H@H: Ep 50 – Gillian Chu joins host, Paulina Lee on this week’s episode of Here@Haas. Gillian shares about her journey growing up and working in different countries and making the cross-country move from NYC to SF. She discusses her passion for has and why she wanted to get involved as the EW MBA Association Co-President and the legacy she hopes to leave.
The legacy that Gillian hopes she and the executive team hope to leave – “I’d like us to introduce new types of programming. New types of events and new types of ways to bring people together. I want to make sure that we’re being as inclusive as possible as we can, because I think there’s a huge range of personalities and types of people in the EW program.”
What she’s learned about Haas – “One of the things I’ve enjoyed learning most about Haas has been when you let your guard down with people and you admit that you don’t have a strong suit in something, you’re not an expert and you’re just here to learn, and you’re curious to learn more.”
“How enthusiastically everybody jumps in to try and help you and how there is zero judgment that comes to admitting that you don’t know how to tackle the homework, or you need a little help and explanation…And that to me really defines the Confidence Without Attitude defining leadership principle at Haas.”
Her advice for the newest class of Haasies – “I think my advice would revolve around being curious, not being afraid to ask questions, not being afraid to tap somebody on the shoulder and introduce yourself to them…Don’t be afraid to let your guard down, and don’t be afraid to admit you don’t know something and you want to learn more because sometimes the professor will help you out. But most often it’s your classmates who are really gonna open your eyes, and support you as you go through Haas.”
(Transcripts may contain a few typographical errors due to audio quality during the podcast recording.)
Paulina: I’m Paulina Lee and this is here@haas, a student-run podcast, connecting you to all the Haasies and the faculty that changed our lives. This week on here@haas, we are joined by Gillian Chu, EWMBA of 2022 and the new co-president of the EWMBA association. Welcome to the show. How’s your week going?
[00:00:22] Gillian: Let’s go. And while we’re in the midst of VP elections right now, so that’s been very exciting.
[00:00:28] Paulina: Yeah, that’s awesome. Talking to lots of excited student leaders, which is always great. To start off, we’d love for you to tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got to Haas.
[00:00:39] Gillian: I am originally from the Netherlands. I grew up in a bi-cultural tri-racial family. I spoke Chinese with my grandparents on the weekends, English at home, and Dutch at school. And moved a lot. Moved to the UK when I was 10 and then Prague, Czech Republic when I was 14 and completed high school there.
[00:00:58] Went to college in the States for four years and then decided I wanted to embrace my Chinese half and packed up and moved all my things to Beijing for six months and then Shanghai for three years. Well, while I was in Shanghai I fell into public relations. I’ve always been like a news junkie.
[00:01:15] I really want it to be Christiane Amanpour when I grew up. But I found out the hard way that news does not pay very well nor does public relations actually, but they do pay. And so, I fell into that and worked at a large PR firm doing communication strategy called Edelman for three years, and then fell in love with crisis and issues communications and got transferred to their New York headquarters and was focused on crisis and issues communications for major pharma and healthcare companies, right around the drug pricing crisis of around 2015, 2016.
[00:01:47] So, came to terms with some of my ethical boundaries during that job and thought it might be time for a pivot. And I just didn’t know where or how. And at that time, I met my current partner as he was finishing his part-time MBA program.
[00:02:01] And I learned through him the value that it could have. He went from consulting to a data science career. When we moved to the Bay area, I did some research and found out that Haas was the number one ranked part-time program in the country. Applied, and here I am today.
[00:02:17] Paulina: That’s amazing. I had no idea you’re from the Netherlands. How was it like growing up there?
[00:02:22] Gillian: It was very different. I think we’re independent in the Netherlands at a much earlier age. So, you bike to school on your own once you’re five or six, basically, it’s the school is probably like two blocks away from home, but not everything is done through school. So, you have just independent lives.
[00:02:38] For instance, intramurals are done and sports are done outside of school, and clubs are done outside of school. And that all changed for me pretty radically when I went to an international school in the UK and everything was very much focused on campus.
[00:02:52] Paulina: So, how did you end up in the States? Did you always know that you wanted to do your undergrad here?
