Meet Wesley Uwaezuoke, President and Co-Founder of Columbia’s FGI Chapter. An up-and-comer in the world of finance, Wesley is committed to supporting, working alongside, and investing in underserved communities. Over a Zoom call, Wesley opened up about what makes First Generation Investors a unique organization with a “family feel,” why he admires Columbia’s FGI tutors, and how he sees himself in FGI students.
Describe the first time you made an investment.
Like many people’s first time, [it was] on the Robin Hood app in my junior or senior year of high school… At that time, I won’t claim to have known anything about stock valuations and things like that. I started with small, lower dollar-value stocks because they didn’t have fractional shares at that time. It was a $7 position. The first time, you’re frantically watching it [move], seeing the greens and the reds... I wasn’t relying on any fundamentals or market news or anything like that. I was like, “I like this company, and I think it has a shot.” I sold [my first stock] at a profit. That was the first time I bought an equity and could say I was officially a shareholder.
How did you find out about First Generation Investors?
It was quite a roundabout way of going about it. I had a friend from St. Anthony Hall fraternity who knew somebody at Penn, and the idea caught up to that guy, and then that guy reached out to my friend, and then my friend put it into this group chat with me and a lot of other people from the fraternity who would be interested. I was the one that read it and then reached out and said, “Hey, this sounds like a pretty cool idea.” We messaged for a little bit back and forth...and before long [Executive Team members] Dylan, Cole, and Joe were right in my living room, and we were having a conversation about how we were going to go about it... A lot of my time was invested in [preparing] over the summer, so I’m excited about this [Zoom] semester.
What made you decide to found an FGI chapter at Columbia?
I definitely saw myself in the shoes of the students. I didn’t take a business or economics course until my junior year of high school, and that was because economics was a required course. I was nervous jumping into [AP Macroeconomics], especially at the pace of an AP course, seeing as I had no prior experience, but I loved the coursework and was in my teacher’s office hours so often that she had to make a customized schedule for when I could and couldn’t be there so she would have time to address the other kids’ questions! I was super interested in the course, but at that time, I didn’t see it as the career path I was on... I wanted to found this chapter at Columbia to reach those students who might...feel like their career path has already been defined [and] show them that there are other paths out there, especially for minority students, because [you don’t often see minority students] within economics and finance. I know my parents and I had a little bit of back and forth when I decided to make the switch [to finance]. But I pursued my interests, and I feel like that’s what’s really important, especially when it comes to finance. It’s very hard to get into, so if you have that interest and drive, that’s what’s necessary for you to gain entrance into the industry. If there’s a student out there that has that in them, you definitely want to cultivate and nurture that and give them the skills and opportunities for them to one day make it a viable career path and for them to see it as a viable career path.
As far as why it was important to found it at Columbia specifically, Columbia is one of the premier schools in New York City, and then there’s a lot of minority and underserved communities literally in our backyard. We’re right next to Harlem, and this is one way we can reach out to the surrounding communities. A lot of these schools are prestigious institutions that can seem large and far away from students who might not have seen themselves at those schools before. Even for me in high school, I was a great student, but I kind of just thought, “Oh, I wanna go to UCLA.” I never really dreamt of going to those schools until a lot of my peers started applying to those schools and asking where I was going. So from there, I applied to a bunch of the schools, and Columbia was a great fit for me. [When FGI goes in person again], we want the kids to be able to come to campus, sit in the classrooms that we use on a daily basis, and envision themselves at Columbia, so when you’re writing out your Common App, the school doesn’t seem so daunting. Of course it’s just a name on your screen but those names obviously represent so much more… [Tutees] will ask questions like “So what is it like at Columbia? What classes do you take? What classes mirror what we are learning right now? How do I get into a school like Columbia?” They’re asking those questions where they want to figure out the actual lived experience of a student at Columbia. And they can see that it’s not that far away, and it’s really not impossible for them to end up being [a student] at Columbia or Penn or Harvard, or any of the other institutions that we’re setting up chapters at.
Last semester, we wanted to grab so many kids. I guess that’s also part of New York, the big and bright lights, you want to do everything and do it pretty big. There’s a great need for the program in the city and around Columbia’s campus, and again, I definitely see myself in some of the students that we hope to reach.
Tell us about working with the FGI Team, including volunteers, other chapter presidents, founders, and advisors.
