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Women Leading The Finance Industry: “Why you should surround yourself with people you want to become” with Cynthia Loh of Schwab Intelligent Portfolios

An Interview With Jason Hartman


Surround yourself with people you want to become: One single person can change the trajectory of your career, and you can do the same for someone else. I often think about the colleague and mentor I have who encouraged me to go to business school — it’s a decision I wouldn’t have made if someone hadn’t so clearly pointed me in that direction, and it opened a lot of doors. Since then, I’ve focused on the people that I work with, and I’ve found that some of the best opportunities don’t come from picking the job you want but the person you want to work for.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Cynthia Loh. Cynthia leads the team responsible for defining the client experience for Schwab Intelligent Portfolios® and Schwab Intelligent Portfolios Premium™, the firm’s robo-advisory and hybrid advisory and planning services. She has additional financial services experience from previous roles at PIMCO and Merrill Lynch. Loh earned a Bachelor of Arts from the University of California, Berkeley, and a Master of Business Administration from Stanford University. She holds FINRA Series 7 and 24 registrations and is a Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA).


Thank you for doing this with us! Our readers would like to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to the finance industry?

When I went to college, I was one of the inaugural graduating classes at UC Berkeley to major in cognitive science, focusing specifically on computational modeling. That meant I was exposed to the world of artificial intelligence (“AI”) before AI was a mainstream conversation. I was fascinated by this topic, but I had no idea how it could become part of my career until I went on to interview at a financial services firm and met someone with the same cognitive science background working in the tech investment group. I was intrigued as I started to learn about how technology was being be leveraged to improve efficiency and productivity across so many industries. Over the course of my career, I’ve been fortunate to spend my time on the two topics I love most — technology and finance. Today in my role at Schwab, I lead the team responsible for our robo advice products, Schwab Intelligent Portfolios and Schwab Intelligent Portfolios Premium. Our mission behind these tools is to leverage technology to lower costs and scale access to financial planning and advice.

Can you share with our readers the most interesting or amusing story that occurred to you in your career so far? Can you share the lesson or take away you took out of that story?

I’ve never been afraid to take calculated risks in my career — especially if I believe I’ll learn valuable skills for the future. I was particularly inspired to think this way after I read Reid Hoffman’s The Start-Up of You, which recommends growing your career like you would grow a startup: iterating on your approach, determining what skills are necessary, and pivoting to a new strategy when needed. At the time, I was working at a hedge fund in New York City, and it was obvious to me that staying there wasn’t going to get me where I wanted to be long-term.

So, I pivoted and after a decade in financial services, I took the risk of joining a start-up in an industry I didn’t know anything about, for a role that I had never done, at a significant pay cut. I never regretted it because it was my first experience working directly for a founder CEO, and I learned more than I ever would have in my other position. Ultimately, it was an investment in my future of working in tech.

When you’re evaluating a career move, I recommend optimizing for learning, as well as your manager. Over-rotating on your title or the brand name on your office building will rarely fuel your career or help your customers as much as throwing yourself into the deep end.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

One of the really interesting things about the digital advice business at Schwab is that it operates like a startup, even though we are a within a 45 year-old firm. We have the benefit of the support and structure of a seasoned business, but we are nimble enough to quickly design and change as our customers’ needs change.

Earlier this year, in response to customer feedback, we introduced a subscription-based financial planning option to our digital advisory service Schwab Intelligent Portfolios Premium. Subscription-based pricing is second nature to so many people who pay this way for other forms of ongoing access and guidance — from streaming media services like Netflix to fitness services like Peloton. People should have the opportunity to pay for financial planning the same way. The new pricing is part of our focus on making the investing and planning experience easier and less intimidating to people who need guidance, whether they’re investing for the long term or have more immediate life events that require the help of a financial professional. Customers invested $1 billion in assets within the first three months of the subscription model being introduced, so I think we’ve struck a chord.

Ok. Thanks for all that. Let’s now jump to the main core of our interview. According to this report in Fortune, nearly two-thirds of Americans can’t pass a basic test of financial literacy. In your opinion or experience what is the cause of these unfortunate numbers?

