Audrey’s Women of Influence | Melissa Lee, Host of CNBC’s Fast Money

Influence comes in many forms, from high-profile advocates who are shaping ideas on an international stage to local heroes who are breaking barriers and defying expectations in their own communities. In our inaugural series celebrating influential Asian American women, Audrey Magazine highlights eight newsmakers, activists, leaders and trailblazers who encourage us to pursue our dreams, explore the unknown, and stand up for those without a voice. Story by Ada Tseng.



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CNBC unveils their new set on the floor of the NYSE with, from left, CNBC’s Brad Rubin, Carl Quintanilla, Melissa Lee, Jim Cramer and David Faber. PHOTO BY CHARLES SYKES/CNBC/ PHOTO BY VIRGINIA SHERWOOD

Melissa Lee has always been a fast talker. “There’s no explanation for it,” says Lee, laughing. “It’s not like I have a lot of kids in my family and I had to talk fast in order to get a word in edge-wise, but I think it’s just the nature of the business. I’m surrounded by people who talk fast all the time, because, as a trader, there’s not a lot of time to spare.”

CNBC’s fast-paced style is modeled after sports news, and Fast Money, which Lee took over in 2009, was conceived to be the SportsCenter of finance.

“Think of it like we’re all gathered at the end of a hard day’s work,” says Lee, continuing the sports analogy. “It’s been a hard game, we’re in the locker room, it’s a bit more informal, and now we can go deeper into the stock moves, the nitty-gritty play-by-plays, and what the strategy is for the next game, the next trading day.”

Most of the show is unscripted, and while there are often other women and minority panelists on her show, it’s not uncommon to see Lee at the center of her desk, surrounded by men, leading the conversation and asking mile-a-minute follow-ups to get to the truth of their opinions.

“Some people would say I’m too contrarian, but a large part of what financial journalists must do is take the other side so you can see both the merits and risks in investing,” she says. “Particularly when it comes to stocks, you don’t want to hear somebody talking up their book. You haven’t done your job if you’re not pushing back and really making sure their arguments are holding water.”

Lee didn’t grow up interested in finance, but her first journalism internship in college was at the New York Daily News, where she was placed in the business section.

“I saw that you covered the earnings that companies report, that there were analysts out there that covered stocks, and a whole new world opened up to me,” she says. “It became about how these stories affect people, because we’re talking about people’s 401(k)s, their college savings plans, their play portfolios. Whatever the reason, our job is to help people.”

This became abundantly clear during the 2008 financial crisis, when Lee found herself working around the clock and on weekends — rare in financial news.

“As a journalist, that was probably one of the biggest stories we’ll see in our lifetime,” says Lee. “It basically made us think everything we thought not possible was actually possible; that there would be no more Lehman Brothers or Bear Stearns, that Bank of America would buy Merrill Lynch. We also realized that at that very moment, people were making decisions based on what we’re reporting; what we’re saying on the air was moving the global markets, and there was a tremendous responsibility there.”

As an analyst on television, Lee hopes that she can help demystify the stock market for those who might find trading to be daunting, especially younger people who have just seen a generation lose a lot of money in stocks. She wants to encourage youth to save and take a longer-term view when it comes to their finances. Her own grandparents came to the U.S. from China and worked in a laundromat, but because they invested in businesses and the stock market, they were able to send five children to college.

“The stock market can be a tremendous tool to help build wealth in America,” says Lee. “I think you have to look at money as a vehicle for what you want to do in the future, and I hope we help people embrace it.

“One of the thrills of working at CNBC is that you have a voice,” she continues. “It’s playing in gyms, in banks, on trading floors, and in CEO offices. It’s a thrill when the CEO of General Electric tells me that when he’s in the office, he watches Fast Money at 5.”



On how her first journalism job introduced her to financial news

I really had no exposure to the world of finance when I was growing up, but when I was in college, the first internship that I got was a print internship at the New York Daily News. They assigned me to the Business section, so that’s how I got my start. Looking back, it was pretty remarkable. Most of the staff were minority women, which is very unusual, and they turned me onto these various professional organizations like AAJA, which eventually helped me get more internships. I worked at Wall Street Journal for a summer, the Washington Post Business section for a summer, and back to Wall Street Journal. After that, I’ve always been geared toward business.

On being an Asian American woman in her industry

I don’t think you’re treated differently in terms of daily interaction at work, but you feel it in terms of the audience reaction. It’s always eye-opening to me, when I get a [racist] email or tweet. And it’s fine if they don’t like my personality, I completely accept that, but what’s shocking is that sometimes people hate you not for what you said, but they bring up me being Asian. Tell me you think I’m dumb, but don’t tell me you don’t like me cause I’m Asian American. That just reminds you that as far as we have come, there is still more work to be done. I hope that in some small way, I can be an example for other people out there.

