Carrie Sun, PRIVATE EQUITY: A Memoir

Carrie Sun, PRIVATE EQUITY: A Memoir

Zibby is joined by debut author Carrie Sun to discuss her new memoir, PRIVATE EQUITY, an incisive, sharp, and utterly compelling examination of her time working in one of the most prestigious hedge funds in the world (and an urgent indictment of privilege, extreme wealth, and work culture). Carrie delves into her time at Wharton, a toxic relationship from her past, and the life-threatening culture of New York’s financial world. She and Zibby tackle work-life balance, extreme burnout, trauma, the challenge of speaking up, and ultimately, resilience and growth.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Carrie. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Private Equity: A Memoir.

Carrie Sun: Thank you so much, Zibby, for inviting me onto your podcast.

Zibby: You’re so welcome. I found your story to be so interesting. You do a real deep dive into what this particular job and culture was like, but you wove in so much with your own family and your own vices that get in your way and health. You summarize the book for everybody else. I was getting ahead of myself here. Go ahead. Carrie, what is your book about?

Carrie: It has all those various different threads that I hopefully have woven together into one complete cloth. I see my book as, fundamentally, a story about self-discovery and about the detours that we might take in our lives along the way to finally be where we want to be. For me in particular, I wrote about my long career detour to rediscover — I think this isn’t giving anything away because at the end of the book, I’m rediscovering my love of writing, which is what I’ve always wanted to be since I was a very little girl. In that sense, it’s especially meaningful and special to me that I’m speaking to you about this journey because as I read from your background, you also went to business school. I was at Wharton. I ended up dropping out. It was all in service of trying to discover who I wanted to be. It took me decades, actually, to rediscover my love of writing. Before I get there, the book is primarily about my journey on this detour. I was living in Michigan at the time. I was in a relationship that I wasn’t sure that I wanted to be in. I was feeling very adrift and lost. I was just looking for a way out of that. In college, I had majored in math and finance. I never really had time to take classes in, for example, writing, literature that I really wanted to take. I just didn’t have room in my schedule to take it.

After I dropped out of business school, I ended up taking classes in the humanities that I loved, like philosophy, English literature, writing, creative writing. I fell in love with it. It was a way for me to find myself. I wanted the time and space to discover myself. I had been on this path of “go, go, go” because of my childhood, my immigrant parental background, as well as my college years. I don’t come from money or means, so I really needed time and space and way to afford my life to be able to discover myself. Financial independence and stability has always been really important to me. I needed a day job. A recruiter on LinkedIn reached out to me with this opportunity. He described it as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to work as the sole assistant to this major person in finance. I jumped at that opportunity. I thought this was going to be a perfect path for me because it allowed me to kind of separate, compartmentalize my day job and then, hopefully, what I would do in my free time. It also gave me a way to escape a relationship that I felt was really controlling. I was able to leave that relationship behind in Michigan, move to a new city, New York, where dreams are made of, and where so many —

Zibby: — As I look out the window at garbage trucks and sirens. I’m like, dreams are made of? It’s a disaster outside. Let’s go with it. Let’s go with it anyway.

Carrie: Part of my story is having that hope and perfect illusion of what this life in New York would be like. I felt so free. I could be this young person. I felt so free to be able to take advantage of this opportunity. Even, like you say, the garbage trucks and the smelly trash in New York during the summer on the sidewalks, there’s kind of a gritty side to all of this glamor. The gritty side that I explore in my book is the hustle and grind and the culture of work and overwork. That’s what I see my story as really being about. It just happens to be set in the world of high finance and Manhattan hedge funds. Really, it’s, how do we discover ourselves through work? How do we ask ourselves — my book is called Private Equity. I mean in a sense of private like the self and equity in the sense of just fairness and investment. It’s like, what is our investment in ourselves? What is our private equity in the life that we want to build for our own future and destiny?

Zibby: I love it. Was this always the title, by the way?

Carrie: I didn’t have a title for a very long time. Exactly as you noticed, my book has so many different strands. I just wasn’t sure exactly how to sum it up entirely. My publishing team and I threw out so many titles. When we thought of this, it was just so perfect because it captured that world, but also, it means so much more.

Zibby: It’s great. It’s a great title. It’s a great cover. The whole thing. If you’d like my opinion on what your book — . I think it’s a coming-of-age through work. I think it’s one of those cautionary tales where we see you physically bearing the brunt of the emotional effects of the lack of balance in your life. How is your ankle, by the way? That sounded horrific. When you finally got that diagnosis, I was like, oh, my gosh. I knew she hurt her ankle, but geez. It’s ligaments and this and that. There are five different things going on with your ankle. Are you okay? Can you walk?