[00:02:59] Gillian: I didn’t until I think maybe the 11th grade. And I work by looking at role models. So, a friend of mine was a senior and she went to my undergraduate school Brown and I just thought she was the best thing. And I also knew that Emma Watson had applied and was going. And so, I applied to go there and it really was my dream school. So, I was really fortunate to be in London.
[00:03:22] Paulina: And right after Brown, where did you work?
[00:03:26] Gillian: I moved to Beijing to teach English to students and realized quickly that was not what I wanted to be doing with my time. And I began an internship with Edelman, a global PR agency on the side and it was six months of teaching for four hours from 6:00 AM to 10:00 AM.
[00:03:45] Getting to Edelman at 11 and then staying until around 7 or 8:00 PM. And it was a special work arrangement that they arranged for me. And so, I experienced the working world very harshly as soon as I was out of college, but I think it also taught me that nothing is for granted. And if you want to get somewhere and you don’t necessarily have the connections, you have to put in the hours and the work to get there.
[00:04:06] Paulina: So, working during the day, going to school at night is not something unfamiliar to you in terms of hours in the day that you’ve spent working,
[00:04:15] Gillian: Not unfamiliar but I still wish I was better at it. You think I was better at it, but I still struggle.
[00:04:20] Paulina: We haven’t figured out a way to add more hours in the day. So, we’ll always be hard. Tell me a little bit more about your time in Shanghai. How long were you there? What was it like working there?
[00:04:33] Gillian: I was in Shanghai for just under three years and every day was both a challenge and both the biggest thrill. I spoke some Chinese and have been learning it for the past four years in college. When I was growing up, I didn’t learn much more Chinese than are you full and do you want more food and have you eaten yet?
[00:04:53] So, in college I studied Chinese for four years and I think I mentioned after college I had never studied abroad and I figured, let me go and embrace my Chinese side and see what it’s all about. So, I ended up in Shanghai and I still remember the first day I got there, psyching myself up to try and ask somebody where the nearest subway station was.
[00:05:12] And I practiced it in my head like four or five times. I made sure all my tones were right. And I walked up to some lady that was managing like a little Chinese crepe stand and asked her and she just burst out laughing, just pointed to the right way. But I think the thing that I learned in China and being I really wasn’t ex-pat because I didn’t speak Chinese all that well was the immense sense of accomplishment and pride that you can feel when you can make yourself known to somebody else and they can understand you. And there, I couldn’t find anything more exciting than that.
[00:05:45] Paulina: And then from Shanghai, you came back to the States.
[00:05:48] Gillian: Yes.
[00:05:48] Paulina: And what were you doing then?
[00:05:49] Gillian: So, when I was in Shanghai, I was working in PR and they arranged a crisis communications workshop for a big client of ours. And if you don’t know what a crisis communications workshop is, it’s just a PR simulation where you imagine that a big scandal rocks the company and you have to go through and practice with the executives, what their communications cascade is going to be.
[00:06:12] What they’re going to tell reporters, what they’re going to say internally. And during that time, I met the head of healthcare crisis communications. She came in, flew out from New York, and it was the most exciting thing I had ever been a part of. I got to pretend to be a Bloomberg reporter. So, check the box for Gillian’s childhood dream. And I got to make a Chinese pharma company CEO just squirm, like dealing with this American reporter that was asking him questions about, I think, a supply chain malfunction. And so, I just stayed in touch with her and asked her if she would ever consider having me be part of her team in New York, I would be so willing to come over and transfer.
[00:06:48] And after about six months, she got back to me and she said it happened. I would like to have somebody with experience in the China market on my team at the time one of her biggest clients was Samsung. So, I think there was a bit of a tie there. And so, I kind of dropped everything in China and moved over to New York.
[00:07:03] Paulina: So, you transitioned over to New York over to a new team. What do you think you learned between those two different roles that you had at Edelman? What was your biggest challenge or biggest learnings between those two and between the two markets?
[00:07:18] Gillian: That’s a great question. I think in China, I was so new to the workforce and just also based on the working culture that I experienced there. Yeah. I learned how to get my work done and how to say yes to my clients and do everything at all costs to make sure we met the client’s demands and expectations.
