By Natalie Bruckner. Photo courtesy of Holly Restani Captured Moon Photography. Originally published in the Summer 2021 issue of Business Class Magazine.
Take a risk, dream big and don’t be scared to collect some failures! This philosophy may seem a little unorthodox in a world that has been shaken to its core as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. But where many are seeking stability, Judy Zhu, BCom ’03, has embraced this philosophy, noting that it has served her well. And she believes it will empower the rising generation to do even greater things.
At first glance it may seem like Zhu—a fintech specialist, CEO of MoneyGirls, member of The Fund Rockies—is one of those people who had her career path mapped out early on. The reality is very different. “My career has been more like a jungle gym than a conservative, linear ladder,” she says. “Since I entered into business, I have been very free and nimble. I believe that every move you make is positive; it gets you closer to where you want to be. The risk-taking comes from me knowing I am smart enough to figure things out and that no failure is ever catastrophic.” It’s an attitude that Zhu says is common among immigrants because “moving to a whole new country and starting all over again, well, that’s about as scary as it can get!”
Zhu immigrated to Canada from China at the age of nine. She attended Mount Douglas Secondary School in Victoria and then enrolled in Gustavson’s BCom program specializing in international business. During her third year she met her husband, James Thom, also BCom ’03. (The couple recently created The Judy Zhu and James Thom Business & Entrepreneurship Award, in recognition of their foundational experiences at the business school— see sidebar.) “The most seminal experience at UVic was during my international exchange,” says Zhu. “I did my internship at the Canadian embassy in Beijing; it took me out of my comfort zone. I had to just figure it out. It also helped me realize a few things. I went into the program thinking I would end up in a foreign service, but soon figured out that [career] wasn’t for me,” she says.
Thom likewise specialized in international business during his Gustavson studies. He connected with Zhu while collaborating on a joint project in a Business Law class. “She wouldn’t argue with the fact that, really, she was just trying to copy my notes!” Thom jokes. Apart from meeting his future wife, Thom regards the school’s business case competitions as his most formative training. “It was a phenomenal experience in building the muscles for fast analysis and concise communications.” Thom has put those analytical muscles to work ever since, including eight years at the global management consulting firm McKinsey & Company, and now as chief product officer at Vertafore, an insurance-technology company. Prior to his current role, he also led corporate development at Vertafore and oversaw the company’s $5 billion acquisition by Roper Technologies last year—a deal that was done from beginning to end during the pandemic.
But back when they were graduating from UVic, Thom and Zhu’s future careers were still just a wealth of ideas and potential. The first move post-UVic was Zhu’s sales-and-marketing role with L’Oreal, which took the couple to the east coast. Eventually, she and Thom both decided to pursue their MBAs at Harvard Business School. During their studies, Zhu interned at Louis Vuitton in New York: “I thought I had this affinity with French luxury brands and that was it!” Zhu laughs.
Life had different plans. In 2009, as she and Thom completed their MBAs, the financial crisis caused the bottom to fall out of the retail market. It was also a year that saw the rise of entrepreneurship. “My graduating class at Harvard was incredibly entrepreneurial. They kept telling me that I was an idiot if I returned to retail and mentioned I should look into tech and e-commerce.I was introduced to the founder of diapers.com who was incredibly successful. At first I thought, ‘Excuse me! I don’t think so.’ But a friend persuaded me I was being dumb—so I joined them. It wasn’t glamorous, but then, entrepreneurship rarely is. The company was later bought out by Amazon for $600 million. That was the genesis of my next decade in consumer technology.”
This entry into the tech world opened up new doors for Zhu, doors she wasn’t afraid to walk right through. And from each new position, Zhu soaked up the lessons. It was during this journey and as she transitioned into fintech (working for companies including Uber Technologies and Quidsi) that she had a revelation; where were all the women? “When I joined Uber, overseeing fintech business development, it really hit me that everyone I was working with were dudes! I found it fascinating that all builders and users of fintech products were male, and that didn’t sit too well with me.”
In her own life, money discussions would often involve her parents or her husband . . . reinforcing the concept that even today, women aren’t the first to manage their own money. “I admit that I had very little interest in personal finance previously, but I was starting to get impatient with my own lack of confidence on such an important topic. The older you get the less of a right you feel you have to ask dumb questions; you end up being 35 and too afraid to ask. I didn’t understand investing when I was younger and I knew I wasn’t the only one,” Zhu says. And so she started MoneyGirls, a place where women could talk about money. From there she became even more entrenched in the world of money and investing. She started to write angel checks to female entrepreneurs, and then the opportunity came along to join The Fund in Colorado—an early stage venture capital firm. “They asked if I would be interested in joining as an investment partner because they were trying to create an investment team that was more diverse. They had found their ‘two middle-aged white men’ very quickly and, to their credit, they were looking for more diverse investors; only investors with different perspectives are going to enable the full spectrum of founders, building products the world needs.”
Today, Zhu’s time is committed to giving start-up entrepreneurs, who may not have had the same stability as her, the chance to dream big through MoneyGirls, The Fund and now the UVic award. She balances this with raising two children and undertaking her passions of hiking and skiing. From beauty to fintech to venture investing—it continues to be quite the journey for Zhu. And while she is proud of her confidence to take those risks, she also acknowledges that she has the privilege of having parents who are emotionally supportive, giving her added confidence. Her husband is her scaffold, too. “James is the stable one and I’m the risk-taker. Because we’ve been together since UVic, we completely credit each other for giving the push needed to achieve any success we claim. I also benefit hugely from my network. I worked my buns off throughout my career, but with that comes the security of having peers and mentors who have your back as well. Not everyone has that.” And this is why Zhu and Thom set up The Judy Zhu and James Thom Business & Entrepreneurship Award. “We have such great memories of UVic and the stepping stones it created for our careers. The award is a way of giving someone who may not have that safety net an opportunity. “For me, being an immigrant, it means a lot, and for James, being the first in his family to go to post secondary, the award was a no-brainer. When you’re the first in your family to do something, there is a level of daring and risk-taking. We want the award to enable someone with that mindset to succeed.”