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East Asian Studies

Laura Fortner ’91

Head of Marketing and Business Development, CafeMom.com

I applied to Princeton as a prospective Romance languages and literatures major given how much I had enjoyed studying French. But I had a cross-cultural experience during the summer after graduating from high school that ultimately shifted my major to the other side of the world. That pre-Princeton summer, I spent several weeks traveling in China with a youth orchestra performing concerts of American music. I came back inspired to take Mandarin language classes, so that I could finally understand all those written Chinese characters that intrigued me throughout my trip. I enjoyed studying Mandarin so much that I decided to study Japanese as well and ultimately major in East Asian studies.

I knew when I selected my East Asian studies major that I would want to combine my undergraduate degree with a professional degree—most likely in international affairs, law, or business. I chose my first job after Princeton to help me make that pending graduate school decision. I was part of a boutique consulting firm advising Fortune 100 clients on international policy issues. After writing global policy analyses and reporting on conferences featuring public and private sector decision-makers, I determined that the private sector was where I wanted to be. I was accepted to Harvard Business School with two years of work experience, and I do believe my atypical undergraduate major and language skills helped set me apart from much of the classic business school applicant pool.

Language skills make the difference

I had my first opportunity to use my classroom-learned Chinese in business during my summer internship with a Beijing-based venture capital group. I was the only student in my business school class of 800 to work in the People’s Republic of China that summer, and I learned a great deal launching a new joint venture magazine and expanding an international advertising agency into the Chinese market. Most importantly, I learned that post-MBA, I was keen on finding the right opportunity to help American businesses enter China.

After graduating from business school, I was hired to help an American children’s cable network figure out its approach to the Asia-Pacific region. I needed to interview in Mandarin for the role, and got to use my Mandarin and Japanese regularly in market research and partnership discussions with local companies in the region. My language skills definitely differentiated me from other candidates seeking the position and allowed me to contribute to the company’s development in ways many other executives could not. 

That initial business development role launched my career in media. Today, I head marketing and business development for Internet startup CafeMom, the largest social network and online community for moms, with more than seven million visitors each month.

My East Asian studies major and Asian language skills certainly differentiated me in applying for admission to business school and seeking new opportunities in a highly competitive job market, and the research, writing, analytical, and problem-solving skills honed in classwork and independent work ultimately taught me how to teach myself—a capability that has served me time and time again in new roles and environments.

Selecting an atypical major suiting my personal interests required self-knowledge and self-confidence. It can take courage to listen to your internal compass and do something different from the rest of the crowd. Taking roads less traveled and seeking out new adventures out of my comfort zone were a big part of my East Asian studies major, but are approaches to life that continue to help me expand my horizons and grow in new directions, both personally and professionally.

Fortner-Laura