Today’s guest is Dr. Jenny Woo, Founder and CEO of Mind Brain Emotion, a company that creates cleverly simple and immediately actionable skills-building games and tools to help people become happier, calmer, and wiser.
As a former president of the Women in Leadership Club at Haas, Jenny shares her journey from a little girl moving to the US to be reunited with her parents, to a female consultant working with global companies, to a mother entrepreneur-student juggling family, PhD, and startup.
Jenny is passionate about helping people reach their potential – from classrooms to boardrooms. She has worked as a human capital consultant at Deloitte, a Talent & Strategy Manager at Cisco, a Montessori school director, a cognitive science researcher, and a lecturer in Emotional Intelligence.
Having taught in grade schools and colleges, she saw a lack of resources and opportunities to help students develop what we call “soft skills” in the real world. This is how she started her company which was incubated out of Harvard Innovation Labs. She developed and launched the 52 Essential card series which is used in 50+ countries in homes, schools, and workplaces.
Advice for people who want to pursue an MBA
You have to be crystal clear in terms of what you want to get out of it and what are your purposes. What are your passions?
On why she decided to go into a Ph.D. program
Sometimes the more you know, the more you realize you don’t know. And I wanted to really become an expert, in this case, in emotional intelligence, helping kids, and even adults, develop what we call soft skills in the real world.
The biggest barrier she sees in undergraduate and graduate students and how to overcome it
I see this need to feel prepared and somehow never feeling quite prepared enough and needing to be doing other things in order to pursue what ultimately we are interested in. I think that also is related to the imposter syndrome, why should I do this? Who am I to do this? What would people say? And would I fail? Those little negative voices in our head. Honestly, just do it. Just start. We can start baby steps. You don’t have to get it all right. But even one little habit you implement, one little hour you spend will make a difference.
In order to live your next thing or the thing that you’ve been putting off and on your wish list, is to not go into this all-or-nothing mentality.
- LinkedIn Profile
- Mind Brain Emotion
- 52 Essential Life Skills
- 52 Essential Critical Thinking Skills
- 52 Essential Coping Skills
(Transcripts may contain a few typographical errors due to audio quality during the podcast recording.)
[00:00] Chris: Welcome to the OneHaas Podcast. I’m Chris Kim. Today, we have Jenny Woo, Berkeley Haas MBA and Founder and CEO at Mind Brain Emotion. Along with being a Haas MBA, Jenny is a Harvard-trained educator, EQ researcher, and a founder, working to create cleverly simple, immensely practical, and immediately actionable tools tell people become happier, calmer, and wiser.
Jenny, welcome, and great to have you on the show.
[00:31] Jenny: Thanks for having me, Chris.
[00:33] Chris: You did your undergrad in business at USC, and then you came to Haas for the MBA program. And then, if that wasn’t enough school, you decide to go to Harvard to get a master’s in the ed school, education school. And then, I think you just shared, you recently finished your PhD at UC Irvine, focusing on human development. So, beyond just your professional career, your academic career alone has been a ton and a seemingly amazing journey. If I had to kick it off with a question, did you know when you were a kid that this would be your journey?
[01:05] Jenny: Oh, my goodness, that is a lot of degrees. And I would say, absolutely not. In fact, I am the first one in my both sides of family to graduate with a college degree. And so, I often joke around whenever I do a talk, I say that my tendency to earn a lot of degrees so that each one of my parents and, maybe, grandparents could have a degree, for their lack of privilege and resources, but they were fully capable.
Going back, I was born in China. And I lived in China town. I was about 10. And I actually lived in a tier-two city in China for about five years between the age of five and 10 without ever seeing my parents. That was when they came over to the United States. So, you can imagine we didn’t even have phones in our house or apartment, let alone these days you have the Zoom and the FaceTime.