FGI is a very unique idea. Especially when it comes to finance and economics, the focus is on keeping the money for yourself, but they say, “We’re giving away money to students.” If you’re in an underserved community, you typically don’t have a lot of excess money just floating around for you to throw in the market and make a bet that you hope pays off. Seeing as we cut out the financial barrier on that end, that’s a testament to the idea that [the founders] had in the beginning, recognizing that was the largest impediment for getting people interested and invested in the market. And then from there, it was a team effort all around... You want to make sure that people working with FGI will be invested in the students and their well-being and their success, and [the founders] helped us cultivate a culture of that as we were interviewing candidates. [When you’re getting set up], there’s so many moving parts... [What] makes it a family feel [is that] you’re literally communicating with so many people across the northeast all the time. Everyone’s so passionate about it. I can hit up somebody at 12 or 1 a.m., and I’ll get a text back in a few minutes.
Your resume is very impressive! You’ve worked with some major investment firms, including Morgan Stanley, at which you intern during the summer, and Goldman Sachs, where you participated in a networking program for college students. You’re also part of the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE), you hold a leadership role with Unpact Capital (a Columbia student-led impact investing group), you’re President of Columbia’s Scholars of Finance Chapter... How has your experience at these organizations informed your work with FGI?
[Unpact Capital and Scholars of Finance got me into] that startup mindset of trying to create something that hasn’t been on that campus before, encountering a lot of challenges that you face in starting a business or a club, and being passionate about an idea and using that as the driving force to seeing it be actualized on campus. NSBE was important because it taught me how to work with other people and construct a team and have work delegated to me so then in turn I can see how to delegate work upon others... There’s a lot of different people doing lots of different things, and you have to find a way to put those different pieces together.
Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley helped me with the curriculum we’re teaching students. A concern to me was, “How do I communicate what I know to students in an effective manner?” Goldman and Morgan Stanley armed me with the knowledge. And mentors were able to help me [learn to teach]. You can’t just give out all the information you know about the subject. You have to bring them along a bit more slowly. Also, all the connections I made at Goldman and Morgan Stanley [have been extremely helpful]. There are a lot of people that I introduced [FGI] to, and they said, “I’d love to get involved.” [When we were on campus], I didn’t even realize that the subway back and forth to campus was an additional financial burden to some students. I had mentors that were willing to sponsor a couple of students’ MetroCards for the semester. So I was able to tap into those networks and connections, and see how they wish to help me realize the idea. I can feel the support of those institutions. And I’m definitely thankful to them for that.
What have you found most rewarding about your time with the nonprofit?
There was a student that was in the FGI chapter at Penn. And he...needed more finances to attend Manor College. [FGI] created a GoFundMe and promoted it extremely well. They had a story, and you could really see the passion in the way they marketed this and really tried to get him the help he needed to succeed. That’s what FGI’s all about. We need to help [students not only during the program] but also outside of FGI and after they’ve graduated from our program. I think that’s so important... We don’t want any barriers of entry to [their careers]. It shows that FGI isn’t just something you put on your resume... We’re actually invested in these students and their well-being and their success.
What is your favorite memory of working with First Generation Investors?
Aside from the first conversation where I got to meet students face-to-face––which I think is a memory that will be burned into my brain, of when this really kicked off and became more than just an idea that we’d talked about––it might actually be meeting prospective tutors during their interviews. That’s when you hear their stories about why they think FGI is so important and such a great opportunity... One of our tutors, Cheikh Fall, is from Senegal. He came to the U.S. not knowing any English. He was a shy kid, and he found it hard to connect with people, obviously, because [he] didn't know English. He basically learned English on his own and finished his high school coursework quite well. [Now] he’s at Columbia. He has such a connection to his community because he went to school in Harlem; he literally went to school with the students that we’re trying to reach. Of course those students have gone on to college, but there are a lot of students that he feels connected to from his own friend circle that we can help right now who are in those schools. Another [tutor], Juliana Froes, came from Brazil. She didn’t know a lot of English, graduated already from a university in Brazil, [worked] in the U.S., chose to come back to school, saw this as a great opportunity to give back in that same way. She already tutored kids that needed to learn English as a second language.
I want to give back in a way that could actually be very impactful, especially when kids realize investing not only as a career path but also as personal financial management. [With] the earnings that you can get from the market...you can see gains in one day that you won’t see in one year [if you haven’t invested]. But you have to be smart about it because the market can humble you in [certain] situations. [It’s awesome to witness] people who have overcome challenges really connect with the mission of FGI and see kids that were in their situation or in a situation that’s similar to them, and then want to give them the skills necessary to pursue their interest, passion, and educational coursework.