Native Fresnan's “Pie in the Sky” Dream Becoming a Reality
Jan 30, 2018 01:38PM
By Richard Melella
From the classrooms of Buchannan High in Clovis to the esteemed halls of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, former Fresnan Eunice Giarta is following her bliss and the road ahead looks sweet indeed.
Giarta graduated at 21 from MIT. With positions at Bank of America, Merrill Lynch and Shutterstock, her future in Wall Street and the Tech Sector looked promising. But Eunice is a California-dreamin’ entrepreneur and despite having a successful career in high finance and technology firmly in her grasp, she decided to pursue a career that would take her away from the world of derivatives, computers and Wall Street and stepped boldly into the sweet smell of La Patisserie -- of chemise, chiffon and chocolate.
As a recent recipient of the 2017 Stacy’s Rise Project, Eunice was awarded a $10,000 scholarship to the International Culinary Center’s Culinary Entrepreneurship program in New York City. With formal training in the art of French Baking now on her resume, her future is very bright indeed with plans to bring her bi-coastal experiences to middle America, where she’ll introduce the fusion flavors of her Chinese- and Indonesian-American heritage with a strong business dessert bar concept in the Chicago market.
Central California Life Magazine had the opportunity to speak to Ms. Giarta about the path that took her from Buchannan High and MIT, to the inevitable decision that led her to the kitchens of the International Culinary Center. It’s an exceptional story that shows the fortitude of a young woman who continues to follow her hearts path.
As a Californian -turned- New Yorker, which state do you most identify with? Do you consider yourself a Californian at heart, or have you made the full transition to becoming a New Yorker?
(Laughs) I guess at this time, more like a New Yorker– but I can’t step away from the California identity- you know? it’s a hard one to give up.
How has the transition been? Moving from the west coast to east coast, has it been an easy adjustment?
It has. At this point I’ve had close to a decade since I graduated from Buchanan High. I was in Boston for college and then moved to New York right after, so I’m very comfortable with the east cost life- Big city life is now my scene.
I’d like to get a clearer picture to your educational and career path journey that led to your present aspirations. So, let’s go back a bit. Your 26, and really, you’ve had quite a journey- at age 18, leaving family, friends and off to MIT. Goodbye Fresno California…Hello Cambridge Massachusetts.
How exciting was that for you?
It was really intimidating. But I am so glad that I did it- it was probably one of the hardest four years of my life. I don’t think I would have the stamina or energy to do it all over again, but I think it taught me a lot as to who I am. I met my future husband there and a lot of good friends some of whom I’m looking to when I pursue the business venture and open a place together. MIT was great. It was a step beyond what I thought was my comfort zone. I mean originally, I thought I was going to stay within, you know- five hours from home, (laughs) well I guess I’m still five hours from home but by jet instead.
A lot of Seniors leave the nest and after a semester or two they return home- they either weren’t ready emotionally for the change that comes when transiting to a top tier university or are shocked at the academic rigor that hits them in their freshmen year- how prepared were you both emotionally and academically for MIT?
My first few days in Cambridge, I was a bit of an emotional mess. My dad (I love you!) took time out of his schedule to fly me over, help me move in, and even bought me a bike to get around while I was busy with pre-orientation activities! He really helped me transition that first week before it sunk in that I was thousands of miles away from home.
Surprisingly, I was more prepared academically that first year than I would have expected. I mean, I was not top of the top- but I benefited from the first semesters structure; it was pass/no record, any passing grade translates to a "P" on your transcript and otherwise, there was no record of failure. So, I think that helped a lot. It was great because the pressure of making the grade was alleviated and the focus turned to learning about oneself (What's the best way that I learn? What are the best hours that I learn? What's the best spot to grab a quick lunch!) So, I joined a sorority--which was an amazing network for a first semester freshman- I went to parties, I pulled all-nighters- studied my butt off - and I'm proud to say I had all Ps that semester.