And so, then, coming to the U.S. at the age of 10 was really a double culture shock for me. On one end, I came in not knowing the English alphabet, integrating into this new Western society, and on the other hand, not seeing my parents for almost five years, and having a vague notion of, “These are my parents. This is how they are. This is their temperaments and tendencies,” but discovering that this is who they are. So, that was quite an interesting experience, I would say. And I came over to Houston, Texas.
[02:43] Chris: Oh, wow.
[02:43] Jenny: Yeah. So, started public school, fourth grade, and basically all throughout 12th grade, grew up in Texas. And really, as you mentioned, what brought me out to California was to go to undergraduate and to do USC. And I would have to say that in itself was also another culture shock for me.
[03:02] Chris: Tons of questions, but an immediate question I think of, what is it like going from China to Houston? And Houston today is a bigger city. A lot of things are happening there. The music scene is big and entertainment. A lot of things like the Super Bowl or other events, big events happen in Houston. What was it like when you were a kid? And then, can you translate that to going from Houston to Southern California, Los Angeles, and arriving at USC for college, what was that like making those two transitions? And what did it feel like for you experiencing those changes?
[03:37] Jenny: Great questions. I would have to say, as a 10-year-old, not quite knowing what to look for and you don’t know what you don’t know, I probably missed a lot of things, but obviously, the language, the food, the culture. And my parents being immigrants as well, I don’t think we were involved in a lot of cultural — the Super Bowl, what was that — type of activities. But I do vividly remember being in my ESL class (English as second language). And I was, really, the only Mandarin-speaking student there. A lot of Latinx peers around me. And that was, in itself, something different. And, of course, getting a feel for the curriculum differences. I remember not knowing my alphabets, but I knew how to count from one to 10. And the teacher, during the first week when I was there, she had this simple addition. And I was like I’m going to raise my hand and say the only 10 words that I knew to answer the questions. So, I was very optimistic. So, I think that really helped.
And to answer your second part of the question of going from somewhat of a conform community, where I grew up in Houston, and then later Sugarland into going into Los Angeles, and just I think, right off the bat, seeing the type of cars that my peers were driving were just mind-blowing. And my parents had very humble upbringings. And I chose to go to USC because, it was so funny, it was Time Magazine College of the Year, and they had a great volunteering program in education, the joint education program. And it fit in all the boxes. And to be honest, I was dating someone in LA as well. So, that made my decision a bit clear as well.
So, going in, I think just the type of clothes that these kids were wearing, the type of backgrounds, took some adjustment. And I decided to major in business. I was very interested in it, but to be honest, I was also interested in the medical field. Took the AP Bio 2, went into a local hospital, saw these surgeries, does not feel faint, love it, captivated by it. But again, I think it’s also because my parents, to be honest, they just didn’t have anyone within their network and their community and their friendship who were doctors. And so, being the very practical parents they are, they wanted me to go into a field that was doable, realistic, practical, you can make a good living. And so, that’s part of the reason why I went in. So, I did business with an emphasis in information systems.
[06:43] Chris: You went to a really large global company, Deloitte, as a post-college experience. Can you explain just what was that like, going from just trying to get a degree to, “Now, I need to get a job,” and now you’re working professional in a really large global company?
[06:59] Jenny: I was very privileged to get this role. And to be honest, at the time, I had no idea what consulting was. But I was, again, privileged to have a couple of great amazing mentors at USC who really nudged me to apply and showed me the ropes. And we were just talking of it earlier before this, how I graduated at Haas at the worst time. And we’ll talk about that. I actually also graduated undergrad at the worst time. So, I decided to graduate a year early, and this was in 2003. I am totally dating myself. But 2003 was Arthur Andersen, Enron, tobacco, Sarbanes-Oxley. And so, there were also offers getting rescinded, and companies were just not hiring. And I somehow got this position at Deloitte. I think they only took one person from the business school. And interestingly, the only position they were interviewing for was in the technology field and technology integration. But I think, because I’ve always had an entrepreneurial background, I was doing some things on my own, my other internships, that they realized that I’m actually a better fit for human capital consulting. And so, that’s how I got into this field.
