If you ever find yourself talking to Ted Yang at a cocktail party, you might not want to pose the famous icebreaker, “So, what do you do for a living?”
Or rather, pose away, settle in and get ready for a real ride. For at heart, Yang — a self-styled “serial entrepreneur,” an engineer who never practiced engineering, a would-be writer of video games who never wrote one — is a storyteller. And his story — which ultimately bridges the profit and nonprofit worlds, work and family — is indeed a compelling one.
We at WAG know Yang — a Suffern native who now makes his home in New Canaan — as president of Cantata Media, owner of Daily Voice, which Yang describes as “the leading suburban news provider in the New York metro area…with almost two million unique visits monthly.” It’s also the digital partner of Westfair Communications Inc., WAG’s parent company.
Publishing — Yang says over coffee and tea at Charlie’s Café in The Exchange, the White Plains office park now home to Westfair — “is a more recent passion.” From 2012 to ’14, he was the founding chief technology officer of MediaCrossing, a company that does quantitative analysis of digital advertising and that he describes as “Wall Street meets Madison Avenue.” But that is just one of myriad businesses and organizations that Yang — whose mind is like a pinball machine, always pinging — has been involved with. He, Adam von Gootkin, Pete Kowalczyk and Matt Wilkerson, founded Highclere Castle Spirits — along with the eighth Earl and Countess of Carnarvon, whose Highclere estate was the setting of “Downton Abbey.” Their first spirit — Highclere Castle Gin, a smooth, lightly sweet blend of Highclere botanicals — makes its debut in March. (Highclere Castle Cigars, a separate company, bowed in 2017. More on this in WAG’s February cover story on Lord and Lady Carnarvon.)
“The intent is also to do a whiskey,” Yang says. “There’s a barn on the (Highclere) property that can be turned into a distillery.” But, he adds, first things first. It’s the laser-like linear side of a man who also describes himself as an easily bored, attention deficit type with a constant need for fresh challenges.
Highclere, not surprisingly then, is just one of his 11 profit and nonprofit ventures that include ChemPacific Corp., Connex Partners, Stamford Innovation Center, Epiomed Therapeutics, IRAmarket and the Connecticut chapter of Social Venture Partners.
By now, you get the drift — a far-ranging success story engineered by a far-ranging mind, one honed at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he got his master’s in engineering at only 21, and on Wall Street. (He worked for the proverbial Who’s Who of wealth management firms and hedge funds, including Lehman Brothers, J.P. Morgan, Salomon Smith Barney, Citadel Securities, Bridgewater Associates and Tudor Investment Corp.)
And there the story might have a typically satisfying end if not for an event that happened in 2008: His wife, Christine, gave birth to triplets at six months of gestation. One of the two boys, Raymond, died a week later. The other, Daniel, and his sister, Sofia, survived although she required a breathing tube and round-the-clock care. (Daniel came off the ventilator and breathing tube after three months in a neonatal intensive care unit.)
Up to that point, Yang had been a self-described “insufferable ass and managerial bear” at Bridgewater, where his I-can-do-it-all style as deputy CTO put colleagues off. Once the surviving triplets came home, however, Yang became a full-time part of a team of family members, housekeepers and doctors devoted to helping the preemies survive and thrive. When he returned to finance, as deputy CTO and enterprise partner at Tudor, he left after a year.
“Finally, there was no point,” he says. “It wasn’t fulfilling anymore.”
It was the beginning of a transformation that he acknowledges did not happen overnight.
Like Alfred Lord Tennyson’s Ulysses, Yang is a product of all that he has met. Indeed, you might conclude — and he certainly believes — that everything he experienced was to prepare him for that moment when his children were born in 2008. He himself is the child of Chinese immigrants. His biologist father, Cheng-Hsin, who was born in Japanese-occupied Manchuria, came from a family of doctors. His chemist mother, Rebecca, was the daughter of a landowner who was the youngest general of Chiang
kai-shek, leader of the Republic of China. Yang’s parents met at college in Canada and ultimately married and immigrated to the United States, settling in Suffern, where Yang and his younger brother — Timothy, who teaches Japanese history at the University of Georgia — were born and raised.
Yang graduated from Suffern High School and was rejected by Harvard University — one of several blessings in disguise.
“Had I been accepted, I would’ve been forced into a premed program,” he says of his father’s wishes. Instead, he went off to neighboring MIT.
“I wanted to write video games, but OK, engineering — that was cool, too.”
But the video game internship didn’t materialize and, though he got the engineering degree, that career didn’t either.
Instead, he went into finance — because that was not only where the money was but where his friends were headed as well. And because, he adds, Wall Street in those days was full of knotty challenges. Little did he know that the greatest challenge of his life to date lay ahead.
Today, Daniel is autistic and Sofia has vocal chord and lung damage that causes her to speak very softly and pronounce words incorrectly as well as muscular-skeletal weakness on the left side of her body. But out of adversity can come compassion and transcendence. Christine is vice president of The Tiny Miracles Foundation in Darien, supporting parents of preemies.
And Yang has discovered his true center — his family, not in that political-I-need-to-spend-more-time-with-my-family way but in the most profound sense.
They are his sun around which his corporate and nonprofit planets revolve.
Still, you’ve got to admit those are some pretty interesting planets.