Her best money advice

You should save as much as you can early on and put money in the stock market. I know that’s tough lesson, but time is on your side when you’re young. Save every penny you have. Don’t spend it on getting your first studio on your own, live with roommates. Don’t buy that handbag, don’t get the extra pair of shoes, don’t do the summer rental in the Hamptons. When you own your first apartment and sell it at a profit and buy a bigger apt, you’ll be much happier. When you have 401(k) you started at 21 instead of 29, that makes a big difference.

You have to have a longer-term view when it comes to money. You have to look at money as a vehicle for what you want to do in the future, so if you think, “By the time I’m 35, I want to have my own home, I want to take vacation, I want to not live off of credit cards and still have decent credit rating,” then you can’t spend every penny you make right now.

Who influences you?

That is tough, because there have been so many people along the way. One of the most influential conversations I’ve ever had in terms of shaping my career path was with this HR woman at CBS that I interviewed with. My absolute favorite show growing up was 60 minutes, and I wanted to intern there, and she said, “I can give you an internship here, you can answer phones and bring people coffee, but you’re not going to learn anything. You’re much better off going and working for a newspaper and learning how to report.” And that’s when I realized you have to think about the fundamentals first, and I’m a much better reporter today because of it.

Melissa Lee’s new CNBC documentary Rise of the Machines premieres September 18 at 9pm.

All around us, there’s a technological revolution underway powered by devices as small as a grain of rice. They are sensors, capable of tracking and recording everything we do. They’re in our smartphones, our cars, our appliances, even our bodies, and they’re connected to the Internet toshare information and make our world smarter. Virtually all products that use electricity – from toasters and coffeemakers to jet engines and MRIs – now have the ability to “talk” to each other, and to us. And, what they have to say is profoundly transforming our lives – the way we travel, treat disease, and enjoy our homes. Today, there are more devices than people connected to the Internet, and that number is expected to rise to 25 billion by 2015.

In this one-hour documentary, CNBC correspondent Melissa Lee experiences firsthand the impact of this brave new world – its promise and its perils – and discovers how the future of the Internet has already arrived. CNBC explores how the widespread availability of diagnostic sensors is not only changing healthcare and saving the lives of premature infants, but transforming industry and improving the safety and efficiency of our railways and jetliners. Lee takes a ride in a driverless car to see how cameras, radar and GPS are used in the quest to fill our freeways with autonomous cars and reduce the number of accidents. Viewers will go inside a home equipped with some 200 sensors which respond to the owner’s movements and daily habits. And CNBC travels to Rio de Janeiro, the world’s first “smart” city, in the spotlight as it prepares to host the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics.


Audrey’s Women of Influence | Alex Wagner, Host of MSNBC’s NOW with Alex Wagner


Influence comes in many forms, from high-profile advocates who are shaping ideas on an international stage to local heroes who are breaking barriers and defying expectations in their own communities. In our inaugural series celebrating influential Asian American women, Audrey Magazine highlights eight newsmakers, activists, leaders and trailblazers who encourage us to pursue our dreams, explore the unknown, and stand up for those without a voice.


by Ada Tseng

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Host of MSNBC’s NOW with Alex Wagner

If two Fulbright scholars from Burma have a daughter, and this progressively minded woman, who worked at the historic nonprofit American Association of University Women (AAUW) to empower young girls, procreates with a top U.S. political strategist who worked on Ted Kennedy’s and Bill Clinton’s campaigns for president, you might just end up with someone like Alex Wagner, the host of MSNBC’s daily political opinion program NOW with Alex Wagner.

According to Wagner, her interest in journalism started “in utero,” and she worked on her school newspapers from elementary school all the way through college. Politics also runs in her bloodstream, and early memories of her father include him coming home every night from the Ted Kennedy campaign, immediately picking up the phone and asking for the poll numbers of the day. “When I was little, that’s how I learned to answer the phone,” says Wagner. “I’d stand on the chair in the kitchen to pick up the phone, and I’d say ‘Give me the numbers!’”

There was always a healthy amount of debate at the dinner table, a skill that would prove helpful many years later when she launched her own show. In addition to showcasing a young, diverse female voice, NOW with Alex Wagner values Wagner’s unconventional broadcast background: she worked on music and cultural magazines before becoming the cultural correspondent for the Center for American Progress; executive director of the advocacy organization Not on Our Watch, started by the likes of George Clooney, Brad Pitt and Matt Damon; White House correspondent for Politics Daily; and then a contributing analyst to MSNBC’s Countdown with Keith Olbermann and The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell.