[00:07:39] That meant very long hours in China, but it also meant a lot of team bonding and being in the trenches together. In the US I learned how to actually get on top of client service and how to start managing a team. And so, in New York, I think there was a lot more emphasis on doing things efficiently, productively, making sure we weren’t churning hours and just in the office for more than 10 hours, unless absolutely necessary.
[00:08:06] And I think there was also an emphasis on respectfully pushing back on the client to protect the needs of your team. And so that helped me grow a lot especially since I’m looking to get back into a client-facing role.
[00:08:18] Paulina: You also talked a little bit about finding your ethical boundaries. And I love that term too. I haven’t heard it described that way. And that tension point that you find within your personal boundaries, as well as the work you’re doing. So, we’d love for you to share a little bit more about that.
[00:08:33] Gillian: When I joined the New York healthcare crisis and communications team at first, most of my clients were small healthcare systems that we’re experiencing things like drug shortages and needed our support and figuring out how to message that to patients, how to equip a Salesforce. And so, I still felt like there was a lot of value in what we were doing in the work.
[00:08:57] In 2015, I want to say Martin Shkreli came onto the scene and raised the price of his drug by something ridiculous, like 700%. And all of a sudden, all of our clients were coming to us and business was booming at Edelman, and they were asking us to prepare reactive communications for them because they had essentially done the same thing over the past couple of years.
[00:09:20] Maybe not as dramatically, maybe not as transparently but they had been steadily raising prices. All of our messaging has to do with how the profits are really nonprofits. They get thrown back into the R and D process, but it was just very difficult to keep writing that over and over again. And so, I realized that staying in healthcare communications was going to be difficult for me because I had gotten a little bit disillusioned after that period of time.
[00:09:46] I went to a smaller healthcare communications agency and immediately started studying for the GMAT and trying to get into business school and biding my time until I could actually pivot into a different function and industry.
[00:09:58] Paulina: I feel like a lot of times when I’ve spoken with people who are at Haas, there’s always these little inflection points along our journeys that are like, ah, Now’s the time, whether it’s career, whether it’s personal, whether it’s environmental stuff going on in the bigger picture. So, it’s always interesting for me to hear what were those points and those pivot points in people’s lives that made them think this is the time because I think it’s a question I know I get asked a lot by coworkers, friends, etcetera of like, how did you decide now was the time because working and going to school at the same time, there’s really never a great time.
[00:10:39] There’s probably better times, but there’s never a great time. So, thanks for sharing. So, how’d you end up in the Bay area? You were in New York and then you moved out to the Bay area. You found a new job and role. Tell me about that.
[00:10:52] Gillian: So, while I was studying for the GMAT, my partner got recruited by Facebook. So, he was completing his pivot from consulting to data science and Facebook reached out to him and he joined their workforce analytics team and it was too good of an opportunity for us to pass up. Then they brought us over to the Bay area.
[00:11:11] And while we were moving there in the midst of the move, an old friend of mine from Edelman actually recruited me to join PWC to do an in-house communications role. And since I had a little way to go before I was going to be entering business school and even applying to business school, it seemed like a really good opportunity to maybe take a break from healthcare communications and try communications in an in-house setting and also a new subject matter in entirely financial reporting and professional services.
[00:11:41] Paulina: What was your biggest shock in switching industries?
[00:11:44] Gillian: I think the biggest shock was how similar they were. So, healthcare communications is extremely regulated, but so is professional services communications. I work for a company that’s a big four public accounting and auditor firm. So, there’s a lot that we can’t say and can’t do in terms of our social media, in terms of our branding, in terms of how we promote our services because obviously, we have to be in compliance with the SEC.
[00:12:09] Even though I was ready for a new challenge and it was my last shot at seeing if I would enjoy communications but perhaps in a different industry and also in an in-house setting, I think I’ve come to the realization of just how similar it is, the function, no matter the subject matter.
[00:12:24] Paulina: That’s such an interesting insight. I don’t know too much about PR but it makes sense in the terms of the way that people and companies are communicating, probably follow a very similar process and framework, but the things that go into each box can often be very different. I’d love to know what the conversations were like between you and your partner that convinced you to get an MBA.
