Sean Yu didn’t feel like an exceptional student before he attended Cal Poly Pomona. His high school GPA was a 2.7, with a semester where it fell below 2.0, due to his parents getting a divorce. Even though he had relatively high SAT scores and his GPA was the lowest amongst his friends, his college applications were “decent enough” to be accepted into several Cal State Universities.

But exceptional is precisely what his post-graduate life became.

Yu is now the managing director for the Sean Yu Group at Morgan Stanley Private Wealth Management in Pasadena and was named by Forbes, On Wall Street and Barron’s as a top financial advisor. He co-founded the Los Angeles chapter of the Chinese Finance Association and has created multiple Cal Poly Pomona endowment funds, including a $500,000 travel fund to help political science students participate in study abroad programs. He understands the financial challenges students can have, especially since he took out student loans and worked part-time to pay for his undergraduate degree himself.

“There are a lot of underprivileged students who are never able to travel because they have two or three jobs to support themselves,” says Yu (’99, double major in political science and management and human resources). “It’s always important to think about your past and give back. Even when I didn’t have money and owed $100,000 in student loans, I would give a little bit to support. Even giving $5 is OK — it’s a boba drink.”

Yu says that traveling broadens students’ perspective and expands their cultural awareness as they explore how different societies function and get to know individuals from diverse backgrounds.

Yu came to this realization when he traveled to Singapore in 2018, 19 years after he completed his undergraduate senior thesis at Cal Poly Pomona. His thesis explored how Singapore was a prime economic model because on the surface, citizens obeyed the law and kept their country clean to avoid punishments. But when he traveled to the country, he noticed that although the model worked for Singapore, a land mass of 281.3 square miles, the same model would not fit the United States because of a large population spread across 3.797 million square miles.

“We can study all day long and have a lot of book knowledge, but traveling to new countries is an important experience for students,” Yu says. “I want to encourage students and offer them a different way of learning, especially for those who don’t have the money or resources to travel.”

A Global Perspective

Yu’s interest in political science and international affairs was sparked by Cal Poly Pomona faculty members, some of whom he named endowment funds after. His first classes in political science and international affairs were with now retired professors David Speak and Sidney Sillman. Yu admired and respected both professors because of their passion toward human rights and politics, and how they had a respectful relationship with Yu as a student.

To continue the work that they do, even after they retired, Yu helped to create the David Speak & Sean Yu Endowment Fund, which brings distinguished lecturers to campus and provides grants for faculty research, and the Sidney Sillman & Sean Yu Endowment, which provides financial support for students taking internships related to human rights and justice. The endowments provide a way for the retired professors to engage with the university and to support the work they continue to do.

Sillman, who retired in 2006 after teaching at Cal Poly Pomona for 18 years, advised Yu on his undergraduate senior thesis project, which was optional — and rare — for a student to pursue. But at the time, Yu wanted to follow in the footsteps of his mentors and become a research professor.

During retirement, Sillman became involved in conservation work, with a particular interest in threatened California desert animals. Yu supports the Dr. G. Sidney Sillman Thesis Award, which provides $1,000 annually to support a political science student who will focus their research on public policy and endangered species protection. Sillman says that even though his name on the awards, the award would not be available without Yu’s support.

“Cal Poly Pomona students frequently are challenged economically, so support like Sean’s will encourage students to move in a particular direction in human rights, injustice and conservation of endangered species,” Sillman says. “I wish Sean the absolute best. He’s had a remarkably successful career and I hope he continues in that direction.”

Changing Directions

After graduating with an M.A. in international relations from the University of Chicago in 2002, Yu didn’t feel ready to pursue a doctoral degree and join academia. Instead, he entered the corporate world, although he had no experience in finance.

He was inspired by fellow alumnus Donald Tang (’86, chemical engineering), a highly successful businessman who was the vice chairman of Bear Stearns, who he met while they were both working on Wall Street in the finance industry. Tang is the founder of Tang Media Productions and Global Road Entertainment, and helped facilitate a deal for Dalian Wanda, a private property developer and owner of Wanda Cinemas and Hoyts Group, to acquire AMC Entertainment Holdings for $2.6 billion in 2012.

