Derek Fok: Thriving in Diversity with an International Horizon

Born in Vancouver, Canada in 1987, Derek Fok moved to Hong Kong with his family when he was three and grew up there until he went for college in the US around 2005.

After graduating from college in the United States, Derek started his career in Hong Kong and then moved to Beijing. With an international background, he is used to living in diversity.

School Years in the US

Derek went to the USA for high school, and then earned his Bachelor’s degree in 2010 from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, majoring in chemical engineering.

“It was definitely my choice. My parents had very little influence in choosing my major. I’m good at math, and of all the science subjects, I like chemistry the most. It was really tough and challenging, but I had a lot of fun doing it,” Derek said.

But school time was not always happy and fun. In 2006 when his grandfather passed away, he stooped into deep depression for a while, and his study was consequently affected.

“I had a dip (in grades) in the beginning because my grandfather’s departure and I had to go back to Hong Kong for one semester in 2006. My scores suffered, but then I picked up myself. The last two years were really intense, and I ended up with a 3.4 GPA in my final year,” he said.

During his college years, Derek joined the Hong Kong Student Association (HKSA), an organization for students from Hong Kong and other communities to meet each other.

“We always played basketball and football together. There were about 20-30 members. We were a team, and we played in basketball tournaments organized by us and also other HKSA students in nearby universities,” he added.

Apart from making international friends from around the world, he was also the executive vice president of HKCPPCCYA, a Hong Kong-based association for young people in Hong Kong whose parents are members of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC).

Established a year ago, the association started as just a group of students joining a historical and cultural China trip in 2012. As more trips were organized every year, this community grew and there started to be a direction and the participants wanted to do more. Derek sensed the change and steered the formation of this association.

As the executive vice president, Derek helped organize and lead a series of activities, ranging from the annual group trip to the revolutionary mecca Jinggang Mountain to publishing articles in newspapers to let the society hear the voice of young people.

“I’ve been to quite a lot of places in China, including Tibet, Shandong, Xinjiang, Jinggang Mountain, Hunan, Shenzhen, Guangzhou, Sichuan, Shanghai and Beijing. My parents had always brought me to mainland China when I was a kid,” he said.

Setting foot in China by himself many times, patriotism has been deeply rooted in his heart. When asked about the relation between Hong Kong and the Chinese mainland, Derek said, “There has been a lot of pressure on the young people in Hong Kong. This has caused a great deal of frustration that may be misdirected to the mainland Chinese. The students shouldn’t be misled.”

Endeavors in China

Though interested in chemical engineering, Derek decided to work in real estate and finance for his family after graduation.

“Even when I was studying for my master’s degree, I was working at the same time. I worked as Director of Fok Ying Tung (FYT) Foundation and National Investment in Hong Kong for three years,” he said. The major project right now with FYT Foundation is the land development project in Nansha. This piece of land is 11,000 mu in area and is a major state-level development zone in Guangdong. The majority of this land area has become a free trade zone, opening up many possibilities.

By teamwork and cooperation, Derek has made big progress in his projects. When developing a piece of land 800 mu in size that was obtained in 1990 in Sha Kao Island in Guangzhou, Derek reviewed many financial and industry reports and attended a lot of meetings in order to solve the problems. “We were facing some pressure from local officials and also the property market. We had to make some tough decisions.”

“The board of director was composed of the first and second generations of my family. I tried to contribute as much as I could, get experienced and quickly learn from the process,” he said. “Most of the work that I do in the Foundation is rather high level. However, since I was just a chemical engineering student not too long ago, my experience is still very lacking.”

“Some of the challenges that I have to face are discussing business with the mainland Chinese. Without much experience and without the language advantage or cultural background, there is an obvious barrier. Another challenge that I face is proper leadership skills. I am in my current position because I’m in a family business. Many of the people that work for me are finding it difficult to take command from a younger and less experienced person.

“When I graduated with my master’s, I considered myself a pretty accomplished person. I graduated 3rd seat with honors while working on large projects in my family business. It was not until I had to work full time and was put in charge of projects that I became aware of how much was going on in China that I had no idea about. In order to overcome the challenges that I was facing, I felt that the only way to do it was to actually go into the mainland to gain experience.”

In order to learn Mandarin and the mainland culture to lay a solid foundation forfurther business communication, Derek came to Beijing to work in Tsinghua Holdings in May 2014.

“I took the opportunity to work in Tsinghua Holdings (THH) as a specialist assistant in the Strategic Management Department. I rotated in the subsidiary companies responsible for financing, investing, venture capital, and in technology investment companies. Now I’m working in THH’s San Lian Venture Capital,” he said.

The San Lian VC Team is also working on a P2P lending platform.“What I’m doing right now is industry research. I investigate companies similar to us such as Prosper and Lending Club, two famous P2P companies in the US, to see what they are doing, how their regulations are compared with China, and what we can learn from them,” he said.

“I really like what I’ve been doing so far. I want to stay here for longer. Internet finance is a really hot topic right now. I feel that we are the pioneer in this field and we are really at the cutting edge,” he said.

Restarting fromTsinghua

Passionate for Internet finance, Derek is looking forward to opportunities to learn more about it. So when he heard about the Tsinghua-Cornell Dual Degree Finance MBA program, he did not hesitate to apply.

“We are going to take the course of Internet Finance. I’m very curious about what the professor will teach. I’m going to learn more in this MBA program,” he said.

“It’s a great MBA program. I’m really excited to be in its first class. There are many smart and successful people in the program, and I’m glad to meet them. In the team development activities, they were really friendly, highly supportive and always pleasant to create solutions together. It was exhausting but very much fun,” he said.

Though Chinese language and financial knowledge are a “challenge” to him, Derek has determined to overcome it and achieve more.

“I need to give my 100% and keep working hard. We are going to have a language exchange corner, where I can teach some of my classmates English and they can teach me Chinese. It’s very interesting that the students are of different age groups and different specialties,” he said.

“I do not have much business background from school or work, but some fellow students have already got an MBA. There was even a person who has completed an EMBA. I’m interested to find out what’s going to happen,” he added. “Really exciting!”

Derek said he himself was far from a special person in this MBA program. “There are so many talented, refined and successful people.”

“Many people have their own companies and many are older than me. Most have very good background and are more experienced in finance. I think I will be able to learn a lot from them,” he added.