This year’s Distinguished Young Alumna, Echo Huang ’95, shines in the financial world
By Margaret Cox
When Echo Huang ’95 arrived alone in the United States from China, she was more excited than scared. Just 20 years old, Huang had already been through plenty of adversity and was ready to embark on her American dream. Little did she know that her journey would take her through the halls of Winona State University and on to a successful career in financial services.
Even as a child, Huang was aware that education was the key to a better life. Her parents were both college educated teachers, sent to work in China’s rural villages without running water or electricity. For the first eight years of her life, Huang lived with her mother and two sisters, while her father worked in a neighboring village.
“It was very unusual to have both parents college educated,” says Huang. “Even though we lived apart, I recognized that I was a fortunate kid in a very poor place.”
Eventually, the family moved to Shenzhen, a major city in southern China located in a designated “Special Economic Zone” with modern day conveniences and more educational opportunities. Rather than attending high school, Huang earned an accounting diploma at the age of 17.
Shortly thereafter, she secured a coveted job with the Bank of China, earning more than her parents did as teachers. Despite her success, Huang dreamed of coming to the United States to further her education, and patiently awaited the opportunity.
Huang worked hard and saved her money for three years. Her uncle, already in the U.S. and working as a chemist at the University of Idaho, advised her to study for the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL). In order to give her best efforts to the exam, which evaluates the ability to use and understand the English language in an academic setting, Huang left her enviable job and studied for four months in Guangzhou, capitol of Guangdong Province. “Quitting my job was shocking to my colleagues and friends,” explains Huang, “but it was the right decision.”
A few months later,Huang stood in line at the U.S. Embassy in Guangzhoufor hours, watching as the visa requests of many people were rejected. When it was her turn to interview, she explained her passion for finance and accounting, and the efforts she made to learn English. Her enthusiasm and preparation paid off: she was granted a student visa that day.
On January 11, 1992, Huang traveled to the U.S. with just $800 in her pocket. She settled with her uncle’s family and enrolled as a finance major at the University of Idaho. During her freshman year, she learned about a program available through the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system that allowed resident tuition for international students who were willing to share their culture while maintaining high grades. Huang applied and was accepted to Winona State University. She packed her bags again and moved to Minnesota, alone.
During her time at WSU, Huang worked on campus at many different jobs in order to graduate without debt. She also switched her major to accounting when she learned of the stable job market in the field.
“The courses I took in accounting and business provided a great start for career, and I learned something from every job that helps me in what I do today,” says Huang. “If I had to do it over again, I wouldn’t work as much, and I would have taken more courses in communication or counseling. When it gets down to building client relationships, ‘soft skills’ mean much more than number crunching.”
Following graduation in 1995, Huang worked as a cost accountant, an auditor, and as a senior tax specialist for high net worth clients. Along the way, she qualified as a Certified Public Accountant. Eventually, she decided that accounting was not her calling. Instead, she was drawn to personal financial planning and obtained her Certified Financial Planner designation. “It’s important to be adaptable,” says Huang. “If you know you don’t like something, then change it!”
High Risk, High Reward
Starting from scratch was nothing new to Huang, so she decided to make a major transition in her career path. In 2000, she left the traditional accounting world and joined an accounting firm that was establishing a new division: wealth management services, or, financial planning and investment management for high net worth clientele. In less than three years, Huang was managing $20 million in investments on behalf of her clients.
Fueled by her success, she left the company and launched her own firm. It was high risk, but also high reward. Once again, Huang started from scratch and built a formidable book of business, all while starting a family of her own.
After her daughter, Nina,was born, Huang realized that she needed to either hire more people or merge with another company in order to maintain a high level of service to her clients. In 2005, she merged her business with The Advocate Group in Minnetonka, Minnesota, which provides investment and financial planning services to many executives from Fortune 500 companies.
Huang follows a six-step process to helping her clients meet their goals through proper management of their financial resources. “It’s rewarding to gain the trust of clients and help them follow through on recommendations,” explains Huang. “Money can be a powerful force. When managed well, it can do great things.”
Despite her work schedule, Huang focuses on the things that are most important to her, such as spending time with her husband and daughter. In addition, she enjoys competitive ballroom dancing, playing piano, and providing her expertise to the China AIDS Orphan Fund, a charity she helped found in 2003. She enjoys returning to WSU to see the beautiful campus and the many changes with technology.
Today, she is more confident than ever that she made the right choices throughout her life, including the decision to come to WSU. “It’s the right college for a reasonable price, which is why it has been ranked among America’s 100 Best College Buys,” says Huang. “I am so appreciative of my education at Winona State University.”