From dummy to high-flier, executive believes he has a lesson to share

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 16 January, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 16 January, 2011, 12:00am

Having done poorly at school, it seemed Yu Zhibo was what most mainland parents fear, an academic failure for a child. Now 29, the Harvard MBA holder explains how moving to the United States to study let him explore his individuality and find his way, things he said he could not have done at home.

How badly did you do at school?

Here are two examples: when I was nine, I had to repeat grade three because I did so poorly in my studies after my family moved from Shanghai to Chengdu . Then, when I was at secondary school, my overall scores put me third from the bottom in my class.

Was that because you did not study hard enough?

I actually studied harder than any other classmate. In order to help me catch up in maths, physics and chemistry, my parents once hired three after-school teachers. But every time I came across a maths formula or the periodic table of elements, I told myself I would not want to see them again in my life. I liked geology and history and excelled at sports. But that counted for little in the way people looked at you.

How did you feel at the time?

Some of my classmates made fun of me as someone with a well-developed body but no brain. The pressure to perform well in science subjects in order to enter a university became so intense that I felt I could hardly breathe. I was so depressed that I was loath to study and wanted to run away.

What prompted you to go to the US?

It was a summer trip in 1996; I had the chance to live with an ordinary American family in Oregon for three weeks. What struck me most were small details in daily life. For example, I was driving with the mother one day when she stopped at a stop sign, even though there was no pedestrian in sight. Another time, she told me to pick up a Coke can I threw on the ground and reminded me it wasn't the right thing to do. I was very impressed and wondered how someone from a blue-collar family with not much education could care so much about the environment. Later I realised it must be the way people were taught. On the other hand, nobody asked how I'd scored in maths or chemistry and I got the chance to play a lot. I had such a pleasant three weeks that two years later, I enrolled in an Oregon high school.

What were the highlights in your studies and work in the US?

I spent three months working on an Oregon farm after graduating from high school. There I had my first taste of the thrill and hardship of an American farmer. Inspired by what my father did in 2002 to promote Chinese literature studies via an international forum, I launched a Greater China Supply Chain Forum at Michigan State University. In 2004, I got my first job at Dell headquarters in Austin, Texas, and went on to study at Harvard. The Harvard offer did not come easy as I had to sit the GMAT three times. Now I'm a senior assistant to Yang Yuanqing , chief executive of Lenovo. The most important thing about studying in the US was that I felt I could decide what I wanted and what I enjoyed.

You have written a book referring to yourself as a boy who lost out at the starting line. Is there a 'starting line' in a person's career or life and once you lose out at the beginning you lose all the way?

I do believe there is such a line, but what I don't share with many mainland parents is that there is more than one starting line in your life. For example, you will have a starting line at primary school and another one at secondary school, and even when you are 40 or 50. It depends how you look at your life. I didn't do well at primary and secondary schools, but it doesn't mean I will be at the losing end all my life. Every time you are back on your feet, it's a new starting line.

What would you tell mainland parents who are anxious about their children's future?

Do not give the children pressure, because it might force them to rebel or go to extremes. Parents should back off a bit to give a good analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of their children in order to nurture what they are good at, instead of forcing them to compete with others in what they are not good at. Secondly, parents should realise that they would take greater comfort in seeing their children do what they enjoy.

Some say mainland schools are like bird cages. What's your opinion?

I am even more critical than that. I see the mainland education system as a prison. It's like students are being locked up in a jail by their teachers and parents and made to do what they want them to do. Schools are pretty much controlled by the authorities and the public has little say in how they are run. I never felt I was studying for myself, and I believe I'm not the only one who feels this way. It speaks volumes when we see students burn their textbooks upon graduation.