Yu felt he had a similar journey to Tang, who was born in China and came to the United States pursuing his wife, Jean (’86, chemical engineering). Similarly, Yu was born in Taiwan and came to America when he was 12, and they both struggled financially through college and graduated with degrees unrelated to finance. Yu was influenced to make an impact in the finance industry after he saw how Tang, an Asian Cal Poly Pomona graduate, was able to do the same.

“Donald was amazing — among all Asian Americans he was the highest rank in Wall Street, graduated from top institutions and was a graduate of Cal Poly Pomona,” Yu says. “I had zero idea on what finance management was, but I’m surprisingly good at it.”

Yu says that he succeeded in the industry because of his grit, persistence and motivation – starting work at 6 a.m. and putting in 80 to 100 hours a week during his first years working in finance. He credits his Cal Poly Pomona education and experience with instilling his work ethic.

“When I walked into the classroom at Cal Poly Pomona, I expected myself to do better and be able to overcome challenges to do better,” Yu says. “It was a personal expectation I set for myself when I was a student.”

Philanthropy and Advocacy

He continues to give back to Cal Poly Pomona by speaking to students during Professor for a Day, hosted by the university’s Alumni and External Relations. Lianlian Lin, professor in the Department of Management and Human Resources department, remembers Yu for his curiosity that guided him to constantly learn. She says Yu examined issues from different perspectives and looked for innovative ways to solve a problem.

“His speech and personal experience inspired many students to pursue their dreams with determination and persistence,” Lin says. “He is a very caring person with a grateful heart and has generously given back to society as a benefactor. I am very proud that Cal Poly Pomona has such a graduate as Sean Yu who is a role model and influences many of our students.”

Outside of his career and Cal Poly Pomona, he is working in his Taiwanese American community to help change attitudes about how people see wealth and to raise the importance of philanthropy, hoping others will share his passion to help underprivileged Taiwanese students.

In 2014, Yu co-founded the Taiwanese American Scholarship Fund and personally committed $1 million, helping to raise more than $4 million, which has since supported more than 100 students nationwide. The fund supports first- or second-year undergraduate students of Taiwanese background living in the United States.

In 2015, Yu was awarded the Philanthropy Leadership Award by the Asian Pacific Community Fund for helping them to create their donor-advised fund program and has raised $10 million in donations to date. In the same year when he co-founded the Los Angeles Chapter of The Chinese Finance Association, gathering over 150 active members from various areas of the financial services industry.

“The value in my community is that your wealth goes on to the next generation, and it stays within the family,” Yu says. “For me to change that value to include philanthropy, I became involved in the community and helped them to create a fund to support Asian students.”

Yu continues to provide his expertise to the Cal Poly Pomona community. He was on the investment committee of the board of directors of the Cal Poly Pomona Foundation from 2016 to 2018. Since then, he has transitioned into a similar role on the Cal Poly Pomona Philanthropic Foundation’s board of directors.

He said that despite his high school academic record and personal challenges at the time, it was at Cal Poly Pomona where he decided he wanted to change for himself. Yu wanted to prove that he was more than what his challenges were, and that he could achieve his goals of earning an undergraduate degree and a masters, completing a senior thesis, and finding a career that he was naturally good in. He expected himself to overcome the challenges and do better, and that mindset started at Cal Poly Pomona – a place where he wants other students to believe in the same for themselves.

“If I’m able to give, I have to consider Cal Poly Pomona important to give to because it’s part of my past and how I started do better for myself,” Yu says. “I came from Cal Poly Pomona. It’s where I discovered that if I get knocked down through challenges or difficulties, then I can get back up and become stronger, and that’s one of the most important lessons that I carry.”

By Nancy Yeang
Published November 30, 2022