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Building trust and expertise

Stephanie Chak

Stephanie Chak (MBA ’21) made her first sale when she was 5.

She sold flowers on street corners in her small hometown in California. She was helping out her family business, a flower farm set up by her parents who immigrated to America from China with little money or education.

“My parents are my inspiration,” says Chak.

 Years later, after their company pivoted from farming into wholesale, she incorporated the business and streamlined operations, which helped scale it to a multimillion-dollar flower wholesaler. “It was my first experience with a small business where I developed a passion for helping business owners,” she says.

Her parents motivated her to start a career in wealth management in Washington, D.C. and Maryland. At Citi, she added $72 million of assets under management to the bank over four years. 

Winning the confidence of clients was not easy for a 20-something. “My clients spent a lifetime shedding blood, sweat and tears for their wealth. Trust is very important in wealth management,” says Chak. 

She developed deep experience in building relationships and consulting families through market volatility at both Citi and Morgan Stanley. “I enjoyed the challenges that stem from working on strategic financial goals while balancing market dynamics to optimize portfolio allocations,” she says.

After a decade of success in wealth management, the sheen rubbed off. “It didn’t feel that dynamic. And it started to spark less joy over time,” she says. 

An attempted pivot into cybersecurity did not worked out, so she decided to invest in her future and pursue an MBA – an opportunity to take stock and figure out her next career move. UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School came highly recommended by her colleagues in finance.

Chak with fellow MBA students

“When I arrived in Chapel Hill, it felt like coming home,” says Chak. “Everyone was really nice and collaborative. I did not want to be part of a cutthroat culture.” 

She already had a bachelor’s degree in business administration from American University and an MA in government from Johns Hopkins University. Interested in the evolving role of insurance in helping companies manage cybersecurity risk, she wrote her master’s thesis on using captive insurance and “cyber hygiene” for small- and medium-sized companies to manage their cybersecurity risk.

Earning her MBA was a way to deepen her technical knowledge and nurture a powerful network.  

One highlight of her MBA experience was serving as president of the Kenan-Flagler Pride Club. The club’s mission is to support LGBTQ students throughout their MBA journeys while working with allies to continually expand inclusivity at UNC Kenan-Flagler and in the workplace.

Her experiences in the finance industry tally with data showing that nearly half of LGBTQ Americans are not fully out at work. “I saw discrimination and locker room talk in the workplace,” says Chak. “Employers need to better support their LGBTQ employees, and create safe spaces so people can focus on the work and not hiding themselves at work.”

During her presidency, she promoted an inclusive campus for all. This includes creating the Pronoun Initiative to raise awareness of the importance of using correct pronouns — a gesture of respect for all gender identities.  

When coronavirus hit, she created a guide to help underrepresented MBA students through the virtual recruiting process.

Chak also served as a VP in the Adam Smith Society, a chapter-based network of MBA students, professionals and business leaders who promote debate and discussion about the moral, social and economic benefits of capitalism; a Nonprofit Board Consultant for Habitat for Humanity; and a career mentor for first-year MBA students.

Chak landed a summer internship Liberty Mutual in Boston, with support from the Tar Heel network, which helped her determine if she would fit the organizational culture at the insurance company.

“I spoke with alumni who supported me with interview prep and introductions to the right people,” she says. “They made it a seamless transition from UNC to Liberty Mutual.” 

After graduation, she will joined the company’s leadership development program.

Longer term, she harbors entrepreneurial aspirations she discovered at UNC Kenan-Flagler. She never expected to become an entrepreneur but her MBA studies sparked the urge to strike out on her own one day.

“I started taking Ted Zoller’s Entrepreneurs’ Lab class for fun and really enjoyed it,” she says. “It was eye opening that there are Tar Heels around the world who have launched successful businesses. I was  inspired.”  

When she thought about new business ideas, she turned to Zoller for advice. “Studying under a professor like Zoller who has an extensive network and body of research is priceless,” she says.

Chak is already using her MBA education to improve diversity in the technical hiring process through a simulation-like assessment based on the job requirements.

“Traditional technical hiring process benefits those who already have relationships with the company or hiring manager,” she says. “I want to open the candidate pool to include those who do not have a traditional background.”

When Chak is not working, she pursues an altogether different pastime: learning the Israeli combat system Krav Maga. An orange belt, she has applied lessons from the martial arts to business management.

“Krav Maga has strengthened my situational awareness, so I pay closer attention to subtle signals that I should act on,” she says. “Also, it has just built my persistence and grit. I can roll with the punches. Literally.”

More important are the lessons that she learned at UNC Kenan-Flagler. Chak is still building up her career, and wherever she goes, she is confident that her time at Chapel Hill was well spent.

“I’m glad that I took a step back from my career to retool myself,” she says. “The skills and network I’ve gained will be valuable for the rest of my life.”