Profile with Joyce Meng
Joyce Meng (Virginia & Balliol 2008) is an analyst at MSD Capital and the CEO and co-founder of Givology. She lives in New York City. She holds an MSc in Economics for Development from the University of Oxford, an MSc in Financial Economics from the University of Oxford, a B.A. in International Studies from the University of Pennsylvania, and a B.S. in Economics from The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.
Rhodes Project: Where do you call home?
Joyce Meng: Virginia. Home is where my parents and my sister are.
Rhodes Project: What was the last book you couldn’t put down?
Joyce Meng: Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty by Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo. It’s fantastic. The book draws upon the academic literature from the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab and goes through the impact evaluation methodology to make sure you understand how different poverty interventions actually work. Everything about it is very evidence-based, and reveals the power of using randomized control trials and rigorous analysis to identify practical poverty solutions. I strongly believe that in international development, good intentions are simply not enough. When throwing money and inputs at a problem—whether it’s textbooks or building schools, etc.–you don’t know if it’s effective until you can do a rigorous study. There are so many interesting facets of the economic choices of the poor. For example, everyone talks about how fifty percent of the world’s population lives below two dollars a day and the “food poverty trap.” It’s just fascinating because the poor spend upwards of 20% of their income on discretionary items for celebrations, sweet treats, etc., just like we do to make life more enjoyable, when that money could have been used for basic education and foodstuffs. The book helps analyze the incentives that drive the decision making for the poor. The authors go through a lot of issues such as, should we charge for mosquito nets or should it be free or subsidized? Why is participation in free immunization programs often so low? There are a lot of interesting discussion points in health, education, microfinance, agriculture, among other salient issues. It’s such a thought-provoking book, and I really recommend it.
Rhodes Project: What is currently playing on your iPod?
Joyce Meng: I listen to quite eclectic stuff. I really like Kent. They are a Swedish electro-pop group. I listen to everything. I like the diversity more than one thing.
Rhodes Project: When you were a kid, what did you aspire to be later in life?
Joyce Meng: When I was a kid, my aspirations kept on changing. I remember I wanted to be a philosopher. Clearly, I’m nowhere near that now. When I was a kid, I didn’t have the chance to travel much, and global issues seemed so abstract. From the Givology interns who join us every year, I am really impressed by how younger students travel abroad so much more frequently. I didn’t really find a passion for international development until high school.
Rhodes Project: What is the best part of your job now?
Joyce Meng: I find myself having two jobs now. My day job is really gratifying. I work in the energy team at MSDC Management, which is an investment fund for Michael Dell and external investors as well. We’re about $1bn of capital, and we make investments in the energy value chain using fundamental analysis. The best part of the job is that I’m constantly learning about how the world works, from the impact of shale gas and deepwater offshore drilling to the global chemicals cost curve and the seaborne coal market. Each day is really new and exciting, and I really enjoy digging deep into understanding industry fundamentals and value drivers for companies.
On the weekends and late night evenings, I work on Givology, an online giving marketplace for education that I founded while in college five years ago. We’re 100% volunteer-run so it’s truly a labor of love. Since 2008, we’ve raised about $315,000 to help over 3,100 students in 26 countries through 48 grassroots partnerships and 3,400 donors. In addition, we have 90 global volunteers, 16 chapters around the world, 30 core team members, and over 6,000 following us on social media. And we do this on an overhead budget of less than $315 a year for hosting. Givology takes up all of my free time, but it’s incredibly worthwhile and empowering to see the difference that small hours and small dollars can make in the world. The best part of working on Givology is collaborating with inspiring individuals all over the world and tangibly witnessing the change that our partners create in the world, one community at a time.
Rhodes Project: What would you say is the most challenging part of both your jobs?
Joyce Meng: For my day job, I love the fact that I’m constantly learning and reacting to new information, as well as meeting management and questioning the state of the world in my due diligence. Every day is a fresh start with new information and opportunities coming out. It’s fascinating reacting to the market and trying to forecast the fundamental outlook of different industries. The most challenging aspect is that the correlation between effort and results can oftentimes be very low. Investing isn’t like engineering, international development, academia, or research, in which you put in a lot of effort and you can get results almost linearly. The reality is that investing is a probabilistic profession and there is a significant element of luck. People talk about stock prices being random. I certainly don’t believe that, but there are so many cases of doing a ton of work and not having the investment work. You just have to pick yourself up, make sure your process is high quality to increase the odds of being right the next time, and not fall prey to adverse trading behavior. That low correlation can be pretty frustrating, but I feel like this is true of any investment job. You have to look at the long run not the short term.
