Photo by Richard Howard
When it comes to business innovations, sometimes an English and music major is exactly what’s needed. Just ask Mei-Mei Tuan ’88, managing partner and co-founder of Notch Partners, LLC.
In 2002, Mei-Mei and her husband, Andrew Thompson, started the firm based on one seemingly simple but actually somewhat revolutionary idea. “We started a consulting firm to private equity,” she says. “We connect CEO-level executives to private equity firms to help them do what they do, which is to buy and sell companies.” Prior to Notch Partners, Mei-Mei says, investment banks and private equity firms were evaluating the purchase and sale of companies based primarily on mathematical or spreadsheet models. “No one ever talked about who was running those companies; they were just doing the math,” she says. “How can these people, who work on Wall Street, who have never run a business, really understand how to buy and sell these things? To me, it made a lot of sense that we should bring industry executives into the private-equity equation, but nobody had done it or thought of it up until that point.”
And it all started in the parking lot of a supermarket. After 9/11, Mei-Mei’s husband lost his job. She had been staying at home with their two young children, but it wasn’t easy for her. In February 2002, her husband was beginning to think about going back to work. “We were sitting in the parking lot, and I just started crying,” she remembers. “I said, ‘You can’t leave me at home again.’” She proposed that they start a company together so they both could work and spend time with their children. “I actually made it up, as I heard myself saying it,” Mei-Mei says. “I convinced myself that this could make sense.”
They started Notch Partners out of the attic of their home in New Jersey and built it on the foundation of their past work experiences and contacts. Andrew had management consulting experience, as well as previous work with startups and private-equity investments. Mei-Mei—well, she’d traveled a different path than the typical English/music major.
“I think I’m sort of the poster child for how liberal arts can transfer and translate into anything,” she says. Going through recruiting at Wellesley in the late ’80s, “I think I was the only English and music major,” she says. It started, as so many things do, with a Wellesley connection. As a junior, she was interested in investment banking, so she wrote a letter to Jeanette Winter Loeb ’74, the first female partner at Goldman Sachs. That letter led to a lunch, which led to a summer internship, and then a job at Goldman after graduation. Several years later, Mei-Mei got an M.B.A. from Harvard, worked at several large nonprofits, and did some consulting work before staying at home with her children.
“I never saw myself as a person who was going to run a company,” Mei-Mei says. “And then literally, in that moment when we were sitting [in that parking lot], when I heard myself saying those words out of desperation, that’s when it suddenly became real.” Of course, she and her husband had no idea that the business would take off like it has. In fact, Andrew initially said he’d give it three months. Three months have stretched into 14 years and a staff of 13 to 18 people. “We have a name in the market now as being the gold standard and the pioneer,” Mei-Mei says, but other companies have since taken up their idea. Notch Partners now competes against executive recruiting firms, investment banks, and even some private-equity firms themselves.
Mei-Mei credits her success to her somewhat atypical business background and the confidence that Wellesley instilled in her. “Part of the reason I was able to create this was because I didn’t come from the same background as everybody else, and I don’t see things the same way,” she says. “Wellesley just equipped me with this idea that you can do anything.”