The Diamond Girl on Fifth Avenue
After getting my MBA, I dived right into the glamorous luxury goods industry. On Fifth Avenue, I worked in the most gorgeous diamond house in the world.
As Head of Business Development, my work involved meeting and negotiating with billionaires around the world, presenting at events for the one percent, keeping them spending. I repeatedly put the most extravagant and beautiful diamonds on their necks, fingers, wrists. We have beautiful boxes delivered in white gloves to those mysterious mansions, where the title of the recipient must not appear.
I loved my job at Harry Winston, especially since I am so good at it. My attachment to it was purely professional though. I treat my job with responsibility and perfection.
Dinner time in Manhattan is perfect for scratching your itch to start a business and supporting your friends’ new idea of the week. One evening, I took a walk with a good friend after dinner. As we stared at the dazzling window display on Fifth Avenue, we started talking about life ambitions.
“I want to make an impact one day,” I said.
“Well, your job is already perfect. It is glamorous, luxurious, pay good money – it invites envy!” replied my friend.
I said: “But it’s a job. If I have to justify any impact, I guess I have put those giant diamonds on the wealthy ladies. So that on the next charity gala, they can flaunt their hands in front of their friends and silently show off: mine is bigger than yours!”
“Yes, isn’t that your mission?” my friend asked.
“No! Definitely not! That’s my job. I love my job, but this isn’t the mission I am talking about.”
However, neither could I tell her what my mission was. Since then, I started thinking about this more: what is my mission? What does it feel like to have a mission?
I would never guess that one day the answer will come from someone so close yet so far away from me.
The Untold Grandfather
While living and breathing the luxury industry, I occasionally went to Columbia to visit my most important alumni: my grandfather. He was a Chinese university professor, got his Master degree in Philosophy from Columbia University. Like many experts and scholars, he answered the call to return to build the ‘New China.’ Yet soon the Cultural Revolution hit. I never met him because he passed away before I was born.
Until I turned 7, I only knew my grandfather was an English professor at a top university in China. After the China Communist Revolution in 1949, he transferred to a different university.
While in middle school, an American sitcom Growing Pains became popular in China. Carole, the sister character went to Columbia University. My father told me: “Your grandfather graduated from the same school.” But he did not say any further.
I did not pay much attention. The idea of studying abroad still seemed beyond reality in China, a country just opened after 30 years of closure.
However, a question stuck in my mind: why did my father wait so many years to tell me about grandfather? Shouldn’t he be like those proud and anxious parents who can’t wait to lecture the Columbia tradition before potty training?
The Scholar Who Burnt Books
Along with the Chinese economic reform, I grew up and started career planning. After graduation from a top Chinese university, I became a journalist at the largest national TV network in China. Afterward, I transitioned to be a manager in Fortune 500 companies and prepared to get an MBA degree in the US.
This time, China was completely different from 30 years ago when my father was my age. It was already very common to study abroad.
I occasionally asked about my grandfather: what did he study? When did he graduate? My father answered all one by one:
Grandfather came to the United States in 1947 and received a Master degree in Philosophy from Columbia University in 1949. The same year, the People’s Republic of China established. To return to his wife and country, my grandfather chose to return to China.
After his return, China closed the border for 30 years. My grandfather was never been able to return to the US.
During years of the Cultural Revolution, schools were closed and students were released from classrooms. For 10 years China’s education system shut down. Anyone with contacts of Western countries was considered a traitor. To be politically correct, one must destroy all western objects to show loyalty and opposition to capitalism.
My father remembers seeing my grandfather burning English books silently. I guess those might include his philosophy textbooks and readings, etc.
To protect his family, my grandfather had to do it. In that era, having English readings at home was enough to turn the fate of an entire family. I would not have existed today. I could hardly imagine the conflict, struggle, and fear that my grandfather went through.
Sometimes I imagine my grandfather picking out a book from the shelf at Columbia, considering it, and put into the luggage with a push to make room for more. He might have planned to enjoy these books in China when sitting next to my grandmother. He might also have imagined passing on these books to his children, his grandchildren, and future students that he will teach and admire.
In his Columbia dorm, my grandfather must have never imagined one day he would be burning the books he carefully packed.
To make a scholar burn books is like taking his life.
Turn of History
In 1977, the Cultural Revolution ended and universities resumed. Ambitious people all over China flooded the university entrance exams. My father was among the first class to be admitted to universities. The admission ratio in 1977 was 4.7%, the lowest in China’s history. (In 2008 when I went to Columbia, Columbia’s admission ratio was 12.8%, Harvard was 10.3%)
My father not only got his bachelor degree but also speaks English. He became a rare talent because China was finally eager to say ‘Hello!’ to the world.
