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Having initiated and spoken in a “Conversation with an AmCham Leader”, past chair of AmCham’s Education Affairs Group and former governor Frank Wong discusses how members of the Chamber can deliver an enduring impact on the community as role models through a series of orientation programs linking local high school students with business leaders for a face-to-face discussion on career development

By Kenny Lau First of all, you seem to have a real passion for education. Why is that?

Wong: We live in an era of globalization, and the global economy is undergoing very rapid changes as a result of recent development in the way people communicate with each other, the way local, regional and global business is done and, above all, the way an economy is serviced in the 21st century. And it is all happening very quickly. The phenomenon is particularly pertinent to the economy of Hong Kong because, as we all know, it is no longer manufacturing-based but service-based.

Hong Kong needs to remain “Asia’s World City” or it will become just another city – one of the many cities across China. It is about being relevant and making real progress in a very competitive environment, and education – formal training in schools, apprenticeships, or continuous learning – is the best way to nurture the necessary talent for economic development.

As such, we need our young people to become the next-generation workforce equipped with proper skills and a global mindset in order to drive our economy forward and sustain Hong Kong’s competitive edges. The key, from an employer’s perspective, is the ability of future employees to think logically and communicate effectively, and a passion to achieve results. How does your personal experience relate to your vision of guiding students towards success?

Wong: Just like the global economy, the job market has also undergone dramatic shifts, and not only is it becoming more competitive but also requiring somewhat of a different skillset, compared with a decade or two ago. That’s why it’s more important than ever to have a broader global mindset and be open-minded, especially when we are seeing an influx of highly qualified personnel from emerging economies, such as China and India, joining the global workforce.

What hasn’t changed is that opportunities will always be there for those who persevere. My experience tells me that your first job may not be your ideal job; but it won’t be your last job either if you keep trying hard. In fact, my first job wasn’t all that ideal, either. But I would take the initiative in all types of potential opportunities.

I recall responding to job advertisement – and many were blind ads with just a PO Box address and without company names – in the New York Times on the weekends back then. I must have sent over a dozen copies of my resume along with a cover letter every Monday morning for over a year without any positive response, but I just kept doing it. On one fine afternoon, a recruiter whom I had never met gave me a call all of a sudden and told me that Colgate would like to meet me; and the rest is history. How does AmCham have a role to play here, in terms of preparing future leaders?

Wong: Education leads to opportunities, and opportunities are what people, especially young ones, look for in a better life. Besides ensuring that quality education remains readily accessible and affordable, we need to show them a future – a bright and better future. I believe we have a responsibility of doing just that by guiding, supporting and encouraging our students through exposure to the real world and through hands-on experience whenever and however we can.

AmCham is an influential organization and is well known locally and abroad. It is blessed with a membership comprising of so many community leaders, experienced professionals and experts in an array of industries in such a deep and diverse way that they are hard to find elsewhere. More importantly, they care deeply about this community and certainly want to make Hong Kong a better place by preparing a generation of future leaders.

Photo 10 What exactly is a “Conversation with an AmCham Leader?” What can it achieve?

Wong: It creates an opportunity for students of local high schools to meet face-to-face with business leaders of our community in a program which seeks to leverage AmCham’s natural resources – its large pool of current and former Board governors and committee chairs as well as member companies – to inspire students with their stories of career development, lessons learned, and their advice on how to prepare for a career. I think it is safe to say that all of us were once students and wished to have a mentor of some kind.

Members of the Chamber are excellent role models in terms of having a global mindset, a commitment to community service, and the pursuit of excellence. The investment of just 30 to 45 minutes could have an enduring impact on the students, most of whom do not come from affluent families and have had very little exposure to accomplished global executives. The format is very flexible: AmCham leaders could give a talk at a participating school or have a smaller group of students come to their office. What was your experience like as a guest speaker? What did you talk about? How receptive were the students?

Wong: I truly enjoyed my experience and the students were very engaged, judging by the many questions they asked. It’s a good exercise for me personally as I had to collect my thoughts on my own career journey to derive a few key messages for the students. During my talk, I carried a few points for the students to bear in mind.

My first message is: don’t give up; it’s never too late. There is nothing more important than this when it comes to trying to achieve something. Once you give up, it will be the end of it. The fact that you might be at the bottom 10 percent of your class right now does not mean the end of the world. You could be one of those late bloomers or you simply have a different kind of talent, and you don’t need to be a doctor, a lawyer or an engineer to achieve success in life.

Secondly, I encourage students to find something, anything, to be passionate about. It might have nothing to do with school work, but if you are able to dedicate yourself to it, you will become good at it, and it will become your competitive edge. If you love sport, train yourself to be highly competitive; if you like karate, get a black belt; if you like video games, you can write a blog as a game critic and may land yourself an incredibly lucrative career as a game developer. The key is to become good at something that you are proud of.

Thirdly, from a career standpoint, you cannot afford to have an anti-China mentality. What you can do and learn in China’s huge market with an open mind is beyond imagination. We all need to learn to have a more balanced, nuanced view – there are always the pros and cons of any opportunity. The best way is to personally experience China in a meaningful way and to think critically for yourself, rather than being a follower of sensationalism. From your conversation with students, what are the concerns, worries and ambitions of the students?

Wong: Their concern is about limited opportunities, and they feel good career options are becoming less available partly due to a growing number of Mainland talent. They would appreciate more internship opportunities with large corporations as a way of better preparing themselves in a competitive job market, and I think this is precisely an area where AmCham can facilitate as many of our members operate throughout the region. What are your top three pieces of advice to high school students in Hong Kong?

Wong: Don’t stop learning just because you are now out of school. As a high school graduate, you have at least another 40 years ahead of you to learn and to grow. You need to keep investing in yourself, and you can learn a great deal by reading biographies of successful people. Another is to take initiatives – don’t wait to be told what to do, and always be thinking how you can do things better. When you go above and beyond what you are expected to do, you will stand out.

Lastly, persevere – don’t give up easily. Grit is proven to be the single most important factor to lifetime achievement, more so than your class ranking or your IQ.

Frank Wong is President (Asia) of Scholastic Inc, the world’s largest publisher and distributor of educational material for children and a pioneer in technology dedicated to the development of children’s reading skills and English proficiency. He was previously Managing Director of PepsiCo Foods in China (1999 to 2003) where he established a dominant market position for Lay’s brand of potato chips.

Wong spent five years with Nabisco for which he began as International Marketing Director in New York and later became Managing Director of Nabisco’s operations in China responsible for the successful brand-building of Oreo, Chips Ahoy and Ritz in a growing market. Prior to his assignments in Asia, he had also held a number of senior management positions with Colgate Palmolive in New York.

Wong received a BA degree from George Washington University and a Master’s degree from Columbia University, and did graduate study at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. In addition to serving as Chairman on the Board of Teach for Hong Kong, he is a board member of the AFS Intercultural Exchanges, a member of the International Council of George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs, and a former governor of the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong.