Thomas G. Tsao (1988, NY)

Thomas G. Tsao likes to say that he went to high school with Debbie Gibson and college with Matt Damon. He is working toward the day when Gibson and Damon will say that they went to school with Tom Tsao.
Tom was born in Brooklyn, the son of parents who emigrated from China.  His father worked as an engineer with Sperry and then Unisys, and his mother tutored immigrant children in English.  Living on Long Island, Tom credits a great public-school education for opening many doors. As a high school sophomore, he traveled to a leadership seminar held in Indianapolis and sponsored by HOBY (then the Hugh O’Brian Youth Foundation).  HOBY’s mission is “to inspire and develop a global community of youth and volunteers to a life dedicated to leadership, service, and innovation.” HOBY programs are conducted annually throughout the United States, serving local and international high school students. HOBY has been at work since 1958; today, more than 10,000 students participate in HOBY programs each year. “A lot of HOBY students end up becoming Presidential Scholars,” Tom says.
After high school, Tom attended Harvard College, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in economics. The Seizing Every Opportunity Program (formerly known as Sponsors for Educational Opportunity) secured for him a summer internship at Morgan Stanley in New York City, where he was able to engage in what he laughingly calls “the Wall Street thing.” Tom is grateful that SEO provided opportunities he never would have enjoyed any other way. After his internship, he went to Merrill Lynch in NY, which led to a reassignment to Hong King—an opportunity realized because Tom spoke Chinese—ironically, a skill that had triggered playful teasing among his friends and peers in childhood. 
After experiencing the Hong Kong Handover, the Asian Financial Crisis, the Dot-Com Bubble and 9/11, Tom relocated to Shanghai. In 2002, he set up his own company, Gobi Partners, one of the first venture capital firms with a regional presence across China, Hong Kong and ASEAN with over US$1.1 billion in assets under management (AUM). The firm supports entrepreneurs from the early to growth stages and focuses on emerging and underserved markets. Gobi has raised 11 funds to date and invested in over 200 startups and has grown to nine offices across Bangkok, Beijing, Hong Kong, Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur, Manila, Shanghai, Singapore and Tokyo.  Tom moved to Malaysia in 2015 in order to drive Gobi’s expansion into Southeast Asia. 
Tom was named to the Forbes list of “China’s Top Venture Capitalists” in 2013, 2014, 2015, and 2017. Recognizing how much his educational opportunities had meant to him, Tom founded Seizing Every Opportunity China (SEO-China), a non-profit organization aimed at providing internship opportunities for underserved college students, modeled after SEO in the US. 

Tom says HOBY, Presidential Scholars, and SEO gave him confidence, validation, and a sense of mission. “The message to me was that we are selected to be part of something bigger, and that gives us a responsibility to make the most of our opportunities and help others access similar ones.” Tom reports that his enthusiasm for Presidential Scholars soared with his participation in the alumni association’s 50th anniversary Summit in 2014. “There were so many passionate and committed people. I wondered how we could maintain that energy moving forward.”

Accepting the board’s invitation to become chair of the Presidential Scholars Foundation, Tom became an enthusiastic supporter of annual events that bring Scholars together, and the two honors dinners in Washington, one in 2017 and another in 2018, have done just that. Tom says, “I think the honors dinners are a great way to connect and to celebrate the achievement of our alumni base, now 7000+ strong. Imagine what we could accomplish if every year our alumni could walk away feeling empowered, energized, and renewed.” 
But Tom’s commitment does not stop there. As Foundation chair, it’s his job to help set directions and mobilize resources. He wants to make sure that alumni efforts build on a solid organizational and financial foundation. He wants to garner the backing needed to support all initiatives, both established and envisioned. Tom says, “We need a more inclusive, broader reach into the Presidential Scholars community; and we need to make sure we are relevant to the ongoing dialogue in the country and in the world.” Every alum has something to contribute to that vision, whether time, talent, ideas, skills, money, or a combination of all of those, Tom believes.
Tom is a big supporter of the new Presidential Scholars Seed Grant Program. “We have 7,000+ smart people in our alumni network, ranging in age from 18 to 72,” Tom says. “The Seed Grant Program provides a platform to empower and amplify the strength of our alumni network.” Tom sees the alumni association as grassroots driven, and he hopes to illuminate the pathway by which those who are passionate and committed to alumni efforts can move into greater positions of leadership. He’s working toward increased participation of alumni in the Department of Education’s National Recognition Program and enhancement of the recognition given to Scholars’ honored teachers.
Tom was valedictorian of his high school class and, as he gave his address at his school’s outdoor football field, helicopters dispatched by MTV hovered overhead. The video appeared on the news, and Tom had his five seconds of fame. But, Tom confesses, those helicopters were there to capture footage of Debbie Gibson. Maybe someday, TV stations will dispatch news teams to cover a Presidential Scholars event. Stay tuned.