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Alumni Spotlight: David Yao (MBA'12)

Updated: Dec 15, 2020

This week on #SpotlightSaturday, we are featuring David Yao, one of the co-founders of QUAAF, who came from humble origins in the Prairies, making his way across the pond as a trader in London, and is now a Director in CIBC's Global Trade & Banking group in Toronto. Read more about his accomplishments and his ambition leading to the creation of QUAAF!

Can you give us a summary of your background prior to your MBA and your current role at CIBC?

Absolutely, let me start from the beginning. I’m originally from Regina, Saskatchewan. I grew up there and got out of the Prairies as fast as I could. I landed at the University of Waterloo doing a computer science degree, and my first set of co-ops were tech jobs at Research In Motion, or BlackBerry nowadays. At the time, tech wasn’t what I imagined doing so I wanted to change it up. The first finance co-op I had was at TD Asset Management working in fund of funds. My Managing Director at the time introduced me to his buddy down on the trading floor. I ended up landing on the equity derivatives desk for my next two terms. The problem was that those terms started in May and ended in December 2008. That being said, the experience was fantastic; it was an entrepreneurial place and I fell in love with finance right away the first time I saw a trading floor.

After graduating in 2009, it was challenging to find a role in Toronto. I looked abroad and I landed at a consulting company based out of Ireland. We worked with a number of financial institutions on how to streamline their risk models/systems. Then I migrated to Citigroup in London on the EMEA equities desk, and I was there for a little over a year on the equity side primarily working with electronic trading as well as liability trading.

I decided to try something else and was looking into grad school. I came back to Canada and went to Queen’s, which was great. It was in Kingston, away from all the hustle and bustle, and it was a one-year program. It was very nice to come back home.

What are your thoughts on Canada’s domestic financial constraints and the perception of an increased global mandate, given your current role at CIBC?

CIBC at its heart is a Canadian domestic bank, with most of our revenues coming from Canada. In this role however, my mandate is to grow our working capital financing business and to provide coverage to clients around the world. It’s very interesting as we have clients based in countries from Europe to Australia, and we’re tasked with helping them raise liquidity and finance international trade. We will follow our clients and find ways to support them wherever they are across the world. CIBC is a very relationship-driven bank in that sense. Everyone works across different silos and no one runs in their own lane, and that helps us maintain those relationships. Instead of seeing what box we can fit clients inside, we have an advisory dialogue with our global clients to see how we can help them achieve their goals as a team.

In deciding to come back home for your Master’s, what drew you to Queen’s specifically?

To be completely honest, Queen’s was actually the only Canadian institution I applied to out of the five spots I had. I had also applied to Oxford, Cambridge, and of course I threw a flyer into Harvard and Yale, but at the time I wanted to stay in Europe. Over time, given the environment and the fact that I felt like I was a bit of a guest in Europe, I missed the feeling of being home. In Canada I had established roots, and I really felt at home here thus prompting me to want to come back. If Queen’s hadn’t accepted me, Ivey would’ve been my next choice, for application purposes. It was definitely the right decision though, coming to Queen’s.

You also are one of the founding members of QUAAF; tell us about your experience in putting this together.

We came into Queen’s and found that there were a number of folks who wanted to break into finance. We had also discovered that the undergraduate students had their own investment club (QUIC) where they were managing a portion of the Queen’s endowment. That opportunity provided two big things: i) discipline and structure in continued education, learning more about the financial markets, and ii) it gave them exposure to potential recruiters and employers. We decided to establish our own investment club, rounded up a few guys and put in some of our own cash. We set up a brokerage account, met every week, and then talked about investment ideas. Not only would we talk about investing, we would actually pull the trigger on the ideas that made sense. We took a more macro view, but also looked into individual securities at the same time.