[00:12:49] Gillian: While I think of that, I’ll share with you why I moved to the Bay area. Moving to the Bay area was one of the biggest decisions I’d ever made because I had always moved with my parents when I was younger, against my will or my will wasn’t taken into consideration. Then once I was 18 and I had chosen where I wanted to go to university, I moved around a lot too.
[00:13:10] I went to the East coast. Then I went to Beijing then I went to Shanghai and then I went to New York. And so, it was very much on my terms. And so, moving to the Bay area for somebody else was a really scary undertaking. And it felt like I was giving up that sense of control and it felt like I was 14 again and being told we had to leave the UK and go to the Czech Republic.
[00:13:30] And my partner said to me this move is for me. And if you come with me, the next move will be for you. And so that made me feel really good that I had somebody who was in my court and saw me as equal.
[00:13:41] Paulina: I love that you shared that story because I think it’s indicative of how millennials view relationships too. I think we’re more mobile than previous generations but I think often it was always like you follow the man’s career or you follow one’s career, versus it being a back-and-forth conversation. That’s something that with P and G, they want to move us every year and a half to two years in terms of location. So, that was always an ongoing conversation that I used to have with my last partner in terms of the first seven years of my career was like, are we staying here? Are we going somewhere else?
[00:14:14] And it’s so important to have that partnership and the communication. So, I think that’s a great story to tell. I was curious as to how he convinced you that an MBA was a good investment or what he got out of his MBA that made you feel so compelled to go get one for yourself.
[00:14:30] Gillian: So, I saw him from start to finish in terms of his career transition. I saw him at the tail end of his first job in a senior role at a tech consulting company. I saw him work towards a transition job working at an ad agency. And then I saw him really land his dream job, and I saw all the work that went into it, but I also saw how pivotal business school was as a part of that journey and getting them there.
[00:14:55] Paulina: That’s great. And so, you’re in the Bay area. You’re starting to look at business schools. How did you pick Haas?
[00:15:01] Gillian: Haas was a no-brainer, to be honest. I had attended the Haas diversity symposium in 2019. Must’ve been November of that time. And I was just floored by the people who spoke there. It was a mix of current students. It was Dean Elida Bautista. And it was our communications professor Doyle. And I remember his story brought me to tears about being a first-generation immigrant and coming from Thailand and how he assimilated here in the US and even though his story is very different from mine, for some reason, it really resonated with me. And the other piece was, I was really impressed that Haas was willing to basically spend a lot of money on people who had not even applied yet to the program in an effort to try and boost the diversity and the representation of various communities in their program.
[00:15:53] And that to me was the kind of school that I wanted to be a part of not to mention that I was already in San Francisco. So, it was geographically the best option for me.
[00:16:01] Paulina: And you’ve been involved quite a bit, even just in your first call it a year and a half at Haas. We’d love for you to share how you got involved, what roles you’ve played on campus, and why you wanted to be involved in student leadership.
[00:16:15] Gillian: I actually took my time getting involved in the Haas community. I wanted to make sure that I could manage going to work full time and then having school after. And also, I was just so nervous about going back to school again and making a good impression on my professors, but mostly my very smart, intelligent classmates that I realized I needed to take it slow.
[00:16:35] But slowly, but surely, I started getting involved. I joined some clubs. I joined the consulting club. I joined the women in leadership club and I joined the redwoods at Haas club. And again, took it slow. Attended an event here or there. I remember I volunteered with a few folks at the 2020 diversity symposium and that was incredibly rewarding.
[00:16:57] Being able to give back at the very event that convinced me to apply and also convinced me that I was worthy of maybe gaining admission into Haas. And so being able to connect with a lot of potential recruits was incredible. And so, I started becoming involved slowly but surely, but then COVID hit and I saw the radical change that overtook our program which included having to get used to virtual learning, having to get used to meeting with teams over zoom, and having to get used to just being on lockdown and stuck behind our computers all day.
