Alice Gao ’94 MBA has worked closely with individuals and companies in the United States and China throughout her distinguished banking career. Now Senior Vice President of East West Bank in Pasadena, Calif., she is developing and leading a new cross-border team that bridges banking services in the United States and China, the world’s two largest markets.
April 25, 2022
When Alice Gao ’94 MBA first moved to the United States from China in 1990, she started working in a bank in New York. Although eager to advance her career, she feared that without a graduate degree from an American university, she would not have the opportunity to grow. She began to consider pursuing higher education.
Gao, who holds a bachelor of arts degree from a university in her home country, was excited about the possibilities that a master’s degree – especially an MBA – could offer. She applied to the University of New Haven, hoping to make new connections while building the foundation that would allow her to achieve her career goals.
“I was very, very excited when I got accepted,” she said. “I then moved to New Haven from New York. I knew what I wanted – an American education and to fit into the mainstream – and I was able to accomplish it in college.
“I gained confidence”
In addition to the skills she developed in the classroom, Gao felt a sense of belonging to the University. She was grateful for the bonds she had made with her classmates and the diverse community she was part of.
“There was a good population of international students at the University, and I could mingle with them quite easily,” said Gao, who earned an MBA with a major in computer science and information systems. “There were a lot of people from Taiwan and Thailand, in particular. We shared a culture similar to that of students from Asian countries. At the same time, I had the opportunity to interact with local students and we had a lot of group study. I learned so much from them.
Gao’s MBA helped her advance her career as she had hoped. She applied for and got a higher level job than she had before: a loan officer role at Bank of China, Los Angeles. It was 1994, and Gao packed up his car and drove across the country to begin the next stage of his career. She felt prepared, even as she accepted and began her position.
“Some people with an MBA still need a period of training, and I was able to step into my role right away,” she explains. “I gained a lot of confidence and life skills through my time at college. I am determined to learn, so I learn very quickly. The degree really gave me a way through the door. Otherwise, I’m afraid my CV wouldn’t even have been considered.”
“I want to help customers”
Gao has since been on the West Coast, advancing his career and exploring new areas in banking. Her success at the Bank of China caught the attention of a headhunter who offered her a position at a local bank – something Gao was interested in, and it was a role she eventually accepted.
Over the next few years, Gao transitioned to what is now Bank of the West/BNP Paribas, focusing on lending and expanding its focus from small business lending to mid-sized business lending. His responsibilities also included wealth management and branch operations. Her next position as Team Leader and Senior Credit Approver for HSBC Bank USA allowed her to broaden her skillset to cross marketing and credit departments. She then spent approximately a decade at ICBC USA, a subsidiary of the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, one of the largest banking and financial services organizations in the world, as Senior Vice President, Head of Banking Services sales reps, leading a cross-functional team to succeed on a global scale.
At that time, another bank was trying to recruit Gao. The Eastern West Bank needed people who understood business in the Chinese market. Gao, a native of mainland China with extensive experience working with companies there, was a natural choice. She started working for East West Bank, the largest independent bank based in Southern California, late last year.
Senior Vice President, Gao leads a new team called Cross Border Commercial. A seasoned banker and a compelling leader and mentor in commercial banking, Gao inspires her team and clients with her passion for driving strong business results by helping ambitious business owners and financial institutions find ways to grow their business. As the team continues to grow, they hope to continue to expand their services and impact globally.
“I want to help customers and I love doing business,” said Gao, who is based in Pasadena, Calif., in the eastern West Bank. “When we provide loans to East West Bank, we are also contributing to the growth of Chinese companies. We really bridge the banking business of China, Hong Kong, and the United States. »
“We have to prepare”
Gao has received numerous honors during her banking career and is a frequent speaker at industry groups and conferences, including Meet The Money, the MIT World Real Estate Forum, the annual conference Emerging Trends in Real Estate United States and Canada from the Urban Land Institute and the Women’s Executive Forum. In 2014, Gao received a Distinguished Alumni Award from the University of New Haven. She is also the General Secretary of the China Enterprise Council and the Advisory Board of the World Trade Center Los Angeles.
Gao’s career has allowed her to regularly collaborate and connect with individuals and businesses on two continents, and she is grateful for her college experience that has helped her learn to bridge Chinese and American cultures. She describes being a student in the United States as “totally different” from going to school in China, which she says was a valuable learning experience.
“In China, you basically listen and follow instructions,” says Gao, a member of the Pompea College of Business advisory board. “There’s not a lot of encouragement for creativity or for trying new things. It’s all about following instructions and being a good listener, as well as being humble, modest and not challenging teachers. I had to adapt a bit when I was a student in the United States”
It was this adjustment, she says, that helped her gain the confidence and skills she needed to excel as a professional. She encourages all students – and international students in particular – to step out of their comfort zone and take advantage of all possible opportunities. She hopes the lessons she learned will also help them succeed.
“For many international students, we were taught to be humble and modest,” Gao said. “I believe this needs to be changed. You have to use your voice and you have to speak. In China and other Asian countries, if you behave like this, people may think you’re disrespectful, but in the United States it’s different.
“I hope students know they can’t expect opportunities to come,” she continued. “You have to prepare, prepare for it and catch them. For example, don’t wait until you’re 125% ready to ask to move to the next level of a job – ask when you’re 50 or 75% ready – and use your skills to make an impact.