For Givology, I have such an incredible team and network of grassroots partners. From teacher training in Pakistan and literacy programs in Afghanistan to a mentorship program for indigenous girls in Guatemala and library construction in China, I am continually inspired by our partners and the students and communities they reach. We focus on transparency, so we get regular letters and updates from our students and projects. And each one reminds us about how lucky we are and how big our obligation to the world is. As we’ve grown, scaling has been a huge opportunity, but also a challenge. As we’re 100% volunteer-run and attracting more and more volunteers each month, it can get tough managing the people process and making sure everyone stays engaged. How do you incentivize volunteers to give you their all when you know it is discretionary time for them? How do you make sure the quality never gets compromised in the updates we receive? How do you keep every volunteer really excited about their work with Givology even though we’re an online organization? As we’ve scaled, I feel that we have definitely encountered growing pains, but I have a wonderful team, and we’re working together to make sure we empower volunteerism.
Rhodes Project: Whom do you most admire?
Joyce Meng: I admire so many different people from so many different spheres. Because of my work with Givology, I am always in contact with so many people from whom I draw inspiration. For example, Kakenya who started a school for girls in Enoosaen, Kenya: she negotiated with the village elders to do what was unheard of for a girl – to leave her village and go to college in the United States. Upon graduation, she went back and built the Kakenya Center for Excellence – she’s so smart and truly inspiring.
Another heroine in our Givology network is Nasrine, who runs the Roqia Center in Afghanistan for women’s rights and democracy training. She is passionate about her country and fighting for literacy, in which more than 80% of the adult population is illiterate, disproportionately women. Because she understands the local context, her literacy programs have a much higher completion and success rate because she targets couples to make sure both the husband and wife are fully committed and that the education receives the blessings of the local community leader.
Ruth from the Peach Foundation is also truly an incredible woman. As a very successful entrepreneur in California and immigrant from Taiwan, she wanted to give back to her roots. She started a scholarship program for high-potential students in rural China. She developed this program with a focus on home visits and transparency of student selection, and now she has helped thousands of students in rural China.
There are way too many people to name, but those are just three amazing women who I admire. We recently published a book at Givology featuring some of these stories, available on Amazon.
Rhodes Project: What do you do to relax?
Joyce Meng: I play ice hockey. It’s really fun. In New York, it’s really tough to find an ice rink, so when I manage to play, I have a great time. And Givology is a lot of fun too, especially when we’re working on a creative campaign and stretching ourselves. Considering that my work day is on average 14-hours, all the time I have left goes into Givology. Just walking around New York City is also relaxing and enjoyable.
Rhodes Project: What brings you the most joy in your life?
Joyce Meng: What makes me the happiest is when I can work on meaningful projects and create something tangible that I can be very proud of – where I push myself to learn and stretch towards a greater cause. I am so blessed to have an incredible network of team members and friends who work together to put on big events and campaigns in New York City to raise awareness for our Givology grassroots education projects. It’s been such a joy to work with them on creative projects, such as the publication of our book A Guide to Giving, our $50 art exhibition featuring the work of students in the Circle of Peace School, our “Make Your Mark” campaign, and now our #giveinspiration campaign. Being able to put on these different campaigns and thinking about how we can be creative to reach our target audience to expand our impact is really rewarding. For example, in our “Make Your Mark” campaign, we commissioned a gigantic mural of the world divided into 20 pieces. We were out in Union Square, and people came and put fingerprints on the part of the world where they wanted help. We had a donor pledge a dollar for every fingerprint we received, and we allocated the funding according to where the fingerprints fell on the map. Jubilee Project filmed the process, and all in all, we raised over $10,000 with the mural auction and fingerprints. It brings me so much joy to do these projects with my team.
Rhodes Project: What advice would you give to your sixteen-year-old self?
Joyce Meng: I would give two pieces of advice. One, travel as much as you can. Go internationally because once you start working, you don’t have that same amount of flexibility. Rather than look domestically, try to go abroad and experience different cultures, societies, and mindsets – not just for a quick tour, but for full immersion. The second piece of advice is: don’t wait around for opportunities. Be an entrepreneur and start something yourself. I didn’t figure this out until college, but if I had started Givology earlier, we would be much further along. I see tons of high school students volunteer for traditional non-profit service experiences. I think that’s fantastic—your hours really help and matter. But if you see a dearth of activity in an area you are really passionate about, don’t wait around for someone else to start the initiative. Roll up your sleeves and get going. Many people say, “I don’t have the experience, maybe I should wait before starting something on my own.” But I completely disagree. If you really have a great idea, you should be empowered to just go and try it out. If it fails—and I’ve dealt with failure before—you learn from those mistakes. Frankly, when you’re sixteen, you have the world open for you to try these things out.
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