YS Chi ’84
What made you want to pursue your MBA?
I was a foreign student, and I was leaving my undergraduate program early after my junior year. I started out as an engineer and thought that I would go into finance, and that to do so I would need a master’s program that was more quantitative. Columbia admitted me straight from undergrad along with three other schools, but when I spoke with my mentor he said, “You’re going to need to be in the middle of the business world. You should be in New York City.” And that really turned out to be the case—for someone like me, being in the city was critical because I was exposed to hundreds of companies that were just downtown.
Did you know what you wanted to do with your career when you graduated?
I graduated from the Business School when I was only 22. I went where I had the opportunity to get a work permit to stay in the country, and at that time, only financial institutions were giving out permits. I loved finance, but I didn’t think that was the only thing I wanted to do for my whole career. I thought I would start there, but not commit for the rest of my life.
Do you have a favorite memory from your time at Columbia Business School?
I think it was probably when I was elected as the student body treasurer my first year. We had a really eclectic group of people who formed a slate, and when we ran, we all won together. I didn’t think that we were the typical profile that would win—we had women, minorities; it was a diverse group. Being treasurer was an opportunity to be close with all of my classmates and to contribute to student life. So I really enjoyed being an officer at the School for that year.
You sit on multiple boards and are deeply involved with philanthropic organizations—why is it important to you to maintain these commitments on top of your full-time career?
Some of the organizations I’m involved with are related to my work, such as the International Publishers Association, where I was president for six years, and the American Association of Publishers, where I was a chair. Other organizations I am involved in are related to higher education, so I am on the board of six universities in Russia, Korea, the UK, and the US. And then lastly, there is a group of philanthropic organizations I am involved in. Despite the time constraint, I’m passionate about this work because of the missions these organizations pursue and because of the top-notch people I get to be around. I choose which organizations I’m involved with based on who chairs the board; if I have good chemistry with the chair, I want to support the organization.
What kind of impact do you aspire to make through your career?
I want my impact to be on individual people. I put my time into coaching people—I have had more than 500 mentees. I find these relationships deeply fulfilling, which is why I make a point of keeping such a large network of people. If any of my mentees end up achieving the kind of life they want to achieve, and they remember me as a person who helped them achieve that, then I consider that a very impactful life. Robert W. Lear, former chairman and CEO of F. & M. Schaefer and the School’s first executive in residence, was my mentor. But to me he is not famous for being the CEO—his importance was that he affected thousands of people on Columbia’s campus. And to me, that’s real impact. It would be a shame to just teach MBAs to graduate and then compare themselves to each other by net worth or title. There is so much more to life than that—it is about the impact you have on your children, your neighbors, your community. That’s what really matters. We need to learn to celebrate more than our bank accounts.
What advice would you give to graduating MBA students?
I would tell them they should learn to pivot—fast, often, and without shame. And that failure is never failure if you learned from it. If you cook something and you burn it, and you know exactly what you did wrong, then that is a success because you will never do that again. And lastly, never think that arriving at a destination that you set out for is the end. That’s just the beginning. No matter what level of success you arrive at, ask yourself: What have I done with it?
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