PROFILE

Coming to America

 

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Michael Lovitz C’86 is a copyright-lawyer for superheroes

Kathleen Fields GNu’87 teaches kids farm-work, and more

Curtis Macnguyen W’90’s life “has been beyond my imagination”

Marjorie Margolies CW’63 is at home in the world

Jessica Bohrer C’98 and Becca Richards C’99 make jewelry like Grandma’s


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Class of ’90 and ’80, ’83, ’84, & ’86 | The six-year-old boy could not understand why the woman had just turned into a cat, or what the guy with two heads on a motorcycle was saying. But for Curtis Macnguyen W’90, the cheesy 1970s American movies projecting onto a wall at a US military base in Arkansas were proof of something amazing.

Not long before, Macnguyen and his large family had left their home in South Vietnam just as the capital of Saigon was captured. Having maneuvered their way onto a packed vessel, they navigated the rough waters of the South China Sea for close to a week, were stopped by a pirate ship as bullets whizzed over their heads, successfully bartered with a Chinese tanker to take them on board, made their way to Guam with a pit stop in the Philippines, and then, finally, mercifully, landed in America, where they ate mashed potatoes and women turned into cats.

At that moment, anything seemed possible.

“For a kid, it was fun,” says Macnguyen, 36 years after that harrowing journey. “We were eating American food for the first time and it tasted great. We played during the day and at night they showed movies. [The US military] made it very pleasant.”

For many, the American Dream is just that—a dream, an illusion, a distant vision you only imagine when you close your eyes and drift to a happier place. But when Macnugyen left his war-torn country for the chance at a better life, he learned that dreams can indeed come true.

Today, thanks to his family’s daring escape from Vietnam and the Wharton degree he later earned, Macnguyen lives with his wife and three-year-old son in Malibu, where he runs Ivory Investment Management, a hedge fund he founded in 1998. “My life here,” he says, “has been beyond my imagination.”

The first six years of his life were hard to imagine, too, but for different reasons. Growing up alongside nine older siblings in Vietnam, he tried to do normal kid things—like run, play, and wrestle. During recess at school, the children in his class would pick teams, and often just start fighting because there weren’t any balls. That, he remembers was a lot of fun; the other kind of fighting he witnessed was not. “Sometimes you saw a dead soldier,” Macnguyen says. “Sometimes you saw a plane get shot down in the distance.”

For a while, the Macnguyen family decided to stick it out in their native country, even as the Vietnam War escalated. But one night, with the 20-year conflict coming to an end and the communist-led North Vietnamese army closing in on Saigon, Macnguyen’s mother, Doan Thi Nguyen, had a dream that she shared with her family on April 30, 1975—the morning of the capital’s capture.

In the dream, “we were all falling down a cliff and a hand reached out and saved the family from falling,” Macnguyen says. “So we took it as a sign that we should take this risk. We literally woke up early in the morning and got our belongings—it wasn’t much—went south to the harbor, and left an hour or two before the city was shut down.”

Macnguyen’s father, Tony, a naval officer, was also instrumental in the escape, pulling what Curtis calls a “bait and switch”—turning on one boat’s engine as thousands of people jumped aboard, then quietly leading his family onto another boat and sneaking away from the harbor, with just enough people not to capsize the vessel.

The journey did not end when they safely arrived in America, even though the completion of their frightening sea odyssey was a massive relief. After spending three months at the Arkansas military camp, crammed alongside hundreds of other Vietnamese refugees, the Macnguyens were set up with a host family in Hyde Park, New York. Curtis’s parents rented a house, leaned on support from a local church group, and found odd jobs to make ends meet, his mom working in a candy store and his dad selling vacuum cleaners. Perhaps the parents’ most important contribution, however, was the values they instilled in their children.

“The one thing they taught us, even though we never had a lot of money, is that education is very important,” Curtis says. “So we all did very well in school. All of my brothers were A and B students.”

