Identity in the Business World

Over spring break, I traveled to Copenhagen, Denmark to work on a short engagement with Danaher. Over the course of the week working with my Danish and Polish teammates, I noticed something peculiar about our conversations. After a few days of trying to put my finger on what it was, I realized that they were treating me as an American rather than as a Chinese American. When I told people I was from the US, there were no followup questions like “What about your parents?” or the more insidious “Where are you really from?” It was simply accepted that I was an American. When discussing Danish food at lunch, I was asked questions only about American cuisine, and not Chinese. Teammates were excited to tell me about the time they went to Pennsylvania or Ohio, not the time they went to Shanghai.

While the distinction is subtle, this came as quite a shock. In the years prior to business school, I worked a cumulative one year in China, often leveraging my Mandarin-speaking ability to attain new professional opportunities. Certainly there were instances where I would downplay my identity as a Chinese American, like when I was working with blue-collar workers in the South. Nonetheless, being a Chinese American has always been a large part of my identity in the workplace.

Over the last few years, I’ve had a number of professional identities, ranging from chemical engineer to project manager to negotiator. My racial identity is just one component of who I am as a professional. In this case, the lack of a racial identity allowed me to avoid some of the stereotypes associated with Chinese Americans, but also forced me to think actively about perceptions of Americans. As businesses become increasingly global and complex, professional identity will become increasingly multifaceted. Understanding how you are perceived is important to effective teamwork and management.

International Student Recruiting

As the international student representative for my section, I strive to maintain an understanding of how well our international students are integrating into the classroom as well as recruiting for internships and jobs. My understanding of the current pulse is that though international students are becoming more comfortable engaging in the classroom, recruiting has been a bit of a struggle. Over the last couple weeks, I’ve made a concerted effort to chat with as many international students as possible one-on-one to find out how they are doing in the recruiting process. I wanted to compile several issues I’ve noticed, and hopefully provide some actionable solutions to help students, both international and otherwise, to perform better in the process. Please note that I am writing specifically about the consulting recruiting process, but this advice should hold true for just about any recruiting.

  1. Get feedback. One of the most common answers I hear when I ask people how they are doing in the process is “I don’t know.” Failure to get an invite to a closed-list event should not be the first data point you get in regards to how your recruiting is going. Students succeeding in the process are constantly seeking feedback from their peers, second years, and even recruiters. After chatting with a recruiter in office hours, ask people who sat next to you how they think you did and what you could improve on. Talk to peers who are recruiting for the same positions to get a gauge on how many phone chats they’ve made. You can’t succeed in networking if you don’t know where you stand.
  2. Know yourself. One of the most basic questions a recruiter will ask you is “Why consulting?” You’d be surprised how many people cannot even answer this question. The key to answering this question is not to memorize the “About Us” page on their website. The key is to understanding yourself, what your strengths and goals are, and how those intersect with consulting. If you can’t answer this question on your own, recruiters are certainly not going to answer it for you.
  3. Don’t treat recruiting as an academic exercise. Some skills in life may be learned through careful study of textbooks and other material. Soft skills cannot be learned from any sort of guide. The way to become better at recruiting is to practice beforehand with others. You should be practicing your pitch, your “Why consulting?” answer, and everything else before you try it with recruiters. To quote Sun Tzu:

    “…the victorious strategist only seeks battle after the victory has been won…”

    There are so many people around you who can help you prepare, whether it’s your second year coach, your peers, second years, or the CDC. You cannot learn how to network or perform a case interview by simply reading a book. Get out there and practice with others.

If you are struggling with recruiting please don’t wait for others to ask you how it’s going. I and many others are willing and available to help. Be proactive and reach out.

Lessons Learned from MBA Competitions

This past weekend I competed in two different competitions at Darden. The first competition was the Accenture Innovation Challenge, organized by members of the consulting club. In this competition, groups of four worked together to find a solution to a problem posed by Goodwill Industries. Over the course of five hours, we huddled together in a conference room, drew issue trees on chalkboards, and built a slide deck to present our strategic conclusions. This competition was designed in many ways to emulate the consulting process.

