Cover Jennifer Yu Cheng wears a Prada sweater; Bulgari B.Zero1 rings

What will it take to thrive in the workplace of future? Jennifer Yu Cheng—who is on a mission to empower students with leadership and digital skills—shows the way with her passion, agility, and love of a good challenge

On day five of hotel quarantine back in Hong Kong, Katrina Yu, a computer science and psychology major at Dartmouth College, got a call from a childhood teacher. It was Jennifer Yu Cheng, and she wanted to pick Yu’s brain.

Concerned by the setbacks of Covid-19, Yu Cheng had an idea for a foundation to empower teen girls through digital skills, leadership opportunities, and career exposure. As always, she had done the research—she knew the stats about the gender gap in STEM—but that wasn’t enough. She was eager to hear directly from girls and young women.

“I was really taken away by her enthusiasm, her need for a call to action,” says Yu. “I was struck by how positive and ready she was to make the most out of a situation.”

As a tween, Yu had spent Sundays learning creative, critical thinking at Arch Education, co-founded by Yu Cheng, and she felt honoured to be consulted on her new venture. Yu agreed to spend her 2020-2021 gap year as an intern at the Jennifer Yu Cheng Girls Impact Foundation (JYCGIF) and remains a member of its youth board. Yu Cheng makes it clear she values their regular input.

“Imagine her in a room with 10 kind of awkward, nervous, shy youth board members, some still in high school: the way she engages with each person and makes them feel they’re really heard and important in the room—that’s what I really respect,” says Yu. “I think that makes her a really strong role model.”

Yu Cheng is equally comfortable chatting with students and teachers as she is developing partnerships with elite academics, business leaders, and philanthropists.

“We’re hoping to mobilise these stakeholders to help education stay relevant and also fully capture the potential for students’ futures,” says Yu Cheng, whose foundation builds on her pioneering work with Arch Education and CTF Education Group (CTFEG) over the past 13 years.

If anyone can do it, suggests Tallie Lieberman, director of JYCGIF and senior editor and project associate at CTFEG, Yu Cheng can. She’s a natural connector and equipped with diverse credentials and experiences that make her uniquely positioned to disrupt K-12 education.

“She’s curious about everything and doesn’t take anything for granted—you tell her something, and she’ll say, ‘But why is it that way? And what would the other side say?’ She’s an extremely sharp, critical thinker”
Tallie Lieberman

Lieberman first met Yu Cheng at university and quickly learned not to take her at face value. “She’s beautiful and charming and sophisticated, but there’s a lot more to her,” Lieberman says. “She’s curious about everything and doesn’t take anything for granted—you tell her something, and she’ll say, ‘But why is it that way? And what would the other side say?’ She’s an extremely sharp, critical thinker.”

Yu Cheng did not set out to be in education. She grew up between Canada and the US, with a father who sparked a love of tinkering and a mother who remains her moral guide. “Her spirituality, her values have really served as a compass for me in navigating my life and my work,” says Yu Cheng. “She and my dad always encouraged me to explore my interests, to tap into passions, and they both really instilled in me the values of hard work and trying my best and just always being grateful.”

See also: How to Make Gratitude a Habit for You And Your Kids

The recent work with teen girls has prompted Yu Cheng to reflect on her own exposure to STEM, and the formative influence of her chemistry teacher at Choate Rosemary Hall boarding school in the US. “She really encouraged me to participate in competitions,” says Yu Cheng. “I wasn’t sure of my abilities then, nor did I know what engineering was, but she opened doors and saw my potential.” She enjoyed the class so much that she began Columbia University in 1999 intending to be a chemical engineer.

It was a meeting of minds and hearts for Yu Cheng and university roommate Lieberman, the daughter of a World Bank economist who mostly grew up in Southeast Asia. Lieberman laughs at the memory of how she improbably joined the Hong Kong Student Society because Yu Cheng, the head, made it sound so appealing.

“She was already creating community, even back then, and that relates to what she’s doing today at CTFEG and JYCGIF,” says Lieberman. “She’s so charismatic and so passionate about the things that she does that she really draws people to her and to her causes.”

