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Department: East Asian Studies

Mann East Asian Studies

Lisa Pollock Mann ’90

Director, Messaging Products, Yahoo!

The early years

My path to East Asian studies began well before college. I had always loved languages, and after having studied Spanish for six years in grade school and high school and spending a summer in Ecuador as an exchange student, I was ready to take on another tongue in my senior year. My high school offered Chinese, and the thought of being able to communicate with an additional one billion people in their own language seemed too enticing not to take the plunge.

When I arrived at Princeton, most of my new classmates were convinced that the big departments—economics, politics, history, Woodrow Wilson, English—offered the most tried and true paths to securing a good job after graduation. I was still uncertain about the exact course my career would follow, but I knew it would involve something in international exploration. I decided to continue my studies of Chinese language as a freshman, and as I became more proficient in the Chinese language, I became more interested in and passionate about Chinese culture. The two became intertwined and inseparable. I took classes in Asian art, history, politics, religion, and sociology. These ended up being my favorite classes, and I decided to major in East Asian studies.

I wondered: What would I do with that major after college?

Unique benefits

Majoring in a small department provided me access to faculty and facilities that I simply would not have had, had I selected one of the larger majors. The teachers and administrators knew me by name; I was able to select my thesis adviser based on my interests, and I was able to design my own course work, picking and choosing from a wide variety of disciplines across the University. I cherished the flexibility of taking classes in a variety of departments, and I appreciated the opportunity to focus on a specific region and culture. Princeton and East Asian studies in particular seemed unique and perfectly suited to facilitate my desire to learn and allow for a very creative yet focused way to do so. Being exposed to a number of academic disciplines allowed me to stretch my mind in many ways, while continuing to deepen my emphasis on language, literature, and culture.

Career path begins

My proficiency in Chinese allowed me to secure a summer job in Taiwan following my junior year, working for a local importer of automobiles. I was the only non-Chinese in the office, and for the first time I experienced true cultural immersion in an Asian country. There, I was able to utilize the tools that Princeton had provided.

As graduation approached, I became more and more focused on pursuing a career in international business. Without any specific business training, I realized that the best way for me to get my foot in the door was to join the analyst program of a multinational investment bank or consulting firm, which would allow me to get the business training I hadn’t received in college. I was pleasantly surprised by how receptive, impressed, and even seemingly relieved the interviewers from the firms were during recruiting to be speaking with someone who had taken an unconventional route to the business world. Rather than being a black mark, my East Asian studies degree had become an advantage; it differentiated me from the majority of applicants who came to the table with economics or finance degrees.

After spending three years in the investment banking program at Goldman Sachs in New York City, I had the opportunity to transfer to their Hong Kong office. I deferred my acceptance to the Graduate School of Business at Stanford and spent a year working with clients all over Asia, finally having a chance to combine my academic background with my more recent business experience. I was more than just an “expatriate”—I was the only American in that office with a background in Chinese language and studies. I made a close connection with and gained instant credibility with clients in China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong because of my language skills and cultural awareness, something that many of my more senior American colleagues were not able to do. Of this, I was extremely proud, and I was extremely grateful, once again, for the opportunities that Princeton and the East Asian studies major had afforded me.

Lessons for a lifetime

After receiving my MBA at Stanford, I joined Yahoo!, ultimately running the global teams for e-mail and instant messaging. My interdisciplinary major gave me a solid foundation for the cross-functional job requirements of general management.

I know now that finance, accounting, and economics do not hold the answers to a successful career in management. Flexibility, passion, communication, and listening skills—these are key traits that are not taught in a specific academic discipline but are essential to leadership in the workplace. Majoring in East Asian studies helped me to learn how to place myself in someone else’s shoes, and the ultimate communication skill became an understanding of and appreciation for cross-cultural differences in the workplace and in the business world. In sum, majoring in East Asian studies afforded me the opportunity to explore my passions while in college, while securing a solid foundation in the business world.