And to answer your question, it was amazing working in a global company. And I do have to say I got some previews of that because I represented USC at a global international case competition at Copenhagen. And this was schools from all over the world, solving tough business problems and coming together. And that was when I knew, wow, I want to be more globally minded and working collaboratively with people from all walks of life. And that was something that really Deloitte offered that I’m truly grateful for.
[08:56] Chris: That’s amazing, Jenny. And I think, even for some folks who graduate from the MBA program, being able to either work in the technology space, either in human capital, or even at a large firm like Deloitte, that would be a pipe dream, that would be the end goal. But for you, you got that straight out of college, and then you decided to come to Haas. What made you want to pursue business school or something else when you already accomplished a ton in a short period of time, just coming to the States and then going to college, graduating, working at Deloitte? You already had it all. Why give that up and decide to go to business school?
[09:31] Jenny: The consulting pipeline is very typical in that you’re coming in for a few years and in order to accelerate to the next position… or, the typical pathway is very much getting a graduate degree, and typically an MBA. And so, I wouldn’t say I was being innovative and being courageously different. It was the next thing to do, I have to say.
But with that said, I ended up leaving Deloitte shortly before applying to school. And the story behind that is, on the one hand, I really, really love the work. And Chris, as you mentioned, one project is really equivalent to a year’s worth of work and industry in some sense. It was fast-paced, fast speed. But, for me, I was on a great project, but things were becoming very implementation-oriented than creating new strategies and doing new things. So, I became a little bit, to be honest, bored. I began to look elsewhere. And I was thinking, well, what’s next for me? And again, the typical pathway is to get an MBA. And so, that’s how I ended up.
And I actually applied to this school very shortly after I left. And I didn’t have much of a runway. And so, I applied to Haas because I had some colleagues who went to Haas, and they are just amazing, collaborative, humble individuals. I just really fell in love with the Haas culture. And I’m so glad I have, again, the privilege to go to Haas.
[11:16] Chris: You not only came to Haas, but you stayed very busy. You were a GSI for multiple courses. You were a career coach. And it would be great to talk about that career coach program. And then, you were also the president of Women in Leadership. How did you balance doing everything that you were doing and then, also, go to class and manage all the different aspects of even just being an MBA student at Haas?
[11:40] Jenny: This is an advice for people who are coming into the MBA program, is, you have to be crystal clear in terms of what you want to get out of it. And what are your purposes? What are your passions? And for me, I’ve always loved people development. And so, it was a no-brainer to become a GSI, for leadership communications, which is the core first year course when I became a second year MBA. And then, I also was the GSI for the gateway class for undergraduate, which is the principles of business. And I really enjoy nurturing and working with individuals, teams and groups, and classes to help them fully express their potential, individually and collaboratively.
And Women in Leadership is something that’s so near and dear to me. I was sold on it when I went on to the WIL retreat in Napa in my first year. And that was when I was like, wow, I really want to contribute to this amazing organization, to the amazing women in it, and take a leadership role. So, it was a lot of juggling, to your point. And I, by no means, was straight A. But who cares, right? That’s not quite the point of Haas. And it’s really getting the experiences, the network, the people. And, of course, what you learn and the discussions in the classrooms.
[13:12] Chris: You alluded to it, you decided to go go to business school, probably unknowingly, maybe one of the most difficult times in modern history, which is the financial crisis. Would love to hear about your experience there.
[13:26] Jenny: So, the weather lately, I don’t know about you, Chris, where I am, it changes every two days very suddenly. So, if I can just relate that to the atmosphere and the climate of the MBA program in 2009, that was like, one day, it was sunny, and the other day the clouds were rolling around and it was about to get thunder, stormy. So, that was pretty much the change. People were so worried, and professors were trying to figure out what the heck was happening, was going on. I remember we were holding town halls, workshops, to really understand what happened to the housing market, what might happen to jobs. It was very unfortunate because a lot of my colleagues who are going into the financial industry, they were being hit in a very real way in terms of jobs getting rescinded and just even not quite knowing what’s going to happen, being in limbo. And it was dark and uncertain times.
