SmartBe Wealth Aspirations Issue 07. Cecilia Chen

SmartBe Wealth Aspirations Issue 07. Cecilia Chen


SmartBe Wealth–Rod: Hello and welcome to this edition of Wealth Aspirations. SmartBe's attempt to reach out to the community and understand the people in our network. What makes them tick, how they've been feeling and their relationships with money and quantitative investing. Today we're joined by Cecilia Chen CFO of SmartBe Wealth, and it's really fun to be able to interview someone that's so close.

Cecilia holds a CPA and a CA designation within the CPA. Formerly she's had roles in public audit at a big 4 accounting organization as well as at a public cash management company before agreeing to jump into the fray of a startup and join SmartBe Wealth a little over three years ago.
Welcome to our blog.

Cecilia: I'm very honoured to be on this inspiration journey.

Rod: 2020 was a doozer of a year for you, you had your second child, Emma. She was born in January then SmartBe went into lockdown in March. How are you holding up? Tell us about your COVID journey.

2020 was certainly very interesting year for me personally. Three years ago when I had Arial, I had the privilege of having my parents and my in-laws all surrounding and taking care of me. So I really didn't feel like I actually experienced this true transition to become accountable for our new life because I had all those helping around me. Then when January 26th, 2020 happened and Emma was born, my parents ended up unable to come and help because of COVID, everything was shut down. We were unable to find a nanny either. My in-laws were here of course, but because of the shutdown it wasn't convenient for them to come and visit.

I really had to take care of Emma and be accountable for this new life for real this time. And also having to learn to be stuck in the same household with my husband for two or three months working together. We were having conference calls at the same time and looking, staring at each other going "I'm more important this conference call is more important than yours" That was a unique experience too. Anyways, 2020 has been a very interesting journey.

What about, how did it change your relationships with your family?

Well because having to adapt all those dramatic changes over such a short period of time, with no warning quite frankly, that absolutely hit me hard.

I have to be honest that there are times I broke down. In order to avoid scaring the kids, cause they're going to be like, "what's wrong with mommy?" and also passing negativity over to my husband, I actually had to hide in the car sometimes if I need to let my emotion out. So after a couple of times of that happened and I started talking to myself, "why?" Like I'm a very strong and independent woman. Why am I letting this negativity chewing myself? And I'm like, no, this is not okay. I've got to make some changes. And so the first thing I learned is I am going to ask for help because I think I was so used to this idea, "I can do this."

You know, ever since I came to Canada when I was 16 is always like, okay, I had to learn how to cook, how to clean, how to change all the electricity, light bulbs and all that. I didn't need to know any of that when I was in China. And that built my independence and confidence up so high that I've felt, or it became my second nature that I felt like, "okay, I can learn." This is the new ability. I can adapt to that. I mean, one way it's very good and it helps me to grow and motivates me to be better. But on the flip side, I make myself tired. So ever since I learned that, okay, I need to start ask for help. I started to tell my husband specifically what I need. He's a great guy. Like he's very family oriented and everything, but he's a boy and that was brought up by a traditional Chinese family. Although he came here when he was eight, but his parents are very traditional. My mother-in-law never worked. Took good care of him. So in his mentality is still very traditional Chinese. And a lot of times I, for instance, the garbage is full. And he wouldn't even think dump it or get that organized. That's just some really simple thing that wouldn't even click. But ever since I realized. Hey look, I just need to tell him what I need. So I started to say, "hey, can you dump the garbage? Could you please wash the dishes? Could you please clean and vacuum?" Like I give specific order now. Sometimes I end up redoing it anyways, just because that's my personality, but I find it's just such a relief. And it changed our relationship a lot.

I'm interested in your mom and dad and sister are all in China, what was there COVID experience? Obviously Wuhan had the first cases and breakout and the Chinese social society's much different than ours. What insights would you have into the Chinese COVID experience?

China has done a great job in controlling the spread of of the virus. I think recently I heard Beijing having a little bit more trouble. The Chinese government issued more stringent restriction for Beijing citizens now as well. It's very unfortunate this became a global pandemic. My biggest regret is that I could not attend my sister's wedding in October 2020 when she was getting married. Like that's going to be a sore point for my lifetime. I recorded a video for her. I was crying from the first second all the way to the end. It's just such a shame that I couldn't be part of that important moment for her.

