Landisa: This New Yorker left a high-paying job in Wall Street to run a non-profit school in the centre of Joburg. Here’s why.

David Fu.
David Fu.

Former Wall Street analyst David Fu left his high-paying job in New York to help run a non-profit school in the centre of Johannesburg in 2017. 

Three years later, Fu’s Streetlight School helps over 300 pupils in Jeppestown from underprivileged backgrounds attain high-quality education for a fraction of the cost. 

Landisa spoke to Fu about why he left Wall Street, and crossed the Atlantic Ocean to help uplift a community in Johannesburg. 

What convinced you to leave your job in Wall Street? 

It's mostly like, you know, you just have this feeling like you get up and you're not excited to go to work.

You know, there's something about work, whatever it happens to be, the people you're around the work itself, whatever it is, like this mix of things.

And so then that's usually something like that, a quarter-life crisis if you will, kick starts.

Yeah, reflection, internal introspection and external exploration, right. Like, those are the things people usually do to try to get out of a rut. 

So that's what I did. I found this amazing, like education and entrepreneurial community, the startup community in New York City, while I was still working on Wall Street, so that was doing a lot of exploration in a broader startup community.

And then I also was doing this internal introspection on "Well, if I don't find this kind of work, meaning or purposeful, well, what will I enjoy and find purposeful? And why?"

So that's when I, you know, thought about my journey as an immigrant [to the United States] and the opportunities that I was able to have thanks to my parents and knowing that many, many people don't get those same kinds of opportunities, you know, how do we help people unlock their potential?

And education, after doing a lot of reflection, reading and thinking about my experience, I was like, well, education seems like one of those key on avenues.

Did you have any hesitation in moving to Johannesburg? 

I had to really think about: "Okay, am I ready to move my life all the way around across the world? Am I ready, really ready to move to South Africa?"

Like I've been to Joburg a couple of times. I really loved the vibe and the environment.

It's beautiful. It's messy. It's like tons of creative energy and potential.

And then basically thought about, it made the decision - it was right before Trump got elected, I'd already made the decision, but then Trump got elected and then ... Well, I mean, for a second I was like, "Oh, shit, do I need to stay behind and actually try to deal with this mess."

But I was like, "No, I've made the decision. I'm committed. I'm going to do it. So I moved here to Joburg. I landed March first 2017. I went straight to school, straight to work.

Yeah, I've been here working on the organisation since.” 

You mentioned that you are the son of US immigrants. Did your family or friends have any negative reaction to you moving to South Africa? 

The family definitely, like when I left banking, they're like, "what are you doing?" And then when I was like, "I'm moving to South Africa. I'm gonna take another pay-cut."

They're like, "Okay, what are you doing?" So definitely a lot of that from parents. I think when I made the move from investment banking to an education incubator, like, a lot of people in the bank definitely didn't get it.

They were all like, angling and gunning for the next private equity company, the next hedge fund, the next venture capital firm, and most of them also then went to business school and are still in that industry.

So like, definitely, most of them didn't get it. But yeah, most of them were sort of like, "we don't get this at all."

But I think the thing now having been here for three years, running the organisation, like definitely transformational, definitely wouldn't do anything differently. But I do think like, there's valid and invalid aspects to both reactions actually. 

I think definitely I learned here, like, you have to think more holistically about decisions and what's motivating you, what you're trying to get out of it, and what might happen.

Yeah, there are a lot of things I didn't think about when I moved here, I wish I knew beforehand. Well, I mean, look, I came here with a bit of naivete. I mean, without naivete, I probably wouldn't start the first place. 

What was your expectation when you arrived here? 

I thought we were going to grow and launch a bunch of schools, you know, in addition to the first school, and yeah, now three years in we have one school. It might still be the case someday, but it's not in the short term.

There are a whole series of assumptions or hypotheses, driving your work, right.

So for us that's around the academic piece around the social-emotional piece, as well as around the financial piece.

Right. So yeah, I think we learned we are very much on track for the academic piece, very on track with a social-emotional piece. About the financial piece - turns out doesn't map to what we thought on paper, you know, in terms of being able to run a sustained school model that really serves like some of our neediest children and families in Johannesburg and in South Africa.

When you left Wall Street you decided to tap out of the rat race of capitalism to do something meaningful with your life. Have you ever regretted it? 

The thing that mattered for me at that point, I think was, "Who am I?"

That was a question I didn't know.

When you're chasing these things, if you don't know who you are, why you're doing it, then you could be chasing anything, I could be chasing more money, you'd be chasing girls, you could be chasing more fame.

Like there's any number of external validation metrics or indicators of success that you can chase.

But the big shift, I realised, that, in part, to your point about those expectations? When I told my parents that I actually don't want to be a doctor?

They're like, well, you should consider going to be a financier and being a banker, you know it's a good way to make money. I was exploring Wall Street, partially because of the collapse was happening and I was fascinated by it, but at the same time, like part of me was also listening to my parents right and actually being a good son and kind of following that expectation.

So I think, you know, I realised I didn't, as a result, didn’t really truly know who I am and what I want. So for me, I left. And it was just as much about trying to figure that out. And definitely now seven years later, I can, I learned a tremendous amount about myself, what drives me, what excites me, what gives me energy, and what doesn't.

And yeah, now I'm trying to continue to let you know, take what I've learned, and move that forward with the kind of impact I can have and the kind of career I want. 

Now, in hindsight, I would also say, I think that there's privilege.

Privilege that allowed me to do this, because of I have a US passport because of my education, because I knew I could get to Wall Street already.

So really there is a lot of ... there's a lot of privilege also involved in this.

I don't know if you've seen Parasite.

There's just this quote, like this family, the husband is talking about this rich family that they started working for.

And the husband says, "they're rich, but nice" but then the wife corrects him.

She's like, "No, they are able to be nice because they are rich."

Like, I think there are a lot of people, especially as I've gotten to see the economic challenges in South Africa as well as the educational ones ...

Like there are a lot of people who are also like:"Well, we need to build wealth. We need to build an income, and we really need to focus on that. And we also have a lot more dependence right on us."

We know that a lot of people have a bunch more mouths to feed, they're putting their cousins in through school, they're housing or supporting their parents, their grandparents.

And like, there are a lot of realities and challenges that don't necessarily allow people to have that kind of privilege and opportunity and to make that leap.

So, I also recognise that as well, in parallel, that basically, it was my way also to really try to explore and figure out who I was and what I wanted.

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