Not Your Typical Student

Korean, a mother of two, and a full-time employee at one of the largest global investment banks. A combination like this can rarely be found in the student profiles at The Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) Business School. Yet Diane Sohn quickly adapted to life as a part-time student in the Master of Accountancy (MAcc) Programme and is sharing her diverse experience with her fellow classmates, inspiring them to push their envelope and stretch their imaginations.

When Diane Sohn became a student of MAcc, the professional Master’s degree programme at CUHK Business School, she sat quietly by herself in the classroom at the CUHK Business School Town Centre, feeling a bit shy and frustrated about not being able to communicate with her Cantonese-speaking classmates. Her classmates often mistook her for being a local student. But very soon, some took the initiative and included her when they formed project teams. This was two years ago, and to this day she is still grateful for the warm and inclusive atmosphere in her class.

In fact, she has never stopped appreciating how her classmates have inspired and encouraged her to work hard and pursue her Master’s degree, despite the extremely challenging schedule she must juggle. She observed first-hand how the local students, like her, work long hours yet still insist on attending class after work and put in the extra effort to equip themselves.

She herself works full-time as a financial reporting analyst at JPMorgan Chase & Co, and has to take care of two young children while sitting for courses that are completely different from her undergraduate political science studies.

A Switch in Career

At first glance, accounting is as far removed from political science as one can imagine. Why did she choose to change her career path?

After studying political science and international relations at Korea University, Diane landed a job in Korea, doing research on the Korean economy and producing analyst reports. Since then, she has worked in the field of compliance, as well as in accounting, taxation and advisory services, in Hong Kong.

While her educational background had nothing to do with accounting, she did get exposure to the subject and also financial reporting on the job. Before long, she found herself to have a knack for numbers, as she once studied for the Certified Public Accountants (CPA) examinations on her own and passed them all. Upon joining a Korean securities services firm in Hong Kong, she decided to specialise in the field of accounting by enrolling in a professional course.

In a big organisation, your work is mostly about finding who to ask the right questions because you don’t work in isolation. When you do that, then your job is done. — Diane Sohn

“CUHK came to mind because it is one of the top three universities in Hong Kong, and I was very impressed by its ranking among Asian universities,” Diane recalls. “I was delighted to find that CUHK offers classes for part-time students like myself. It is also known for deepening students’ knowledge in accountancy, which is how I came to choose the Master of Accountancy programme.”

Diane’s first impression of CUHK was extremely positive. “Coming on to the campus, being surrounded by young college students again and being a part of this community after having graduated for 10 years felt really good. I also felt a great sense of relief to be a student again, because the teachers were there not to scold you – which is common in the workplace, but to guide you, versus being reprimanded in the workplace which is quite common back home.”

Diane says her professors in the MAcc programme have been very supportive and generous. “They would bend over backwards to help us part-time students to accommodate our schedules,” she says. “For example, if we had to travel for business on the day of a mid-term exam, the professors were open to the idea of arranging an alternative method of assessment. They are flexible and would try to meet us during after hours, because they understand how it is to be a working student.”

About a year into the programme, Diane successfully landed a job at JPMorgan Chase & Co. During the job application process, it took numerous interviews and a lot of convincing before she was hired. Diane explains that most candidates are graduates from local universities and had worked at one of the Big Four accounting firms for a few years. Not having this track record initially worked against her. However, she was confident that her willingness to learn new things, her curiosity and her diversified experience would be an asset for the company.

“Maybe they saw my potential of being able to solve problems with an unconventional perspective,” she says with a giggle. “Luckily, I convinced my hiring managers to choose me over the more experienced ones. They saw that I was a fast learner. Being hardworking, constantly trying to create more value, and being a people-person – those are skill sets that I carry around like my backpack, and they’ve served me well.”

She explains that while the company is an investment bank, her job is directly related to accounting. The large governmental and institutional clients she works with often require detailed explanation of financial reports. The knowledge she acquired in accounting through the MAcc programme comes in handy.

As she is responsible for leading many projects at her current job, she found that the project management skills she acquired through the team projects in the advanced accounting course taught by Dr. Joyce Wang, Director of MAcc Programme and Senior Lecturer of School of Accountancy at CUHK Business School, to be extremely useful. “It’s a very practical skill set that I can modify and apply to my current work.”

Other courses that have helped her make progress in her career are the MBA marketing course, which inspired her to rebrand herself; and the finance course taught by Prof. Paul B. McGuinness, Professor of Department of Finance at CUHK Business School. “I felt fortunate that I joined the class right after I was hired by JPMorgan Chase & Co. It was like an orientation for me!”

