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Bull Session

Julia Gouw: Take Risks Early and Don't Fear Failure

October 13, 2015
East West Bank President and COO Julia Gouw in Pasadena headquarters
East West Bank's former President and COO, Julia Gouw, in Pasadena headquarters

Very few women make it to the top tiers of the corporate world. East West Bank's former President and Chief Operating Officer Julia Gouw is one of the few who has broken through the glass ceiling, and American Banker Magazine named her one of the country's 25 Most Powerful Women in Banking. She talks about the early lessons she learned that have led to her success.

What advice do you give to young people who want to be successful?

First and foremost, get out of your comfort zone; the best time to do it is when you're young. As you go on to explore the real world, you will have to learn to adapt. It may be a culture shock at first, but keep working hard, and you will be surprised at how resilient you can be in the face of change, and how much you can improvise in times of stress.

What do you do when you're in unfamiliar territory?

I remember when I first started working at KPMG, I was asked to do a search for unrecorded liabilities. I said, "Sure," but I was thinking, "What is that? I never heard about that in college!" The good thing is they show you last year's work paper, so you just start reading and learning. When in doubt, don't be afraid to ask for help. One of the fastest ways to learn something is to find people who are experts in the field you need to learn, and ask them questions to supplement your own research. Through that process, you get used to tackling new things you've never done before. Later on, when I was an executive at East West Bank, we needed to do an acquisition. Well, I [had never done] an acquisition before, but I knew I would find a way, because I had confidence that I could figure things out.

What about dealing with failure?

Don't be afraid to fail. When you meet a challenge along the way, analyze and adjust. I don't always get what I want, but I never feel that it's a failure; it's just different than what I expected, and a chance to gain knowledge and insight. I've always loved [one of the stories] about Thomas Edison. After he invented the light bulb, a reporter asked him how it felt to fail 10,000 times before he succeeded. Edison replied, "I have not failed 10,000 times… I have succeeded in proving that those 10,000 ways will not work." As the old saying goes: "Success is not final, failure is not fatal. It is the courage to continue that counts."

You're very active in the community. What cause are you most passionate about?

Philanthropy is one of the best virtues of the American culture. A family member of mine was treated for mood disorders at the University of California, Los Angeles. In 2003, I set up the Julia S. Gouw Endowed Chair for Mood Disorders Research. Then I got to know Dr. Janet Pregler, director of the Iris Cantor-UCLA Women's Health Center. Pregler told me that funding for women's health is much less than [it is] for men. In fact, when she went to medical school in the ‘80s, they didn't even teach women's health, but simply assumed that, since women weigh 70 percent of what men weigh, all the treatments and dosages for women should just be 70 percent of what men receive. Doctors didn't even know that [the] symptoms [of a heart attack] are very different for women, [and treatments should be, too]. As a result, many women were misdiagnosed and died unnecessarily. So I said, "Why don't I put together an executive advisory board for women's health?" I got a group of my women executive friends together and said, "Let's each contribute $10,000 a year for a three-year commitment and authorize the center to use the money for research on women's health." The response from my friends was amazing. We have funded 16 pilot studies to date. An investment of $600,000 in pilot studies has returned $6 million in government and foundation grants. I feel we are the venture capitalists for women's health! It was very rewarding.

"You never know what one bold move can bring."

- Julia Gouw

Julia Gouw commencement speaker at UCLA International Institute
Julia Gouw, commencement speaker at UCLA International Institute

Any other advice?

I want to encourage young people to explore new frontiers; you never know what one bold move can bring. My grandfather was born in 1900 in Southern China. The family was very poor when he was 13 years old. He jumped on a ship, not knowing where it would go. It landed in Indonesia, and that's where he began a new life. When I was 18, I left Indonesia, got on a plane and landed in middle America, not knowing what life would bring, never imagining that I would be where I am now.

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