Alumnae Spotlight showcases amazing Laurel women and the paths they have charted since graduation. Whether they are doctors, designers, artists, authors, scientists, lawyers, teachers, entrepreneurs, engineers, pharmacists, or civic activists or volunteers, Laurel women inhabit nearly all careers and corners of the world helping to make it a better place. Our alumnae and the journeys that they have taken speak to the essence of a Laurel education and what makes this School and the community of women who call it their own distinctive. This space highlights their fascinating lives and the mountains they continue to move.
If you would like to be featured in our Alumnae Spotlight, or know of an alumna who might, please email Megan Findling.
August 2018 Alumnae Spotlight
Xiaoyu Gu ’01
Xiaoyu Gu still isn’t sure she knows what she wants to be “when she grows up.” Currently a Vice President at CarVal Investors, Xiaoyu and her team invest in companies that are experiencing challenges—but that’s far from her only interest. Originally intent on studying engineering at MIT, she changed gears and majored in economics and statistics at Harvard, launched businesses at a business incubator in Shanghai and earned a law degree and MBA, also from Harvard. Xiaoyu shares, “I believe that life is a journey that evolves over time, and that it’s important to be open to different opportunities, even if they don’t seem like the best fit or most natural career progression at first.” Come along and read about her life story thus far!
You entered Laurel in Sixth Grade. Why Laurel?
I was enrolled in Cleveland public schools when I first learned about Laurel. My teacher then told my parents and me that she considered Laurel the premier private school in the greater Cleveland area. I was very fortunate to receive a generous financial aid package from Laurel and enrolling was a dream come true.
What were your interests as an Upper Schooler and how did they inform your decision to attend Harvard University to study economics and statistics?
I enjoyed all the subjects I studied, mostly because I had such great teachers at Laurel! But I was especially strong in math and Dr. Stenson, my teacher, actually started a multivariable calculus class with just me and three boys from University School. The boys ended up going to MIT and Cal Tech, and I wanted to study engineering at MIT, but Harvard offered a competitive financial aid package. Because Harvard’s engineering department was tiny, I ended up choosing economics and statistics, both of which also involved a lot of math.
You’ve also spent time in China. Can you tell us about your time there and how the educational experience differs in Asia?
I was born in China and immigrated to the United States when I was six years old, so I never attended school in China. However, I have plenty of extended family who went through the Chinese system, which emphasizes doing well on the college entrance exam above almost all else. Education in China is very much test-based, with fewer outlets for extracurricular activities or other forms of self-expression versus that in the US. Because the two education systems are very different, Chinese who recently immigrated to the US, such as my parents and their friends, were especially curious about American schools. I wrote essays for Chinese newspapers about my school experiences that also helped me practice writing in Chinese. Knowing Chinese allowed me to work after college at a business incubator in Shanghai where we launched businesses such as a telecommunications service platform, a luxury train service and an apartment management company.
You worked in consulting and at the business incubation for three years before returning to Harvard for graduate school. What career did you have in mind when going back to school? What would you say to someone looking to switch career paths?
I went back to graduate school after working for a few years because I didn’t know what I wanted to do when I “grew up.” I knew from my work experiences that I wanted to work in business generally, and I hoped that graduate school would help me choose a specific career. Graduate school provided a great platform for me to explore potential careers, and four years of it meant that I had three summers to try different internships. I love my current job but, in a way, I still don’t know what I want to be “when I grow up.” I believe that life is a journey that evolves over time and that it’s important to be open to different opportunities, even if they don’t seem like the best fit or most natural career progression at first. It’s always more stressful to start a job search when one needs a job; it’s much easier to learn about potential jobs when one doesn’t need a position right away.
Earning a JD and MBA simultaneously sounds challenging! What advice would you give to students looking to pursue multiple interests? Any great time management tips?
Prioritize, prioritize, prioritize! Sometimes the most urgent items aren’t the most important to get done. I found it helpful to set internal deadlines for myself. I also try to break large projects into smaller chunks, so I get to feel accomplished when I check off items on my to-do list.
Now you’re a Vice President at CarVal Investors, a global alternative investment manager focused on distressed and credit-intensive assets and market inefficiencies. Based in Minneapolis, you manage investments for the North American securities group. Can you tell us a little more about your job and what a typical day at CarVal looks like for you?
My colleagues and I invest in companies that are experiencing challenges—due to industry headwinds or mismanagement, for example. Sometimes these companies are in bankruptcy or have recently restructured. Our goal is to buy their debt or equity at a cheap price and then sell these securities months or years later at a better price when the companies recover. My typical day involves a lot of research, financial modeling and keeping up with news relating to the companies I cover. I try to learn as much as I can about a company, whether it’s through reading reports, talking to Wall Street analysts, asking questions of management teams, conducting site visits or sharing notes with other investors.
What are the most important skills to have to be successful in investment banking? Any unexpected challenges you’ve encountered?
Investment banking is a grueling job, especially starting out. However, you learn a tremendous amount in a short amount of time (partly because you often are working 100+ hours a week!), and it opens doors to myriad careers. As a junior banker, attention to detail, strong analytical skills, drive/persistence and a good attitude are all important. Senior bankers also must be strong communicators and salespeople, as they need to persuade their clients to pay top dollar for their services.
Laurel recently added a financial literacy component to the Upper School curriculum. For instance, one morning students were given a monthly income and had to allocate it for expenses and happiness points—including savings, rent, eating out, movies/concerts. What do you wish more women knew about managing their finances?
I think women tend to underestimate the importance of financial literary and overestimate its difficulty. Knowing how to make smart decisions around saving and spending helps free up time and energy for the important and meaningful things in life. Many free or low-cost tools exist these days to help one stay on track. Committing to saving a small amount of money each month adds up to a large sum a decade or two later, and potentially a huge amount over a lifetime.
The Twin Cities will be having their first Sarah Lyman Day of Community Service this year! Look out for details to come and save Saturday, September 29 on your calendar. But on a typical weekend, where would we likely find you? Do you have any hobbies or interests you’re passionate about?
We like to be outdoors whenever possible in Minnesota. In the summer, we’re usually biking, hiking and swimming. In the winter, despite the cold, we try to cross country or downhill ski. We had our first child this April, so we’re excited to share our love of the outdoors with him. In my spare time, I like to cook and to read. I also volunteer my time with the Harvard Club of Minnesota, where I’m currently Treasurer. Since graduating from college, I’ve served as an alumna interviewer for Harvard and am constantly amazed by the caliber of high school seniors and inspired by all that they have accomplished by age eighteen!