I arrived home in New York City on Jan. 20. I had just attended a trade show in Las Vegas followed by a quick New Year’s staff meeting to rev up members of my team based in Silicon Valley, and I planned to spend a week recharging — in between more investor and consultant meetings — before a business trip to China.
That was 136 days, six canceled flights, and one extortionate ticket sale offer ago. It’s the first time I’ve stayed in one place for more than a month in the past five years.
The truth is, up to this point I’ve had a smooth life. After graduating from the Central University of Finance and Economics in Beijing, I was accepted by Columbia University for a fully funded doctorate in applied mathematics. Six years ago, I started an educational services company that now works with thousands of schools across more than 40 countries and regions. I’ve given keynote speeches at Davos and UNESCO, and for years through my company I’ve helped sponsor one of Silicon Valley’s most influential conferences for artificial intelligence in education.
Throughout that time, I’ve survived by being a hardcore rationalist, making decisions based on facts rather than emotions. This is partly my nature, and partly the result of years of mental training. A colleague once called me “more man than a man” — a compliment, apparently — and I have been mocked by others as a “robot.”
For example, about two years ago, mounting staffing and interpersonal issues during the first three years of my company’s growth led to a major internal crisis. One of my investors kindly flew out to California to comfort me in person. “You can cry out all the stress. It’s OK,” he said to me. But I was just confused, “Cry? Why? Can crying solve any of (my) problems?”
But this time, the shock felt overwhelming. As early as February, I warned my team that our first-quarter income from China was likely to be wiped out when schools were inevitably delayed. (This prediction turned out to be true.) “Thankfully we (still) have the U.S. and global market,” I remember thinking to myself. The novel coronavirus soon spread, however, and started a global pandemic. In March, I had to share with my team that we were looking at a loss of about half of our 2020 global revenue.
Theoretically, all business challenges can be dissected and translated into operating costs, resources, and time. So on an operational level, finding a solution to our challenges began from how to ship products, keep contracts, and develop new clients. From there we started exploring new channels for bringing businesses online while providing valuable services to new and existing clients.
I spent late January and much of February shifting tasks between my China and U.S. teams; then from the end of February to late March, we were busy looking for new revenue streams. But by the end of the month, I realized that all the assumptions we built the company upon had to be rethought and reanalyzed. The world had been forever changed by COVID-19.
Previously, we relied on leads generated at large trade shows and conferences such as CES and Curiosity, then visited potential clients to seal the deal. And after the contract was signed, we carried out deployment and tech training on-site. Not anymore. Now I find myself asking: What are the most important problems faced by my company, my users, and my clients, and how do we go about solving them? What will the market be like after the pandemic? But honestly, I have no clue.
And things are only getting worse. Tensions between China and the U.S. continue to escalate. As a Chinese woman who started her business in the U.S. and has been a beneficiary of Sino-American scientific and technological cooperation, the situation is disheartening. Even though my company’s technology was developed mainly for the educational sector and has already cleared U.S. investment hurdles, I see no good in regulations that make international trade, as well as talent and capital exchange, more difficult.
But all I can do is stay rational and try to come up with solutions, no matter how challenging the situation gets. During my time in New York, I’ve turned to philosophy: stoicism, essentialism, antifragility, even Zen and wabi-sabi — though sometimes I take half a day off to blast Lizzo and Imagine Dragons as loud as my speakers will allow, until my frontal lobe is ready to take control again.
As it turns out, the past few months sheltering in place have made even a so-called robot like me yearn for humanity. I want to hug my family and friends. I miss my cat. I’ve even started to read novels and watch romantic movies. I’ve come to realize that quality and service are not always about price, profit margin, and growth rate. It’s about making life lovely, warm, and humane. We should be meeting real needs, not inventing fake ones.
My favorite part of the day is the daily round of applause for first responders and medical workers at 7 p.m. It’s become an important meditative time for me, one where I can connect with my fellow humans. I keep a replica niao zun, a famous phoenix-shaped drinking vessel from the Shang dynasty, atop my fireplace. Sometimes I look at it and murmur: “May the phoenix rise from the ashes” — a quiet prayer for a day when things make sense again.
Editors: Wu Haiyun and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Wang Zhenhao.
(Header image: 500px/People Visual)