE OF BELONGING

With the fellowship programs gaining popularity among Korean Americans, competition is heating up for spots in the programs.

A key selection criterion is the applicant's sense of belonging and commitment to the Korean American community, regardless of their knowledge about finance, accounting or business. Those with experience in leading a Korean society or club at school, or introducing Korean culture to the broader community, score big points in the selection process for its mentees.

Since the winter of last year, KFS has expanded its fellowship programs to include students in South Korea. They also run a networking program for Korean women in the banking sector on a regular basis, as well as the General Speaker Series where leading global investment bankers are invited to speak.

“This program helps dispel the deep-rooted prejudice against Koreans – that rather than joining forces, they are jealous of each other and foster conflict among themselves,” said a Korean investment banker. “Koreans are now emerging as one of the mainstream forces in the global IB industry.”

He added that bankers from Vietnam are following in the footsteps of KFS, adopting similar programs to begin their own networking communities abroad.

Write to Jun-ho Cha at chacha@hankyung.com

Yeonhee Kim edited this article.

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