Turning Adversity into Opportunity: Monita Mo’s Unlikely Rise to the Top

Turning Adversity into Opportunity: Monita Mo’s Unlikely Rise to the TopGrowing up in Hong Kong in the 1970s under the British colony, founder and president of Ascend Capital Partners Monita Mo didn’t see much opportunity coming her way.

“As a colony, you don’t have a country,” Mo recalls. “There was no industry. No stable system. As the oldest of five in a blue-collar family, I had to take care of all my siblings. At the age of 10, I took on jobs to earn extra money so that I could go to school. After high school I couldn’t go to college because you had to have top grades which means you had to study a lot and I just didn’t have the time. My future looked very limited.”

In order to help keep her family afloat, Mo took a job as a bank teller with HSBC bank where it “was very, very boring.”

It was so boring that after one year she quit and took a major pay cut to work as an auditor in a small firm. Because of her pay cut, she had to work a second job to make up the difference so that she could continue sending money home.

“When I found out it was possible to go to the United States and get a degree, I flew off,” says Mo.


And this is how, in 1980, at the age of 19 and with a new husband in tow, Monita Mo turned adversity into opportunity.

“I worked part-time in various accounting firms and graduated from CUNY in three years,” says Mo. “Then I got hired at the accounting firm, Arthur Andersen. One of the reasons they hired me was because the U.S. was granting big companies a quota for minorities and I fit a double bill; I was Asian and a woman.”

Starting off at staff level, Mo made partner over a period of nine years.

“I had to fight very hard,” recalls Mo. “As an immigrant, my language was never going to be as proficient as an American. You don’t understand their jokes. What you know is not enough; you have to understand the politics and dynamics and the higher you go, the harder it gets.”

Undeterred by the challenges she faced and all-too-familiar with the rigors of finding her own way, Mo went out and found her own business contacts within a culture that, from the outside, looked perfectly sensible: Asia.

“Except I didn’t speak Mandarin,” says Mo, “Chinese people speak Mandarin. In Hong Kong we speak Cantonese. In order for me to do business with the Chinese in New York, I had to be able to speak to them, so I learned the language by going to karaoke.”

From singing to signing, Mo became the go-to advisor for banks from China coming to New York and opening branches.

“They needed to know, ‘How do we get a license? How do we give loans? Where do we find office space?’” says Mo. “The Chinese system was totally different. Chinese never had risk management systems. It was all about relationships. If you are backed by government, you are deemed to be credit worthy. In the U.S., you have to have enough cash flow, you have to have a sound business, provide financial statements, corporate governance. The Chinese had no concept of this.”

It did not take long before Mo was known on Wall Street as, “The One Who Knows China.”

“This was late 80s early 90s – I had no competition,” says Mo. “Everyone thought I was an expert when actually I didn’t know that much. It was just that anyone going either way (East to West or West to East) who wanted to start business, I was the one they came to; this is how I started my consulting business.”

Around this time, many of the Chinese who had left China and come to the U.S. to study, wanted to return home.

“I went with them and did some consulting work,” says Mo who joined Young Presidents’ Organization in 2009. “My role was to help them start a privately owned company since all business was owned by Chinese government.”

“In the first 10 years, no one could be successful. The consumer needed goods and services so growing a business was not the issue. Anything you started you had 100 percent growth, but dealing with the government was difficult. So we had to engage in ‘open dialogue.’ Sometimes we told them the whole story. Most of the time we told them half the story,” Mo stops and laughs. “The more people who joined the game, the bigger the voice for change became and when people started to obtain wealth, they saw that it was good – for them and for the country. This is how we persisted and were able to succeed.”
Mo has consulted and invested in more than 30 companies in China through her direct investment firm Ascend Capital Partners. In 2011, she started a genetic pig farm with her husband in China with the goal to improve food safety concerns for the Chinese people.

Since she joined YPO she has seen some great strides for women in the organization, although she would like to see much, much more.

“It is better,” says Mo, “but the organization is still very male-dominated. What I want to say to younger women is, be independent. It does not mean you live alone or that you don’t depend on anybody, it’s a mindset. I think sometimes young women are intimidated by the peer pressure. If you have something you want to pursue, it could be different from your peers or even your husband or your parents but you have to be independent enough to pursue it. I’m a nobody from a small city and a small household – I rose from the poor because mentally I am independent.”

(The article is written by Deborah Stoll, YPO)

(YPO (Young Presidents’ Organization) is a not-for-profit, global network of young chief executives connected through the shared mission of becoming Better Leaders Through Education and Idea Exchange™. For more information, visit www.ypo.org).

(Image: Thinkstock)