And in terms of, for me, I think I interned at Cisco Systems the summer prior. They didn’t recruit out of Berkeley at the time. Happy to report, I believe they did after. And so, it was, at that time, not just me, but many of my colleagues, whether it’s the summer before or what was happening for the financial crisis, you had to get really creative and you had to get really persistent and proactive in terms of knocking on the doors and trying to figure out what opportunities were available.
So, I felt, again, very lucky to have this job that was solid. It was a leadership rotational program. It was a three-year rotation within human resources. And I had my eyes set on, really, the first rotation, which is talent strategy and planning. And so, there I was, graduated and then shortly got married, and then started this leadership rotational program.
[15:35] Chris: Eventually, you did end up leaving Cisco after going through that program. Can you explain what your thought was in that sense? I know you ended up taking an entrepreneurial route, starting your own company, and then also helping to launch a Montessori, which, for anyone who’s a parent knows that that’s an amazing task. Could you share a bit of what you were experiencing, what you were feeling in the moment?
[15:58] Jenny: Sure. I just have to say I never saw all this come. When I was at Cisco, I thought I was going to finish this three-year leadership rotation. And I think I left when I was still squatting in my first rotation past the year.
And what really caused me to pivot all this was having a child. And, at the time, we were up in the Bay Area, my partner and I, and also lovely friends who just graduated climbing the career ladder, doing what you’re wanting to do. And as I mentioned, we got married and I got pregnant very shortly after, barely making the FMLA, the leave. And it was because we were fairly young, one of the first to have a kid. I didn’t quite know how I was going to balance it all. And to be honest, because of my own personal upbringing, I really wanted to be that parent who was present, who was there. And so, a couple of moves I made was we ended up moving back down to Southern California to be closer to my partner’s family. And I ended up doing a part-time, so converting my leadership rotational role to a part-time role, with the support of just amazing, amazing bosses. And so, I did that virtually.
But then, I just realized it was, again, to be honest, still very hard to focus and to be engaged. I’m sure many of us have sat through workshops of work-life balance or blended or harmony, whatever it might be called now. It is very, very hard, and I struggled.
So, I ended up leaving Cisco. And just really to focus, I gave myself a little bit of time to focus on my then only child and ended up actually launching an Etsy business. And it did quite well. But then, somehow, again, by surprise, we ended up having twins very shortly
[18:03] Chris: Oh, my goodness.
[18:04] Jenny: So, this was, Chris, if you can imagine, three under three all in diapers. And when I did the HaasxTalk at our alumni conference, you might have heard this. I said there were a lot of kicking and screaming. And those were from me. They were from me. I was like, oh, my gosh, I was in people development, developing leaders, creating composed, poised, graceful leaders who knew how to deal with crises. And yet, here I was, not knowing what to do. And so, that was a real humbling turning point. So, then, as you mentioned, I ended up deciding to work to help launch this Montessori brick-and-mortar school when it was time for my twins, 18 months at the time, to go to a preschool. So, it was interesting that my first day of work, that first week, shortly after, were my kids’ first days of school, which in itself, I have so much to say about that. But it was really through that experience I learned so much about the pedagogical approach to Montessori, to child development, interacting now with parents as my audience and teachers that inspire me to learn more about the science behind child development. So, with a supportive partner, we decided that we wanted to explore other parts of the nation. So, we packed up and went to Harvard for the master’s program in education. And so, did that. And I can talk more, if you like. But then, which inspired me to get a PhD, and then when we came back home to Southern California.
[19:53] Chris: What inspired you to want to go to the ed school at Harvard? In some respect, you already had a really good credentials. You had gone to a really strong undergraduate business school and, also, a really strong MBA program. Why pick up everything and move, literally, across the country, almost halfway across the world, to do a master’s degree when you already had so much going for you?