My father soon joined a large Import and Export company to do foreign trade. He flew all over the world, bringing me all kinds of toys that I brought to kindergarten to show off. The toys were always beaten up by the kids by the time I brought them back in the evening.
I asked my father how he passed the university exam when schools closed for ten years. He said during those years, grandfather kept him reading books after books at home, including English ones. In those days, books were the only source of knowledge and hope. This is why he speaks English, a skill that turns out to be gold in China ten years later.
Oh grandpa, so you did secretly save some English books after all!
My grandfather was hired as an English coach to Chinese military diplomats in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Thanks for that, he sheltered my father and grandma from the Great Chinese Famine that took lives in tens of millions.
Later, my grandfather became an English professor in universities. Yes, he studied Philosophy, with a background from western education, though there wasn’t much he was allowed to teach in China.
The Modern Day MBA
When applying for an MBA, I had a scientific approach: building Excel spreadsheets on admission rates, analyzing schools by student background, geography, etc to estimate my odds. I picked a few schools, including the Wharton School my husband graduated from and Harvard.
You might feel confused, you’re right, Columbia wasn’t on the list. Why? Because Columbia’s admission ratio is usually the lowest, even lower than Harvard sometimes.
Furthermore, all the students Columbia recruited from China came from either science or finance background. They are mostly aspiring analysts from top investment banks or consulting firms. They often have 3.9 GPA and are student association chairs, sent to Hong Kong or overseas on trainee rotations. They were literally the full cast of ‘Who is Who’ of Chinese fresh graduates each year.
Compared to them, I felt I like nobody. Today, I would proudly say my experience was impressive, too: a financial news reporter at China Central Television, talking to tens of millions of audiences every day, interviewing the Chairman of World Bank and CEOs of global companies at age of 22.
But then, I told myself: it’s just not the same thing. What I do is different compared to their kind of ‘awesomeness’.
Indeed, ‘I am different’ -the exact phrase that I had yet to learn the true meaning to my path and mission.
Though having a family alum is a plus in application, I still had no confidence to apply to Columbia. There is another reason: my undergrad GPA was really low, so low that I felt I failed my grandfather.
Grandpa, I can explain my GPA if you please listen: I never expected to fail in the ‘Military Theory’ course during freshman year (a mandatory course in all Chinese universities regardless of the major). In fact, I still do not quite understand its logic today. Concurrently I broke up with my popular boyfriend and then my parents got divorced.
Imagine just six months prior, I got into one of the best universities in China and was on top of the world. all of a sudden, I felt I screwed up my life.
What’s more, right after the summer, my ex-boyfriend suddenly showed up in my major class every day (it wasn’t his major). I protested and stopped coming to that class until he quit (foolish yet wonderful times!). As a result of all that chaos, my GPA went south.
Anyway, I decided not to make a joke of myself with Columbia.
When preparing application essays, I thought to myself: most schools ask for essays on ‘Why MBA’, so why don’t I apply to Columbia anyway and give myself a shot? Whenever haunted by my daunting GPA, I came up with all kinds of reasons to convince myself to try Columbia.
Sometimes I fantasized: what should I do if I got an offer from both Columbia and Harvard? My answer was: I will always choose Columbia, it is where my grandfather studied.
I rewrote my list. This time, I replaced Harvard with Columbia. (I admit such overoptimistic logic is subject to further scrutiny).
That’s the moment I realized I already had a strong choice in my mind. Maybe it is what my grandfather did, all the bits and pieces of stories that I heard about him, him risking life to save a few books out of respect for knowledge, love for his son and hope for a future. I was already dedicated and committed to this choice, the only choice a long time ago.
This time, I decided to trust my heart more than statistics. I heard my inner voice: “I want Columbia, MAKE IT HAPPEN, please.”
My father told me that grandpa asked him to do two things if he would have a daughter one day: 1) Let her study English and 2) Let her see the world.
China was still closed when grandfather made these requests. His requests were mission impossible. However, he probably understood the critical importance of these two things. English provides a bridge to understand thinking in different countries; world travel provides a window to understanding lives in different places. My father always told me since I was a little kid that being a worldly person keeps a woman away from gossips and tattle.
My grandfather did not request that I study math, physics, or chemistry.
