When Michelle asked me to guest blog, before agreeing, I looked around to see what other blogs were like. I wrote back to her, “Well, it’s not exactly as if I’m the CEO of a company I founded, nor the ED of a great new non-profit. I’m actually a cog in the machine looking for the biggest lever to pull on.” Which she loved. So I decided, okay fine.
Do you remember at grad student potlucks you’d see the kids running around at the student center? Or, when a guest came to the university to give a slide show about her home country, you’d see kids in the audience? I was one of those kids. Though I’ve been out of the academy for over a decade, I still think in terms of the academic school year. My father, a PhD in Political Science and my mom, with a Master’s and ABD in French literature (if she’d only taken that fellowship at Stanford… I wouldn’t have been born, she reminds me), loved and thrived in academia as college professors and instructors, as did all of our Chinese-American friends, so why didn’t I follow that path? Tenure, summers off, your own hours. Who wouldn’t?
Probably like people who leave PhD programs or don’t go on to become faculty, I have mixed feelings about my own grad school experience. To think of the anxiety I had when my relationship with a first set of advisors turned sour (turns out that I wasn’t the first casualty, though nearly the last), it seems so long ago.
I realized a bit late that getting a job in academia is a little like the Peace Corps where you don’t have much control over your geography. Which had become important to me: prior to Pittsburgh I worked in Paris, and college was in the SF Bay Area. I was spoiled. And, to be sure, Pittsburgh’s a great place to raise a family, or, as far as I could tell, to be a faculty member with a nationally competitive salary and many frequent flier miles. For a single person in a graduate program in their 20s, a West Coast transplant to boot, it feels like a large city without the psychic pull of many of the large metro areas on either coast.
While in my program, I loved teaching, mentoring and advising students. I had great experiences as a TA and advisor to undergrads, and without realizing it at the time, I wanted my work to matter to people, that is, more than just to my committee, or journal and NSF grant reviewers. I had great, seminal professors in my life, and I aspired to playing a similar role myself. In the end though, I really wanted to know what was inside the black box otherwise known as the company, the enterprise, the firm. I felt deeply that being in the corporation was far more interesting than talking about it in the classroom or studying it from a remove. A few interviews with managers and poring over Dunn and Bradstreet data didn’t seem to get at the crux of how decisions are made, why companies do what they do, how they end up where they are. In my first years in corporate life I retained vestiges of the academic researcher’s mindset: trying to find patterns to generalize, spending more time than we had on elegantly framing and solving problems. In the end, the corporation, at its best, is a group of people on a common enterprise, trying not so much to understand and teach, but to create and change. (Of course, great companies must do the former in order to do the latter well and profitably.) And I felt I just needed to be deep inside that.
Diploma in hand, I moved back to the Bay Area for a post-doc, and, while waiting for it to start, got a short term job with Apple. I admit I’m a Apple nut, so being in Cupertino was an incredible dream: to help hardware designers navigate the world of voluntary eco-lables. If you wanted to sell a Mac in Scandanavia, Germany or the UK, you needed to understand each of those markets’ respective emerging eco-labels, which are declarations of a product’s environmental friendliness. I had a great manager whose style would deeply influence me. Early on she told me her role was simply to set goals and remove obstacles. I was able to create a nice deliverable at the end of the summer. Later I presented my work at an industry conference and was recruited to Genentech where I’ve been for over 12 years. I started there wanting to build what we would call today a sustainability program at Genentech: how do we incorporate environmental considerations into a corporation’s design and manufacturing decisions? I soon found it was like asking a child to run before they’d learned to walk.
It’s been an interesting journey, because, after a decade, I am, at last, doing just what I came to do.