This interview is part of Magma Math’s Risk Takers Series, where we explore the stories of people who have leveraged math in unique ways to unfold bold career paths.
"Don't be afraid to show who you are and be who you are. Go for whatever your heart desires. If you have something that you want to try, don't be afraid to go out there and try it."
Katherine Bazley: I've never seen someone smile so much talking about math before. Have you always liked math, or is it something you grew to like?
Elizabeth Tam: I've always loved numbers, and I'd say that it was one of my favorite classes. Me and my friends from high school still celebrate Pi Day. Every Pi Day, I always contact them, asking, “Hey guys, can we get pie? It's that time of year!” So not only does it keep us in touch, but it's just a good way to celebrate math.
KB: So did you have a hard time figuring out what you wanted to study in college?
ET: A little bit, I'd say. For me it was always something numerical and number-based. I ended up going to the business school at Fordham and went into finance. There are two routes you could take: accounting or finance. I went the finance route. I felt like finance opened more doors. Then I went on to get my MBA in finance and communications. So I still have that math background, but it wasn't the core focus.
KB: Did you know what you wanted to be when you were growing up or was this something that you realized you wanted when you were in college studying these subjects?
ET: I'd say probably the latter. I don't think anyone really knows quite what they want to do. I’m still actually figuring it out. Right now, I'm switching into a new job as senior product manager of a new FinTech that AMEX just acquired. It's very different, but also really exciting.
KB: You don't use pen and paper math every day in your job, but how does math play into what you do on a daily basis, and how did it get you to where you are?
ET: I started in finance at MTV/Viacom, and then I worked on international consumer products. I determined how much we were expecting, how much we were forecasting and getting in the house. Also, how much do people owe us and doing all that reconciliation.
So I had a great background in math and finance for that. Then I moved to AMEX where I was doing budgeting and forecasting, where I was looking to see how much revenue we can have. So, from there, I slipped into Chief of Staff for the Travel & Lifestyle team at AMEX, which is not a traditional numerical role, responsible for strategy and business planning.
Having that finance and math background helped get me here because there are a lot of analytics. For example, especially right now with the pandemic, we saw travel plummet, and then now it’s on the rise again. I saw that with the call volumes. So for me, I had to do the analytics to see what the trends were. I could look at it from that analytical side using my math background.
KB: What other skills do you have that help you succeed in your job besides your knowledge of math and finance?
ET: I think communication is key, and partnerships. I am working constantly with people globally, so I need to be able to make sure that what I'm saying not only makes sense, but is also really concise. Sometimes language can be a barrier. It’s also important to be able to leverage the partnership skills. So having that relationship building skill is super important.
KB: As a female, did you ever feel like you were outnumbered by men in your in math, business, or finance classes?
ET: Definitely. As a math minor, I had so many math classes and I think the ratio was probably 80:20. But I feel like I was able to leverage that to my advantage. When you're in class, there’s that guy, that guy, that guy, and then someone wearing a bright pink shirt like I am right now.
Being in an industry or a subject where there's not as many women, I do think there's that opportunity to showcase who you are and prove people wrong. Which for me was kind of fun.
KB: You're the type of person that can inspire a young girl who likes math, but might feel intimidated because it’s a male-dominated subject. You have been successful with your career and still have a passion for math that is contagious. What would you tell a student that likes math, but doesn't know what career to pursue?
ET: What I recommend is taking all the courses that are available to you. I think a lot of colleges do have that core requirement, but it’s important to take those courses with an open mind. I think each class brings a different perspective.
I took philosophy, even though I didn’t think I wanted to major in it. I went in with an open mind and actually ended up loving the class.
I would say to a student potentially interested in math to go in with an open mind when taking all your classes. From there, look for an internship where they can apply their skills and interests.
KB: You are Miss New York United States - 2012. How did you balance pageantry with studying?
ET: I was on the debate team throughout high school and college. I started doing pageants when I was in grad school, getting my MBA. I felt like the clubs were just not as rigorous, and I needed a new hobby to replace debate. Also it was a way to get involved with the community. I was hoping to have a positive impact, which I tried to achieve through my platform of empowering youth through education. I also ended up founding the young professionals board for the non-profit New York Edge.
So I got into pageantry and I am kind of competitive. I competed a few times. I didn't win the first time, didn't win the second time. But then I entered the Miss New York pageant and I won. What intrigued them about me was that I wasn't your stereotypical pageant girl.
I was a lot more ambitious and had an intellectual background going to Bronx Science. I had won a medal in the math fair. I was more on the academic side, in addition to being able to walk around in evening gowns.
I was more well-rounded and more balanced. I would speak at schools and I think the kids could relate to me more.
KB: What’s your advice for students that don’t necessarily like math?
ET: Don't be afraid to show who you are and be who you are. Go for whatever your heart desires. If you have something that you want to try, don't be afraid to go out there and try it.
Interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
About the Author
Katherine Bazley (@katherinebazley) is a K-12 EdTech teacher ambassador at Magma Math where she contributes SEL, Special Education, and classroom experience. Reach her on LinkedIn or at email@example.com