Carrie: I can walk. I am able to. After that, I just stopped running for various reasons. I love to go on walks, so that’s okay. I still have the skin scars from that first treadmill fall. They were very deep. Yes, my body is actually physically bearing the brunt of my inability to balance these extremes. What I’m seeing among my friends and I think most of America, it’s not that we don’t want to work hard — everyone I know really wants to work hard. They just want their work to both mean something and to be able to integrate wholly into this life that they want to build. I think many of us struggle with how easy it is for work to end up just taking over our lives and consuming everything.

Zibby: I don’t struggle with that at all. I have such a good balance. Actually, what I was thinking as you were just talking, not only was your life not in balance, you fell twice, essentially. You slipped, and then you fell. It literally was off balance. It was like you were off the axis of the world. By the way, that happened to me. I fell off a stepmill when my life was out of control also. I have a scar that’s two inches long on my right — I feel like I shouldn’t say this. Now someone can impersonate me or something. Do you know about Zibby’s secret scar on her front right — I can’t remember the name of my leg. The bottom part of the leg. Anyway, whatever. Shin. There it is. Shin.

Carrie: I’m sorry to hear that. It’s a perfect metaphor, actually. I couldn’t even believe it. Of course, you are such an astute reader to notice that. I didn’t put this line in the book, but when I fell off the treadmill — the treadmill has been such a symbol of the pushing, the pounding, the effort for many things, work, capitalism, everything, including chasing validation from your parents, just all these things. When I fell off the treadmill, I certainly was so hurt, even though I told everyone at the office I’m fine. I actually had this thought that God pushed me off the treadmill. I’m not religious, so .

Zibby: I get it. I get those universe —

Carrie: — I was like, this is the universe giving me a sign to get off the treadmill. What do I do? I get right back on. I don’t learn that lesson.

Zibby: You do, though. It just takes a bit. You don’t always act on the lessons you learn. They sink in. Sometimes it takes a little bit to actually inspire action.

Carrie: Yes, you’re totally right. Some of those pivotal moments in my life that I show in the book, it takes me a while to actually absorb and make into action what I want to do. For example, I knew that the relationship I had in the book was fairly toxic. I wanted to leave, but it was still a back-and-forth for a very long time for me to come to terms with a final decision. It’s the same thing about the burnout I had in this job as the assistant because there were so many parts of the job that I did enjoy. It was beyond the glamor, the perks, the pay, the raises. I was surrounded by people who worked really hard, who wanted to be the best. I think that’s such a real thing that many people still want to be a part of. I was inspired by that world. Actually, it’s because I was inspired by so many people who were pushing themselves to be the best version of what they wanted to be in their career, which was more on the financial investment side, I realized, you know, I want to do that, but I actually want to do my own thing in a different field.

Zibby: This is like when I went to business school and I realized there were people who were legitimately obsessed with marketing. I’m like, no, I like marketing. I’m happy to keep working in marketing. Marketing is part of everything, but I’m not obsessed with marketing. I’m obsessed with writing. I love everything about the literary world. Wait, wait, wait, am I supposed to be obsessed with marketing?

Carrie: Yes, exactly. I had my degrees in math and finance. I was also at Wharton. I am still interested in all those things. In publishing, I’m interested in the business side of writing and career and all the same questions. I had a line in my book like, what you do in your free time is such that your spare time seems mistaken. I read, and I write. I also plan. I love planning. I’m a planner. I’m a scheduler. It’s like, how can I make those things that I do in my free time work for me? It just took a while. I needed a day job to be able to get there, where now I can be full time, but it’s because I put in those years where I was able to really question myself. Yes, there are people who are totally obsessed with things like marketing. I really know having worked on the book. Literally, obsessed with financial documents. That’s great. That’s great for them. I could see their love of that. I’m like, but I love stories. I love stories. I love characters. I love people. It’s okay I don’t love numbers as much. I didn’t know that until —

Zibby: — It’s just hard when we’re so smart and can do everything well. It’s just really tough. I’m just kidding. You can have lots of interests. It’s okay. You can have lots of interests.

