Looking for a career in which he could help people as well as earn a living, Paul Huey Chian Foo had already written off U.S. financial advisory firms and was ready to take a job as a marketing consultant in Chicago. But then the Drake University exchange student drove a friend to a job interview at MassMutual Financial Group in West Des Moines. 

Foo, a Malaysian citizen, had just completed a double major in finance and promotional marketing and was taking advantage of a one-year work visa in the United States. His friend persuaded Foo to interview at the firm anyway. The MassMutual general agent at the West Des Moines office at the time, Terrill Johnson Sr., changed Foo’s mind about the impact he could have on people’s lives and financial futures as an adviser.   

“Terrill asked me what I wanted to do, besides making money,” said Foo, who was 25 at the time. “He was the first person to ask me that. I said I’d like to help people.” 

Nearly 14 years later, Foo has a thriving financial advisory practice, with about half his clients Asian-American immigrants like himself. His ability to speak Malay, English and six dialects of Chinese and his understanding of Asian culture helped Foo break through barriers that keep many Asian-Americans from investing. 

“The common theme that I discovered after a couple of weeks here is that a lot of young immigrants like me, even though they might be successful in their career or business, they have a very low knowledge of the financial system,” Foo said. 

“So knowing how to go to the next level (financially), they do not have that,” he said. “And nobody has taken the time to teach them about it. And those who come in to ‘help’ them are taking advantage of them because they just want to make a quick sale and leave.” 

Because many of his clients came from countries such as China and Malaysia that don’t have government programs such as Social Security or unemployment insurance, they know how to sock away money for a monsoon - not just a rainy day. “In Malaysia, it’s similar,” Foo said. “We fully understand that if you don’t take care of yourself, nobody else will.” 

So Asian-Americans typically have a strong desire to save, but they don’t know the ins-and-outs of investing their savings effectively in America. 

For instance, Foo has counseled clients who were afraid to take advantage of their employer’s 401(k) plan, even when the employer was offering a match. 

“They think there must be some catch,” Foo said. “I sit down with them and say, ‘There is no catch. This (company match) is free money.’” 

Some of his clients have become successful small business owners. 

One of Foo’s clients, Ning Yu Guan, came to him about 12 years ago after Foo hosted an investment seminar. Guan, who emigrated to Iowa from China in 1993, launched an export-import consulting business, Shine-Link International Group Inc., a year later. 

“I had some money that I wasn’t using right away and wanted to invest, but I didn’t know how to invest, so Paul helped me,” Guan said. “Because of my language and culture, I’m not very good about understanding investments and the stock market. And he can speak Chinese, so that helped me to understand about the product.” 

In other instances, Foo has helped single parents obtain a free life insurance policy through a program offered by MassMutual. The program provides a $50,000 education trust fund for the children if the parent were to pass away. One young mother who recalled his assistance looked him up a few years later to hire him as a financial adviser. 

Foo says helping people is like planting seeds that will bloom in the future. “My dad always told me, if you give people what they need the most at the time, they will never forget you,” he said. “It’s like you planted a seed today and the fruit will come eventually. The more I help people out of my own sincerity, I don’t have to worry about not having business. The business will just come,” Foo said. 

A culmination of Foo’s American dream may come later this year, In April, he qualified to apply for U.S. citizenship and is now awaiting an interview by immigration officials. His wife, Aihua Fei, is at the same stage in the process. Their 7-year-old son, James, and 2-year-old daughter, Joanna, were both born in Iowa and so they’re already U.S. citizens.

Teaming up to help

Seeking a way to further help recent immigrants assimilate into the U.S., Foo has teamed up with an attorney and Drake University instructor to offer a small team of advisers to some of Iowa’s 
newest residents. 

“I realized that in my field, I can only do so much, so I wanted to find other professionals who want to help people first,” Foo said. 

He has begun working with a fellow Drake alumnus who is an attorney, Daniel Herting, when legal questions arise that he can’t answer. At the same time, Foo will field financial planning issues on a pro bono basis as needed for Herting’s clients. Rounding out the network is Cyndi Chen, a former administrator of the Commission on the Status 
of Iowans of Asian and Pacific Islander Heritage. They call themselves Next Step Immigration Group. 

“We’ve already started to help some families,” Foo said. “We will work with any ethnic group, with the main focus right now on assisting new immigrants.”