by Len Lear
No one else from Chestnut Hill or anywhere else except Alexander C. Feldman would send me an email that says, “I am co-hosting the President of Indonesia (fourth largest country in the world, third largest democracy and largest Muslim majority country) at a major dinner on Monday after his meeting with President Obama.”
Or another one recently that said, “Just a quick note to let you know that I will be hosting Vietnamese President Sang and Thailand Prime Minister Prayut in New York on Friday, so there will likely be fresh pictures for the article should you need them.”
Alexander C. Feldman, 48, who sent these messages, grew up in Chestnut Hill and graduated from Chestnut Hill Academy in 1986 and the University of Pennsylvania in 1990. Currently Feldman is President & CEO of the US-ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) Business Council, based in Washington, D.C. His unique job includes regular meetings with the Presidents and Prime Ministers of 10 Southeast Asian nations as well as with the CEOs of dozens of major corporations.
(The US-ASEAN Business Council is a leading advocacy group that aims to foster economic growth and trade ties between the U.S. and ASEAN’s 10 member countries. The 30-year-old Council represents over 140 of the largest US corporations, including AT&T, Chevron Corporation, Coca-Cola, ExxonMobil, General Electric, Intel, Philip Morris International, FedEx and Google, etc.)
When Alex was at CHA, did he ever have an ambition to meet with CEOs, Presidents and Prime Ministers on a regular basis? “I did not have a crystal clear vision of what I wanted to do as a career,” he told us, “but I did know that Asia would play a role in my life going forward. (I did not make my first trip to Asia until 1989). I saw Asia as the next frontier and a place where a boy from Philadelphia could still make his mark, find adventure and discover things that not all Americans knew.”
Feldman loved reading Hemingway and Fitzgerald in high school and was especially fascinated by their real-life adventures in Europe. He even used a quote from Hemingway’s “A Moveable Feast” in his senior page from the 1986 CHA yearbook.
However, by the time he graduated from CHA, “Europe had pretty much been discovered. Somehow I thought the Asia of the late 1980s and early 1990s would be like Europe of the 1920s in that it was booming, growing and somewhat undiscovered. So, I set myself on a path to find my Pamplona in Asia.”
Unlike most non-Asian Americans, Alex also had family roots in Asia since his mother, Charlotte, who has lived in Chestnut Hill for 47 years, was one of the first Americans to visit the People’s Republic of China in the late 1970s after Richard Nixon cracked the Chinese door open to the West.
“My mom and her travels did influence my interest in Asia,” said Alex. “Her grandfather was half-Chinese and born in Shanghai, so her fascination with the region was personal. She was a trustee of the Morris Arboretum and arranged for a small group from the Arboretum to go to China as a fund raiser for major donors and became one of the earliest American groups to go into the mainland.
“They went so early that they had to have Senator Arlen Specter obtain a special designation from the Senate and State Department for the group. The trip to China was the second trip she organized to help raise funds for the Arboretum. She would arrange several more international tours for the Arboretum and would eventually turn these volunteer activities into a full-time business. Cultural Connections, arranging one-of-a-kind, specialty international tours for cultural organizations and museums throughout the U.S., is a business she still operates to this day.”
Alex frequently travels back and forth from Asia. He lived in Hong Kong from 1993 to 1998 and in Singapore during the summer of 1989, from 1999 to 2002 and from 2003 to 2004. (He also lived in London in 2002).
How did Alex’s parents feel about a career choice that would take him so far away from home for so long? (His father, Milton, an attorney and community leader, died on May 11 this year of respiratory failure at age 84.)
“My parents were incredibly supportive of my dreams,” said Alex, who is an only child. They never stood in my way, and in fact they encouraged me to go, even though it meant it was a personal loss for them as I would be on the other side of the world.
“They realized that America’s international relations in general, and with Asia in particular, would play an important role in the future and that businesses would increasingly need to look abroad for growth, especially to the quickly expanding economies in Asia.”
Alex started with an internship at the investment bank of Morgan Grenfell in Singapore during the summer between his junior and senior years at Penn. He was even offered a full-time job with Morgan Grenfell after he graduated, but he chose another opportunity to work as part of President George H.W. Bush’s administration. “As a fresh graduate, that opportunity was too good to pass up, even if the pay was not as good as it might have been in investment banking.
“Every chance I got in Washington, I looked to work on issues related to Asia. I was lucky as my boss, Tom Duesterberg, had global responsibility at the Commerce Department and allowed me to attend and sometimes represent him at meetings related to Asia.”
Alex worked on the U.S.’ early participation in APEC (Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation) before there were summits of leaders there. (President Clinton would introduce this concept a few years later.) He also had a chance to work on the “road map” for normalization of American relations in IndoChina (Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos).
How on earth was Alex able to get a job with the George H.W. Bush Administration right out of Penn at such a young age? “In many ways I got lucky. I had some interesting internship experiences coming out of Penn with one in the British Parliament and another working for Morgan Grenfell Asia. I had worked for Butcher & Singer in Philadelphia and had spent a summer playing the Amateur Satellite Tennis Circuit including qualifying for the National Amateur Tennis Championships, all of which differentiated me from the pack. “I was very focused and only wanted to work on an international portfolio, and the International Trade Administration of the Commerce Department was where I focused my efforts … A friend of my father’s offered to write letters to people he knew in the Administration who he thought might be helpful.
“Two letters were written. One got me an interview, which turned into another, which turned into a job offer. The second letter was never acknowledged. I got lucky, and I believe that luck plays a role in the course your life will take but that you need to recognize your luck and be prepared to capitalize on it and not let it slip away. The two letters taught me about luck and about making sure that when it happened, I was ready.”
More information at www.usasean.org
— Continued next week