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Asset management is a meritocracy and I am a competitive person.”
Amy Zhang’s grandmother was a scientist in China long before women held such jobs. Her grandfather was a surgeon and medical school professor and both her parents were engineers. “The family mantra was a woman can do anything,” said Zhang. She didn’t disappoint. After winning a prestigious scholarship to study in America, she earned an MBA at Columbia University and embarked on a finance career that eventually led her to investment management. Since 2015 she has managed several small and mid cap stock strategies at Alger, where she is a portfolio manager. The stock of these companies is volatile by nature. Investing in small- and medium-sized companies thus requires patience and discipline, qualities Zhang developed from an early age playing the piano. Her son now plays too, an experience, she said, that will help him foster “a strong work ethic and hopefully a bit of grit.”
Is it fair to say you come from an accomplished family?
It is. My grandmother graduated from China’s equivalent of MIT. She was a top student and the only female student there. My grandfather was a well-known professor at the top medical school in Shanghai. My mother and father were chemical engineers by training. My dad went to MIT and became CTO of one of the largest chemical conglomerates in China. The family background is intellectual and all science oriented. I didn’t want to be an engineer. I am probably the black sheep of the family because I went into finance.
How did you wind up in America?
My parents wanted me to study abroad eventually but it happened much earlier than anyone anticipated. I took an exam to win a scholarship to go to an international boarding school here. I remember at the end of the exam they asked me to name the president of the United States and I knew it was Ronald Reagan. I was the only student selected from Shanghai, even though thousands of people took the test.
Is being a portfolio manager like being a student?
Yes, it is. A lot of the appeal is intellectual. Doing research is like studying for an exam. It is a lonely sport sometimes because despite having a team, you have to make judgments on your own. I love to read and that is also an important part of the job. You must read about finance but you must also be aware of what is going on in the world and try to identify key investment themes early. It’s holistic.
Do you find the aspect of being graded on your performance as a portfolio manager similarly attractive to being graded when you were in school?
Asset management is a meritocracy and I am a competitive person. I am driven to perform at my best. If I am going to be the loser, I probably don’t even want to be in the game. That’s why I don’t play golf. Someone here asked me to play in a charity tournament. I told her I would donate money instead. She is a good player and I said I would come in far behind her. She said, “You only want to play to win?” And I said, “What else is the point?”
Does this business allow you to keep improving?
Yes because there is no substitute for experience. In some fields that might not be true, and they will say, “We can get someone younger to do this.” But this is a business where you can have a long career, which is great for me because I love what I do.
When you seek to expand your team at Alger, what do you look for in a job candidate?
I look for people with strong analytical skills, a deep passion for investing and a strong work ethic. I want them to be intellectually curious, mentally tough and have high energy. I also have a "No Jerks" policy. I want people to be kind to each other. I want people with humility. It also helps if they have a sense of humor. I take what I do seriously, but I don’t take myself that seriously.
You invest in small and mid cap stocks, which means being able to cope with big swings in prices. How do you deal with that?
You have to learn to be patient. I cannot say that by nature I am a very patient person, but playing the piano helps. With the piano there is no instant gratification. You really have to put in the work. Being a mother also helps me be more patient.
What else do you get from the piano?
Playing is therapeutic. There are times when I just need to relax. It gives you a feeling that you are in the purest state. I love classical music. I like all beautiful things–art, fashion, food, wine, travel–and music is a part of that. It gives me joy.
You went to Manhattanville College and I understand you have created a scholarship there.
I believe in giving back. I was a scholarship kid and I am very grateful for the people who supported me. The scholarship is called AYZ STEM Scholarship, and it is for freshmen from underrepresented demographics who intend to study science, technology, engineering and math. I try to encourage interest in these fields by making education more accessible, especially to women, who are very underrepresented in the STEM field.
What do you read in your spare time?
I enjoy reading and I like biographies the most. Recently I read a book about Jim Simons, the founder of the hedge fund Renaissance Technologies. He became very successful, but he wasn’t an overnight success. He experienced many setbacks before he first figured out something that worked. I think the journey is important. The fact that he was a late bloomer is very inspiring.
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Amy's Thought Leadership Content
Alger's Actively Managed ETF
Mid Cap 40
Mid Cap Focus
Small Cap Focus
Small Cap Growth