Stephen CuUnjieng on raising a brood of achievers

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There are some children who grow up with a desire to impress their parents, especially their fathers. Career-wise, they strive to follow in their elder’s footsteps whether they are truly interested in their profession or simply to continue a legacy. On the other hand, it is neither unusual for those in the upper crust to use their wealth and connections just to ensure their children tread the same path as theirs.

None of these scenarios, however, has taken place in Stephen CuUnjieng’s family. The top investment banker and chairman of Evercore Asia Limited never imposed his chosen career on his brood of three. This, even with his long and extensive experience and influence as advisor to a number of Asia’s most prominent companies.

While it would be so much easier for the CuUnjieng children to use their father’s success in boosting their own, they have gone into varied and highly interesting fields, and whether or not they would be making the kind the figures the man of their house had made to give them a very comfortable life.

The eldest, Nicole, now 30 years old, is an academician. She wrote opinion columns for The Manila Times for three and a half years—mostly discussing cultural differences and issues faced by Filipinos all over the world-until she needed to give her full attention to her doctorate degree. Now, she impressively holds a PhD honors in Southeast Asian and International History from Yale University.

Nicole has also just finished working at the Department of Finance where she shepherded the priority economic reforms of the economic development cluster. As of this interview, she told The Sunday Times Magazine she is bound for a postdoctoral at Harvard University for a year and another three in Cambridge, England.

Miguel, 29, studied Philosophy in Environmental Studies at Santa Clara University, also in the United States. Upon graduation, he returned to the Philippines and worked with SM Supermalls to design their sustainability department service. He then pursued his Master of Business Administration at Georgetown University in Washington, DC specializing in Corporate Sustainability Strategy. He also worked with the Coca-Cola Company in Atlanta.

Stephen CuUnjieng (extreme right) and his wife Maitoni (second from right) are proud and ever supportive of their children (from left) Enrique, Miguel and Nicole

Today, Miguel is currently involved as a sustainability consultant for international financial players like Citibank and JP Morgan. More notably, he was also included by GreenBiz—an online and printed publication known to “provide intelligent, focused content on business, technology and sustain­ability”—as one of its “30 under 30 personalities” in environmental sustain­ability across the United States.

Last but not the least, Enrique, 25 years old, studied Chinese and Geography at Colgate University in New York. After graduating, he moved to Singapore to work for one of Google’s consumer marketing teams, then switched over to one of the search engine company’s SMB (small medium sized business) marketing teams. Currently, he is the Partner Manager for Google’s YouTube Online Partnerships and Development.

Despite being a pillar of strength and support for his children, Stephen nevertheless credits his wife Maitoni to be the ‘primary parent’

“None of my children followed my profession, that’s a conscious policy. I always tell my children they don’t have to follow me because the way I would like them to succeed is by doing something they like. Because if you love something you like, the chances of being successful is very good. So rather than force them to be anything, I told them they have to be the best [in what they choose to do],” dad Stephen proudly told The Sunday Times Magazine.

“One of the things I think I stressed to my children is, ‘You are going to have to sell yourself.’ I will give you the best education, the best opportunities I can give, but after that, it’s all yours. It’s not like daddy will fix the job, daddy will fix the promotion—nothing. Prior to that I will do anything. Do what you want, and you can still change your mind [midway]and it’ll be okay,” he added.

Despite being a pillar of strength and support for his children, Stephen nevertheless credits his wife Maitoni to be the “primary parent” as he is always away on business trips and often away from Nicole, Miguel and Enrique while they were growing up.

Maitoni by the way has an impressive background just like her husband and children, having graduated valedictorian from Assumption College with an MBA from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

“I will always say that my wife is the primary parent and if there’s a primary success, it’s hers. I also felt I should be a complimentary parent. I was tough on my children as I was tough on myself, so if I told them to be frugal it’s because I am frugal too,” Stephen said.

Nicole just graduated with PhD honors in Southeast Asian and International History at Yale University

Maitoni admitted they were strict parents while their children were growing up. “We were pretty strict, yes, but at the same time, we encouraged them to do as much as they could in the various fields they wanted to try. They did music, sports, and drama. It was just a very wide-open parenting where they can do whatever they want. We never really tried to push them in any which direction, and I played a very supportive role. We also traveled a lot also so I think it kind of help them become a little bit more independent as young individuals. It helped them find their paths.”

The children acknowledged they never felt any pressure to become as successful as their father. But they took his ultimatum to excel in whatever field they chose to pursue.

“My dad says never to deny your natural talents, so even if society is telling you that these are the paths to conventional success, if your natural talents lie in something else, then go that way,” Nicole shared.

“I think there is a baseline assumption that we would be productive contributing members of society. There is no room to just assume that we could rely on our inheritance so that gave us a certain work ethic and a certain pride on what we did even at a young age. Certainly we are very privileged and very fortunate and we’re very conscious of that, but we are a family that has certain practices and values that appreciate that privilege not a sense of entitlement. All of this is relative,” she added.

Enrique meanwhile recalled that even at an early age, he knew his skills and interests were very much unlike his father’s.

“He always said that I could go into investment banking if I wanted, but I just didn’t want to. I think for me, from the time I was younger I just always wanted to do well just because I had the examples in front of me. Dad always pushed me to do well in school. I know I’ve chosen something I am good at and I think my skills are better suited for what I have now, and that’s what’s important.”

Miguel (center, second row) was included by GreenBiz as one of its ‘30 under 30 personalities’ in environmental sustainability across the United States

As for Miguel, he agreed that their parents, especially their father, expected excellence in whatever they pursued.

“They never pushed us to any specific occupation or profession. Dad just made sure that we were aware of how fortunate we were and the advantages we have that came from his work. Oddly enough, I worked with financial sector players in big banks and asset managers so I actually kind of worked in the same sector as my dad but in a completely different side,” he contemplated.

According to the senior CuUnjieng, one of the mistakes parents make in his opinion is to tell their children to do things that they are not willing to do. The result is usually the opposite of success in such cases.

Moreover, he never babied his brood even when they were young. As soon as they hit the pre-teen years, he taught them responsibility, treating them more like adults for their own good.

“They see me work really, really hard. Fortunately, my hard work led to a considerable success and considerable prosperity. The work had results and that’s a positive example I gave them. That working hard, working smart, has rewards. Because one of the things that I regret about many people is that they always look for shortcuts when it is hard work and preparation that is that will lead to sustained results,” Stephen continued.

As his children find themselves at the beginning of their careers, and his closing in to retirement, the proud father hopes he and his wife have given them enough to go on.

Enrique is currently the partner manager at Google’s YouTube Online Partnerships and Development group INSTAGRAM PHOTO

“I think part of their success is because they have a very supportive and effective mother. But I also hope they have a father who is a good example in a very complimentary way-who gave them the right advice. I’m 58 already. I am very old as an investment banker. In fact, I should retire. But how soon, I don’t know. But I am still getting better because I am still learning. I am still learning because I am challenging myself.”

Asked how he would like to be remembered as a father, Stephen replied it would be as someone who helped them become better than they would have been otherwise.

“I never wanted my dreams to be their dreams. I pressure them somehow to be successful but never pressure them to be like me. It’s just to be successful in what you do,” he reiterated. “I don’t want to sound boastful but I have achieved success in the field and respect. If anyone of my children wanted to take an easy way out, they would’ve become an investment banker. But they didn’t want that, and one reason is because I didn’t force them to. So now they all have skills to tread their own paths and the choice has always been theirs. Just be the best you can be,” he ended.

COVER PHOTO BY MICAH SEBASTIAN



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