After graduating with a degree in industrial engineering operations research and a minor in economics, Yu Cheng came to Hong Kong to work for JP Morgan and then Goldman Sachs in the fixed-income securities division. In 2009, at 27, she decided to launch Arch Education with co-founder Jennifer Ma, who still works alongside her today.

When she gave her boss her resignation letter, he offered her a sabbatical, in case the start-up didn’t work out. “Something deep in my gut just told me: no—if I’m going to explore this, I’m very, very interested.” After all, Yu Cheng was hardly acting on a whim: she had spent the prior nine months doing research and talking to educators.

“From there we really developed our vision of bridging that education gap to provide opportunities and expert guidance to help students maximise their potential and pursue their goals,” says Yu Cheng. All they needed were parents willing to give them a chance.

“If you’re in retail, you can see a product; this is a vision, it’s about developing a child,” says Yu Cheng. “But very soon, we started delivering on our vision.” They turned around students who had failed out of the local university system; helped unmotivated kids identify their passions; and coached others to offers from the Ivy League and Oxbridge. “That whole process of growing and mentoring and teaching students was just so fulfilling,” she says, “and after the first year, I knew education is where I wanted to dedicate myself.”

Since starting Arch with a first batch of seven students—one of whom was her boss’s son and Katrina Yu’s older brother—Yu Cheng has expanded her impact exponentially. As deputy vice chairwoman and group president of CTFEG, she manages the 700-plus faculty, staff, and consultants across the various schools and charitable organisations it operates. Factor in Arch and JYCGIF, and she reaches more than 10,000 students a year.

“The misconception is that we’re only targeting top, top students who are already leaders at their schools... I firmly believe this empowerment is actually for all girls”
Jennifer Yu Cheng

Yu Cheng sees herself and CTFEG as “edumakers”, advancing innovation and nurturing future readiness in children from as young as four or five. Its Victoria Educational Organisation kindergartens partnered on a groundbreaking study of maker-centred learning with Project Zero at the Harvard Graduate School of Education—and has incorporated the findings into its curriculum. CTFEG is also enhancing facilities at its DSC International School to support subjects from AI and robotics to hydroponic gardening.

In December 2021, CTFEG established the World of Work (WOW) Institute to build collaborations between businesses and schools that will give educators real-world insights into how to adapt their teaching and career coaching. “Education’s goal is not only for the future world of work, but I believe that because of the rapid changes we’ve seen in these last two years, it’s become even more urgent,” Yu Cheng says.

See also: Upfront With Microsoft's Cally Chan on Becoming a Female Leader In Tech

Wow indeed. Yu Cheng stayed energised and poised as she articulated one initiative after another over the course of our two-hour interview. But these are only some of her proverbial hats; she is also a mother of three kids, ages ten, eight and four and a half, and married to Adrian Cheng, who has his own high-profile ventures, from New World Development to K11 to investments in the metaverse. One working parent to another, I wondered: how do you do it?

Yu Cheng readily admits her schedule is packed and fast-paced and that she’s become a master multitasker. “When there’s a lot of different things coming your way, it’s really knowing what your priorities are and how to manage your time around the priorities.”

Although it doesn’t happen often these days, cooking is her outlet and has been since university. “On the last day after a major exam I would cook something special for my friends,” says Yu Cheng, self-taught from watching cooking TV shows. She even had an Iron Chef competition going with a friend; they had to cook up recipes in the dorm kitchen with a secret ingredient.

“It takes me away from the busyness of work,” she says. “Self-care would be family time, exercising, faith; that’s all very important to me.”

She describes the joy of exposing her kids to new interests in these early years and how she makes a point of seeing them off to school in the mornings. “When you have your own kids and see how quickly they grow up, I think you relate to parents at a totally different level,” Yu Cheng says. Parenthood has enriched her perspective on childhood development, and she is passing on lessons to her kids, leading by example.

“My daughter recently told me that she wants to be like me when she grows up; it was really sweet,” Yu Cheng says. “I think her impression of me is being very passionate about the work that I do and always putting in my best.”