The second competition was the Darden Capital Management Stock Pitch competition, organized by Darden Capital Management. In this competition, individuals evaluated equities, performed valuation and analysis, and presented their ideas and thinking.  This competition was designed to emulate the process by which you sell your ideas in an investment management institution.

Though the two competitions were focused on different industries and functions, they shared two common themes. I believe that the skills developed by these competitions are fundamental skills necessary for being an effective leader in any organization.

  1. Story telling ability. In both competitions, understanding whom your audience was and how to communicate to them effectively was the key to success. For the Accenture Innovation Challenge, the judges identified the distinguishing factor for the winning three teams as their ability to connect with the Goodwill vision and really speak about the human element of the problem.For the DCM Stock Pitch competition, being able to tell a clear, cohesive story was key. While stock pitches often include multiple reasons to buy a stock and address different risks associated, making sure the thesis was clear was crucial to success. There were several pitches where multiple theses were presented, and this made it difficult for the judges to buy your story.Story telling ability is crucial leading any organization. Great leaders are able to effectively convey their vision and mission to their organizations. At the higher levels, you must tell these stories to shareholders in the market, your board of directors, and your company as well.
  2. Dealing with ambiguity. For both competitions, there was a tremendous amount of ambiguity due to the time constraints. For the Accenture competition, we had only five hours to evaluate the materials provided and come up with a solution. This meant that inherently our solution was not as developed as we would have liked it to be. As a result, the questions asked could be fairly tough. One of the toughest questions they asked was “Summarize your plan in one sentence.” Luckily, one of my team members came up with a succinct statement on the spot. If you had a solid plan but couldn’t come up with concise answers on the spot, it would be really tough for you to succeed in this competition.For the DCM Stock Pitch competition, the primary constraint was finding time to work on my pitch after allocating time for coursework and recruiting. One of the struggles for me was that the pitch I had was not the caliber of pitch did not have the rigor behind it that I would like to have. As a result, even though the questions asked were not really that rigorous, I had not had enough time to think about them beforehand.There is ambiguity in every organization. The ability to prevent ambiguity from affecting your performance is essential. Conveying your ideas confidently in the face of ambiguity is crucial to your ability to convince others to trust your judgment.

Although I still have a lot to learn about both the consulting and investing worlds, the skills and experience I developed through these competitions is applicable across many fields.

Coming Out as an Ally

This weekend, I’m heading down to New Orleans for the Reaching Out MBA conference (ROMBA). When I tell people this, the response is often confusion as I do not identify myself as LGBT. I’m writing this post to explain why I am interested in LGBT issues, why I’m coming out as an ally, and why I’m attending ROMBA.

Growing up in the South, it was common to hear sexual slurs used casually at an early age. Often these were used with some negative connotation, not necessarily directly attacking people. As a result, I became accustomed to overlooking casual discrimination, whether it was regarding sexual orientation, or race, or any other way that people cast judgment upon wide swathes of human beings. As time went on and people matured, slurs were used less as people learned to be politically correct. While it was certainly nice that these slurs were being used less, the fact that people were still holding on to these prejudices was not great. On top of that, the political correctness prevented dialogue, and these issues were things that I never really considered before.

Fast forward a few years to 2010, I was in Hong Kong for work for a couple days, and was able to meet up with my cousin Whitney, who had relocated from New Zealand to Hong Kong after graduating college. I was asking about our other cousin Carla, as I knew they were close and I hadn’t really kept in touch. Whitney responded: “Yeah, Carla is great, Harry and Julia are doing well too!” I had no idea who Harry and Julia were. “Is Harry Carla’s boyfriend or something?” I inquired.