Carrie: In my book, I really want to raise the question of just this idea that — it can sometimes sound like a cliché of finding out your own path and doing things your own way. I think that sometimes what I want to focus on is how sometimes what to other people might look like going backwards is actually you just doing it your own way. I was actually on the investment side right after college. Then for about a year, I was a portfolio manager. I got into business school. I was on this financial track. Then I quit. Then when I quit, I was technically unemployed, but I was taking classes. I was doing all these things. I got a lot of questioning like, are you really going to give up your career to kind of go backwards? Then when I was taking those classes in the humanities, I dropped out of business school at twenty-six, so I was twenty-six, twenty-seven, twenty-eight when my classmates were in their twenties. I was kind of going backwards. I was twenty-eight and my classmates were twenty when I was taking these classes. I went from making a paycheck that was commensurate with being in finance to no paycheck and living off my savings. In some senses, I was going backward to the outside world. For me, I was moving closer to the thing I wanted to do. It just kind of looked like not.

Zibby: Tell me how you feel about this. I feel like there’s a piece of you that feels some sort of shame that you couldn’t hack it in that culture or that you feel a little guilty leaving Boone when you told him you would be there forever. I feel like you haven’t quite a hundred percent come to terms with your decision even though you know it’s the right one. I feel like you still have some lingering feelings about it. Am I wrong?

Carrie: My lingering feelings are that this is — talking about me in particular because you brought it up, I think I will always love work. There’s always a little part of me that still wants to do it all. I know that’s sort of a myth that especially women of a certain generation — I feel like mine, millennial, but also one generation above me and below, we kind of want to have it all. It’s very difficult for someone who wants to work really hard to be able to give that up, that dream, fully. I probably work more being a freelance writer now than I actually did at my former job. I think the main difference is that I get to have time control over my day. That gives me a feeling of agency that I was never able to cultivate in the role that I was in previously.

Zibby: I’m curious why you saved this piece of your story for the very, very end, but you do have a situation — I don’t know if I should not say it because it comes so late — in college where there was a moment where you were not in control. Then you were not believed, and the impact of that. What does that signal to you? Where does that take your path forward when you’ve gone through something like that?

Carrie: That’s a great question. Yes, it comes late in the book, but I’ll just mention it because I think it will be out there. I was sexually assaulted my first semester in college. I really believe in such a traumatic moment, there is not one right way to respond or interpret it. While the assault was extremely bad, the institutional response for me was much, much, much worse. Ultimately, I decided — this is in fall of 2003. I just mention that because it was well before Me Too. I really felt so low. This is my first semester of college. I’m eighteen. I decided to go forward with filing a Title IX report because I really felt it was the right thing to do. I knew I was up against a lot, just me versus the institution. Nevertheless, I want to try to be heard, even though ultimately, I was not heard. That experience was so traumatizing that I didn’t realize the trauma at the time. I just told myself I would never ever spend one additional second thinking about it. Because of that experience, I received incompletes. I really felt like it just ruined my college experience that I worked so hard to get into, my parents really sacrificed so much to pay for. It was really ruined in the first couple months at college. I was determined to not let that experience both define who I am and also influence the rest of my career.

I considered dropping out of college, or certainly, MIT. I was like why should I have to be the person to drop out and change my life when someone else committed this, what I believe is a crime? I was determined to finish my degree and not let that just ruin my career. Instead of having that experience slow me down, I really tried to speed up. I graduated MIT in three years. Everyone used to say to me, you must be so smart. You must be so ambitious. It’s like, well, no, I was just trying to get out of hell. I was trying to escape this hell situation at school in which socially, it was very difficult because both men and women judged me a lot for reporting what I did. I had friends come up to me, both explicitly, actually, and also friends of friends who would whisper to me that the same thing happened to them, and they did not report it because they saw what happened to me. Once again, I’m a cautionary tale, as you said. My book is a cautionary tale about how easy it is to have our work life be out of balance. That sexual assault story, unfortunately, is also a cautionary tale about what can happen in an institute when you try to speak up in an institution.

The reason why I included it at the very end is it is just simply true that that experience was so not front of mind for me, partly because for me to recover from that trauma, I had to completely block it out of my mind, such that the first time I thought about it again in decades, I actually couldn’t remember the person’s name at all. It just wasn’t front of mind. Part of my book, there’s this whole question of speaking up. When do you speak up for yourself? It made me think of the moments where I tried to speak up for myself when I was in pain, hurt, trying to do the right thing, when I was just so overwhelmed that I had no other avenue except to speak up to who I thought was in power. In my sexual assault case, it was MIT, the institution, that I would report it to, and in the job I write about in the book, my boss, who is the owner of that hedge fund. I would say that the institutional response in both cases was, in some ways, trying to do the right thing. I won’t say it’s all good or bad. I don’t believe in these so clearly delineated markers. Nevertheless, I felt eaten up and used by the institution and ultimately, not heard, disregarded. It was painful.

