Plot twist: When an unexpected event comes up, it's what you do next that matters

When an unexpected event or opportunity comes up, it's what you do next that matters.

By David Schwartz

Like a good novel with a strong plot, sometimes the story of a person’s journey through life can take an abrupt turn along the way and wind up in a place that they never had imagined.

That’s the case for four W. P. Carey School graduates, whose professional careers were unalterably changed when an unexpected event or opportunity came into view. One graduate answered the call of his sick father, another witnessed a colleague’s death, and a third got started anew with the help of a friend. A fourth saw an industry changing before her eyes.

All four would turn the page on their former lives.

From hedge funds to libations and live music

Rodney Peter Hu (BS Finance ’96) remembers well the day it all changed with a telephone call that came one night to his Brooklyn, New York, apartment. It was his cancer-stricken father in Arizona. And the news was not good.

“He called and said you really need to come home. He didn’t think he was going to last much longer, and we had family affairs that I needed to take care of,” recalls Hu, the family’s only child. “I told him I’d be there. I understood that it was time to come home.”

Hu had been living the dream, one he had held close for a long time. The Arizona native attended the W. P. Carey School, earned his degree, and then took on Wall Street. He aspired to be a hedge fund trader.

After an aggressive job search, he landed a spot at financial services powerhouse Cantor Fitzgerald in the summer of 1996 and was soon on his way. He spent eight years on Wall Street, working for such icons as Bear Stearns and Goldman Sachs.

“It was an amazing experience,” says Hu. “I did not think I ever was going to leave.”

He turned down his dad’s first request to come home in the aftermath of Sept. 11, an event that unfolded as Hu watched from several blocks away. The timing was not right, he says. But three years later, he hung up the phone after that hourlong call with his dad and set a course for a new career as chief executive and owner of the family’s Yucca Tap Room, a longtime Tempe bar and live music spot.

“It was a little scary at first being thrust into unfamiliar territory,” Hu says. “But I took pride in running the family business. Failure was not an option.”

He talked to industry experts to learn as much about all aspects of running a successful business. Hu upgraded the menu to infuse his love of food from different cultures, installed more than 30 taps so the place could live up to its name, and continues to discover and bring local music of every genre to the neighborhood hangout nightly. He even has partnered with local brewing and distilling companies to offer one-of-a-kind Arizona brews to show his local pride.

Hu says he misses the fast-paced business world of times gone by, and the food and cultural mecca that is New York City, but he is happy with the business that he estimates has grown six-fold under his direction.

The former money man says a key has been focusing on people, not numbers, and maintaining good relations with employees and partners.

“You’re going to run into a ton of pitfalls at the beginning and along the way,” he says. “You have to keep a good, positive mindset.”

In addition to reviving and expanding a local spot, Hu has used his entrepreneurial skills to start up a few other businesses that are thriving. Hu was honored as a 2018 Sun Devil 100 recipient that recognizes the top 100 fastest-growing businesses run by ASU graduates.

Trading equity options for Eastern medicine

Like Hu, Dr. Monte Gores (BS Accountancy ’95) had his eyes focused on being a trader from an early age. He got his start at age 14 working a summer with his uncle, an equity options trader on the floor of the stock exchange in Chicago, and continued working there through college.

With a degree in hand, Gores moved from working with his uncle to becoming a trader on his own at Goldman Sachs and was transferred to San Francisco to work at the now-defunct Pacific Stock Exchange.

In the ensuing years, Gores says he began to reconsider his career path as the money-making opportunities began to worsen and the stress continued to grow.

But an event that happened one day on the trading floor rocked his world and signaled the need for a new beginning, he says.

“There was this guy who was a marathon runner who just keeled over and had a heart attack right on the trading floor,” he remembers. “They couldn’t revive him. I realized that in the long term, this is not where I wanted to be.”

Gores says he began exploring a new direction, reaching back to his days at ASU when he began to study Eastern medicine and philosophy through yoga, meditation, and the martial arts.

While still a trader, he volunteered at a well-known acupuncture clinic in San Francisco for mostly low income individuals, amazed at the impact it had on Hepatitis C and AIDS patients.

Gore says he waited until the end of the year in 2001 so he could collect a $50,000 year-end bonus as a trader and never looked back, finishing his initial classwork and traveling to China to see the origins of what would become his life-long calling — acupuncture and Chinese medicine.

His spiritual journey took him back to San Francisco where he received a master’s degree from the American College of Traditional Chinese Medicine. He opened a clinic in Flagstaff, Arizona, in 2004 and earned his doctoral degree from the Emperors College of Traditional Chinese Medicine in Santa Monica, California.