I did well in a collaborative environment. It didn’t feel like you were competing with your peers- it didn’t feel like it was necessary to be at the top, I know that a lot of people transitioning to MIT struggle through that- and Initially, I had a fear of asking for help. I never thought I would need it before- but I had a good peer group. Good friends and great mentors from other classes above me. I took several AP classes when I was at Buchanan, and in many ways, it prepared me for some – not all- but some of the classes, as well as the diverse styles of leaning that I would encounter at MIT.
So, let’s go back a bit to your Senior year at Buchanan High…what were your career and educational aspirations at that time?
(Laughs) Completely different from where I am at right now. I remember when we were graduating, and they were announcing where the graduates were going and the disciplines they were pursuing, I think I was pre-med and bio-engineering or something along those lines and then I ended up graduating at MIT with a computer science degree and management science – so, in some ways I did a 180. It was still in the realm of science and engineering, but definitely set me on a path that was very different than what I expected.
Did that transition happen at MIT when you started to complete coursework that emphasized more on finance and computer technology content?
Yes. I still have so much appreciation and respect for all my friends that stayed the path and pursued medicine. At the time of graduation from Buchanan, I was almost certain I was going to pursue some combination of engineering and medicine. I had many friends who went down the pre-med track, worrying about grades and keeping up with the various course requirements, and I saw the toll it took. I decided I didn't want to stress about the grades, and instead focus on learning as much as I could while I was there. So, I ended up focusing on "Course 6-2" - which is MIT-speak for Computer Science and Engineering- and minoring in "Course 15" - Management Science, with a focus in Finance.
I ended up pursuing internships and many full-time opportunities in finance and worked as a wall street trader in interest rates derivates for some time before finding my way back into technology. I'm now a technical product manager for a software company in NYC. It's been a bit of a circuitous route, but I'm happy with where I am now--I'm solving incredibly challenging problems and working with very knowledgeable software engineers every day yet have time to pursue passions outside of my normal work life.
What led to you towards the decision to move towards the kitchen instead of boardroom?
Despite how I feel now, there were times in the past few years when I felt defeated and uninspired in my professional life, and it lead me to the kitchen to bake in my spare time. I started a personal blog intended to be a semi-private catalog of things I'd try, and I would make various treats and share them with friends and family. We'd joke that I should just start a bakery. It started out as just a saying, but the bakery idea kept lingering and before I knew it, I found myself looking at NYC culinary schools. After looking at ICC (International Culinary Center, formerly the French Culinary Center), it seemed like the perfect fit: ICC offered evening classes for its prestigious professional pastry course and offered an entrepreneurship class that focused on the business side of breaking into the restaurant industry. On what seemed like a whim, I registered for the pastry program in the spring of 2016, and, after nearly a year of juggling full-time work and part-time schooling, I was holding a pastry degree with Dean's List Honors in the spring of 2017!
This past fall, I completed the ICC Culinary Entrepreneurship course, where I was challenged to think about a future business in the pastry industry. I met a lot of outstanding veterans in the industry and I feel like I graduated with more questions than I had coming in- which is actually a great thing! Now, I feel that I have the foundational knowledge and the right questions to ask in planning and building out a successful future business.
How did your friends and family feel about your shift in a career path- were they surprised, worried? Supportive?
I wouldn't blame anyone for being surprised--I'm sure I would be surprised if I were in other shoes!
I can honestly say I've felt nothing but unequivocal support and enthusiasm for my future career. My parents and family are supportive of my entrepreneurial endeavors (many of my aunts, uncles, and cousins successfully started their businesses from the ground up so perhaps it runs in the family) and some of my friends have even voiced investment interest! I'm truly blessed to be surrounded by the friends and family I have.
Moving from course work in analytical finance theory, and the world of futures and macroeconomics to course work in the culinary arts – specifically coursework in the pasty arts- that’s a major shift in focus – are there similarities in how you approach the culinary arts vs how you approach the world of high finance or computer programing?