[20:15] Jenny: I am always the lifelong learner and the adventurer. And just side note, Chris, it was in Boston that I learned bomb cyclone snow days. These were not part of my vocabulary, by any means. So, I got schooled in other ways. But to answer your question, I just became really fascinated with the research and, truly, the science, the neurodevelopmental child development, of explaining why we are who we are and why our kids behave the way they do. And I didn’t entirely get those when I was at the Montessori school, which really opened up my appetite to learn more. And also, my partner and I, we really strive to be good role models. And we strive to learn new things. And so, it was on, not quite a whim, but just a thought, I said, you know what? I’m just going to apply, again, to two places, Harvard, because we’ve never been to the East Coast from an extensive living perspective. That would be so cool. And the ed school, I’ve met some people there and spoken to them. They are incredibly passionate, knowledgeable people. I want to tap into that energy, the latest research. So, that was one. And then, being the role model, let’s experience a different part of the nation. We’re in Orange County, so go outside of this orange curtain and really allow our kids this opportunity to experience. And so, those were really, honestly, our reasons. And shout-out to my husband. He just said, “You know what? We’re going to make this work.” And so, we went there for the masters.
[22:08] Chris: Can you talk a little bit about your company? How did you come up with the idea? And then, also, if that wasn’t enough, you decided to go get a PhD. So, can you explain, maybe, what was the thought process there, not only just running a company and incubating a company, but then also deciding to go get a PhD at UC Irvine?
[22:26] Jenny: I think how I approach in terms of how I organize my life, so we talked about work life, in this case I really did the personal professional blendedness, the work-life blendedness. And because I was a mom of three, I had kids, I wanted to honestly be a better parent, be a good parent, a knowledgeable one, personally. And whatever I learned and did professionally directly answered to my need, personally. So, that’s how I was able to seamlessly switch and juggle it all. And in terms of the origin of my idea, and this is an advice to those who are going into an MBA program or in a program, my advice is do not underestimate the projects that you’re going to be going into, whether it’s a class, it’s a club, it’s an organization, even with a company, because that was the inception of my first product. It was in this class at Harvard called building a democratic school. It was a workshop. And I didn’t want to quite create a school, but I wanted, again, a democratic way of sharing knowledge accessibly, actionably. And so, that was when I created, started prototyping card games as a way of helping children and adults to learn together anytime, anywhere, on the go, weaving into everyone’s busy lives. So, do not underestimate your class projects. In fact, I’m actually speaking in that class later this year about my experience.
But it was there that, just being able to translate research into actionable, practical solutions is something I knew that I was pretty good at and really enjoyed doing. I enjoy applying, making things applicable, but with the research-based knowledge. And so, that is why I decided to go into a PhD program, because again I felt like, sometimes the more you know, the more you realize you don’t know. And I wanted to really become an expert, in this case, in emotional intelligence, helping kids, and even adults, develop social emotionally, or what we call soft skills in the real world. And so, I decided to pursue the PhD. And concurrently, I was in the innovation lab at UC Irvine, which is also an amazing space. And so, I was able to juggle whatever I was learning and readily applying that into the products and my business that I was developing.
[25:21] Chris: That’s amazing. You’ve created these, essentially, play decks, I guess, or deck of cards, essentially, to help kids and adults. Can you talk a little bit about that and what your new product is, coming out of your company?
[25:34] Jenny: Yeah, sure. Thank you. And this will be my eighth product launch.
[25:40] Chris: Oh, my gosh. Wow.
[25:40] Jenny: So, just to give you some background, these are ordinary, cleverly simple playing poker cards. But they are coded in such way that each of the suits represent a focus area or a skill competency, and then the numbers represent level of difficulties. And it’s also by topic. And there’s different layers to that as well. And so, I’ve done cards related to how to have authentic conversations, emotional intelligence, better relationship skills, also a deck on coping skills, dealing with workplace burnout, and just personally and professionally, stress management, anxiety relief, as well as critical thinking skills deck around uncovering our own cognitive biases, stuff like our unconscious bias. So, things around that.
