Finance Leader Chinh Chu Recounts Refugee to Riches Story
A leader in the finance world, Chinh Chu, Founder and Managing Director of CC Capital, is an inspiration for many Asian and Vietnamese Americans looking to break the so-called Bamboo Ceiling––a term used to refer to the dearth of C-level executives of Asian descent in the United States. But what makes Chu’s story impressive is not just his success, but the odds he had to overcome to achieve it.
On February 8, 2023, Chu addressed a full room at Columbia University’s Low Library, offering a rare glimpse into his humble beginnings. Following introductory remarks from Weatherhead East Asian Institute Director and Columbia Professor Lien-Hang Nguyen, and RYSE Media Ventures Founder Naja Pham Lockwood, Chu spoke with Los Angeles Times journalist Anh Do about his “Rise from the Fall” of Saigon.
Leaving behind careers in Vietnam––Chu’s mother was a schoolteacher and his father was a doctor––the Chu family made the difficult decision to escape from the turmoil of war. Chu’s father made the trip to Hawaii first and began studying to become a doctor again in the States. The remaining five members of the family escaped later and arrived with only ten dollars. Two days after arriving at a refugee camp within a military base in Guam, Chu’s mother gave birth to his younger sister. Within the hour of her birth, Saigon was captured by the North Vietnamese, and the city they once called home was lost to them.
Still, despite these seemingly huge setbacks, Chu described his childhood as a happy one, and soon enough, the seeds of his calling for managing financial transactions were planted. In high school, Chu developed a taste for sales, and he began to make his own money by selling potato chips and newspapers. That entrepreneurial spirit was further honed in college, when he worked summers in West Virginia as a door-to-door encyclopedia and cookbook salesman for 13 hours a day, six days a week. In the summer of 1988, his book sales earned him a $6,000 profit.
Although prepared to follow a career in sales, Chu decided to change direction after watching the 1987 Hollywood hit, Wall Street. Taking a page out of Bud Fox’s book, Chu sent more than a dozen application letters to Wall Street’s big firms, hoping to secure an analyst job. He even camped out in the lobby of Goldman Sachs for hours, but was eventually escorted out of the building by security––sans interview. The young Chu finally struck gold when he snuck into a Cornell jobs event—-a two and a half hour drive from his university in Buffalo––nailed an interview, and was offered a job at Salomon Brothers.
When he made the move to Blackstone in 1990, it was a small firm––a far cry from the titan it is today. Yet, captivated by the picture of the firm’s future painted by cofounder Stephen Schwarzman, he took a leap of faith. In 2015, after 25 years at Blackstone negotiating some of the firm’s most illustrious and lucrative deals, he branched off on his own to found CC Capital, where he serves today as Managing Director.
The early days were rigorous. For the first seven years of his career, a good night was one in which he and his colleagues made it home in time for Seinfeld at 11 PM. But, he says, the long hours were “an incredible opportunity to learn, to get well compensated in our fields, and grow as individuals.” And though he has no regrets about the sacrifices he made of this time in his youth, he expressed a wish to have had the chance to return to graduate school––emphasizing the value of education that was impressed upon him by family from a young age.
“The advice I have is advice I give everybody, which is: find something you're passionate about, work hard and persevere, and enjoy it,” Chu said.
Today, he has also built up a reputation as a generous philanthropist, giving back to causes that matter––many of them in Vietnam or related to improving education.
“The true giving is how you influence and how you leave a legacy,” Chu said. “Living in the world we live in today, where we're so privileged, we're so blessed with everything we have…[it’s important] to make sure that we give back, make sure that we are good people, and not just take everything for granted.”