Unfortunately, many Americans aren’t armed with the financial skills they need because financial literacy simply isn’t a core subject taught in schools. On top of that, money can be a complex, difficult thing to talk about. It’s still considered a taboo topic and something that many parents are uncomfortable discussing with each other, much less with their children. It’s critical that families tackle money conversations together, and that includes talking about money with children and teaching them about finances and investing.

One thing I recommend to parents (I have a toddler myself) is to seek out resources and tools both to help manage investments (an easy way to get started is a robo advisor) and to start teaching young kids good money habits. My husband and I are big fans of Ron Lieber’s The Opposite of Spoiled. It provides a blueprint for parents on how to best handle finances — from allowance to charity.

If you had the power to make a change, what 3 things would you recommend to improve these numbers?

Stop being afraid to talk about money: Talking about money with your significant other or spouse may feel awkward at first, but it’s important to avoid conflict in the future. You might find that once you share your financial goals and timelines you have very different approaches to how you live today or in the future, so it’s best to get aligned sooner than later.

Make financial health part of your overall health: I like to think of health in three pillars — physical, spiritual, and financial. Just like you have a gym routine and annual check-up, it’s important to tend to your financial health regularly. An easy way to get started is a simple financial plan that outlines where you stand today and your long-term goals, along with an annual check-in to track progress.

Leverage technology: There are so many great tools out there that can make money easier, from budgeting apps to online investing tools like robo advisors, and a lot of them are available at little or no cost. You don’t need to have a fortune anymore to get the advice you need.

Ok, thank you! Now to the main question of our interview: You are a “finance insider.” If you had to advise your adult child about 5 non intuitive essentials for smart investing what would you say? Can you please give a story or an example for each.

Save early and often: This one is intuitive, but it’s important to emphasize because it’s one of the most important things you can do for your financial future. If you have an investment account, you can make investing regularly even easier for yourself through automation — just set up an auto-deposit feature to allot funds from your paycheck each month.

Use creative ways to save and invest more: Anyone willing to do a bit of research can discover a lot of unusual ways to leverage money they’re already spending for future benefits. If you’re getting married, for example, a wedding dress or reception flowers can be donated and used for tax deductions. When you buy a home, mortgage deductions can increase your net take-home income. If you’re retired, you can use a 529 to pay for continued education.

Hack your travel spending: My husband and I love to travel, and through airline, hotel, and credit card points, we have managed to minimize the money we spend on vacations. It takes some planning, but with a thoughtful approach you can treat yourself to a regular getaway without having to sacrifice your savings.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

My dad was someone who had a very strong drive toward excellence — he was an Olympic swimmer, so you can imagine his standards when it came to hard work. He was also the first person in his family to go to graduate school, getting his PhD in Chemistry. In my own career, he has been an inspiration both because he is a key reason I always try to excel, but also because he’s a Schwab client — and through him, I can envision our customers.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Manage your career like you would manage a start-up: find your competitive advantage, surround yourself with people you want to become, and hustle.”

Here is what this means to me:

· Find your competitive advantage: You have to hone in on what you are both passionate about and skilled at to find success, but once you’ve done that there is always more to learn. I encourage the members of my team to constantly seek out new learning opportunities, whether it’s taking a class or networking with others in the industry to stay on top of their game.

· Surround yourself with people you want to become: One single person can change the trajectory of your career, and you can do the same for someone else. I often think about the colleague and mentor I have who encouraged me to go to business school — it’s a decision I wouldn’t have made if someone hadn’t so clearly pointed me in that direction, and it opened a lot of doors. Since then, I’ve focused on the people that I work with, and I’ve found that some of the best opportunities don’t come from picking the job you want but the person you want to work for.

· Hustle: This one is simple — take risks, be scrappy and work hard.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

One of the biggest issues affecting consumers today is that the financial planning and advice that so many people need isn’t accessible, or consumers don’t have a clue where to start among a myriad of options. It’s our obligation to future generations to lower costs and other barriers to entry so that more people can feel confident in their financial futures. This is one of the many things that drives me at Schwab as I lead the teams that build our robo advice offerings, in our mission to leverage the best of people and technology to democratize access to financial advice.

Thank you for the interview. We wish you continued success!

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