An Interesting and Winding Path

The path with which Diane followed prior to studying at CUHK was both an interesting and winding one. Perhaps one wonders what led her from Korea to Hong Kong. It turned out to be her marriage. She met her husband while he was pursuing a Master’s degree in Seoul. After he graduated, they married and lived in Shenzhen. Her husband started working in Shenzhen while Diane chose to develop a career in Hong Kong, where more relevant positions were available to her. She first started working for a Korean investment company in Shenzhen, where she was hired as an account manager at a family-owned, multinational cosmetics company. She led the sales team and managed client relationships with US buyers. Her trilingual skills – Korean, English and Putonghua – allowed her to achieve the sales and quality control targets. Although working in sales at a cosmetics company had nothing to do with her political science and compliance background, she was open-minded and happy to test new grounds. It turned out to be a good experience for her.

After that, she decided to continue her career in Hong Kong, where she worked for a few small consulting firms, counting Korean-listed companies and Fortune 500 companies among her clients. Her exposure there eventually led to her being hired by JPMorgan Chase & Co.

From Small to Big

From Shenzhen to Hong Kong, Diane has transitioned from working for a 400-staff family-run business to small firms and now to a giant investment bank. Gradually, she has moved on to bigger teams and organisations with global desks, working with teams in Singapore, India and the Philippines, managing clients than span from South Korea to Thailand, Taiwan and more.

How did she adapt to such drastic changes? When she was at the Chinese cosmetics company, Diane recalls, there weren’t any clear definitions of her job scope, and most decisions were made by the family. “If you earned their trust, then suddenly your project would get the funding. There was no real logic,” she says.

When she worked at the Red Flag Group in Hong Kong, an Australian-owned compliance firm with a global operation, she led a Korean team for due diligence and compliance. Due to the relatively small size of the company, she enjoyed a great deal of autonomy in her work. For this reason, she sometimes misses working for smaller companies. By contrast, at her current job, there isn’t as much flexibility and room with which one can change things but at the same time, she appreciates working with really capable and strong team members and has learned a lot during the process.

At first, she felt intimidated. “Everything is very fast paced and everyone is so professional,” she says. “But eventually you acknowledge the fact that you are here because you are equally qualified. You need that kind of confidence to work here. You learn more by doing more. By doing more, you gain the trust of your colleagues, asking relevant questions and eventually gaining their trust. But to do more, you’ve got to find the right people. What I mean is that in a big organisation, your work is mostly about finding who to ask the right questions because you don’t work in isolation. When you do that, then your job is done.”

If things don’t go as planned or happen at the timing that you hoped, just try again. — Diane Sohn

Her work motto – and advice for young business professionals – is to “be yourself and be proactive.”

Her achievement in being hired by JPMorgan Chase & Co marks the beginning of her dream career. Eventually, she wants to work as an accounting professional in the field of compliance within a financial institution. Although what she currently does is unrelated to compliance, she is learning in great detail how banks operate, how they react to crises and manage risks.

“I’m very glad to be a part of this organisation and I’m ready to make as many mistakes as possible so I can learn as much as possible here,” she says.

In the future, she wishes to work in policymaking – perhaps back in Korea or in an international organisation, where she can give advice and join in the policymaking process.

Reflections on Life and Career

Diane has very little leisure time, as she spends long hours during the week at work and much of her weekend attending classes on campus. Her saving grace is that she has two young children, who motivate her to go out and have fun.

“MAcc is a very demanding programme. It’s not a programme you can just get by. After joining JPMorgan Chase & Co, I found it a challenge to juggle my schedule. But I am very lucky to have my kids. They always approach life in a fun way and know how to enjoy life. They make me laugh, and they bring me to many places. If I were alone I would not choose to go to the beach but would rather just sleep and rest at home!” she laughs.

In fact, Diane is grateful that her husband is open-minded and supports her fully in developing her career. She doesn’t have to live the life of a stay-at-home mom as the typical Korean woman. Her children have also taught her to embrace diversity in people, and that has had a ripple effect in how she relates to others in the workplace.

For business school students who wonder if going into banking is a good idea, she would ask them: “What is it that you want in five years? There are no definite skills that guarantee success or failure. It really depends on what you want to do. When you are 20-something, you have a chance to think about how you can contribute to society. Work is not only about making money. You spend 12 hours at the office; it occupies a great part of your life. So think about how you want to spend your time and also how you want to contribute to society. The rest will then fall into place.”

You may fall, but if you fall and don’t get up again, that’s failure. — Diane Sohn

With her fellow students, she wants to share something beautiful she once heard: “Failure is not falling down. If things don’t go as planned or happen at the timing that you hoped, just try again. You may fall, but if you fall and don’t get up again, that’s failure.”

For herself, the biggest lesson she has learned over the years is “Don’t think too much; just do it! By doing, you can slowly move forward and get what you want, while also meeting interesting people along the way.”

By Louisa Wah