Ask Amy Hu Sunderland about her business and she quickly wows you with her expertise in small cap funds, her keen eye for long-term investment opportunities and her globe-trotting life as an equities analyst.
She's undoubtedly smart, graduating with a 3.9 grade-point average in finance from the University of Utah, accumulating a Utah real estate portfolio worth several million dollars and playing a key role in opening a new fund for Salt Lake City-based Grandeur Peak Advisors.
But her confidence and achievements are even more impressive when you find out she came to the U.S. at age 9 knowing no English and struggling to run her family household, says Roy Jespersen, a retired investment manager and community leader.
"I had lunch one day with Amy and I almost fell off of my chair when she told me her story," he said. "Pretty impressive for a 32-year-old Chinese woman who overcame so many obstacles and has achieved so much."
Leaving China behind
Sunderland remembers her early life in a "tiny town" of a million people called Miluo in Hunan province. "We never had TV, we'd never seen cars, we never had faucets," she said.
After the Cultural Revolution, Sunderland's grandfather — Wei Bai Hu — came to Salt Lake City to teach meteorology at the University of Utah. He came without his six children, one of whom was Sunderland's father, John Hu. Fifteen years after Wei emigrated, John Hu reunited with his father in Salt Lake City and two years later he brought 9-year-old Amy to Utah.
He hardly knew her.
"My father and mother were separated. They were from different provinces and in China back then, you couldn't just move [to be together]," Sunderland remembers. "So I just lived with my mom for the first nine years of my life."
John Hu was an engineer in China, but not knowing English hampered his work prospects. He worked as a dishwasher, went to school and lived in the living room of another family's apartment. He brought Sunderland over and within a few months, he gave her the checkbook and basically told her she had to run the house.
"At that time, I was very mad at my parents for taking me away from all the things I knew," she said. "It was quite a transition."
Her first day at Wasatch Elementary in Salt Lake City "was very scary," but friends came quickly and so did English. "I felt very loved at that time," she recalls.
And she started working — babysitting and delivering The Salt Lake Tribune — and together Sunderland and her father saved enough cash to move into their own apartment. One day when she was writing the rent check, the landlord announced the rent was going up from $200 to $250 a month.
About the same time, Sunderland saw a TV commercial that claimed you could get into a home for $200-a-month payments. She called him. She was 10. "I guess the Realtor was desperate that he would work with a 10-year-old," she laughed. "I didn't understand anything but I just knew that I could have a fixed payment, that there would be something mine."
Looking back, she realizes the interest rate was 12 percent, but at the time she was thrilled. When Sunderland closed on the house, she remembers the real-estate agent taking her to McDonald's.
At 15, Sunderland was excelling at West High School when she got a call from family in China. Her mother, Janice Hu, was near death. Over her mother's objections, Sunderland returned to China and spent nine months with her mom in intensive care, racking up nearly $100,000 in medical bills.
"It was a very tough time in my life because [the doctors] basically said if you don't get us money, we have to take her off the machine," Sunderland said. "It was another eye-opener."
She scrambled to borrow from family and friends and appealed to then-Congresswoman Karen Shepherd to allow her mother to come to the U.S. for medical treatment. The wish was granted and her mother slowly recovered, but they had a mountain of debt.
"We kind of got lucky because our house that we bought for $20,000 had appreciated to about $100,000, so we took out some of the equity and just started buying rentals," Sunderland said. "The purpose was we needed a way to pay people back."
Between income from her parents, the property, waitressing, working at TCBY Yogurt and Goldman Sachs, Sunderland was able to pay off the family debts and at the same time graduate with high honors from the University of Utah. Her real-estate holdings now total 70-80 residential units and a few commercial properties in Salt Lake City.
"Your environment pushes who you are"
Sunderland worked at the mutual fund firm Wasatch Advisors for a decade before joining a new venture, Grandeur Peak Advisors, two years ago, taking the conservative buy-and-hold philosophy that has guided her property investments with her.
"My mom's health experience really scared me. I wanted financial independence early, so I guess your environment pushes who you are," Sunderland said. "My parents are very frugal and I inherited that, too, as I don't like to spend and waste money."
She now splits her time between Hong Kong (where her husband Seth Sunderland, an investment banker with UBS, is stationed) and Salt Lake City. She loves the international travel, the challenge of discovering emerging companies and is proud of Grandeur Peak's performance.
Grandeur Peak Global Opportunities Fund (GPGOX) returned 41.75 percent and is ranked in the top 4 percent on Morningstar. Despite her impressive track record, Sunderland downplays her success.
"I think I'm just some village girl trying to figure out what's going on," she said.