AAPI Perspectives: Marguerita Cheng on Early Lessons and Lifelong Learning

Founders discuss their upbringings, challenges, and paths to success

AAPI Perspectives: Marguerita Cheng illo

Design: Julie Bang / The Balance, Photo courtesy of Marguerita Cheng

While May marks the annual celebration of Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month, this year’s commemoration takes on perhaps even more significance because of what the community continues to endure during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, while unfortunate circumstances may have led to a brighter light being cast on the AAPI community, The Balance aims to focus on the success stories of founders across regions and industries who’ve faced their own set of challenges and perseveredall the while maintaining their cultural roots and heritage. These are their experiences. 

For Marguerita Cheng, the foundation for becoming a renowned certified financial planner (CFP) and co-founder/CEO of financial advisory firm Blue Ocean Global Wealth was laid early. As the daughter of a Chinese immigrant father, Cheng grew up in a household where education was imperative. However, just as important to her financial sensibilities was living in what she calls a “collectivist” environment in which she was always surrounded by extended family.

By adolescence, Cheng was engaging in conversations around stocks and insurance, and was being taught unconventional lessons about the importance of money. Her upbringing inspired Cheng to forge a career path that eventually led to analyst positions in Tokyo, numerous certifications in financial planning, Top Financial Advisor recognition from Investopedia, and many other accolades. 

The Balance recently spoke with the Maryland-based Cheng about her upbringing, going against the grain, her keys to overcoming roadblocks, and what AAPI Heritage Month means to her. 

Tell us about your upbringing. How has your family impacted your career and life decisions?

As a kid, I went to school seven days a week. Monday through Friday was regular school, Saturday was religious education, and Sunday was Mandarin language school. So I was always around all kinds of people, and those skills are really important to become a financial planner.

When I was 10, I realized that it's really important to plan. I know this is crazy, but my dad made me learn how to crack our safe. He said,"If anything happens to me, you have to take care of mommy." You'd think that is horrible to do a 10-year-old little girl. But it's a hard truth. My dad was a mathematician. He was very rational, very practical. I didn't dare question him. I was like, "Hey, if that's what you told me to do, I'm going to do it." I feared God and I feared my dad.

My dad did his best to expose me to different areas of his financial life, but we didn't necessarily know about the discipline of financial planning. He bought insurance, he got stock, but there's a lot of other things in between.

My dad told me to invest in education. I've always been a lifelong learner, and  I think that financial planning definitely is very intellectually stimulating. It never gets boring. It's always changing. So I love that, and I love conversations with people. 

Want to know how to find a financial planner? Learn more here.

What advice do you have for AAPI individuals on their career paths, and perhaps defying professional stereotypes like you did?

Coming from an Asian family, I wasn't one of those kids who got money for straight A's because that was the expectation. For people who are scared to go against the grain, it's important for you to look at what you like, what you're good at, and understand that you have skills. Step one, don't be afraid to question what you're doing and why. Is this really what I want to do? Second, don't be afraid to try new things. What's the worst that could happen? Understand that when you try something, it might not be exactly what you want, but it'll get you closer to where you want to go.

Don’t Be Afraid

I had an accounting internship and I tell people, I loved it. I learned about the cost of goods sold, and had to do reports on venture capitalists in Asia. But with that internship, it wasn't just the money I made, it affirmed that I didn't want to be doing accounting. That was valuable. So, don't be afraid to pause and pivot and try new things. Usually, the [mindset] is just put your head down and work, but it can be just as important to pause.

Don’t Compare Yourself to Others

I know Asian parents are guilty of this, whether you're East Asian or South Asian, but sometimes my dad would compare me to others. All too often, we compare ourselves to others, but we can learn from others. Always be a lifelong learner, but don't always compare yourself to others because you don't really know what that person is experiencing.

Don’t Be Afraid to Ask for Help

Also, don't be afraid to ask for help. This is a big one in our culture and community. Sometimes we're told not to ask for help because that's a sign of weakness. I understand that some people think that, and that's fine. But what I realized is, when I decided I was going to become a financial advisor, I'm incredibly determined. I don't appear to be ostensibly confident. It's not even imposter syndrome. I'm a very private person. It's not that I'm hiding information, but I'm introspective, and also an introvert. So I really think about what I'm going to say before I speak. And sometimes people may perceive that as me lacking confidence. 

Discover Your ‘Why’

When the world around you doubts you, you have to not just find the strength from within, but what is your “why,” meaning why do you want to do this? 

I asked myself, why do you want to become a planner? I want to become a planner because I want to use my skills to help transform lives. I want people like me to feel more comfortable talking about money. That was my “why.” When times are tough, even if you don't feel like you're strong, go back to your why. And that always helped pull me out of a fog. Sometimes I would doubt myself, saying I'm not cut out for this business. But then I realized, there's more than one type of person who can be successful in this business.

Find out how a financial advisor can help you meet your goals.

What types of adversity have you faced in your career? 

One of the things, particularly for AAPI women, what we think as being confident doesn't necessarily align with how I was raised. Like, you work hard, you put your head down, and don't draw a lot of attention to yourself. And then I come and say I want to be a financial advisor. I want to help people. And I know that you need to sell your clients on why they need to plan. But I didn't want to be perceived as being pushy, or aggressive, so that's something I struggled with. 

Being a woman in this business is challenging, but being an AAPI woman and mom of two young children, I didn't see anybody like me. But I didn't sit around and complain about it. I don't see anybody like me, but you know what, we'll have to just figure this out along the way. I haven't really seen anybody like me enter this business with a 6-month-old and a 3-year-old. So I don't really know who I'm supposed to be following. So people compare me to the norm; I don't think I'm the norm.

I think that that was challenging because we all have bias, but you had to overcome these biases. They’d think, how can someone like you be successful? You know, Asian women are submissive, they’re quiet. Like you're a mom, how can you focus on your business? But what people don't know about me is I'm really disciplined with my time management. And when I make up my mind, I'm really focused, like I'm going to make it happen, and I'm very strategic. 

One of the challenges that I had to overcome is that when people think of a financial advisor, they have a certain image. That's reality. It doesn't make it right, but that’s what it is. Overcoming adversity wasn’t easy, but I've enjoyed it. I think that actually being a parent—I gave birth to my third kid right after I passed the CFP certification exam—has actually made me a better planner. 

But when we look at Getty Images, you see one image of what constitutes a successful advisor, but there are different leadership styles, different personality styles, and there's room for all of us to be successful. You being successful does not mean I can't be successful. 

Find out which financial advisor credentials you should look for when seeking a planner. 

What does AAPI Heritage Month mean to you? 

Asian American Pacific Islanders are an important part of our history, and it's really important to celebrate and honor that. It's important for us to share our stories and our voices. It doesn't mean we don't want to hear other people's voices and stories, but I think it's important to hear ours. 

But when people hear AAPI, it doesn't just mean China.  It's East Asia. So China,  Korea, Taiwan, and Japan, but then of course there's South/Southeast Asia with India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka. In my family we have people from South Asia, East Asia, and Southeast Asia, so it is particularly special for us because we do celebrate our heritage. 

I want people to know that it's good that we're celebrating and honoring. When you're thinking about diversity, equity, and inclusion, just be mindful of not just race or gender ethnicity, but also the cultural nuances. Don't judge people, but seek first to understand them. Because believe it or not, we might have different priorities, but we still want the same thing for our families and future.