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Why this Wall Street trailblazer believes furniture can unite America

When Lulu C. Wang immigrated to the United States from Shanghai with her family in 1948, she only knew one word of English.

“I remember going to school for the first day … walking in and thinking, ‘Oh, how am I going to understand what these people are saying?’ And one little girl came up to me and she said something, and I had no idea. I knew one word, ‘What?’ So I said ‘What?’ And then she repeated it two or three times and I said, ‘What,’ two or three times … I found out later on she was asking me, ‘Where’s the wastepaper basket?’ It was a good beginning and I’ve come to learn to love the English language,” Wang told MSNBC in a recent interview.

Wang was just 4 years old when her family was forced to call America their new home amid the Chinese communist revolution.

Why this Wall Street trailblazer believes furniture can unite America
Wang immigrated to America from Shanghai with her family when she was a child.Courtesy Lulu C. Wang

“We came to the U.S. thinking we were coming on vacation. Little [did] we know that when we were here, the communists would come into Shanghai. The revolution began, so we were not able to go back. My father had worked for the nationalists, and so we just started from scratch. We left everything behind, and we only had our family and our dream of a life together.”

Not only did Wang and her family rebuild their life together, she went on to embody the American Dream. She conquered Wall Street, had a family of her own and now dedicates her life to philanthropy, specifically the arts.

Wang, who will turn 80 this fall, resides in New York. But for her, it’s New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art that she considers her second home.

Lulu C. Wang.
Lulu C. Wang and her husband collected 45 pieces of 18th century American furniture, featured in the American Wing of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.MSNBC

“I live two blocks away so you can see me very often,” Wang laughed. “My husband thinks I live here. In fact, on the third floor, we have a 17th century bedroom with a beautiful bed [in the collection]. And he accuses me of living there sometimes because he seldom sees me at home.”

Wang serves as a trustee for the MET and funded six galleries alongside her husband Anthony Wang. The galleries are located in the museum’s American Wing (which is celebrating its 100th anniversary) and are centered around 18th Century American Art. The installation reopened this year with 45 pieces of furniture, which are displayed on pedestals. It features everything from chairs, a card table and a high chest made by highly skilled wood workers from 1720 and 1775.

“I think art has incredible power,” Wang said. “It has the power to excite, but most importantly, the power of connecting. And art allows us to connect with people like us and not like us, and to learn from that experience.”

Lulu C. Wang.
Lulu C. Wang was a stay-at-home mother with her son before embarking on a Wall Street career.Courtesy Lulu C. Wang

Wang said giving back to the country that made her dreams possible brings her immense joy.

“I think the American Dream is a wonderful thing. It’s of having a positive attitude, wanting to make a difference, but also includes wanting to give back,” Wang said. “And that’s what makes our country so great. People came with nothing. They built lives and communities together and then they gave back. That’s really been the vision that I’ve had, to achieve something, make a difference, but then also take time to give back to my community.”

Wang’s road to success was no easy feat. Propelled by a combination of curiosity and determination, the young girl who didn’t know more than one word of English went on to graduate from Wellesley College and major in English Literature. She married her childhood sweetheart, and had a son. But while she was a stay-at-home mom, she had the desire for another challenge – to join the workforce, specifically Wall Street.

“I stayed at home with my son till he was five and ready for full day school,” she said. “And then I needed something else and I thought Wall Street was an interesting place to go. It was a place to ask, ‘Why?’”

Lulu C. Wang.
Wang became one of the only women on Wall Street in the 1970s, where she worked in portfolio management and trading at Equitable Capital Management.Courtesy Lulu C. Wang

Wang started off her career as a financial editor but then quickly realized she wanted to work on the investment side. She began in the wine industry and eventually became a consumer industry analyst. It was the late 1970s, and not many women worked on Wall Street. But Wang said she didn’t feel like an anomaly.

“I never really thought of myself as just a woman or just a Chinese person,” she continued. “I really thought I was Lulu and Lulu wanted to learn, Lulu wanted to succeed. And I think that was always the driving factor.”

Founder and CEO of Tupelo Capital Management Lulu Wang
Lulu Wang receives the “Outstanding Asian American Entrepreneurs” award presented at the Asia Society’s 25th Annual Dinner Gala in New York in 2005.Jennifer Szymaszek / AP file

But she didn’t stop there. Wang went to Columbia Business School and earned an MBA. Eventually she started her own hedge fund, Tupelo Capital.

Wang’s humility is palpable when asked if she feels she paved the way for other women in finance.

“I suppose you might say I was a trailblazer on Wall Street and there were very few women there,” she said with a smile. “And when I wanted to start my own firm, people always said, ‘Well, it’s been a hard area for women to get traction.’ And, again, since I never really thought of myself as just a woman, I was an individual [who] really had a vision of what my firm should be.”

Amid the division in United States as the country celebrates its 248th birthday, Wang believes art can unify the nation.

“Art reminds us that we are all human beings. And when you see a beautifully made piece of art, whether it’s from wood, or from canvas, you’re reminded of the human effort behind it,” she said. “And we all have that in us and to support it and work together on it, admire it together, really does bring us together.”

As she looks back on her seven decades in this country and all she has accomplished, Wang said she’d tell her younger self “the sky’s the limit.”

“It’s so important to achieve something but it’s far more important to be able to share it with others. And this is what makes America great.”