So, my eighth deck is around life skills. And this is about building, honestly, equitable domestic household chores workload, spreading that equitably across households, whether you have kids or not, but also building practical skills around how to be independent, how to be a decent human being, how to apologize, how to communicate, how to be a good host, and how to deal with emergency, in this case, very practical emergency home maintenance issues. And so, this is one of, probably, the most practical deck out of my other ones. And it really stemmed, to be honest, from my TEDx Talk, I want to say, three or four years ago about this whole topic of work life, how do you blend the two and juggle the two? As a mother, it was my reflection of how to be self-ish without feeling selfish. And this honesty applies to mom and dads and everybody, really, because we do so much, but yet we have this sense of guilt of maybe we’re not doing enough for the loved ones in our lives.
[27:47] Chris: Jenny, I’m super excited for folks who are interested. I’ve just gotten introduced to it, Jenny. So, you may see another customer coming in soon. But it looks like you have an online presence, mindbrainemotion.com, as well as I think I saw on a couple different platforms, maybe even Amazon, you have your products available there. So, definitely, would encourage folks looking at it. It looks really fun. And I’ll be looking forward to the new deck.
As we’re coming to the end of the podcast, Jenny, we typically have a conversation, advice you’d give to your younger self, or what’s one thing that you learned, or words of wisdom. But one of the things we were talking about before we started recording is, we wanted to talk about next steps or what’s next for you.
[28:34] Jenny: So, great question. And I have to say this is word of advice, and honesty, just my humbling observation, is one of the biggest barrier I see in, say, the undergraduate and graduate students I teach currently at the university level, as well as just coaching and working with others, and also in myself, is this need to feel prepared and somehow never feeling quite prepared enough and needing to be doing other things in order to pursue what ultimately we are interested in. So, needing to feel a bit perfect or ready and prepared for that.
And how I’ve overcome that, and I think that also is related to the imposter syndrome, why should I do this? Who am I to do this? What would people say? And would I fail? Those little negative voices in our head. Honestly, it’s just to do it. Just start. We can start baby steps. You don’t have to get it all right. But even one little habit you implement, one little hour you spend will make a difference when you accumulate it across days and months.
And so, I think, in order to live your next thing or the thing that you’ve been putting off and on your wish list, is it’s to not go into this all-or-nothing mentality. And perhaps, Chris, that’s why I juggled so many things. Just get your feet wet. Just try a little bit.
And one of the trends I see, again, with the students I work with, is even undergraduates, amazing accomplished just good people with great ideas, and these students are like, “But I got to apply to grad school. I’m doing this undergrad so that I can apply to grad school. And then, after the grad school, then I can maybe get a job. And then, I can maybe think about what I really want to do.” It’s always this if-only, if-only staircase wish list.
And so, my advice is we don’t have to be perfect. No one is perfect. It’s an iterative process. Enjoy the process. Enjoy the journey, not so much the outcome. And have fun with it. And I think, to be honest, because I love what I do, I’m having so much fun that, when you asked me, Chris, what’s my next thing, I’m like, well, I’m already living my next thing.
[31:07] Chris: Well, Jenny, I’ve been so excited to have you on the podcast today. Your story is really an inspiration, from balancing work life, school, pursuing a PhD, to running your own business. I’ve just been truly inspired by our conversation today. And I just want to say thank you again for joining us on the podcast. And we wish you all the best in all your endeavors in the future.
[31:29] Jenny: Thank you so much, Chris. It’s such a pleasure to be here.[31:38] Outro: Thanks again for tuning in to this episode of the OneHaas Podcast. If you enjoyed our show today, please remember to hit that Subscribe or Follow button on your favorite podcast player. We’d also really appreciate you giving us a five-star rating and review. You’re looking for more content? Please check out our website at haas.fm. That’s spelled H-A-A-S.F-M. There, you can subscribe to our monthly newsletter and check out some of our other Berkeley Haas podcasts. And until next time. Go, bears.