NOW highlights issues close to Wagner’s heart, including income inequality, social mobility, immigration, surveillance and national security, but it’s important to Wagner to make news interesting and accessible to a wider audience — whether it’s having openly gay Speaker of the New York City Council Christine Quinn come on to talk about how even conservative New Yorkers are congratulating her on her marriage, or booking untraditional guests like Questlove from The Roots to talk about his reaction to the Zimmerman verdict. “We are all part of the national dialogue,” says Wagner. “It’s just that some voices are heard more than others.”

In 2012, Wagner was given the opportunity to sit down with Burma’s Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi, as part of Amnesty International’s Rights Generation town hall event in Washington, D.C. Wagner’s family on her mother’s side are Burmese exiles who were granted safe passage to the U.S. when her grandmother was hired to head the East Asian books department at the Library of Congress. Decades later, Wagner was able to take her 96-year-old grandmother to meet the iconic pro-democracy leader.

“I don’t want to take away from the fact that it’s a difficult time for Burma,” says Wagner, “but just the fact that Aung San Suu Kyi was released [from 15 years of house arrest], then the fact that she was in the U.S., and then finally that my grandmother could be in the room, alive, to see her gain freedom and have her granddaughter interview her — I never imagined it in my wildest dreams.”

Wagner credits her grandmother, who used to take her to Burmese Democracy Movement protests as a kid, for gifting her a passion for activism and advocacy early. “She was always trying to get arrested,” says Wagner. “Nowadays, more people know about Burma, but this was a time when unspeakable atrocities were being committed against ethnic peoples of Burma, and nobody was paying any attention. My grandmother was out there waving her signs, and she got arrested when she was 84 or 85.” Wagner laughs. “I remember my mother was so indignant, but my grandmother was completely unapologetic.”

It’s this type of political spirit that Wagner wants to inspire in her viewers. “I hope the show is a reminder of the importance of politics, service and democracy, and that it will encourage more people to believe in the process and participate,” she says. “It’d be great if someone thought, ‘I want to make a difference in that issue, so I’m going to run for PTA to get involved in these questions of education, I’m going to march against this cause, or I’m going to get involved in a death penalty case.’ I hope we promote awareness and optimism about the power to change.”



On how her parents met

My mother is a Burmese exile. My grandfather was involved in the Burmese government before the military coup, things became very difficult for my family in the early 1960s, and they needed to get out of the country. Both my grandmother and grandfather had been Fulbright scholars who came to the US in 1950s, and my grandmother had done her master’s in Library Science at Catholic University in Washington DC, so they contacted their circles to see if they could get assistance getting out of Burma. The US Library of Congress actually needed someone to be the head of their East Asian Books Department, so they arranged all the papers and necessary visas for my grandmother and uncle and mother to get safe passage to the US. But it took 3 or 4 years for them to get out of the country, and in an absolutely stunning move, the Library of Congress kept the position open for years so that my grandmother and family would have a place that they’d be able to come in the US. My mom and uncle went to college in US, and my grandfather eventually joined them a few years later. My mom was very politically-minded in college and eventually ended up in DC working for Teamsters labor union, and my dad was person who hired her.

On starting NOW with Alex Wagner in 2011 in the midst of the presidential campaigns

[MSNBC president] Phil Griffin is kind of a maverick. He is just went for it. He said, “Let’s just do this thing at noon.” He was upfront. “You’ll probably suck for first six weeks and the first six months, and then you’ll figure it out.” [laughs] He had a very open and adventurous attitude toward it, and since he is the president of the network, if he has that attitude, it’s contagious. You think, let’s give it a shot!

On some levels, it’s harder to start a show during a presidential campaign, but in other ways, it’s easier, because it’s a pre-determined set of stories. Now, we’re in a different period, so the way we go about picking stories is like developing a different muscle group. In some ways, it’s scary and difficult, but if you’re curious about world, it’s a very fortuitous time to be in news.

On learning to share her political opinions on air

There’s a difference between having your point of view in a discussion with your producers and saying it on the air, and it’s taken some time and experience to figure it out. Sometimes I have said things that perhaps were not the most thought-out, but as I’ve gotten more comfortable with the medium, my producers and I have become more comfortable showcasing my opinion and writing scripts that are reflective of my point of view. But at same time, it’s important for us to allow room for debate and discussion that gives ample time to people who have different points of view. As much you may hear my opinion and understand where I’m coming from, I try not to make it so that I’m litigating my point of view — that my view is the only view. Preserving that is a really important part of the show.

Who influences you?

Nelson Mandela is a huge inspiration. I was just looking through biographies of him a couple months ago, when we thought he might pass way, and his life is so incredibly extraordinary. His perseverance and belief in a hope unseen. That’s the story of Mandela that I think everyone should carry with them at all times.