Zibby: I’m so sorry. You keep trying to speak up, which is what we’re all told to do. You just keep doing it. Then even Boone was like, “Why didn’t you say something?” You show us the many times that you say something. We’re like, what on earth? What is he talking about? Why is nobody hearing you? It must make you feel like you’re going crazy, honestly.

Carrie: Another cautionary tale moment. The cycle of self-blame, I blame myself so much for not being able to cut it. Maybe I should have spoken up more. It’s like, no, actually, I spoke up in many different instances, both in terms of small situations and large. The example we were talking about at MIT, I reported that to my superiors, which are my resident advisors, within the hour. Within the hour, and that was not enough speaking up, as it were.

Zibby: At first, she was like, “Are you sure?” Didn’t she say, “Are you sure that happened?”

Carrie: “Are you sure that happened to you?”

Zibby: What on earth? What kind of question is that?

Carrie: It just happened minutes ago, so yes. It just happened. It reminded me of when I was speaking up to my boss in the book, Boone. I told him I was burnt out. I was overwhelmed, burnt out, emotionally just totally exhausted, physically exhausted as well. I was having major physical issues. He tells me, “But you look great to me.” He’s trying to tell me my reality that is not my truth.

Zibby: He also told you you should just take a break for fifteen minutes, and you would be fine. I’m like, okay, thanks dude.

Carrie: Exactly.

Zibby: I feel like in another ten years or twenty years, you’re going to have a new interpretation of all of this. I think you’re still really in it. I’m hoping for you that writing this book and people reading it and the responses and the ability to examine it all, it will hopefully make you feel more at peace because you’ve really had a lot of stuff happen to you. Maybe you’ve got to get a great therapist or something that’s not just —

Carrie: — I still see the same therapist I had in the book. I see her every week.

Zibby: Not that there’s anything wrong. Just, you’ve had stuff happen to you that you have to reconcile. Not to mention the very strong opinions of your parents, who obviously love you very much but have their own set of stuff. I know you have a good friend who you write about in the book a lot. I just left the book feeling like, gosh, I hope that she has somebody who — I guess you’re married now. Is that right? You’re married? I’m hoping that that’s all great and you have somebody you feel like you can talk to. Not that there’s anything wrong. You didn’t do anything wrong. It’s just, that was a lot. It was just a lot. That’s all.

Carrie: Thank you so much for saying that, Zibby, because it is and was a lot. Both my parents and friends tell me it’s like ten years of things happening in two years that I wrote about in the book. It does take a while to unpack the meaning of all that and really come to terms. Also, when I was researching the book, just severe burnout, which is how I would categorize what I was experiencing — my therapist literally said, “Your job is killing you.” That itself can have traumatic scars. Coming out of it, it is a burden of post-traumatic stress. It does take a very long time to overcome the both psychological and physical scars of that period, which I actually have on my knees, as you noted.

Zibby: Not to mention all the eating stuff, which we don’t even have time to get into. We could have a whole separate podcast just on that. It all speaks to your very human and understandable need for control in all of these situations that were out of your control. The best way, of course, is writing a book about it, so there you go.

Carrie: For me, it wasn’t therapeutic or cathartic in the sense that when I was doing it, it felt healing. When I was doing it, it felt absolutely, completely painful. I also had to, and I think many writers go through a version of this, and especially those who write memoir, is confront a past version of themselves that maybe they feel that either they’re not ready to confront yet or have awkward feelings about. I had a lot of those. The more I had those feelings, the more I said, okay, this is where I need to go and question why I feel this sense. I tried to put all those feelings onto the page.

Zibby: Check plus. Carrie, thank you so much. Thank you for coming on. I hope to continue this conversation some other way. I feel like we’re just scratching the surface.

Carrie: Absolutely. Thank you so much, Zibby, for having me.

Zibby: Good luck with launch and everything.

Carrie: Thank you so much. Bye.

Zibby: Bye.

Carrie Sun, PRIVATE EQUITY: A Memoir

PRIVATE EQUITY: A Memoir by Carrie Sun

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