So isolation brings a lot of change and reflection, and obviously you've been through a lot , what did you learn through the pandemic?

Don't be too hard on yourself and trying to be perfect. You know, adapting to changes is hard so give yourself a break and follow with the flow , I guess.

So, you've had a fascinating journey. You moved here to come to school when you were 16 years old. I know you come from a loving family and your parents brought you here but, you know, basically you forged out an independent lifestyle since you're 16 in Canada. Tell us about that journey. It's inspiring to me.

Well, 20 years ago I came to Canada looking for gender equality and a fair opportunity to be recognized by the society. I fantasized at that point of time that US and Canada were the free land that appreciates people that have big dreams. And of course when you were 16 you thought you're the best. You're on top of the cloud kind of deal. I always consider myself extremely lucky. However, I had many fascinating people in my life here in Canada. People say you make your own luck, right? And I think one thing my parents have always taught me is to surround yourself with wise people. And I did exactly that. And I think that is ultimately what made me who I am and made my luck.

We have very different societies and a very different view of social justice. This pandemic in North America, in particular in the United States, these issues of social injustice, of systematic racism, of Black Lives Matter, BIPOC and all of these issues. As a Chinese Canadian you've been here for 20 years. What have your impressions about media coverage, but more the fabric of society and how we are engaging in this in Canada right now?

Well, I think Canada is quite frankly the best country. I've been to US cause like you mentioned, I worked for a big four in the accounting world, where I had to travel all around the world. And then prior to joining SmartBe I was working for one of the biggest ATM service companies in the world, with head office in Houston. So it also has sub-companies all over the world as well, UK, Australia, Mexico. Traveling to those places, honestly, I find Canada has the best environment, social environment for adapting different kinds of culture, respect, different kinds of opinions. Quite frankly, when the pandemic happened, I have seen a lot of social media postings from my Chinese group where people were in New York. And they were afraid walking outside on New York street alone, because they're Chinese because there's so much hate to China because of the pandemic first breakout from Wuhan and people even call this pandemic, China Virus.

So I saw those kinds of comments and I actually saw some real recording of people insulting Chinese in the United States. I personally have never experienced it here in Canada. All I have had was questioning like what you just asked, how old are your family in China? Are they okay? You know, like how are you feeling that now that you can't really see your family. Are you okay? Like, that's the kind of questions I'm receiving and it's all friendly and all positive. I love Canada for that.

Diversity and inclusion, financial feminism, women's justice, women in the workplace, pay parity. What's your journey been like, or what's your perception of Canada and other places associated with women's equality?

I came to Canada looking for gender equality and a fair opportunity to be recognized by the society. But as I work my way up in this professional career world, I realized that US and Canada are far from being this free land that I would fantasize about for gender equality. I used to blame that all my failures being a minority woman with an immigrant background and English not being my first language and all that. It absolutely is part of the reason. And the companies need to provide a healthy culture to be diversified and inclusive, but as I mature to be a leader and an executive, I realized that the selection process in career development is really about who can deliver stakeholder value for the company. You need to be aware of the issue, but not hang on to the issue to the point that might potentially limit our personal development as a female leader. Because what I have found is a lot of times, although I'm hard on myself, but we also cut ourselves slack to, "Oh, when I fail at things around me, not me." Right? Or we don't really see the real issue. We blame on things that we cannot control. For instance, I have an immigrant background. My English is not first language. Well, those are easy blames, right? That you can say, well, I didn't get this promotion to be the CFO because of that. But really, is that the real problem? If you actually analyze it a little bit deeper. Likely no. That's not the real reason. It's probably part of it, but that's not the fundamental problem. So I think that's something that in order to break through the so-called glass ceiling, especially for female and minority female with immigrant backgrounds, this is very important is to realize you don't blame and take this so-called drawback that you cannot change and turn that to be your baggage.

That speaks to me of personal accountability, Cecilia, you smack of personal accountability. It's great. So who inspires you?