[00:17:31] Gillian: The reason I joined the EWMBA association is because there are a lot of problems that I think emerged during COVID and the transition to a virtual, remote learning environment. But I think it dawned on me that a lot of those problems had maybe existed amongst the student population all along.
[00:17:53] Some of those included, there were a healthy amount of us that were feeling really disengaged from the program. But I think there’s always probably an amount of students in the EW program in particular that are feeling disengaged at one point or another during the program just by virtue of having work projects come up and taking our time and attention away.
[00:18:13] The other was that I was realizing that our usual happy hours and in-person meetups weren’t translating and resonating as much in a virtual environment, but it also made me reflect on the types of events that we offer for students to get to know each other and how we had relied so heavily on sort of mixers and happy hours at free house.
[00:18:35] And how maybe there was an opportunity in a virtual remote setting to explore some new types of events to bring people together that maybe fell outside of what is a typical MBA experience or rather a stereotypical MBA experience and would appeal to a larger group of us that maybe had never really been into the happy hour scene before.
[00:18:58] And so I saw it in the EWMBA association. There was an opportunity to do things a little bit differently. And even though it’s obviously not ideal that we’re not in person, there’s an opportunity to also maybe take a long, hard look at how we did things in person and see if there’s an opportunity to change those for once we are back on campus.
[00:19:20] Paulina: Yeah, I think that’s a great point because your team will have the unique ability basically to be the student leadership team, as we transition, hopefully, knock on wood, back to campus, potentially this fall. What does it look like? What does a new program look like? I think a lot of times, at least last year it was always like when things returned back to normal, I’m like I think what we’ve learned during COVID as that these normal systems we have are quite broken. So maybe instead of returning back into normal, it’s creating a new future. And so, I love that you said that would love to pick your brain about kind of what is the biggest challenge or anticipating as you think about 2021. And what is the biggest legacy that you are hoping to leave as a student leader for this year?
[00:20:12] Gillian: In terms of the legacy that I’d love to work with Adam, Kevin, Chloe, and Alan to achieve it goes back to re-examining what the MBA experiences and making sure that we take a long, hard look at it. And make sure that it’s as inclusive and broad as possible so that there is no stereotypical MBA experience that involves maybe just the typical happy hours and social events, which I’m a huge fan of.
[00:20:39] But I think in terms of our legacy, I’d like us to introduce new types of programming. New types of events and new types of ways to bring people together whether it’s for networking purposes or it’s a build-in what we learned from leadership communications, and it’s scratching at that second, third layer, personal story or it’s something else entirely, I’d want to make sure that we’re being as inclusive as possible as we can because I think there’s a huge range of personalities and types of people in the EW program.
[00:21:11] And I think it would be nuts not to try and think of new and creative ways to bring those out and highlight different people with different events. In terms of the biggest challenge, I think it’s going to be figuring out when we need to optimize for virtual. And when we need to cut our losses and realize we need to wait until we’re in-person again.
[00:21:31] So, as we’re going through the VP applications now, we’ve been very focused on making sure we ask everyone what ideas do you bring to the position, but also how do you balance having them be executed in a remote setting and then potentially being in person again? I think there’s no substitute for in-person learning. And certainly, the value of our MBA is inextricably tied to us all being in a classroom together, eating during our dinner breaks or our lunch breaks together. And those quick conversations that happen in the hallways as we pass each other. But at the same time, I want to make sure that perhaps there’s events that we can keep or new ways of chatting together and working together and meeting together that we can introduce to the in-person environment when we go back.
[00:22:21] Paulina: What surprised you most about getting your MBA or being at Haas? And what do you think you’ve learned about yourself?
[00:22:28] Gillian: One of the things I’ve enjoyed learning most about Haas has been how, when you let your guard down with people and you admit that you don’t have a strong suit in something, you’re not an expert and you’re just here to learn and you’re curious to learn more.
[00:22:42] How enthusiastically everybody jumps in to try and help you and how there is zero judgment that comes to the admitting that you don’t know how to tackle the homework or you need a little help and explanation to supplement whatever the professor went through yesterday. And that to me really defines the confidence without attitude, defining leadership principle at Haas.
