It Changed My Life: He dropped out of university for internship at investment management firm

In this four-part series brought to you by AXA, Insight features people who rewrite the rules. This week, meet Isaac Mung, who dropped out of university to join an investment management firm as an intern.

Mr Isaac Mung is brutally honest with himself because he believes he will not grow or evolve otherwise.

It explains why he dropped out of university to take on a one-year internship in a hedge fund two years ago. It did not bug him that the whole exercise would lead to nought if he did not measure up.

More than a few people thought he was not thinking straight.

But Mr Mung was certain neither electrical engineering nor institutionalised learning agreed with him.

"What's the worst that could happen? I was guaranteed one year of learning, doing something I was interested in," says the former Nanyang Technological University (NTU) undergraduate.

That leap of faith paid off. He completed his internship with flying colours and, today, is one of the youngest and brightest execution traders at Dymon Asia, a leading Asia-focused alternative investment management firm.

An only child, the 25-year-old has always been a bit unconventional.

Tall and lanky, he had an uneventful childhood until his father, an army regular, got sick and eventually died from stomach cancer.

"Initially, I didn't understand what was going on. I found it strange that relatives would sometimes come and stay over, or I would be sent to spend the night at someone else's house.

"When I look back now, I think it must have been pretty bad. He lost a lot of weight, and I'd sometimes hear him throwing up in the toilet in the mornings. The storeroom was filled with a lot of big bandages and other medical supplies."

After his father's death, he would often find his mother weeping quietly.

"Once, I saw her crying when she was hanging the clothes. So I just hugged her," he recalls. "I remember feeling something was missing, that two people didn't quite make a family. It was as if an equation had been broken."

Academically, the former student of Greenwood Primary and Christchurch Secondary was a self-starter. He did not need any prompting to work hard.

"I was always competitive when I had a goal and when something mattered to me," he says. "In primary school, it was the best Pokemon card. In secondary school, it was grades."

At the then Innova Junior College, he took up cross-country running and triathlons. It was a game-changer in more ways than one.

"Endurance sports do something to your mindset. It may be painful and you may feel like dying but if you keep on pressing, you will get into a higher gear.

"For me, I want to cross the finishing line without any regrets. I don't want to tell myself: 'Aiyah, I could have done better'.

"I have this mindset with everything I do now. I don't want to leave any gap for regrets," he says.

Endurance sports paved his entry into business too. To improve his timings, he sought the help of his running coach who had his own coaching company. In return, Mr Mung would help out with the company's marketing.

In the process, he picked up Photoshop and Web design skills which came in handy when he decided to set up a business during his national service days.

His entrepreneurial drive was shaped in part by pressing financial issues.

Above: A young Isaac Mung with his mother. The only child lost his father to stomach cancer when he was 10 years old. ST  PHOTO: COURTESY OF ISAAC MUNG

In his late teens, he discovered the dismal state of the family's finances.

"One day, I put all my mother's statements on the floor and realised that her savings were not going to last us long. I did a rough estimate of our finances and decided I had to do something," says Mr Mung, whose mother, a former bank employee, stopped working when he was born.

The urgency was compounded by the fact that his mother was beginning to show signs of dementia.

"In the beginning, it was forgetfulness. She would forget what day it was. Then she started writing notes to remind herself of things. She also started talking to herself. It was a bit alarming because it made me wonder if the house was haunted," he says.

He went online to find out how he could make money and started reading up on stock trading and entrepreneurship.

During his national service, he often volunteered for weekend guard duty because it gave him the time and solitude to read.

"I was intrigued by young entrepreneurs - what they do to raise money, how investors think and how people solve problems. I thought it'd be nice if I could do something I own and control," he says.

With the help of a friend, he set up a sole proprietorship offering website design and Photoshop editing services.

With the money he made, as well as his NSman's salary, he also started investing in shares.

Not long after, an army mate approached him for a loan to start a printing business. Mr Mung told him he wanted to become an investor instead.

For a spell after completing national service and before entering university, Mr Mung also worked as a financial adviser for an insurance company.

STRAITS TIMES GRAPHICS

The stint - which involved a lot of cold calling - taught him a lot about sales, persuasion and rejections.

Because he could not get into a business course at the local universities, he settled for electrical engineering at NTU instead.

But his adventures in entrepreneurship continued. There was a calculator rental business, which did not quite take off, as well as a coding educational start-up with several other undergraduates.

His ventures and his investing habits were featured in an article in The Sunday Times in 2016.

Mr Danny Yong, who founded Dymon, read it while flying home to Singapore from a business trip. Because he had also lost his father at age 10, Mr Yong invited the young man to his office for a chat.

After the meeting, Mr Mung e-mailed the Dymon founder and asked what he should do if he was keen on a career in finance.

"I was given a long list, told to learn about private and public equities etc," he says, adding that he started to work his way down the list.

After a year's break from his university studies to work on the coding start-up in the Philippines in 2017, he contacted Dymon again.

He landed a five-month internship with the company's venture capital team after attending an interview. Mr Yong says: "Not long after, my head of research came to me and said: 'Can I keep Isaac? He's super smart.'"

Dymon then offered Mr Mung a one-year internship. He came under Mr Yong's tangent programme, an initiative to champion more enlightened hiring practices instead of one which prizes only good grades.

He grabbed at the offer, even if it meant dropping out of university.

"It wasn't a difficult decision. I'm learning from the best in the industry. Instinctively, I knew this was what I needed to do," says the serious young man who was made an execution trader earlier this year.

 

"It's been a steep learning curve but I wouldn't have it any other way," adds Mr Mung, who spends his weekends reading biographies of successful people like Mr Steve Jobs and Mr Elon Musk.

His work, he says, is cut out for him now: taking care of his mother, whose condition has deteriorated, and giving his best to thank the people who have taken a chance on him.

"If you want something badly, you have to work hard and smart. The harder you work, the luckier you'll get."

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