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Saturday, August 13, 2022

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Elaine and Dennis Szeto Elaine and Dennis Szeto

Doing Good Works: Elaine and Dennis Szeto

The couple’s $500,000 match gift creates an endowed professorship in the Fowler College of Business.
By Tobin Vaughn

“The first time I saw the city I fell in love with it. I told myself, ‘When I am ready for college, this is where I want to go.’”

A $500,000 gift by private equity investor and business advisor Dennis Szeto (’75) and his wife, Elaine, has been announced by San Diego State University Fowler College of Business Interim Thomas & Evelyn Page Dean Bruce Reinig. Matched in full from Ron and Alexis Fowler’s $25 million 2016 endowment, the gift will provide $1 million to create the Dennis and Elaine G. Szeto Endowed Professorship in finance.

Endowed professorships recognize teaching excellence and are reserved for the most outstanding instructors. They help attract talented faculty to the university and are often instrumental in retaining top professors. 

Reinig said the Szetos’ donation will contribute to the Fowler College’s growing reputation as one of the nation’s top business schools. He said it will help draw exceptional students as well as professors to SDSU.

“The Szetos’ generous gift will help us attract and retain the best faculty for our students to provide them the education they need to succeed,” Reinig said. “It furthers our culture of philanthropy at SDSU and strengthens our finance program in the college. We are fortunate and proud to have Dennis as an alumnus of the Fowler College of Business.”

An Example to Follow

Dennis Szeto’s formal education began in Hong Kong where he attended his first few years of elementary school before immigrating with his family to the United States. He, his mother and two siblings landed in San Francisco (joining his father and another sibling already in the U.S.) before moving to New Mexico, passing through San Diego along the way.

“The first time I saw the city I fell in love with it,” he said. “I told myself, ‘When I am ready for college, this is where I want to go.’”

The family eventually resettled in Oakland where Dennis’ father, who had earned a law degree in China, opened a grocery store and became involved in the community. He supported a wide range of organizations both monetarily and by serving in leadership roles.

“I see my dad as my role model,” Dennis said. “He set an example for me to follow.”

Learning “The Hard Way”

When it came time for college, Dennis was set to attend another university when his acceptance to San Diego State arrived in the mail. Remembering his boyhood visit to San Diego, he packed up and headed for SDSU.

“I decided San Diego State was a better school,” Dennis said. He told his father he intended to become an economics professor, but in class found the subject matter “too dry.” 

A course in the fundamentals of investing changed everything. “The professor explained what investment is all about and that’s how I fell in love with the field of investments,” Dennis recalled. He changed his major to business management, emphasizing finance.

Yet there were challenges. As soon as school closed for holidays or semester breaks, Dennis was off to Oakland to help his parents run the family grocery business with no time to recharge. “It was very, very hard,” he said.

A hearing disability made it difficult for Dennis to fully grasp what was being said in his classes. He spent every available moment studying to keep from falling behind, which crimped his social life and overall student experience.

“At that time there were no resources for me and nobody gave me any kind of guidance,” he said. “I had to learn the hard way.”

Faith and Giving Back

Although he performed well enough to earn a degree, a job as a bank teller was his first employment after graduation. It was the beginning of a wide-ranging auditing career that has spanned several different industries and high-level positions from which he gained valuable experience and insight.

But nowhere would Dennis Szeto discover a more profound influence in his life than in the Castro Valley church where he met his wife, Elaine. The two share the same beliefs, values, and similar family histories.

Like Dennis, Elaine comes from a Chinese immigrant family. Having been raised in the church, she is firmly committed to helping others both personally and professionally through her career in health care social work and in medical communications.

“We are both Christian believers and we both believe in giving back,” she said. “That is something I have done all my adult life.”

In fact, a Biblical canon serves to guide the Szetos’ philanthropy: To whom much is given, much will be required (Luke 12:48). “I support that and we both strongly believe in that,” Elaine said. “We are called to do good works.” 

Passion, Intuition and Research

Those good works have included scholarships, in memory of each of their fathers, the Szetos created for Bay Area students. Dennis’ talent for finance makes such gifts possible.

“His passion is investments,” said Elaine. “He knows how to pick stocks.”

Each day during the week Dennis looks forward to the stock market opening. He supplements his own business acumen by absorbing information from financial publications like the Wall Street Journal, Forbes and Business Week along with selected online business journals.

“It requires a lot of homework and perseverance,” Dennis said. “I think I have good intuition, but you have to really know what you’re doing.”

Elaine describes her husband’s investment style as “contrarian.” Whatever other investors are doing, Dennis said, “I just do the opposite.”

“He stays the course,” Elaine confirmed.  Whether markets are moving up or down, Dennis remains optimistic.

“Good or bad, I always see opportunities and potential,” he said. When that potential is realized, the Szetos look for ways to create opportunities for others, like they are doing through the Fowler College of Business.

“I had a good education at San Diego State,” Dennis said. Now, he and Elaine are giving back.