[00:23:03] And I found it to be true in just about every setting I’ve been in every team project I’ve worked on. It’s just been really refreshing to see how people don’t judge you for just wanting to learn more.
[00:23:16] Paulina: Yeah, I think that’s a great part about being back in school is that it helps us relearn how to say, I don’t know and I need help. And I think that’s a really important leadership quality that we sometimes overlook when we’re younger in our careers.
[00:23:30] I know I certainly did because you kind of get out in the workforce and it’s like fake it till you make it. And you’re like, I know what I’m doing. I swear. I do. And I think that’s what’s been so fun about being back in school is not only do we have this safe place to say, I don’t know and I need help, but to your point, everyone is so supportive and they’re right there with you being like, I have no idea.
[00:23:55] Let’s figure this out together and let’s enroll all the people that we need. Along that line would love for you to share anything that you’ve learned that surprised you about yourself.
[00:24:10] Gillian: One thing that I learned about myself that was surprising was just how much I craved being a part of a community again.
[00:24:17] I remember what it was like an undergrad and being part of all the clubs that I was a part of the radio station that I worked at. I worked on our international mentoring program. And being part of the EWMBA association reminds me a lot of that. That’s one of the things we’re really focused on doing for incoming VP class.
[00:24:36] We want to make sure that they feel a strong community together. So, we’re trying to think through ways where they can collaborate. That’s one of our interview questions, but also where they can share their learnings with each other, where they can socialize with one another network with one another, all in the name of creating that bond between each other and another network that they can tap into.
[00:24:55] And that to me is one of the most exciting things that I didn’t really expect to find when I joined the EWMBA association nor Haas and has been really rewarding today.
[00:25:04] Paulina: I completely agree. The people at Haas and in the EW program are amazing. We always call our Oskie cohort. Or at least I do. I don’t know if anyone else does, but I love calling them my Oskie fam because that’s what it feels like. Even though we have spent a majority of our time virtually, they still feel like a family. They still feel so supportive and such a strong community. And just real hype people for everyone, which I love. Everyone’s always cheering everyone on and accomplishments both in life, whether it’s babies, marriages, engagements, but also in the classroom.
[00:25:40] Paulina: Um, so we’ve learned a lot about Jillian, pre-Haas, at Haas, on campus. What do you like to do outside of work in school?
[00:25:48] Gillian: Recently during the pandemic, I have taken up a lot of cooking. And so, I’ve learned how to make sticky rice dumplings and turnip cake all from scratch. And so that’s been a lot of fun. And so, I’m going to continue focusing on that.
[00:26:02] Paulina: That’s amazing. That’s on my list of things to try. So, I might have to hit you up for some help.
[00:26:07] Gillian: Definitely.
[00:26:08] Paulina: That’s great. So, we’ll, as we close out, any advice for the incoming class of 2024.
[00:26:15] Gillian: Oh my gosh, 2024. That’s like the future.
[00:26:19] Paulina: Yeah, they’re coming in this fall, though, right? They’re about to start accepting and do their WeLaunch maybe in person, maybe virtual in July, and then August.
[00:26:30] Gillian: I think my advice would revolve around being curious, not being afraid to ask questions, not being afraid to tap somebody on the shoulder and introduce yourself to them. Everybody in the first couple of weeks of class wants to show off their best self and that’s totally understandable. We all did it. But don’t be afraid to let your guard down and don’t be afraid to admit we don’t know something and you want to learn more because sometimes the professor will help you out. But most often it’s your classmates who are really gonna open your eyes and support you as you go through Haas.
[00:27:02] Paulina: That was great. Thanks, Gillian, for coming on the show. It was great to have you here.
[00:27:06] Gillian: Thanks, Paulina. It was great chatting with you.
[00:27:08] Paulina: And thanks for tuning into here@haas. Know a Haasie that has a story to tell? Nominate them on our website, haaspodcasts.org. And if you enjoyed this week’s episode, please subscribe and leave us a rating and review. And don’t forget to share this podcast with your favorite bears. This week’s episode was published with help from one of our editors, Adam Ward. Until next time. I’m Paulina Lee. And this is here@haas.