By Christopher A. Pape | Photography by Andrew Walker/Getty Images
Her combination of brains, beauty and charm has made her a leading figure in the financial news business. Her ability to gauge the subtle changes in the financial markets has made her a trusted source for analysis that is accurate and hard-hitting. Her ethnicity, Chinese-American, has made her a heroine to young boys (and especially) girls of the same background. Her name, of course, is Melissa Lee. And she is the anchor of Fast Money, one of the most successful programs on the award-winning CNBC.
I sat down with her at B&Co (fast becoming the most in-demand restaurant/bar/lounge in New York City) to talk about her formative years, what makes her a New Yorker and the state of the economy. In fact, it was the most wonky conversation I have had as Editor-in-Chief of Resident.
Ironically, Melissa wasn’t, initially, interested in journalism. She says, “When I was growing up on Long Island I always thought I was going to be a doctor; did all types of research, went to Harvard for premed. It was what my family wanted me to do.” Yet, there was something about being in the press that appealed to her: “I wrote for a community newspaper, and while in college I worked at the school paper (The Harvard Crimson). Something clicked and eventually I gave up medicine and devoted myself to journalism.”
Business news was a far cry from what she initially thought she wanted to cover. “I got a great internship with the New York Daily News in the business section, which is where they placed me. I wanted to cover politics and had a fantasy of covering City Hall; describing the ins and outs of politics, but I fell in love with business news.” In fact, she didn’t even pursue journalism after graduating from school: “I gravitated towards business and when I graduated from college, I didn’t get a job in journalism because it was a tough time for the industry and instead got a job as a business consultant.”
But the bug of journalism would come back to bite her. After being offered a full ride for a MBA from her consulting firm, she declined and moved back to New York City. Her father wasn’t pleased, “I told my dad I was going to turn down their offer and move back to New York and find a job here. My dad said I was making the biggest mistake of my life. Eventually, I landed a job as a PA (production assistant) at CNNFN; I got the job through the Asian-American Journalists Association.”
Through charm and tenacity she found herself in front of the camera at Bloomberg TV. She quickly realized that this is where she belonged. And as the path of her career developed she became ever more comfortable. Clearly, she was being watched as she landed a permanent on-air gig at CNBC and moved up the ranks quickly. “At CNBC I did a little bit of everything; I did a lot of work in banking, hedge funds and private equity and then I got into the rotation of substituting for anchors that were out. I became the permanent substitute for Fast Money. When the anchor left, it was my shot.”
Asked to describe the show she anchors daily at 5pm, she states: “It’s amazing! Think of it as ESPN - after the game, the announcers talk about highlights of the game and that is what Fast Money is modeled after. The graphics and the feeling are very sports oriented.”
At this point of the conversation, it turns totally wonky. And it’s my fault – I couldn’t resist picking her brain about the state of the economy. While the debt limit crisis was raging at the time of the interview, I wanted her to focus beyond the short term problem. And she responded with aplomb: “I think beyond the debt ceiling, the markets are going to be poised for a period of a decent amount of growth.” She couldn’t help but continue, “Long term debt is not as much as a problem for the United States because we are still the default and safe haven country. People will always want to buy our debt. I don’t think there will be an issue of buying our debt.”
As for the macro state of the economy, she describes the situation: “We also know that on the government’s radar is the fact that the economy is actually improving. On Fast Money we believe that Quantitative Easing (QE) will shortly easy. They will start to remove those resources they were supplying. We are setting up within the next six months for a fairly positive market, which is a good thing.”
Melissa’s world isn’t only about reporting on facts and figures. She also gets her hands dirty with informative and penetrating specials for CNBC. When pressed for more information on these programs, she obliges with: “I just finished a documentary, Rise of the Machines, which explains how everything is hooked up to censors and computers and can be controlled without putting any outside input. There are a lot of apps especially in medicine; there is an app that can start an EKG.” Ultimately she believes this Brave New World will be a good thing for the average American and for the country. “The cost of medicine will be so much lower and will be available to more people.”
We moved away from her career and onto a subject that is dear to us at Resident – New York. When asked what New York means to her, Melissa is just as effervescent as when she is answering business questions, “Being a New Yorker means having every single option available to you. Anything you want to do, anything you want to have or anyone that you want to meet is all here; this is the center of the world. I’ve been to Hong Kong, London, Paris and many of the other financial centers of the world, but I will always come back.”
She is such a true New Yorker she does something I hardly ever do – take a subway. She was incredulous to my shock at finding out that she takes mass transit, “Of course, I take the subway all the time.” And so it was with Melissa that, she is down-to-earth and very approachable.
I am happy to report that I enjoyed the time that I spent with her. Melissa is a fascinating and engaging personality with a long career ahead of her. She is a trusted source of financial news and she wouldn’t have it any other way. The whole Resident staff thanks her for her time and wishes her the best of luck! •