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Portfolio manager, Maili Wong, reflects on surviving terrorist attack and how the kindness of a stranger inspired her approach to clients

How 9/11 horror changed advisor’s life

When the first plane crashed into the north tower of the World Trade Center, coffee splashed over Maili Wong’s new dress and heels. She was just two days into her dream job as a derivatives trader on Wall Street. The Merrill Lynch floor was glued to images of a fiery plane sticking out of the famous building, only for her boss to casually dismiss it as the actions of a drunk pilot.

Wong buried her fears and went back to her desk, wary of looking like the nervous new girl. Then the second plane hit the south tower and an earthquake-style tremor caused phones and computer screens to go flying. Her manager told people not to stay put and that the markets were opening in 45 minutes. Wong’s instinct was to obey but there was a nervous chill in the air. She heard her mother’s voice reverberating around her head to get out. She walked out the door and raced down the stairs.

When she stepped into the morning sunlight, the stench of burning flesh and steel hit her instantly, followed by the screams of a colleague, who had just seen a man and women, holding hands and on fire, fall from the tower above.

Survival mode kicked in. Wong ran through the screams and sirens, slowing leaving the burning people, glass, dust and debris behind her. She ran up the West Side Highway before stopping for breath. Scared and afraid to reach out for help, all she knew was she couldn’t go home.

Against her perfectionist nature, Wong then allowed herself to be vulnerable. She walked through the city for hours before knocking on a family friend she barely knew and asking for help and shelter.

Survival mode

Almost 19 years later Wong tells WP it took her a long time to come to terms with what happened on September 11, 2001 – she was incredibly back at work just three days after the attack – but there is no doubt of the impact it’s had on her life and career. The Vancouver-based investment advisor and senior portfolio manager said that moment, as she cried helplessly on the highway, has since informed the way she builds relationships with clients and even her investment philosophy.

Being open and authentic, and “dropping the veneer of professionalism”, is a strength not a weakness, she now knows.  Her ability to incorporate the emotional aspects of life and money into her work has proved hugely successful and she is now relishing the next stage of career, having joined independent Wellington-Altus from a bank-owned brokerage firm about six months ago.

The memories of 9/11 and the lessons it taught her live on, though.

“I have great compassion for the families who lost people in that terrible event and also gratitude for having gone through it, survived and been fortunate to have a life where I can look back at it with perspective on how it challenged me to be a better person,” she said.

“At the time it was more about survival mode and it took me years to get to a point where I was comfortable revisiting that experience and processing it.”

Her protector in the immediate aftermath holds a special place in Wong’s heart and is now a dear friend. From such a moment of crisis has come a deeper appreciation of the importance of relationships.

She added: “I was very lucky. It was basically a stranger who took me in and gave me shelter. This woman was also shocked and scared but yet she offered me an opportunity to have a place to stay. At the time, I had not met her before. It was a scary and vulnerable thing for both her and I.”

Wong admitted that even with the perspective this horrific event gave her, in the immediate aftermath, old work habits died hard.

More motivated than ever to make the most of her time in New York City, she “busted her gut” to get the Chartered Financial Analyst designation, while working full-time on Wall Street. She became an expert in evaluating risk at a top firm for an “elite” hedge fund spun-off from Goldman Sachs that managed billions for some of the wealthiest individuals and institutions in the city.

She competed hard, with 6am starts in the office so she could “shine” at meetings before going home to trade the Asia overseas markets from 7pm to midnight every night.

It was a punishing schedule that would lead to a second life-changing event.

‘Quit your job or it will kill you’

When Wong looked at her closet one winter afternoon, it struck her that she hadn’t worn any of her summer clothes that year because she’d been too busy working. Not long after, the stomach pains started, growing worse and worse until one day, after doubling up in pain and hiding in the office bathroom, she booked herself into a hospital emergency room.

Fearful it was the cancer that had also taken away her grandmother, she instead hoped to be handed a pill or vitamin that would get her back on track and able to work. The doctor sat down and hit her with the truth: “Quit your job or it will kill you.” The excruciating pain wasn’t cancer but stress-induced ulcers burning holes in her gut.

It dawned on her that she’d had her priorities upside down and was measuring life by the wrong metrics. She hadn’t listened to her body and now knew that she had to let herself be vulnerable again and make a choice.

Human connection is a super power

The decision to go back to Vancouver 13 years ago and “create a more meaningful life” was a scary one at the time. Was it career suicide? Had she failed? Once it was done, however, she felt only free and, armed with stark first-hand knowledge that volatility is a given, Wong has since thrived.

This approach to volatility has fed into her investment approach about managing client expectations, using an evidence-based approach rather than past performance and making market swings work for clients. She seeks to ensure that clients capture the good times but that there are mechanisms in place to protect them and provide stability when times get tough.

Wong said: “[My experiences] taught me that we should expect volatility – in the markets and in life. Too often, I find that investors or even professionals try to resist it; they’re fearful of it. I’ve learned that, guess what, life is full of volatility. Accept that fact and then you can prepare for it.

“I use the phrase ‘dance with volatility’ and compare it to martial arts where you use the force of your opponent and roll with it to then put the force into your own momentum.  That’s how I started to think that an investment philosophy could be built around the notion that there will be volatility. Then it was a case of, how can we use this to our clients’ advantage?”

One of Wong’s mantras is that “human connection is a super power”, meaning advisors have to drop their professional ego and share some of themselves to get to a client’s inner space. Once there, an authentic connection can be made and financial decisions become easier.

She believes her open approach to conducting business has given her a distinct advantage. Rather than becoming just another advisor, she lets her guard down, embraces vulnerability and builds new relationships, just like she did on that frightening night in 2001.


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