As part of the engagement, exposure, and raising our profile, we wrote some investor letters and tried to meet with different folks at Queen’s as well as reach out to professionals in the industry. We actually ended up substantially beating our benchmark too! That’s when the administration at Queen’s realized that we were serious and agreed to get behind us, and we had their full support with this initiative. They put us in touch with Peter Copestake, who was instrumental in helping us get this off the ground. After our first meeting with him, he literally put down his pint glass and said “what can I do to help and how can I open doors for you? How do we accelerate this to the next level?”

Peter put us in touch with the right folks and we got our initial seed capital. It was then we really asked ourselves what we needed to do, because we can’t just be day-trading with the endowment fund, right? We needed to have some stability of the investment process, especially with the school’s capital. We also looked at other ways of raising our profile and exposure to industry professionals, and we thought maybe we could invest in a fund of other hedge funds. No other school in North America was doing this, and it was a very unique idea. By engaging with fund managers directly, as we represented the Queen’s endowment, we gained extremely intimate insight and exposure to remarkable industry professionals. We really wouldn’t have been able to get this exposure any other way. That’s really the approach that we took, investing in a hedge fund of hedge funds. During its first year, QUAAF was very much like a start-up. It was like we were trying to drink from a firehose and absorb as much knowledge as possible. The key takeaway for us was that people were very supportive, the Queen’s administration team were fully on our side and very responsive to anything we needed. Peter Copestake is the best example of the support we had in making sure that we knew what we needed to do, and how we were going to get to our endpoint. Our classmates and peers wanted to be involved, bring their networks in, and tried to be engaged. The energy and enthusiasm was very refreshing, and seeing that as part of the leadership helped keep us motivated as well.

Did you envision QUAAF growing into what it was today when you founded it almost a decade ago?

When we left it, it was still a small thing. we wanted to lay the groundwork to allow this initiative to continue into the future. We drafted up a charter document, and we looked at different ways of including the MFins as well. We personally interviewed the next batch of executives to run the fund so that we could be comfortable passing it off to them, and we were very confident it was in good hands. I never thought the fund would be where it is with the kind of profile it has, so it’s immensely satisfying to see how our little initiative has grown into what it is today, it really is very impressive.

What would be your advice to current Master’s students to make the most of their one year at Queen’s?

Firstly, building solid relationships is the key. You sink or swim with your network, and the relationships you build in this stage of your life are absolutely crucial to where you will be, or want to be, later on. Second, keep an open mind. You may come in with the set desire to do one specific thing, but the world is constantly changing. For example, even within banking there’s a lot of fintech disruption. Thirdly, leverage all the resources that Queen’s has to offer. The QUAAF initiative really is a way to learn more about the market and finance in a disciplined setting, as I mentioned before. The exposure that can be gained from being a part of this can build your skillset, raise your profile, and potentially even land you a job.

You sink or swim with your network, and the relationships you build in this stage of your life are absolutely crucial to where you will be, or want to be, later on.

What are some of the lessons that stuck with you over the course of your experience at Queen’s, through QUAAF, and working in Europe?

Don’t be scared to jump, because you’ll figure it out. Never let the fear of doing something hold you back from experiencing what you want and have that confidence in yourself. I mean, a prairie boy was able to make it to the other side of the pond and still somehow land on his feet. Really that belief in yourself is the biggest piece of advice I can give you. Something else that stuck with me was that you tend to always want more after achieving a goal, be it the next promotion, or the next degree, or the next opportunity. For example, you’ll want to grow from intern to associate, then to managing things, then running a team, then you’ll want to run the division or the whole organization, right? While ambition definitely helps you move forward, it’s important to stop and take a moment to pause and celebrate your own achievements and accomplishments.

Don’t be scared to jump, because you’ll figure it out. Never let the fear of doing something hold you back from experiencing what you want and have that confidence in yourself. I mean, a prairie boy was able to make it to the other side of the pond and still somehow land on his feet.

What activity, book, movie, TV show do you go back to when you want to unwind?

I play a little soccer, primarily Gunner’s fan. I love hanging out with my girlfriend and my friends, having a glass of wine, taking it easy, and traveling too. I always love experiencing new things, every time I travel, I want to have a nice mix of relaxation and adventure.

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