By Jessica Titlebaum (Chicago)
We were having lunch somewhere in the 50’s in Midtown Manhattan. I had just gotten off the plane from Chicago and hailed a cab. I was meeting Mary Chung, Senior Vice President of Corporate Communications and Marketing at ELX Futures, an electronic futures exchange launched in July 2009 and backed by a consortium of investment banks including Bank of America, JP Morgan, and Goldman Sachs; among others. She had recommended we meet at a Thai place down the street from her office.
The first thing one would notice about Chung is her size. She is petite and svelte at 40 years old and in shape. At the Futures Industry Association’s annual conference in Boca Raton in March this year, she placed first in the women’s 5K run and won an iPad.
“I’ve always enjoyed pushing my body to the limit,” she said. “You are never too old to be in shape,” she said.
However because of her petite frame and youthful appearance, Chung said she felt she had to prove that she was tough enough to handle the derivatives industry.
“I probably overcompensated in the beginning because of my appearance,” she said. “I dressed in Brooks Brothers suits, rarely wore make up and tried to bury my femininity because I thought I needed to do that to be taken more seriously. I’m confident in myself now and in my experience and ability that I don’t feel the need to wear boxy pants- suits and sensible shoes to prove my professional presence,” she said with a chuckle glancing down at her Jimmy Choos.
Chung, originally from Canada, graduated from Carleton University in Ottawa with a degree in Journalism and Political Science. After college, she taught English in Japan for three years before moving to the States to attend graduate school at Columbia University and to pursue a career in Journalism. She was a reporter for the Financial Times before switching over to Public Relations to work at the American Stock Exchange.
Chung was at the Exchange for over five years heading communications and marketing efforts during a time of immense change. It went through a management shuffle, regulatory challenges, a technology overhaul and then merged with NYSE Euronext in the fall of 2008.
Following the merger, Chung was hired to head communications and marketing at ELX Futures, a new electronics futures exchange that was going to go head-to-head with the behemoth CME Group.
A Woman’s Perspective
“I would say that as an Asian woman, I was remembered at networking functions,” said Chung. “I guess that put me at an advantage but then again, I don’t think that being a woman is necessarily a drawback.”
Chung is direct and thick-skinned. She said she works well in a male environment.
“I worked on a trading floor for many years so I’m used to working with men. Has it been perfect? No, there have been minor issues that have come up because of my gender, but I’ve overcome any pre-conceived notions because in the end it’s your ability that wins people over. I also have a good sense of humor and a sharp tongue,” she said. “That served me well working on a trading floor.”
She said that she has spoken to other female colleagues and friends in the industry, and they have commented that sometimes the greatest barrier to women in this industry is other women.
“Women are not always the most supportive of other women in this industry and maybe that’s because we are a minority and we feel competition with each other. This is a difficult subject to talk about publicly because I don’t want to perpetuate stereotypes, either. ”
She shrugged and changed the subject, as if it was a taboo topic, and took a bite of her Pad Thai.
Chung believes that many women are still concerned about having children and how starting a family might affect their careers.
As a mother, she knows firsthand the stresses that come with balancing a family and a professional life.
“I love spending time with my daughter so most weekends are spent taking her to tennis practice or her baseball games, lots of sports and then going to the park or watching movies together,” she said.
She thinks that women need to make work and home-life both priorities but it’s also crucial that women carve a little time just for them to recharge. She explained that women need to take care of themselves so they have the bandwidth to give to work and to their families.
“I wasn’t always good at the balancing act, especially when my daughter was young, but now that she’s in school it’s been much easier and I’ve learned that I’m more effective at work and as a mother when I’m in a happy and healthy state physically and mentally,” she said.
Throughout her career, Chung has stayed close with her current boss Neal Wolkoff. She first met Wolkoff, who is now chief executive officer of ELX, while working as a journalist. Later he became her boss when he was appointed CEO and Chairman of the American Stock Exchange.
“Neal has been a great mentor and a real inspiration for me in this industry. He exemplifies the best in what a CEO should be and he shows that you can have the top job and be competitive and strong, but remain a gracious, compassionate person who cares about creating a work environment that motivates and values people,” she said.
She nostalgically looked back on her career and wished she had taken more control of her personal and professional life rather than waiting for things to happen.
“I also wish I bought a New York Mercantile Exchange seat,” she laughed.
She is also proud of herself for making it in New York City.
“I left home in high school, paid for college and graduate school myself. I was independent from an early age,” she said. “I came to NYC with very little but I had a real hunger to succeed.”
When we got up from the table, I asked her if she had any advice for minorities as they begin their careers.
“Work hard, network, network, network, have thick skin and please keep a sense of humor!”