Gores settled in Idaho with his wife and two young children, far away from the tension-filled days at the exchange, where he says one would spend eight hours staring at a screen, catch bosses berating employees, and witness the occasional physical altercation.

Gores says he is at peace in picturesque Coeur d’Alene, where the people are friendly, the lakes are beautiful, and his inner voice is calm.

“Things are more aligned here, this is more congruent for me,” says Gores, a sole practitioner who sees about 60 patients a week. “It’s not for everybody, but over the years it seems right for me.”

From corporate nest to wellness startup

Amy Nelson (BS Accountancy ’92, MBA ’02) says she can thank a company colleague for a career rebirth that saw her exit the high-stress corporate world as a top-level executive for a better pursuit.

Nelson, former vice president for finance at Iridium, says the long days of work and travel had begun to impact her mentally and physically. She could see the need to change staring her in the face daily, not to mention the additional 15 or so pounds that really didn’t need to be there.

“When you’re working so hard and eating out of a vending machine, it all adds up,” says Nelson, whose scoliosis back pain had begun flaring. “That on top of all the stress can really mess with people. It sure did with me.”

Then her friend walked into Nelson’s office proposing she try a home workout and nutrition program to better cope. She says the regime “saved my sanity” and caused her to rethink life a bit.

Two years later, Nelson left the corporate nest and started an online company aimed at coaching her business brethren on how to manage stress and strike a healthier balance between life and work demands. She started slowly filling up her client roster with friends, family, and former colleagues. Nelson coached and held them accountable.

She co-founded ExecLevel Wellness in 2016 with her husband, Randy, a former ASU research professor, who has a doctorate in chemistry from the university.

She says the goal is simple: the focus on nutrition and fitness and how that can make a person a better leader and age more gracefully.

“We help busy executives find time to eat better, move more, and conquer stress without spending hours in the gym or learning how to cook elaborate meals that are good for them,” says Nelson, a member of the W. P. Carey Alumni Council.

She acknowledges that her new career is far removed from her earlier days in school and business, where she found comfort in the black-and-white nature of numbers. Now, her world is all about people.

Nelson says she and her husband have big plans for the future of the business, which she still describes as a startup. But Nelson quickly adds that any stress of building this business does not compare to what she left.

Her advice to others? You might want to dip your toes in the waters of change instead of dropping in both feet at the same time.

“If you have something you’re passionate about, do your research and start slow,” Nelson advises. “That way you can see if you like it and get some of the benefits without immediately changing careers completely.”

And there’s another twist. She advises people to “work out of your comfort zone. It’s kind of boring if you don’t.”

New playlist: Higher ed and U.S. Navy

For 17 years, Tracy Lea (BS Marketing ’98, MBA ’03) was a fixture in local radio at such Phoenix market mainstays as KDKB-FM 93.3 and KZON-FM 93.5/101.5, working as an on-air personality and more.

Lea, who started in the business at age 16, went on to create an entertainment business and full-service recording studio, Dreamcatcher Recording, under Tracy Lea Creative. The company developed artists and created marketing plans.

But after a few years, she realized she had been there, done that in an industry that was changing. It was time to find another passion to pursue.

Then came “a dark time,” she says, that left her to seriously re-examine her life and search for what the future should look like.

“There were definitely some challenges and struggles about how to reinvent myself in a way that would be most rewarding,” Lea says. “It took me some time until I found out what would drive me again.”

Lea rode into her post-radio years by taking a stab at higher education, earning a job as a director of the business program at a for-profit college.

At the same time, she says the clock was ticking on her desire to get into the military, so she joined the U.S. Navy reserves. Lea has won several accolades, including being named the 2016 Navy Reserve Jr. Sailor of the Year for the Southwest region.

“The military just spoke to me,” says Lea, who serves as an avionics technician. “It was an honor to serve and to have that opportunity. It was kind of the last missing piece in my world.”

Lea moved on in higher education circles in 2013, landing at ASU as assistant director of venture development at Entrepreneurship + Innovation. She works with the Venture Devils, a program that provides budding entrepreneurs — ASU students, faculty, staff, and those in the community — a possible way forward for their ideas. The program offers seasoned mentors and access to funding for their budding businesses.

In addition, Lea teaches a class for both business and engineering students about entrepreneurship and creating value creation.

“I love being on campus and continuing to learn,” Lea says. “It’s a vibrant environment without a doubt. Students have so much energy; it’s so inspiring to be with them.”

Lea still serves as a reservist in the Navy, spending at least one weekend a month at Luke Air Force Base and most recently training with a fighter jet squadron at least two weeks a year. But those are just the minimums.

“I look at everything I’ve constructed, and I feel pretty proud,” she says. “I love ASU, and I’m proud to serve our country.”

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