March 30, 2017, was an evening of empowerment and celebration as 200 women gathered at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business for the Sixth Annual Women Leading Women forum honoring financial planner and industry leader Marguerita (Rita) Cheng ’93, founder and CEO of Blue Ocean Global Wealth. Watch video highlights.
“Women Leading Women celebrates the sisterhood of Smith and empowers women to pursue senior leadership roles,” said Sharon Strange Lewis, EMBA ’05, the Smith School’s senior director of Women and Diversity Programs. “We’re also giving our community a chance to learn from great role models in business.”
The discussion had a profound impact on the female students, alumni, faculty, and staff from the Smith School and across the University of Maryland, and guests from the surrounding community. Also in attendance were three former honorees: Lisa Anders, MBA ’95; Andrea Brody ’87; and Kristen Welch ’90, MBA ’96.
Attendees highlighted some key takeaways from the event:
You don’t have to be aggressive to be a good leader
“Of all the events I’ve attended, this one was the most candid, motivational and empowering,” said Saumya Dobriyal, a freshman at Smith. “It was eye-opening for me to see that the type of community – that womanhood I was looking for – exists and is thriving at Smith and the business world. You brought in a CEO who is quiet, thoughtful and caring, which shattered my stereotype that in order to be successful at Smith, I had to embody a completely different personality.”
Cheng said that at points in her career she was criticized for not being aggressive or assertive enough, but she stayed true to her values.
Let values drive your decisions
“Rita let her values drive her decisions,” said Nicole Coomber, a lecturer at Smith and moderator of the Women Leading Women discussion. “When she moved from Nordstrom, she did so in part because it was important to be there with her young children and not traveling all the time. When she moved from Ameriprise, it was in part because some of their policies didn’t let her provide the nuanced and caring service that she felt certain types of clients deserved. When she saw that there was a lack of diversity in the Certified Financial Planners association, she took it upon herself to make a change. She’s really values-driven!”
Cheng said, “Be careful because when things bother me, I’m going to do something about it!” For Janna Fernandez, Smith MBA candidate 2018, that was an important message. “Hearing her talk about being brave enough to change the things that bother you reinforced the idea of being fearless here at UMD,” said Fernandez. “Changing something that needs to be changed is difficult, but possible. I liked that part!”
Be fearless, be open to the possibilities
Cheng encouraged attendees to be open to the possibilities. “Be risk aware, not risk averse. Don’t let risk hold you back, and don’t take failure personally. Be fearless,” she said.
“Rita was self-aware enough at each juncture of her career to stop and take her temperature,” said Millicent Locke, marketing manager at Smith. “If she felt it was time to move on, she did. Even though she was well-respected and still enjoyed her work, there was something greater calling her on to her next chapter. My takeaway was that we all need to tap into that, because it’s not about a job, it’s about your reason for being here and what you were created to do. In Rita’s case, it’s helping people manage their finances to prepare for the future. For another, it may be something else. But people should observe what they’ve done and naturally gravitated to over the course their lives to see a common thread – that may be the clue to their calling.”
“You cannot be what you cannot see,” was a powerful statement made by Cheng as she described the importance of being a positive role model for other women and underrepresented minorities. Initially, she was apprehensive about taking a spot on a board that was predominantly white and male.
“She drummed up her courage, went forth and decided to take her seat at the table anyway,” said Locke, who understands how that feels, growing up being the only person of color or one of few in most settings. “Seeing people who look like you, whether in the corporate world or in media or advertising, instantly makes you feel more comfortable and confident, like there’s someone you know in the room. You feel like, if this person who looks like me can do it, so can I. It’s so important for little girls to start seeing these images very young. Not only to see women reaching the highest levels of power and influence, but to also prepare them for the reality that they are in a world where, unfortunately, sexism, racism and classism still exist. But you can change people’s preconceived notions of you little by little by the power of one – by being prepared, by being passionate, by being sincere and transparent, and by being kind, courteous and humble in your interactions with them. I don’t believe there’s any power greater than humility.”
Have difficult conversations, help people
It’s hard to talk about money. It’s hard to talk about things that may or may not happen in the future. When Cheng was at Nordstrom she found herself educating the other sales representatives who were in their early 20s on financial planning, encouraging them to take advantage of the matching funds the company was providing at the time.
Cheng discussed her father’s illness and the difficult conversation she had with her parents about saving money and investing so they could plan for their future. This part of the discussion resonated with Alison Scharman, Smith MBA candidate 2017. “Because investment management is so lucrative, people don’t always think of financial planners as helping people,” said Scharman. “But when you consider the fact that financial planners help you save for your child’s education and your retirement, you can really see the impact that they have on people’s lives.”
Have passion, purpose and a plan
"Rita mentioned that anyone can be successful in what they do if they have passion, purpose and a plan," said Mamayaa Opoku, a junior at Smith. "You have to be passionate about what you are doing, not settling for a career you can tolerate. I found this encouraging, some have told me to change my major from marketing or double major with a more ‘secure’ major. Doing what you love matters, it has an impact on how successful you are in the path you take. But you can’t just be a dreamer, you have to have a plan and act purposefully. I found her statement both encouraging and practical."
About Marguerita (Rita) Cheng
Marguerita (Rita) Cheng earned her B.S. in finance and her B.A. in East Asian language and Japanese literature from the University of Maryland, College Park. Prior to co-founding Blue Ocean Global Wealth in 2013, Cheng was a financial advisor at Ameriprise Financial and an analyst and editor at Towa Securities in Tokyo, Japan. She is a past spokesperson for the AARP Financial Freedom Campaign and a regular columnist for Kiplinger. Cheng is a CFP® professional, a Chartered Retirement Planning Counselor, a Retirement Income Certified Professional® and a Certified Divorce Financial Analyst.
About Women Leading Women
Women Leading Women is an annual event designed to showcase, celebrate and empower the fearless female alumnae and other women in business. Hosted by Smith’s Office of Diversity Initiatives, the moderated discussion encourages open dialogue among women in business from the classroom to the C-suite. This year, the forum was the culmination of a month-long celebration for Women’s History Month. Smith Women’s Month featured a series of female-themed events and highlighted research by Smith faculty members: https://www.rhsmith.umd.edu/womenleadingresearch
- Alissa Arford, Office of Marketing Communications