This might be the reason why I kept coming up with all kinds of reasons to apply to a school that seems ‘unfit’ with my background. I ‘lobbied’ myself until the day I clicked the ‘submit’ bottom.
I completed the alumni column with pride, and sacredly attached my grandfather’s diploma. That was the only time my father took out grandfather’s original Columbia diploma, carefully protected for decades.
I was admitted to Columbia.
Business school: amazing. B-school schedule: brutal. Every day I was swamped by hundreds of emails, classes, homework, speaker events, interview networking and after parties. Stay on top of productivity and cut sleep are the keys to survival.
In those two years, I spent most of my time in free cash flow, turn around strategy, marketing plans and all kinds of events and coffee chats. Because of this, I rarely thought of visiting Philosophy Hall.
Right before coming to the US, I went on a tomb sweeping trip with my parents. This is a Chinese tradition to pay homage to ancestors and loved ones who have passed away.
In front of my grandfather’s tomb, my father started breathing heavily. In a rare gasp, he was trying not to cry in front of me and my mother. “Dad, Lei Lei (my nickname) is also going to Columbia, she will be your alum now.”
At that moment, I made the decision: I must take my father to see my grandfather’s campus.
The summer before the second school year, I brought my parents to New York and Columbia campus. I took my father in front of the Philosophy Hall. “This is where Grandpa studied,” I said.
My father stared at everything. He looked at the hall, the lawn in the front. He circled around The Thinker sculpture in front of the building and even mimicked the statue like a kid. Even when my mother teased that his mimic looked like a severe toothache at best, my father was filled with joy.
Before my parents arrived at Columbia, I tried to find my grandfather’s graduation paper. I want to know what he wrote. With limited time, I wasn’t able to locate the file from long ago.
Luxury and Philosophy
After graduation, I dived into business. Even if my work environment seems so ‘material’, I like thinking about things not relevant to business nor even day-to-day life.
I have a lot of ‘whys’ for things: human nature, why am I here, why me, what is the meaning of my emotions? These thoughts are generally considered in China to be not practical, useless thought that only occurs when one eats too much.
These ‘why’s can’t be answered by business school courses, neither worth a moment to spare by the busy New Yorkers.
Still, these thoughts exist in my mind and keep growing, gradually spilling from my mind to paper, laptop, and Evernote.
There is a world in my mind that exists on top of everyday life, where I am free to come up with all kinds of thoughts, theories, and conclusions about my experience, people and life. Since I am a big foodie, not surprisingly, many of my analogies come from food.
Sometimes I wonder if my random thinking comes from my grandfather’s gene. I have no expertise in philosophy, yet I do know that philosophy is the thinking of how things work, the pursuit of truth. The most important tool is independent thinking: the most important trait that my grandfather wanted me to inherit.
Independent thinking, to have a mind of one’s own is never a priority in the environment I grew up. However, now in the country where my grandfather met philosophy, the fire in my heart started to ignite like suddenly supplied by a room full of oxygen.
My thoughts and words not only give me clarification and keep me going, but they also help my friends. After talking to friends, I always hear them screaming:
”Wow, Tess, what you just said is wonderful! I never thought of that.”
“Tess you inspired me!”
“Tess, you are the best, only you can cure me!”
When more and more people come around me and repay me with their friendship and support, I see a sign:
- I have the ability to inspire others, motivate them to take action and make an impact on their lives;
- These people see something in me that can lift their lives, like one of my friends said, she can fly higher with me;
- This power is becoming stronger and stronger every day.
If these thoughts exist only in my head, they do not create value. If I share my thoughts, expertise, and experience with others, the thoughts might help them, thus create value, and this is just the beginning.
That’s why I created this site. I want to do what my grandfather wished to have the opportunity to do: to inspire and make an impact in the world and encourage critical thinking.
My first step is on this website. I just wish my grandfather would see and subscribe to my site. This site is dedicated to all who are in pursuit of critical thinking, a powerful tool to achieve greater purposes.
Business Meets Philosophy
This site is where I can partner with my grandfather, to use business and philosophy to:
- Bring light to the soul
- Bring beauty to the person
- Bring harmony to the home
Will you join me?
Hey, I’m Tess, an entrepreneur, and owner of Delicate Revolt, where I share 1. Lessons learned by an entrepreneur; 2. How to achieve energy, efficiency, and style on business travels. Welcome to the Revolt!
Such a beautiful story. I am also a CU alumna from China. Thanks for sharing.
Thanks for the nice comment, glad to see a CU fellow alum here!