There are many people who inspires me and recently I've been trying to do this v-log on this Chinese platform called Red in English, but in Chinese it's Xiaohongshu. I started my own v-log on there. There are a lot of people who inspires me after I get onto the platform and watching other people's journey. It's fascinating. But really I would say deep down, my daughters really inspire me, especially after this COVID journey. They changed me completely inside out. Well, I guess that's just the reality. Once you become a mom your whole life changes.

Shifting gears a little, what's your relationship with money? Are you a spender or a saver?

I'm born in May so I am a Taurus naturally. I have a strong relationship with money. I am a spender and a saver. I count every penny of day-to-day items but if I believe this is a great investment opportunity, I dare to show my hand for sure. It has served me very well so far in all perspectives of my life financially. You know, jumping from a matured global corporation to SmartBe Wealth Inc, a new and innovative ETF company well demonstrated this. I see a bright future of ETF industry in Canada, so I acted on the opportunity. Presented in front of me by you quite frankly. So I've been enjoying this.

Tell us a bit about your investing philosophy right now. And you know, obviously you've been on a big journey of learning with SmartBe and quantitative investing. How does quantitative investing fit into your overall thinking?

Well, I believe professional matters shall be handled by experts. Fundamentally. But, you know, I understand if you'll want to hire a experts to do that, you have to build up your first chunk of money. My own journey has always been: I started investing when I got my first paycheque from KPMG, quite frankly. When I was 22, I figured, well I should have started to save. The best way to do that is to utilize this RRSP matching mechanism that the company offers. At that point in time they match as a 100% up to 8%, I believe. And obviously starting at a low salary of $32,000 I really don't have much spare money to do investing. So I started really tiny. I started at 4%. So 4% at 32,000, we're talking a hundred bucks per month- ish. Right? So I started there and it just grows. Well because if it's 4% of you're total salary, it's really not impacting your lifestyle and because the company matches 4% so at the end of the day you have 8% contributed into RRSP. And eventually as you have started growing, you can obviously increase that allocation. And I find that's the best way to invest. Is just start small. Don't worry about how much even five bucks. Just do it.

And then the second part of the question was about quant and this whole academic sphere. When did you start to learn about that? What intrigued you about shifting your entire professional career to a company with an investment philosophy around a scientific method?

Well , I mean, coming from a accounting background, I am very mathematical. And I believe historical data because that's the entire accounting philosophy. We do a historical data. We analyze historical data. We audit historical data. Quantitative investment I really have not heard about it until I joined SmartBe. Quite frankly, I didn't even know what's ETF until I joined SmartBe. I did a bout of learning when this opportunity was first presented to me, I did a bunch of learning myself and I find this fascinating. And especially like I said, the quantitative investment is right in my norm. I believe in historical data analysis. I believe hisstory will repeat. It will always repeat. And I believe that is the best information humankind can hang on to when it comes to investment. So what's not to like about quantitative investment, I guess?

You know, the investment community is focusing a lot right now on environmental, social, and governance. You know, the societal aspects of ESG are sort of right in the cross hairs or in the bullseye of both gender equality and racial equality and those sorts of things. Do you have any mandate in your investment philosophy? Or how are you thinking about ESG?

Well, when I first looked at the ESG world, I just took that from the surface. I'm like, okay, well environment. Am I supportive? Yeah, I do my recycling. I make sure I put my composted food in the compost bucket. I was like, "oh, I guess I am environmentally friendly." But no it's is far far from that. And there's still a lot more like the society piece, you know, I again took that very surface again. I'm like, okay, well then am I supporting society? Am I giving back? But am I giving back in the best way that I could? Right, like, so I started the v-log and trying to share my experiences with people who might benefit from my journey. I mean, in Chinese. And, you know, those are things, but then like as you look into those words a bit more, there's a lot more like, you know, for society.

I'm a female also and I am a wife. I am a mother. Like what other social impact am I doing in different kinds of roles? You know, that really does make you start to think. This is a huge topic, which I'm very happy to see that people are supportive of this concept and a lot of people are involved in this trend of ESG.