The Macnguyen family discovered Penn as much by chance as hard work. The oldest brother, Tuong Nguyen EE’80, enrolled in Westchester Community College before deciding to pursue other academic options.

“He didn’t know what Penn was,” Curtis says. “He just applied to a bunch of schools, got into Penn, and studied engineering. That’s how it all started.” Three more of Curtis’s brothers followed the oldest to West Philadelphia—Hunt Macnguyen EE’83 WG’88, Douglas Macnguyen EE’84, and Vincent Macnguyen EE’86. Math was always a language they could speak, which opened doors for them at Penn and beyond.

“In the US, we figured out we were not very handsome so we couldn’t be a movie star,” says Hunt, laughing. “We were not big enough to make money in sports. And we weren’t very good in language. So the only chance we had was to study hard and study engineering first. That’s how most of us got started in our academic careers.”

Hunt was the first in the family to break away from the engineering mold when he returned to Penn as a Wharton graduate student. He encouraged his youngest brother to carve a similar path in the finance field. Curtis, the fifth member of his family to attend Penn, started out in the engineering school but switched to Wharton after his freshman year, partly because of Hunt’s advice and partly because of a summer internship that left him wanting more.

By then, Curtis had almost completely adjusted to America, having lived there for more than a decade. He spoke English well and enjoyed a typical college lifestyle at Penn. He had a work-study job. He lived in the high-rises. He partied. He went away for spring break. He played intramural tennis. He was a member of the Wharton fraternity, Delta Sigma Pi. And he did well in his classes.

But there were still hurdles Curtis had to overcome, ones relatively unique to children of immigrants.

“I didn’t know what stocks were,” he admits. “I remember seeing kids punching up their tickers … and I remember asking, ‘What are you doing?’ And they’d just say they were checking their portfolios. I had no idea what they were doing. But I learned quickly.”

He did indeed. By the time he graduated summa cum laude from Wharton, he had a number of offers and accepted a job at Morgan Stanley in New York. From there, he went to a boutique investment-banking firm called Gleacher & Co. as a senior financial analyst, where he honed his craft.

“I remember thinking, ‘Wow this is the greatest business on earth,’” Curtis says. “You don’t have to be a good salesman. You don’t have to give a presentation. You just have to be right. And the upside is unlimited.”

He later spent a few years at the hedge fund Siegler, Collery & Co., with a brief stint in between forming his own fund, CM Advisors, Inc. That company didn’t last long, but in 1998 he founded Ivory, which did. A few years later, he moved the firm’s headquarters to Los Angeles because he believed the West Coast would provide a more balanced, less stressful lifestyle than New York. Since then, the hedge fund has grown from $10 million to more than $4 billion under management while being considered one of the country’s premier risk managers. When the stock market plummeted a couple of years ago, Ivory, which is known as having relatively low volatility, was down only six percent.

“Curtis always displayed tremendous skills, even when he was young,” says Hunt, who today is the CEO of VinaSecurities in Vietnam and one of four Macnguyen brothers in the finance field. “He’s very personable. And he can read people like a book.”

For Curtis, surviving in the cutthroat business world can probably be traced to how he survived his cutthroat childhood. As the youngest in the family, he sometimes had to earn respect the hard way. When his older brothers would go out to the tennis courts, he was the smallest and usually didn’t get a chance to play. Instead, he’d bang a tennis ball against the walls—until he got good enough to beat everyone in his family.

“He was very determined,” Hunt says. “He was always able to get what he wants.”

And yet all the determination, intelligence, and hard work in the world couldn’t have helped him ascend to the position he’s in today, if not for the determination his parents displayed when they brought the family to America. Curtis, who often thinks about the opportunities his own son will get to enjoy because of the family’s migration, also sometimes thinks about what his life would be like had he never left Vietnam. He equates it to the movie Sliding Doors, which follows two divergent paths the main character’s life takes based on whether or not she makes a certain train.

Luckily for Curtis Macnguyen, he made his boat.

—Dave Zeitlin C’03

 

 
     
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Last modified 6/24/11