35 Under 35: Vivian Lau, Partner, Serengeti Asset Management

By Melissa J. Anderson (New York City)

“What excites me and makes me driven is that I love to invest capital,” began Vivian Lau, Partner at Serengeti Asset Management. “And when it comes to investing, the markets are exciting. Every year it’s hard to make money until you finish the year and find ways to make money. I just love coming to work every day.”

At 34 years old, Lau has achieved quite a bit. After graduating from Harvard in 2000, she began her career at Goldman Sachs on its distressed investments desk. Six short years later, she became managing director at the firm. She ran Goldman Sachs’ proprietary business until 2008 when she joined Serengeti Asset Management as a partner.

At Serengeti, she is responsible for managing the business as well as the portfolio. “Our goal is to find investments that are cheap or misunderstood in some way.”

“I’ve never been someone tremendously proud of accolades, but I think what I’m most proud of is what we have accomplished here at Serengeti. We’re a five year-old business with a billion dollars in capital,” Lau continued. “I’m also proud of the team we have built. We’ve attracted people we’ve worked with in the past – I’ve worked with these colleagues for seven to ten years.”

“I work with people whom I trust and whom I truly love working with. When you find the right people and work with them, I think you can build a tremendous investment firm.”

Women in Investment Management

Lau says she believes there are challenges for women building their careers in the investment management industry. “I think the industry is pretty demanding,” she explained. “There are not enough women in portfolio manager seats and there are not enough women running hedge funds even though they are tremendously talented.”

She sees the pipeline as one of the biggest hurdles. “We have incredible women coming out of college and business school, but somehow they don’t make it through the chain. It has changed in the last five years, but there is still a small number of women portfolio managers in the industry.”

Balancing work and personal demands may be another challenge. “We need to find a way to make it work,” she said. She praised seasoned women who have reached out to help junior women navigate work life challenges. “I think women in the seats who have been successful are taking an active role in mentoring others. By identifying people earlier on and mentoring them through that process, I think over time it will change. But it is a challenge.”

Advice for Professional Women

Lau advised women beginning their careers to make sure they are enthusiastic about what they are doing. “Many people are smart. But what separates the people who are successful is passion. It’s always easier to do something when you love it than when you don’t love it.”

She continued, “The best guide to doing something right is to trust yourself. When you are investing and when it comes to people, be intellectually honest with yourself and operate with integrity.”

“And my second piece of advice is to remember that the one thing that’s constant is change. You have to embrace change and adapt to change. With change comes opportunity.”

Third, she said, “One of the things you can’t underestimate is the people that you meet. You have to be open to meeting people and learning from them, and open to engaging with people who you truly trust – and reciprocate. It’s something that you don’t always appreciate, nor do you fully dedicate the time to develop.”

She also encouraged women to focus less on the challenges women face in the business, and more on building relationships. “I think that while it’s important to understand the fact that there are specific challenges for women, there are other things to consider when you think about your career process.”

“Treat men as your equal. We have to understand the challenges for women, but the greater we make the issue, the greater it becomes.”

Diversity at Serengeti

Lau said her firm employs about 30 people, and about a third are female, with women holding top jobs like CFO and Head Trader. “My partner Jody LaNasa and I share a common vision – that we want diversity in this firm.”

She continued, “We think we build a better firm when we represent different cultures. When interviewing, I think we emphasize that vision. Everyone we’ve brought into the firm feels the same. Everyone is judged by the quality of the work they produce.”

From both a gender and a culture perspective, Lau said, she believes the firm is very diverse. “I think a firm is better when you have diverse cultures, diverse perspectives, and diverse influences. In an environment where that dialogue is fostered, we all make better decisions.”

In Her Personal Time

Lau says her family is very important to her. She shared that she never really knew her mother and her father passed away when she was in middle school. After that, she was raised by her grandmother and great aunt. “They were two phenomenal women, and they were able to raise us in a way that we never missed our mother,” she said. “I want to emphasize how significant they were from our upbringing to where I am now.”

Outside of work, Lau is a supporter of one of New York’s charter schools. “Education is the great equalizer,” she said. “The earlier we can bring children into a constructive environment, the better able they are to achieve their best potential.”

She also enjoys sports. “I love to ski and play tennis,” she added.