I would consider myself both an analytical and creative person and while there was definitely a shift in the type coursework I pursued, there's much more than meets the eye! While it's much easier to name the differences, there are similarities that tie them together. In many ways, an analytical mind is required for each domain: there are proven and canonical financial mathematical models, software algorithms, and time-tested recipes that demand methodical approaches with precision and accuracy. At the same time, there are strong design-centric elements to each as well. As a derivatives trader, I was tasked with pricing bespoke financial products by piecing together a string of mathematical models; software and product management, I'm working to design a codified solution that will achieve a desired end result; and in pastry, there are infinitely many ways to construct a seemingly "simple" dessert (think of all the types of "chocolate cake" there are!). There's also a strong element of time and asset management to all disciplines as well, from juggling technical design trade-offs to batch processing items with specific bake or cool or proofing time constraints!
Wow. That was a plateful- no pun intended… How did the Stacy’s Rise Scholarship come about?
As a student and now-alumnus, I get intermittent email updates from ICC about various class offerings, job openings, and scholarships opportunities. But after I graduated from the professional pastry program in May, I took a bit of "generally thinking about school and baking" hiatus which meant I didn't read some emails that initially announced the Stacy's Rise Scholarship. I had, however, already set my sights on enrolling in the fall class for the Culinary Entrepreneurship course earlier in the year so once late July rolled around, I started looking up information about registering and enrolling on the ICC website. That's when I finally saw the banner about the scholarship--I read it and thought: Wow, this would be an amazing opportunity!
It almost felt meant to be, but I was crunched for time as the deadline was a mere 4 days away from when I first read about it! I finally made my submission the evening it was due after putting in a lot of effort into my story. A couple weeks later, I got the call about being a recipient and I was absolutely floored! It was such an exciting, humbling, and (in some way) relieving moment. I felt like the decisions I made, and the seemingly unconventional path I had taken in getting to that point in my life (after pivoting in my career and putting myself out of my comfort zone by pursuing pastry) was justified or validated.
In addition to the education I received as a part of the program, the scholarship connected me with a network of strong-willed, confident women who are all facing similar challenges--paving a path in the culinary or pastry industry as women entrepreneurs and leaders. There are few women in leadership positions across almost every industry (certainly in tech, finance, and culinary) and many women don't have opportunities to receive professional guidance from a mentor. Following the Stacy’s Stands with You campaign and inspired by the many women’s movements across the country, the Rise Project has a mission to support and inspire female leadership in the culinary field.
I'm definitely grateful for the opportunity that the scholarship has provided me and am hopeful for the future of women entrepreneurs in the culinary industry. (Quick plug: Stacy's Rise Scholarship is continuing in 2018, offering 6 additional scholarships for the year!)
Tell us about some of your future career aspirations in baking- your business venture- it sounds like some exciting and challenging times ahead for you Eunice.
There's still much to be hammered out and much can change between now and whenever I'm able to open an establishment, but whatever it may be, I hope to leverage my training in French pastry technique and share my love of beautiful, delicious desserts crossed with Southeast Asian inspiration! As a first-generation American with a Chinese-Indonesian cultural upbringing, I grew up trying a wide range of Southeast Asian desserts and feel that there's opportunity today to explore hybrids between familiar, Western desserts with new flavor profiles!
While my Chicago start-up plans are still in the preliminary planning stages, I've been extremely fortunate to have been connected with renown Chef Stephanie Izard (of the Girl & the Goat in Chicago and its sister restaurants) as the scholarship's chef partner! In the coming years, I'm looking forward to getting a better understanding of the Chicago food industry, and how I can best supplement the culinary needs of the city!
What final advice, if any, would you give to a graduating senior in high school looking at the prospect of moving away from home to go to college?
Moving away can be one of the most difficult challenges a young adult goes through. As someone who was born and raised in Fresno, saying goodbye and restarting life over 3,000 miles away was certainly a challenge for me. But it was also one of the best challenges I’ve overcome. That challenge turned into a blessing, and that blessing into what were at some point unimaginable opportunities.
To graduating seniors who have plans to move away for college, my advice is to embrace the experiences that being in a new environment brings! Home will always be there for you. But unfamiliarity gives rise to personal growth and you may be surprised with what you learn about yourself, and where college (or any other form of learning) will take you!
Fresno will always be my hometown, but I truly believe that my life and experiences have been doubly enriched after having made (what I considered then) the “big move" back in 2009.