This past June, New York Life Investments (NYLIM) CEO Yie-Hsin Hung returned to her alma mater, Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, where she was invited to give the convocation speech for the graduates of the college’s McCormick School of Engineering.
Yie-Hsin was a mechanical engineering major and recalled with good humor the trials and tribulations of being a “small Asian woman” in her field of study, which was dominated at the time by men. Fortunately, Yie-Hsin’s drive made her unstoppable, and she offered the graduates some sage advice wrought from personal experience.
1. Get out of your comfort zone. Yie-Hsin was extremely studious and not that engaged with the campus social scene. She recalled too many late-night meals dispensed from a vending machine while she studied alone. But quiet as she was, Hung also loved to dance. So, she decided to take a chance and join one of the college dance troupes that performed during the football games. It was an eye-opening experience that broadened her horizons and made her realize there was life outside the library.
2. Appreciate the value of a team. Into her junior year, Yie-Hsin had a circle of new friends, one of whom started a short-lived pickup and delivery dry cleaning service with her. “As a business, it was a complete failure,” she told the graduates. “But as an experience, it was an unqualified success, because it made me realize we were even stronger together as a team, even though we failed.”
3. Activate “your voice.” Her next stop, Harvard Business School, wasn’t the “study hard and get good grades” experience Yie-Hsin was so used to, but instead, demanded a significant amount of classroom participation. She remembered sitting in dread, waiting for the professor to cold call on her. But when he did, she was ready. “Let’s just say that that was the day I found my voice,” she said.
4. Find “your people.” After a successful academic run, Yie-Hsin embarked on her career in finance in probably one of the most “testosterone-driven” firms out there. She recalled how the boss would celebrate the closing of a big deal by throwing a football to the successful person from across an expansive conference room. “Of course, I wanted to succeed and earn the respect of my peers, but I did not want, under any circumstances, to have a football hurled at me!” Hung said. “Looking back, I was still in the process of finding ‘my people.’” She was looking for others who shared her values—who believed in building up others and coming together as a team to solve problems. And it wasn’t until she arrived at New York Life, she said, that she finally found them.
Yie-Hsin concluded her address by predicting that many of the graduates in the audience would someday use their engineering education in ways they couldn’t possibly imagine—similar to her career journey.
“The day will come when you are so good at your job, you’ll be asked to be in charge of other first-class problem solvers,” she told them. “And the question you’ll have to contemplate then is, ‘How will you inspire them to come together to solve a really big and important problem? Most people refer to this as ‘leadership,’ but to me, it’s just, ‘next-level problem-solving.’… Have no doubt that from this day forward, solving problems as a team will be your collective superpower.”
Not only did Yie-Hsin have the privilege of giving the commencement address at Northwestern University’s engineering college, but she was also awarded the school’s Distinguished Alumni Medal. The medal is the highest honor bestowed by the Northwestern Alumni Association.
Yie-Hsin, along with two other alums—another business leader and a US Navy admiral— were recognized for their professional achievements and commitment to the university’s values in their life, work, and service. They will be honored during Northwestern’s Homecoming and Reunion Weekend in October.
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