YoungSuk Chi ’83
Vice Chairman of the Board, Elsevier, Inc.
A good compromise
I applied to Princeton’s B.S.E. program with the intent to major in chemical engineering. As an international student who had only studied English for three years prior to becoming a Tiger, I favored math and science-oriented disciplines over social sciences and humanities. Moreover, my parents thought that I should emerge from an American college experience with a certifiable skill like engineering.
However, the prospect of upcoming mandatory military service in Korea forced me to choose a major that would allow me to graduate in three years, something a ChemE could not do. This gave me a good pretext to shop around for other, more flexible programs. International economics seemed like a great compromise and, suddenly, it was the natural choice for me: I would be able to continue studies in quantitative reasoning while also expanding my capabilities to communicate in my newly chosen language.
In the economics department, I would learn the basic tools necessary to analyze the elements that influence choices and decisions in human welfare. Even though we all started out with the famously large lecture courses of Econ 101 and 102, the accessibility I enjoyed in later courses to preeminent minds in this discipline, the likes of Kuenne, Kenen, Chow, and Blinder, on a one-on-one basis made the department feel small and intellectually challenging.
From banking to publishing
My career has taken me on a unique journey that I had not dreamed would be possible. After receiving an MBA degree in finance, I started out in banking. American Express Bank was an international bank with operations in almost 50 countries in Europe, Middle East, Africa, Asia, and Latin America, and I worked in five different countries in eight years. Then, I joined my best friend from Princeton to grow a tremendously exciting IT distribution company. As the global leader, Ingram Micro expanded from North America-only operation to 12 countries in Europe, Latin America, and Asia. Once the company began its preparation for New York Stock Exchange listing, both of us moved over to another distribution arm, called Ingram Book. I was exposed to a wide variety of publishing companies that supplied their books to libraries and bookstores through this industry leader. With the rapid growth of Internet commerce like Amazon.com, we were even able to start up the world’s first print-on-demand book supplier and helped transform this industry. Ten years of distribution experience with Ingram led me to the position of chief operating officer and then president of Random House. Even there, I was busy expanding Random House to new geographical marketplaces like Asia. Five years later, I joined Elsevier, the world’s leading publisher of science, technology, and medicine information, where I lead the company’s global academic and customer relations efforts.
Ties that bind
These companies and industries have seemingly no kinship to one another. But many of the basic skills as well as specific principles I learned from my economics major remained relevant in each of these career phases. First, since I operated in an extremely international environment, living in seven countries and facing different macroeconomic environments and structures in each, the lessons I learned about the global aspects of the economy have been invaluable. Also, business decisions in all these disparate industries required an understanding of making choices in production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services. And most importantly, the habits I acquired from writing my two JP’s and thesis, namely how to conduct accurate research, analysis, and communication, continue to pay dividends.
I have no doubt that I would have enjoyed the ChemE experience. But I broke away from the stereotype and studied what I was most interested in, and not what I or my parents thought would provide me with the most stable career. Choosing my major independently was the first step in gaining the confidence to shape my own career path, however unconventional it may have been.