Justin Wai ’06 Donates Gift to Create Dean’s Discretionary Fund

By: Sherrie Negrea
a woman and two men standing in a light-filled room with windows in the background.

Carla Ingrando, associate dean for Alumni Affairs and Development, and Andrew Karolyi, Charles Field Knight Dean, Cornell SC Johnson College of Business, with Justin Wai ’06 in Hong Kong, April 2023

Justin Wai ’06 believes he would not have landed his dream job as the head of real estate for Greater China at Blackstone if he hadn’t graduated from the Cornell Peter and Stephanie Nolan School of Hotel Administration.

When he interviewed for his first position at Blackstone in 2007, his degree set him apart from other job candidates. Interviewers were intrigued that he had studied hotel administration and had worked as a bellhop at the Island Shangri-La, a luxury hotel in Hong Kong.

“One of the advantages of being a Hotelie is that it’s such a different path than most people that they meet,” Wai says. “Most of the people that Wall Street recruiters meet come from a traditional business school program. So they just find Hotelies to be a bit more interesting and memorable.”

After years of volunteering in alumni leadership roles, Wai has decided to give back to Cornell by making a $1 million gift to establish a dean’s discretionary fund at the Cornell SC Johnson College of Business. He says he chose to donate to the dean’s discretionary fund so that the college could use his gift on priority needs.

“I have a lot of confidence in the university and the college leadership,” Wai says. “I understand the value of unrestricted gifts because few donors are interested in donating to fund something like the replacement of a water tank. If you are confident in the judgment of the administration, why wouldn’t you give them the discretion to decide where your gift would make the most impact?”

Wai first met Andrew Karolyi, the Charles Field Knight Dean of the SC Johnson College, on a Zoom meeting last winter and then connected with him at the Cornell Asia-Pacific Leadership Conference in April in Singapore.

“Justin is passionate about the SC Johnson College of Business’s mission to educate the next generation of global citizens and to promote a culture of broad inquiry throughout and beyond the Cornell community,” Karolyi says. “He understands that through a gift of discretionary funds, his philanthropy can be used in an incredibly impactful way. These types of gifts allow university leaders to be nimble and act on emerging priorities.”

An education that is the best of the best

Wai, who grew up in Hong Kong, first stepped onto the Cornell campus when he attended a summer program in architecture after his junior year at Northfield Mount Herman School, a boarding school in Gill, Massachusetts.

But he soon realized that he was more interested in the hotel industry and began considering the Nolan School. “There’s something about hotels that really excited me and still excites me,” he says. “It’s almost like a theater, where in front of the stage is where the magic is, but then backstage is where the drama really happens.”

His courses at the Nolan School taught him everything from running discounted cash flow models to business writing and prepared him for a career in real estate. At the same time, he enjoyed taking liberal arts classes, including Japanese architecture and painting.

“One thing that Cornell does really well is offer this amazing combination of the vocational aspect of education and the liberal arts side of it,” says Wai, who was a member of the Meinig Family Cornell National Scholars program, which draws students from across the United States with exceptional leadership and academic potential and a commitment to community service.

Finding his niche in alumni leadership

As Blackstone’s head of real estate for Greater China, a position he assumed last January, Wai supervises 40 employees in Hong Kong and Shanghai. His focus is managing the company’s $10 billion portfolio of logistics, office, and multifamily assets in China’s major cities.

“There was a great expectation when I joined that I, the Hotelie, would be able to add value to the firm’s hotel investments in the region,” says Wai. “The ironic thing is this is my 17th year at the firm, and I’ve done basically every single asset class in real estate—office, retail, residential, logistics, even self-storage—and the one thing I haven’t done is hotels,” he says, adding that the right hotel investment opportunity has not emerged yet.

Despite the intense workload, Wai has devoted his spare time to alumni activities. In 2021, he completed a three-year term on the Cornell University Council and returned to campus every year for the Trustee-Council Annual Meeting.

a group of 25 people posing for a photo at the front of a dining room, smiling, and each making a "C" with one hand,
Justin Wai (back row, third from right) at an alumni gathering in Hong Kong that Andrew Karolyi and other Cornell staff attended, April 2023. Geoffrey Lim, MBA ’00, who is holding a college banner with Karolyi, hosted the event.

Now in his second year as president of the Cornell Club of Hong Kong, Wai has also helped organize a range of cultural and educational alumni events, including seminars featuring Cornell alumni; Chinese New Year celebrations; and Thanksgiving dinners. “It feels like I’ve been a wedding planner for Cornell for the past year, in a good way,” says Wai. “We have an amazing group of volunteers in Hong Kong that all contributed to our incredible program.”

A group of 3 women and 7 men dressed in formal attire smiling and holding a Cornell banner displaying the Cornell bear.
Justin Wai (fifth from right) with the board of the Cornell Club of Hong Kong at the club’s Ivy Ball, June 2023

Wai says he realizes that his donation to Cornell is not typical for an alumnus in his 30s. “It’s somewhat unusual that someone at my age would dedicate so much time and financial resources to philanthropy,” he says. “I think most people do it a little bit later.”

Making a gift at a young age, however, can have its advantages. “While I’m still young, I have the energy to shepherd the gift to good use and to influence the organization that I give the money to in a direction that I think is suitable,” he says. “It’s an honor to give back to an institution that has done so much good for me, our communities, and our shared humanity.”