While weaving a path through the busy Hoog Catherijne ‘shopping mall’ in Utrecht, on our way to a quiet place for a cup of tea and our interview, Jing Zhang says: “I read your interview with the woman from Cyprus the other day. It was quite a story! I am worried why you would want to interview me,” she adds modestly, “I have never experienced such adversity in my life!” Yet without the adversity, what Jing and our other interviewee have in common is their incredible emotional strength and can-do mentality. A gift they have accepted and applied through life.
Jing Zhang was born in Guilin, in the south of China. “Just a small city, by Chinese standards,” she explains, “only 1 million people live there.” Her childhood there was happy and when she was about to enter middle school, a new type of school came to the city. A school that devoted more hours to learning the English language than traditional schools, and that also promised an excellent education in all other fields as well. “Children who want to go to college have to take a national entrance exam. How well you do on this exam determines which college you get to go to. This, in turn, largely depends on the middle and high school you went to. When I was to enter the school, it was only in its third year, so that there really was no way of knowing whether or not it would turn out to be as good as they promised. It was a bold decision on my parents’ side to send me there. But it was a good one,” she concludes, making a sweeping move with her arm, to include the whole world: “It has made me who I am now; more international. Plus, the students who went to school, soon stood out on a national level; their exam scores were higher than those of the students of the province’s most prestigious schools.” The school also organized exchange placements, which took Jing to Charlotte, North Carolina, for a month. “I had wonderful time there, and the people were so nice!” The seed had been planted and Jing wanted to return to the US as soon as she could.
Need to Help
Jing adds; “I wanted to be more international. My next step was to go to Beijing’s Renmin University, which was established by Chairman Mao. There, I did my graduation thesis on labor economics, and the labor shortage in China. It sounds ironic; a labor shortage in China. But the wages of the front-line workers were so low and the working conditions so bad, that the people were not sufficiently tempted to move to where the work was. I interviewed many laborers and this sparked a need to help people, to make this a better world. I decided to study Social Service Administration in Chicago. This is a study on how to manage non-profit organizations and deal with the internal and external challenges they face.”
In Chicago, Jing did two internships; the first was in a homeless shelter, where she did intake interviews. “This showed me a different aspect of life in the US and allowed me to see the social problems. It illustrated how a combination of personal choice and the system of social policy legal can profoundly influence a person’s life. I met the sweetest people, people who made drawings of me during the interview, others who taught me the street language of Chicago. It helped me integrate into US society a whole lot faster than my fellow Chinese students who were working in computer programming.”She laughs. “Eventually, I got to thinking about funding. I felt that companies could do more. They make money, if all goes well obviously, so if you could just get a company on the board of the shelter, then you would have more constant funding.” Soon she was working with the shelter’s management towards arranging grants for the shelter.
Jing’s other internship was at Winning Workplaces, whose aim was to help companies find a way to be a better place to work, based on the idea that if the company was an attractive employer, it would not only attract employees, but keep them. Winning Workplaces wanted to encourage employers to provide quality jobs and good working environments to all, especially to those living on an unemployment benefit or welfare, so that they can find a job – stay in this job – and increase their quality of life. She worked with the Director of Consulting on an opinion survey to determine what it was that made employees want to work for a particular employer.
But that was not all that Jing did while living in Chicago. She also worked for an entrepreneur who had a very successful gift business, and ran an on-the-side non-profit initiative aimed at supporting those who lived in shelters or participated in women’s programs sell the gifts they made. “Looking back, I realize it was not enough to merely help people – I wanted to take it a step further and find the most economical way a non-profit program could work,” she analyzes.
Coming to Holland
Then… she met a Dutch student who was studying in Chicago, but was offered the opportunity to come back to the Netherlands and get his PhD. “I stayed in Chicago for a year, while he came back here to study – but eventually decided to come here too, to live with him.” Though she “was pleased enough with my degree from the University of Chicago,” she decided that the best way to fit in would be to do another study program here – at the University of Amsterdam. After some thought, the choice was made. “Looking for an answer to the question; is there a way for a non-profit business to do well? there was always one obvious answer: companies need marketing to help them make money. I decided to learn marketing so that I could apply what I learned towards helping non-profit businesses earn the money they need.”
Jing’s final thesis is on ‘green marketing’. “People like the concept of green products, but not necessarily the products themselves. They look at a number of attributes; for instance, weight, design, price – and being ‘green’ is only one of these. People who find it important to buy a ‘green’ product, are willing to compromise on one or more of the other attributes – but those who don’t find it important, are not. For instance, who’s willing to buy an IPAD that weighs 500 grams more? Or that has a battery life of one hour? In other words, as a manufacturer, you do not know which compromises you can make, while keeping your product appealing enough for the less-principled consumers. You have to find a way in which green contributes to a degree that will trigger a consumer to buy the product.” Jing continues: “There is an online community where people can give comments on green products. But marketing researchers have not yet tapped into this. What drives people to place their comments on these sites? What do they want or need? How do you get ‘non-green’ people to give feedback so that you know which trade-offs you can afford to make, when manufacturing a green product? After all, non-green people are more likely to give critical and therefore more valuable information on this issue. You can design better products with their help. What you want to achieve is that, instead of having them explain away the fact that it’s less attractive with the words: ‘yeah, but it’s green’, you want them to be enthusiastic about the product and then to comment: ‘PLUS it’s green!’”
Doing What Should Be Done
Jing remembers how her supervisor at Winning Workplaces once asked her what she wanted to do with her life. After Jing had answered, the supervisor remarked: “You are always saying what you should do, instead of what you want to do.” But the answer to this comes to Jing as she tells me about it: “Maybe it’s because I want to do what I should do.” She then looks pleasantly surprised, as if she were wondering, ‘could it really be so simple?’, and seemingly answers her internal question with a barely perceptible nod.
When asked about her boyfriend, Jing beams. “I haven’t found anyone better suited to me. I established a few very simple rules, when I was very young. To be my life partner…” – she gives a huge grin here, remarking before continuing: “I’m very bossy and I have a plan for everything,” – after which she sums up: “One, he has to respect my parents. Two, he must be super-smart, know more than I do and be able to give an answer that satisfies me. Three, he must be kind, and care about society. Four, he has to be tall… by my standards,” she clarifies, realizing that – in the land of the Dutch – this isn’t a tough requirement to meet. “Oh, and of course,” she adds, with a shy smile: “number one and number one: he has to love me and I have to love him.” She lays her hands flat on the table, palms down, as if to say ‘and he wins, hands down’. The silence that follows this last sentence is rich and satisfying. Her life is rich and satisfying.
You do not need to have faced adversity in your life to have a story worth telling. In fact, in all likelihood, even if adversity were to present itself, Jing would likely label it ‘a challenge’ or ‘an opportunity’ and go about turning it into an adventure. Which, even though her story is different, is exactly what the woman she so admired in our earlier interview did. As we say our goodbyes outside our restaurant, Jing whips out a map and waves it at me: “I’m going to explore,” she says. “I’ve never been in Utrecht before.” And before you know it, her feet are taking her in the opposite direction, secure in the fact that that is where today’s adventure lies.