Over the next few minutes, I found out that Julia is Carla’s partner, and they have a son, Harry. I had no idea about any of this. Many aspects of Chinese culture are very conservative, and views on sexual orientation are no exception. My aunt and uncle had kept this a secret from much of our extended family for nearly five years. Discussions with Carla and ultimately meeting Harry and Julia really pushed me to think more about LGBT issues and helped me come to the realization that these issues touch on very basic human rights which should be inherent to everyone.

Over the course of the last few months, I’ve realized that although my thinking has become more supportive of LGBT issues, I have allowed my experience growing up in an anti-LGBT setting prevent me from actively discussing these issues and growing. Not only that, my inability to discuss these issues restricts my ability to help others within my class to grow as well.

Coming out as an ally is an important step for me to continue to grow as a person and to avoid the complacency of passive “open-mindedness.” Being passive makes it too easy to err on the side of heteronormative thinking, i.e. assuming everyone is heterosexual. By coming out as an ally, I hope to correct my own thinking, and become a stronger resource for those who identify themselves as LGBT, as well as those who are also interested in becoming more active in supporting others.

Why Diversity and Inclusion are Important to Me

Last week, I was honored to be elected as Section D’s international and diversity student advisory group representative. What this means is that I will be meeting with the International Student Advisory Group (ISAG) and the Diversity Student Advisory Group (DSAG) to facilitate conversations about diversity and inclusion at Darden, advocate on behalf of international students, and promote understanding and awareness to build a stronger Darden community. To be elected, I submitted a statement to explain why diversity and inclusion are important to me. I want to share this piece to provide my perspective.

I am passionate about connecting people of different ethnicity, religion, sexual orientations, or any other label people use to put people into buckets. No matter what your background, each one of us is the same. We’re all human beings with hopes and dreams, successes and failures, triumphant wins and heart-crushing defeats. I’d like to tell you a personal story of one of my heart-crushing defeats that I hope will show why I’m so passionate about connecting people of different backgrounds.

On July 4th, 2011, I was celebrated Independence Day by driving 190 miles to Austin to meet up with some high school friends from Dallas. Over the next several hours we reminisced about the past, caught up on each other’s lives, and had a blast watching fireworks. After I’d had enough, I took my leave and started walking back to my hotel.

Suddenly, a car screeched by. A man leaning out the window yelled at me, “GO BACK TO CHINA!”

Go back to China? I’ve lived here all my life. Am I Chinese? I thought this was home. I thought I belonged here. Am I American? Who am I?

Am I Chinese? Over the last four years, I have spent a substantial amount of time working abroad in China. Even though I speak Mandarin fluently, my Taiwanese/American accent was obvious and Chinese people could always tell that I was not Chinese. They could tell even before I even opened my mouth by the way I dressed. I am not Chinese.

Am I Taiwanese? Although, I have relatives in Taiwan, I cannot even communicate with my grandparents because I cannot speak the local dialect, Taiwanese. While I’ve visited Taiwan many times during my childhood, it’s never felt right to me. The very environment seems to reject me. Too hot. Too humid. Too many mosquitoes. It’s as if the entire climate of Taiwan is trying to make me recognize that I don’t belong there. I am not Taiwanese.

Am I American? I worked at a chemical plant with mostly blue-collar workers. Here I am even more different. Not only am I a different ethnicity, I am the ethnicity that is stealing jobs from them. They associate me with the Chinese sweatshops that are taking food off of their tables. I tell them I’m in the same boat. I’m fighting to keep a job in America as many engineering jobs are getting outsourced to China. They can’t see past my skin color. I am not American.

After the incident, I posted a status update about it onto Facebook. I was instantly flooded with sympathetic Facebook messages and texts. In times of crises, none of these labels matter. I am not Chinese or American, Christian or Buddhist, Republican or Democrat. I am a human being with friends and family that love and support me through thick and thin. I am passionate about diversity and inclusion because they are essential to the development of strong bonds that will last beyond the time we are here at Darden and endure across cultural, religious, and political borders.