Career advice from Frank Wong, BA ’79
A full house of students and alumni gained insight from a global pro on Friday, April 28, when Elliott School alumnus Frank Wong, president of Scholastic Asia, dropped by GW’s Alumni House for a candid conversation about what it takes to earn a seat at the international business table.
A dedicated GW alumnus and generous philanthropist, Wong has had a storied career with large, global companies, from Colgate-Palmolive to Nabisco to PepsiCo to his current position with Scholastic, a world leader in publishing. Headquartered in Hong Kong, his hometown, he oversees more than 3,000 employees in 11 Asian countries.
Wong has built his career from the ground up. Edited excerpts from his GW talk follow.
Tell us about your early life.
I come from a large family – six brothers and sisters. Even though my parents did not attend high school, they strongly emphasized education. I wasn’t a great student at first. Before college I took some time as a tour guide in Hong Kong and practiced my English. Then one day I realized, “time’s up; I cannot do this for the rest of my life.”
At GW, you graduated with a 3.7 GPA and went on to earn a master’s degree at Columbia. What inspired you to take hold of your career?
I relished my chance to get a college education in the US, and I found my passion in the study of international affairs. I studied real hard here at GW. As an undergrad, I even enrolled in a graduate seminar on Chinese communist party history by Professor Richard Thornton in which I had to write one paper each week. I continued on to graduate studies at Columbia University, where I also became very active on campus organizing events at the International House. I found out that I was good at organizing and coordinating, juggling many balls in the air, a quality that became very useful in the business world.
How did you get started in your profession?
I was in Boston and co-founded a technology company with friends. That didn’t last long, and I had to look for a job. I spent two years in a US-China trade business, but I realized later that did not give me the satisfaction I needed. (Keep in mind that your first job is unlikely to be your dream job.) I began to respond to many job advertisements in the NY Times and Wall Street Journal, most just to post office boxes – probably 200 over a year’s time. Then my lucky break came – one fine Friday afternoon the phone rang, and it was Colgate Palmolive. I stayed with Colgate in New York City for seven years and was promoted four times. Then I decided it was time to think about a global career. In 1995, I landed at Nabisco in Beijing and moved my family there. The rest is history.
Tips for young graduates just starting out?
Find your passion and stick with it. All you need is one lucky break. Reach out. Write to a CEO –
you never know, you might get a reply. Be curious, keep thinking, and take the initiative. Ask yourself: “What can I do to grow this business, if this were my own business?” If you do that more than the others you will always be ahead. Read! My whole marketing career is based on one book I happened to pick up, The Cola Wars, written by the president of Pepsi USA at the time. After I read that book, I thought to myself, “Wow, if this is marketing, I would absolutely love it.” Fifteen years later, that author, who had become the global chairman of PepsiCo, interviewed and offered me the job to run Pepsi’s snack business in China.
In hiring, what qualities are you looking for?
I look for candidates who have the desire to keep learning. For example, if I’m interviewing someone for a marketing job, I ask: “In the last six months, which marketing books have you read?” That tells me a lot. I ask about volunteer work. If someone is willing to dedicate time to volunteer for a good cause that says a lot about her passion and commitment. “Cannot find time” is not a good excuse. If it’s important enough, you will find time.
A special ability or talent that has helped you in your career?
I am what you call a lateral thinker. I have found that I am good at connecting the dots. I read a lot, and I go to conferences to get new ideas. Then I connect the dots to see how they might be applied to my business.
Any last words of advice for today’s graduates?
Find your passion and be good at it. Try to excel at whatever you are doing. Think of yourself as a personal brand – what would you like to stand for? Persevere and you will eventually get a lucky break. But you must work hard; luck comes to those who are ready for it. All it takes is one lucky break that you can seize on.