Christianson '85 proves determination prevails

But meeting a person in reality revives the formulaic incarnation conjured by the assortment of facts on paper. Such is the case with Wei Christianson. On paper, Christianson ’85 boasts an education at Amherst College and Columbia Law School as part of her accomplished professional history. Currently a managing director at Credit Suisse First Boston, she has also been a lawyer and had a significant role in formulating major policies regarding the Hong Kong market and Chinese-based companies it listed. In the meantime, she raises three children, Perik, Neil and Nicholas.

Meeting Christianson in person reveals that her manner of speaking, skillfully varying in pitch and tone, exudes confidence. Her use of hand gestures resembling the motion of climbing on ladders and advancing on roads projects determination.

Success and competition

Success for Christianson did not come easily, and, as she says, “was about being at the right place at the right time.” Having graduated from a highly competitive Chinese university, she was accepted to Amherst as a junior, making her one of the first Chinese mainland students to go to school in the U.S. She went on to graduate from Columbia Law School and practice law in New York for several years. Then, one evening at a cocktail party, a conversation with her neighbor led her career in a very different direction. John Mack, of the international financial services firm Morgan Stanley, persuaded her to move to China and take part in the historic task of lifting the first Chinese securities market off the ground.

“I had the cultural training and contacts with Chinese government officials. Being a lawyer helped me see the other side of things, the legal side. It turned out to be a fantastic five years,” said Christianson about her experience as a regulator in the Chinese securities exchange. “This job was suitable for me at the time, because [it gave me enough time] to take care of my children.”

Later, Mack recruited her to work at Morgan Stanley, where, as FinanceAsia reported, “she was intimately involved in stellar successes including [big name] IPOs.” In February 2002, she signed on with Credit Suisse First Boston, another multi-million dollar firm, where she remains the only female managing director in Asia.

“Morgan Stanley is a great firm, and I advanced very quickly there,” Christianson said. But she sought to aim higher than the position Morgan Stanley offered her. “I think it’s important to have someone that is willing to put business in China at a central priority. There are so many things going on [in the financial markets in China]. How can you compete if you only have limited power to make deals and push things? Now, she oversees billion-dollar transactions and IPOs in China and Hong Kong.

But Christianson can recall a time when she wasn’t a star. “I’m at a very comfortable job right now, but when I started I was a misfit in every category,” she says. “But you have to have confidence,” she adds, stressing every word, “which can help you when everyone around is younger and has more skills than you do.”

The makings of a plan

Professor of Political Science Ronald Tiersky noticed Christianson’s ambition during her college years. “She arrived at Amherst with a plan, and she has been remarkably successful in following through. This is part of her example to students today: have a plan. Even if you don’t follow it exactly, to have a plan is acquiring the habit of focusing your energies.”

Christianson traces her determination to being raised in the impersonal and competitive China of the 1980s. Her childhood experience imbued her with a strong will to succeed. “In China, every door of your life was closed, except for one,” Christianson said, pointing upwards. “You’re taught to go for what you want.” Determination, however, is not enough. “When you choose a profession, it’s very important not only to do the things you want to do. You have to find your advantages. You have to know yourself.”

Her awareness of competition is apparent in conversation with her. “You know, I think about all the people who were with me in primary school and high school, and I know some of them were smarter than me. I know some of them could have done equally as well as I did. But they were never given the opportunity.”

“People tell me it is incredible that I have a husband, three children, and a great career,” she said, “but think what would have happened if, for example, one of my children were born sick. That kind of thing would throw me out of the race.”

Her appreciation of Amherst largely stems from the doors the College’s reputation opened for her. “I cannot stress enough how important it is to go to the right schools if you want to be in a competitive profession,” she said. “The first stop always defines the direction. It’s not the distance that’s important; it’s the direction.” The end must be envisioned, and then the means becomes clearer. Getting into Amherst and Columbia facilitated her successful banking and legal careers.

Christianson sees her decision to attend Amherst as life-changing. “Amherst will always have a special place in my heart. It gave me the ability to compete, and the confidence to chase my dream.”

“I’m stressing so much the importance of making the right decision, because I almost made the wrong one.” After having received a degree from a Chinese university, Christianson was looking at graduate schools in the U.S, but the schools that would admit her were not on par with her professional ambitions. “As it happened I met a professor of law from Columbia. He told me that with my academic degree, I didn’t have a chance [to get in]. Then he gave me a list of top liberal arts colleges. He said that all I needed to do was graduate from one of these tough schools, and with my unique background, he would admit me. So, I applied, and chose Amherst.”

Returning to Amherst

Christianson returned to the College on Sept. 23 to deliver a lecture on business and politics in China at the Octagon. She discussed the changes China had gone through over the last 40 years, starting with the cultural revolution and ending with the now-polarized Chinese society.

“The majority of China lives by Western standards,” she asserted during the lecture, “but [in rural areas] there are people who don’t know what soup is, or don’t have shoes to wear.” She told a vivid story about a visitor who saw a child panhandling. Since the man didn’t have anything on him but a bar of soap, he gave that to the boy. The boy simply stuck the soap in his mouth and ate it. The boy had been reared in the country and had never seen soap, so he assumed that it was food.

At the audience’s request, Christianson went on to discuss the political situation in China. “The government is still very controlling. Legislation is still a show and democracy doesn’t exist in reality.” Yet, she asserted that with information from the West constantly flowing in, Chinese society is sure to be influenced and to change.

As to relations with the U.S., she said the Chinese government acknowledges that the two nations have mutual interests, but there is still a complicated dichotomy between American and Chinese values. Later, she elaborated, “I can see the shortcomings of Chinese society. I see it as growing and emerging. I am very critical of China, but I’m not emotional [about the issue].”

The lecture at the College barely squeezed into Christianson’s busy schedule. “I was really tired because I just came to New York [in the afternoon], rented a car and took the two-and-a-half hour drive to Amherst.” However, she added that she is accustomed to managing on four hours of sleep.

Christianson is sensitive to both her seniority and her shortcomings. “There are always talented people around you. You give someone something to do and he comes back, and you think, ‘he did that several times better than what I’d intended.'”

“There were deals I wanted to get for the firm, but things didn’t work out. I hated that,” she said with a smile.