New York University's independent student newspaper, established in 1973.

Washington Square News

New York University's independent student newspaper, established in 1973.

Washington Square News

New York University's independent student newspaper, established in 1973.

Washington Square News

The Stern Student Who Chose Maui Over Wall Street

Rachel Lee is blazing her own path at a Hawaii cannabis distillery.
Recent Stern graduate Rachel Lee. (Staff Photo by Alina Patrick)

Bored of the traditional mindset that surrounds the Stern School of Business, Rachel Lee wanted to explore what lay outside the bubble of future finance workers. She took a semester off before her senior year, walked into Mischief Tattoo on West Fourth Street and asked for a piercing apprenticeship — while her peers were running after Wall Street’s biggest names. 

Lee, originally in the Stern class of 2018, graduated this past fall with a B.S. in business with a concentration in marketing. She is currently working remotely as Marketing Project Manager for the Hawaii-based cannabis dispensary PONO Life Maui. She is island hopping in March, leaving Manhattan for new adventures. 

Her journey began with a familiar story — finance and accounting. But as her school career unfolded, Lee realized that she did not want to follow the tradition track. 

“I kind of figured out my path later on,” Lee said. “There should be some sort of thing freshman year that’s like the options are not just finance. No one ever said that, starting off. That’s why you just feel pressured.” 

Lee took off the second semester of her first year to work as a full-time project manager at a digital marketing startup. She returned to NYU in the fall, still focused on finance, and stayed on her original path by working at a financial services company the summer after her sophomore year. During the January term of her junior year, Lee studied abroad at NYU Shanghai and worked on a protocol app that was designed to improve quality of life for the elderly.

She decided to take another semester off in favor of a piercing apprenticeship before returning to complete her degree. 

“Honestly, as parents each time when she took the gap year and semester, we had questions, doubts and worries and our own plan held within our heart because we know Rachel as an individual has to explore her own blueprint of her life,” said Lee’s mother, Melissa Lee.

However, Lee was confident that her tattoo shop experience would benefit her.

“We spend all our lives kind of sheltered,” Lee said. “Work at a tattoo shop and have this scary looking dude coming in and pierce his nose. What are you gonna do? You have to grow some balls, basically. You have to be really confident and sure of yourself.” 

A semester later, Lee resumed studies, and even though she had decided that corporate life was not for her, she forced herself to complete her whole junior year recruiting for consulting.

“At one point, I convinced myself that it was my dream job,” Lee said. 

Yet when she got an offer from a consulting firm, she was not at all excited. She could not see the next phase of her life in a corporate organization and craved a creative environment where she could combine the thrill of startups and the structure of corporate firms. 

The thrill of the tattoo shop gave her the courage to chase a job that could give her the best of both worlds. Lee created her second shot by reaching out to companies. 

“Go for it, reach out,” Lee said. “It doesn’t hurt. Or else you are gonna regret it.” 

While some of her classmates questioned her method, she was determined not to stop until she found a job to suit her creative personality. Her friend Joanna Li, a current Stern junior, was supportive of her motivation.

“A lot of Stern kids have the misconception about finance; it’s not a get rich quick [job],” Li said. “You want to be able to be that person who is clean cut, professional, and get any job you want here, but also know who you really are and where your passions lie. Rachel is really cool in the sense that she can do both.” 

When Lee heard back from PONO, her quest was finally over. 

 “I think it’s important for students at NYU and Stern to realize that there are opportunities outside traditional recruitment in which you can make a difference,“ Lee said.

Lee ultimately chose to pursue the offer at PONO because of the chance to benefit others in a nontraditional medical setting, combining Lee’s interests — which extended back to childhood. 

Melissa emphasized that her daughter always had a passion for helping others, and PONO lets her do that. 

“It might not be the typical, traditional path in other people’s eyes, but it’s the unique mission in her heart that fits the company’s mission too,” Melissa Lee said.

The daughter of a neurologist father specializing in Chinese medicine and a yoga-loving mother, Lee comes from a background of holistic and naturopathic practices, and the goal of working in this field always persisted in the back of her mind. The app to help the elderly that Lee helped develop in Shanghai reignited this passion.

Lee aims to continue making a social impact on the lives of the elderly in the medical cannabis industry. The elderly are the biggest user group of medical cannabis, allowing Lee to continue making an impact in their lives

While Lee also acknowledges the benefits a Stern education brought to her through group projects, real-world experience with the Social Impact Core and networking, she does not agree with the focus on only one type of career. She advises undergraduates to be open to diversity and take advantage of emerging industries, as the world undergoes radical change in the 21st century. 

“If people are constantly following the traditional path, if the industry swings wide and things change, they might not be ready for it,” Lee said. “It’s better to be young, be versatile, be adaptable and try these different industries. Then that way you can adapt in case anything drastic happens in the future.” 

A version of this article appears in the Tuesday, Feb. 19. 2019, print edition.

Email Elif Kesikbas at [email protected].

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