Jim Cheng, ILR BS '01
Since graduating from the ILR School, Jim has had a whirlwind of a career path, and one that many current ILR students can learn from. He recently took the time to respond to questions from Dina Gabriel, MILR '07, from his current home in Brussels, Belguim.
DG: What career path have you followed post-ILR?
JC: My career path is very unique- after graduating - I worked in investment banking, then as a motivational speaker, and then into mortgage banking, where I started at the bottom and climbed up to be the youngest account executive doing wholesale lending in the largest mortgage bank in the US.
DG: How did your time at ILR help in your career and decision-making?
JC: ILR provided me with opportunities to get my hands dirty in real-life working conditions, through WISPs (winter internships) and internships over the summer, which made a big effect on my career choices. It showed me that there is a world beyond the investment banking, consulting, HR and law school options that are sought after by many of my ILR classmates. As opposed to focusing and narrowing my options, which I feel is the intention of the classes and career services office, my options were actually broadened. The broadening of options is a rather daunting feeling, but at the same time, liberating.
DG: Knowing what you know today what are some high lites and recommendations you have for current students at ILR? In particular those pursuing a career such as yours.
JC: My recommendation for students: Relax. Cornellians (ILRies especially) are a notoriously high stressed, high strung, type A bunch. In my experience, this comes off to others (intentionally or unintentionally) as arrogant, holier than thou, eat or be eaten demeanor. It's a horrible way to live and to be perceived. I've heard countless times how the ILRie I'm speaking with wants to retire at age 40. To which I question to them: and then what? Travel? My advice to them: travel when you're young, when sleeping on the beach because all the hotels are booked and when celebrating your birthday with friends you've just met and went ice climbing with in Switzerland are things your body and mind are ok with. These experiences bring a warm smile to my face when the going gets tough.
As for a career in finance, again, relax. Just because you didn't get into investment banking doesn't mean you won't get the riches and respect you want and deserve. There are so many opportunities and companies in finance, from one man shops selling a self-published newsletter/blog, to a 100 person bank that gets bought out, to the huge multinationals that gets all the media attention- and they are all looking for bright people. There are so many niches in the business of making money from money or the advice on money that simply keeping your mind open will help you tremendously to meet kindred spirits. A quote I especially love, "When the student is ready, the master will come."
DG: What did you do to help in your current lifestyle living abroad?
JC: For some, living abroad is daunting. For me, it’s no problem. You just have to set your expectations and change your mindset. Reading up on local customs, culture, mindset, and learning the local language will put you way ahead of most expats and tourists. While I do miss New York City, I’m certain that there will be things that I miss when I leave Brussels too.
DG: If you could pin point some key career and life decisions what would they be?
JC: There really aren’t many decisions in my life that can be pinpointed to be labeled as life or career changing. I simply found where I needed to go and starting going, making minor changes along the way. I first had to find out more about myself: what I enjoyed/hated, what kind of people I get along with, what I really wanted in life, amongst other things. The second step was to find out how to best fit who I was to the outside world, in terms of career, lifestyle, friends, and other things. I’m still trying to figure these things out, but have made some good progress. With this information, I sought a career and lifestyle that would make me happy. My jobs were chosen because I was able to match my disposition to the job type. The field of finance was eventually chosen because it is a huge and diverse field that can accommodate most personalities and temperaments, and at the same time, a decent living can be made.
DG: How has ILR enhanced your career thinking?
JC: Some of the classes that I took at ILR definitely affected my career thinking: Labor law helping focus my thinking and break concepts/ideas down into components. I took two classes with Prof. Gruenfeld, who indirectly taught me to think outside the box. Labor negotiations forced me to think and look at the whole picture. Prof. Kuruvilla made real the situations going on in world. Finally, a class on creativity from Prof. Ripple in the Ag school really expanded my mind.
DG: Do you have any advice for ILR students either relating to your career or an international career (those interested in that track)?
JC: Find out what you really want to do. Don’t be pressured because your classmates are all moving in one direction towards a certain career/field. There are many books, programs and literature out there that can help you. I recommend, “What Color is Your Parachute” by Bolles. In the book, there are a lot of homework and exercises that require a lot of time and energy that should definitely be completed.
Secondly, failure and humility are actually assets. As long as you recognize and practice this, nothing can stop you.
Finally, there are millions of companies out there that don’t come and recruit at Cornell, nor use recruitment websites, yet are desperately seeking bright people. Seek them out, get a toe in the door, and through networking (either formally or informally), your name will get out and you’ll advance.
DG: Any other advice would you give, either to the ILR School or to students who are about to graduate?
JC: When I went to ILR, it was a cold place. All the classes were large and impersonal, and being able to actually know a professor was next to impossible. While attempts to make it seem more personable were made in the form of the freshmen ILR colloquium and smaller elective classes for the upperclassmen, for me, it was mostly unsuccessful. While the foremost goal of higher education is knowledge transfer, the school should recognize that students should to be engaged. Industrial and Labor Relations and its related fields is a very specific academic and professional study. Many students coming in don’t really know what they’re in for and graduate unsatisfied. ILR and Cornell should seek those who aren’t mentally engaged (and not just through grades) and find out why.
As for the students not yet graduating: Find out what you really want to do, and if you’re not going in that direction, take steps to put you in that direction. Seek professors that interest you- these are people that have dedicated huge portions of their adult life studying and teaching specific topics- sit at their feet and find out what they’re all about.
For those about to graduate: Hopefully, you have achieved or on the path to achieving self-actualization. Note that the career path that you are taking now will likely change, and that you should make changes if your path doesn’t suit you. There will always be heartache and headache on this path- as long as you moving in the direction, these will soon pass. In the end, all you really have is your time, energy, passion and reputation- use them wisely.
DG: Thank you Jim!
- Jim Cheng, ILR BS '01