Tongan-American valuation analyst, Daniel Tonga: “Take advantage of local resources”

 

Daniel Tonga | University of Utah | B.S. Economics

Daniel Tonga grew up in Kansas City with his Tongan-Hawaiian father and Puerto Rican mother. After going on his mission in Utah, he forged strong community ties and a desire to finish his college degree. He recently graduated from University of Utah in May 2019. He drew much motivation and inspiration to pursue higher education from his grandfather - a true trailblazer - who migrated from Tonga at age 16 to pursue his degree in Electrical Engineering at BYU and eventually worked at Ford, Northrup Grumman and Lockheed Martin. Daniel showcases grit and determination as he worked nearly full-time while finishing up his degree. He aims to pursue a career mixing finance and entrepreneurship.

 
 
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Navigating the college application process can be difficult. When you were in high school, how did you prepare yourself for college?

Looking back, I admittedly didn't have much or any guidance at all. In high school, I was maybe just too young to see academic counselors as a resource. I think that's why what South Pacific Islander Organization is doing is really important. I've realized that a lot of kids that are like me, who don't have parents who graduated from college, don't have mentors that guide them. 

Many students don’t know what to study in college. How did you choose your major?

I played guitar in my teenage years and was good enough to get into a music school, so my first year of college, I studied jazz guitar performance. Ultimately, I decided that music as a profession wasn’t for me and took a couple years off from college to do my mission in Utah. I attended Utah Valley University for a couple of years and took general classes to discover what I was interested in. At that point, I really had no idea what I wanted to do. I explored, studied Econ, finance, philosophy and was drawn to classes that were more quantitative and analytic in nature. I ended up declaring as a finance major but eventually transferred to University of Utah and chose an Econ major. I’m graduating in May 2019.

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College is expensive. How did you make it work financially?

Neither of my parents actually graduated from college. It was hard for me at first to move to Utah, support myself financially and figure out things like financial aid and student loans. I just didn’t have a personal connection that had gone through all of that.

I was on my own financially and worked a lot during college. I think at first I was working close to 30-40 hours a week. I then decided to work full-time to ease my financial burden. It was a pretty good job, reimbursing me for my tuition. I was living in Provo, Utah, and I would wake up at 4:30am to catch the early train to take me to Salt Lake City. From the train station, I would take a local trolley that would take me to another bus station. I would do that 3-4 days per week to help pay bills while I was in school. I would then get back home and attend a few evening classes. I usually staggered my schedule (either MWF or TTh classes) and worked the rest of the days of the week. Some days I would be in the library studying until midnight.

It was difficult having to focus on work and career development [instead of on my studies], but it has been character building for me. At first, it wasn’t a choice for me to work while in school. It was almost forced. I worked a lot, because I needed money, but it didn’t need to be that way. I didn’t understand how many scholarships were out there. I went to college very uninformed. If I had to redo it, I definitely would have made an effort to seek out opportunities, because it would have given me more time, effort and energy on my studies.

Tell us about your career in finance.

When I started school, I took a job in the consumer lending group at Wells Fargo, where I was a debt collector for borrowers who had credit cards, lines of credit, and personal loans. It was a pretty decent-paying job while I was in school and also came with tuition reimbursement, which helped me pay the rest of my tuition bill for my first few semesters of college. This was my first foray into financial services, and I eventually felt that I was really interested in pursuing a career in finance or on Wall Street.

My junior year in college, I got a job in the wealth and investment management group at Wells Fargo. This job really introduced me to the financial markets and helped me understand how asset management firms operate. During that year, I had also applied to and was in the process of interviewing for summer internships with a few bulge bracket banks and a local boutique investment bank for roles in equity research, investment banking, and commercial lending.

But at the same time, another part of me had also become really curious about working in tech, and especially for a tech startup. I watched a lot of Bloomberg Tech (still my favorite news show to watch) and had listened to a lot of podcast interview with tech and VC giants like Peter Thiel, Reid Hoffman, Jeff Bezos. I found myself being much more drawn to the stories of entrepreneurs and founders and inspired by their stories of grit and perseverance.

Around the same time that I had been interviewing for summer internships in finance, I heard about another interesting fintech startup called Carta that was opening an office in downtown Salt Lake City. I was intrigued by Carta's culture, mission, and hyper-growth trajectory and decided to apply for a job. Around the same I got an offer to join Carta, I was contacted by one of the banks I was interviewing for and was told that I had made the final round of interviews. A month later, I was contacted by another bank informing that I had also made the next round of in-person interviews.

I was torn between working at this startup (which seemed so intriguing and promising) and leaving for summer internships that could possibly lead me to Wall Street. My biggest fear was that the startup I was at would be a flop, and that I would've missed out on golden opportunities to land a gig on Wall Street. But I went with my gut and decided to turn down the interview invitations to see how things would work out at Carta.

Surprisingly, working at Carta turned out to be the best career decision of my life. It's given me a lot of professional opportunity and has given me a lot of exposure to entrepreneurship (we regularly work with startup founders, executives, and investors). Eventually, I landed a role in finance at Carta (on the startup valuations team), and I'm really excited about the work that I do. I have the opportunity to speak with startup executives about their business, operating model, strategy, and industry for every valuation I perform and am learning a ton about how startup founders think about running businesses.

What’s next for you?

Eventually, I'd be interested in becoming an entrepreneur myself.

What advice do you have for students preparing for college?

When I was in high school, I didn’t know how to ask questions or think about colleges that I wanted to attend. I didn’t even know where to go if I had questions, so my advice is don’t be afraid to ask for help. Take advantage of your local and community resources. There are resources available for you.

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