You've mentioned your v-log a couple of times, and as you've explained it to me you're on Red which is a channel that's a global channel for Chinese speaking people. But that you have sort of identified a niche of others that are on a similar journey with coming to a new country, mostly English speaking is where you're targeting your information. What did motivate you to try and connect with that audience? And how are you connecting with that audience? Help us understand your v-log experience.

I started January 1st. What really triggered me to do that was, you know, everybody pretty much routinely do a summary on January 1st of the new year, look back in the old year and going, okay what I have learned, what I could do better in the new year and everything. What I have done is I get onto my WeChat friend circle, and I realize I didn't post a single thing for the entire 2020. And I went, wow, really? That was bad! I think it's bad because then that just means I was so bogged down by this daily trials that I've so-called learned and adapted and all that, but I didn't share any of that with my friends and family. I think, well, maybe I am still holding back a little bit and trying to deal with everything myself, because what I find is when you share your experiences, you talk with people, of course you try to be positive, but a lot of times by talking and communicating with other ones, because we're social animals. Right? By doing so it is a great way to release stress. And it's a good way to reconnect and refresh. So for the fact that I didn't post anything for 2020, I was wow, okay, well 2021 I want to make sure I really document what I have learned and how I wrote every day. And I think it's quite interesting. So I started my first post on Xiaohongshu, which is the Red, actually December the 31st of 2020. And I started that very frequently. I do about three or four postings per week since then. I really enjoy it because it's a different kind of experience. When you are trying to paraphrase, or tell the world what you learnt it's just like, I'm eating a banana. I know what the banana tastes, I understand banana's texture. But when you try to describe that to a newborn, for example, that's a different experience because now you not only have to feel it, you have to describe your feeling, which is very hard. And to try to turn something intangible into a tangible output, that process is revolutionary.

So 2020 has been a crazy ride for everybody. Often in these times of massive change or disruption in our lives, things become clear. What's what's clear for you right now.

Well, what's clear for me is 2021 is going to be better than 2020. So far it's been true. That's for sure.

If you were Angela Merkel, or Jacinda Ardern, or Mayor Nenshi running up province, a city, a country what would you do?

I disagree with some politicians saying how managing our country is like running a company. I have heard that phrase in particular, maybe people know which politicians I'm talking about.I think the citizens in the country are not the government's customers. They're actually the government's boss. All I can think of doing is to support and listen to the people. You know, put the political fight aside and unite different parties to fight the pandemic and stimulate the economy is really what everyone should be doing. I mean, every government should be doing at this point and time.

What books are you reading? What shows are you watching? What podcast or music are you listening to?

Well recently... Actually let me grab the book. Robert Iger, The Ride of a Lifetime: Lessons Learned From 15 Years as CEO of the Walt Disney Company is really good read. I learned tons from, I always learned tons from those wise people enhance, like I said, I try to surround myself with wiser people so I can always learn every day. I listen to The Goop. And I also listen to The Pivot from Kara Swisher. Those people are very wise. They really describe things and analyze it. Again I think the analyze piece gives me a different kind of view into our same situation. So it helps you to look at things from a lot more different angle from my side. And that's how people learn.

What's your superpower? What were you put on the earth to do?

I think everybody has a purpose in the world. Actually, yesterday I just watched a clip. You know, one thing I have learned is the culturally different, I think between Chinese and Western culture is self judging. The systematic racism I experienced yearly is self-driven. You know, Chinese culture advocates debriefing, self-reflection, always attempt to better yourself. I don't really think this is in Western culture that much. One side, it is great practice to learn and grow on the flip side it is tiring as you are never good enough. One of the systematic racism that I battle the most is English speaking skills. English speaking people often conclude that one person who cannot speak English fluently or have a thick accent is not intelligent. That's pretty condescending words created to reflect those people, such as bulbs. You know I used it to feel ashamed and offended if someone attempted to correct my English. Overcoming your own systematic racism is much harder than protesting the external ones.

I really enjoyed the talk. I think it'll be a rich episode of Wealth Aspirations. Was there any other question that you wanted me to ask or any other place that you wanted to go before we sign off?

Nope. I think this has been very fun. Thank you very much!