I am limitless.
I aspire to be a positive force of change for all women who are just starting out — women who suffer silently, who feel hopeless, who want more for themselves. I want them to believe that dreams do come true; I, in fact, am living proof of it.
My parents immigrated from China to the U.S. to escape communism and raise their children in a place called Gold Mountain. I am so glad they did because I met one of my cousins while visiting China, and she was barefoot and pregnant. I said “OMG, that could be me.” So, thank you, mom and dad.
Since my parents did not speak English, the lowest-paying jobs in San Francisco were all they could get. My mother was a seamstress in a Chinatown sweatshop and my father worked at a Chinese deli, roasting the pigs that hung in store windows.
Chinatown was our community; it was where we belonged.
Life As We Knew It
Growing up, I was very Chinese but also very American, which, at times, was confusing.
It meant we did not celebrate Christmas, and that Lunar New Year was an important holiday. My mother made New Year’s food like jai: a monk’s vegetarian dish made of 13 ingredients. Incense filled the air as we performed rituals and bowed at the altar, paying respect to elders and relatives who had passed away.
Yet, I ate with a fork and knife, and I still cannot use chopsticks very well.
My mother loved Chinese operas and I grew to love them, too. The American part of me loved watching TV shows like “Leave It to Beaver,” “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet” and “I Love Lucy.”
As I grew up, my mother always encouraged me to do my best and told me anything was possible in America. It was empowering, almost like I was in on a secret.
Mother was a living example of doing her best every day. She worked and cleaned and cooked for our family of seven, and she never complained.
The phrase “I am limitless” is familiar; I grew up with it, knowing that my parents came to this country with nothing, and they were able to raise five children and have us feel “rich.” By “rich” I don’t mean money or status; what I mean is we always had food to eat — shrimp for special occasions. Other times, we would share a T-bone steak, sliced up, with the largest piece for my brother.
My mother was frugal, and life was simple. We did without toys; pots and pans worked just fine. There were no family vacations. When we did go somewhere, we walked or took public transportation. It felt very normal.
Today, I feel fortunate for my upbringing. I lived with a belief of “I am limitless.” To me, it meant nothing held me back — only myself. If we wanted something, we had to make it happen.
One day, my mother told us there were only enough savings for one of us — our brother — to go to college. But this did not stop the girls; all four of us worked and supported ourselves through college, becoming the first generation in our family to graduate.
My mother taught me the very valuable lesson of “it’s not what you earn but what you save that really matters.” This lesson has been so important to me. By living a frugal and simple life, my mother made her dreams come true, including that of homeownership. She was able to save enough for a down payment for our first home. She was even able to buy more than one.
Paying It Forward
Today, I live to serve others as a financial advisor. I also teach at our local college; my course is called “Wi$e Up, Financial Education for Women.”
As a financial advisor and a teacher, I am in a unique position to help women of all socioeconomic levels.
One client recently called me her life coach. I advised her on navigating a job change after 20-plus years with an employer. She received two job offers. One paid more, with a long commute, while the other was closer to home and paid less. I pointed out that her family values should come first and said the answer to the money question would follow. After that, she asked if I would meet her for weekly coaching sessions.
In our society, ultimately, many decisions come back to how much something costs. How much money do you need? How much have you saved? Do you have enough for a down payment? Enough for retirement?
My students learn basic financial skills, but I also share the very lessons my mother imparted on me. I want to inspire others to dream and make positive changes.
My beginnings were very humble. I remember living paycheck to paycheck, and working three jobs at once. I had a job that I thought would be my forever career, but then my boss suffered a heart attack, passing away at age 30, and I found myself jobless. This tragedy shaped my future.
I answered an ad for a financial advisor position at Dean Witter, and I started on Feb. 17, 1992 with a $14,000 salary. The financial services field was male-dominated, at that time, with women making up only 5% of that population. The number of Asian women in the field was even smaller.
It was an uphill climb to prove that I belonged. I did not come from wealth. There was no Ivy League college on my resume, no country club membership and I did not have wealthy friends. I didn’t even play golf. My male colleagues met after work for drinks and talked about football, while I didn’t drink or understand football.
There was a silver lining, though. It forced me to work hard and do the best I could.
Each day, I stayed late, making cold calls while others went out to drink. Back then, you could call people’s homes until 9 p.m. The extra hours turned out well for me. In my first year as a financial advisor, I won an award and was recognized for having the most new accounts. I was asked to train incoming employees on cold calling.
My client relationships have been life-changing. Long-term clients trust you to do the right thing for them — a responsibility that carries enormous weight. I learned that every client needs to be valued and treated as if they are the only client. This way of thinking forced me to be more selfless and to always think of others first.
Having a boss pass away at age 30 taught me that life is short, that it can change on a dime. I value being alive everyday and yet I know it can end suddenly. All of these experiences help me to appreciate my life. I keep a gratitude journal, too.
I started investing in my 20s. I remember opening my first IRA account. The advisor told me to invest it in the stock market and to not look at it until retirement. I added to my IRA every year, too. When I was able to contribute money into my 401k, I would contribute the maximum each year, even when my salary was $14,000.
A Greater Calling
I will never forget where I came from and, I believe, when one has good fortune, they must pay it forward. In order to achieve my full potential, I feel I need to help others.
I am a charter member of the Rotary Club in San Rafael. I have been an active member for 20 years. Then, 15 years ago, I was asked to start a Rotary Club in San Francisco Chinatown. Today, it is one of the most active clubs in our district and it makes me smile every time I learn of a project that helps the local seniors and children.
Recently, I traveled to Uganda for a Rotary water sanitation project. We are now supporting young children with their tuition, in addition to raising money for a children’s center. The children’s center will serve as a day care and a place for women who have survived violence and sexual abuse. There, single mothers will learn vocational skills so they can support their families.
I also support global projects to help poverty-stricken Ugandan villages. I have a “Ugandan daughter” who is starting college. She relies on me to help with tuition.
I met a 20-year-old Ugandan woman who supports her mother and three siblings, plus her own 2-year-old. After a conversation with her, I learned she dreamed of opening a wellness salon. However, it would take more than 10 years for her to save enough. Today, with my help, her mother has a business (a chicken and goat farm) so she can feed her children and save money to put toward the wellness salon.
Everyday I am grateful for the richness of my life. I want you to know that you, too, are in control of your own destiny — not someone else. You were born with this power and you can use it to make your dreams come true.
My favorite quote is from CS Lewis:
You can’t go back and change the beginning,
but you can start where you are
and change the ending.
Helen Abe is Senior Vice President Financial Advisor for RBC Wealth Management, was born and raised in San Francisco’s Chinatown. She has been a financial instructor to women at College of Marin for the past 20 years. To honor her parents, she was a founding member of the Chinatown Rotary Club. She is also an active charter member of the San Rafael Harbor Rotary Club. For 10 years she served on the finance committee of the Board of Directors of Hospice By The Bay. In addition, Helen has been a mentor with the Marin Literacy Program. She has been active with the Marin Humane Society. Looking for wealth advice? Get in touch with Helen here.