See also: What It’s Really Like to Work With Your Mother 

We need more women like Yu Cheng, according to Jean Sung, head of The Philanthropy Centre, Asia, JP Morgan Private Bank, who is similarly impressed by her dedication.

“It’s not just about your financial resources, it’s about your intellectual capital, it’s about your time,” says Sung. “I feel with Jennifer, it’s her unending energy of giving her time and herself; those are the best qualities we could ever ask for in someone who wants to move the social dial.”

Sung found herself carried away by Yu Cheng’s passion when they met for coffee at the Grand Hyatt in early 2020. “The meeting was supposed to be three o’clock, and we were there until six, and I was so excited about the conversation that I completed forgot that I drove in and left my car there overnight,” says Sung.

She got in a taxi with a colleague and spent the ride buzzing about how they could support Yu Cheng’s work to educate girls in STEM and improve the talent pipeline. Emails began flying back and forth. “I admire Jennifer in sharing her networks,” says Sung, who has done the same and raises awareness of Yu Cheng’s initiatives among her philanthropy clients.

Sung also appreciates Yu Cheng’s multidimensional, scalable approach. Her foundation’s core initiative is 10,000 Girls4Girls Coding+, a multiyear programme that covers digital literacy, leadership training, careers exposure, and networking. It’s a train-the-trainer model, and the ambition is to reach 10,000 students by 2025—building on the pilot held at Po Leung Kuk schools in the summer of 2021.

“The misconception is that we’re only targeting top, top students who are already leaders at their schools,” says Yu Cheng. “We want all girls from their schools to be participating; I firmly believe this empowerment is actually for all girls.”

Yu, the youth board member, praised the programme’s inclusivity and relevance. “It’s not just building an army of girls who know how to code; it’s changing the mindset. It’s the whole future-ready thing, where you’re like, ‘Oh, I see that technology is part of the future and I know what kind of jobs are related to that’,” she says. “It’s gaining the confidence and the vocabulary.”

Although Yu Cheng’s research and youth board feedback showed opportunities are generally equal for students in Hong Kong, there’s a gender gap that begins to widen in secondary school, with a significant drop in the number of female students pursuing advanced maths, and only 15 per cent pursuing STEM-related subjects in university. She commissioned a third-party survey probing the reasons why.

“Gender biases, stereotypes, and cultural beliefs were the main obstacles that were deterring teen girls from studying and excelling in STEM subjects at schools,” says Yu Cheng. These findings have fuelled her sense of urgency. Ten years from now, students beginning the JYCGIF programme will be 24 and entering the workforce. “I hope these young women will be equipped to pursue more diverse career options and empowered to lead and contribute to the future economy, to that talent pipeline for technological innovation and development for Hong Kong, Greater Bay, or even beyond.”

See also: International Women's Day 2022: 3 Women Breaking the Bias in Their Industries 

One of Yu Cheng’s sayings is “Seeing is believing”, and she has plans to put that into action at a FutureGEN Girls Leadership Summit—ready to debut whenever Covid rules permit—that will bring role models from corporates, academia, and start-ups in front of hundreds of teen girls to open their eyes to the breadth of STEM opportunities.

It didn’t take much convincing for Professor Nancy Ip, a trailblazing neuroscientist and VP of research and development at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST), to come on board as a panellist: “I answered her email right away and said, ‘Count me in.’”

Ip knows what it’s like to be the only woman in a room full of male scientists or board members. While there’s a long way to go, she cites progress in representation over the past 20 years. “Science needs women, in my view, because our contribution is essential. Even in my own lab, I can see the difference; on some research projects, my female students will do a better job than my male students,” says Ip. “I have pretty balanced representation because I think this is healthy; they share their views, they learn from each other, and this is what diversity is all about.”

Ip and Yu Cheng share a passion for exposing young people to science; Ip accepts interns in her lab and spends time as a mentor. She is also happy to help when Yu Cheng contacts her on behalf of students, such as one who needed the assistance of an auditory neuroscientist for a prototype project.

“It’s all about how you navigate the network you have and link up all the resources, and Jennifer can do that; I’m sure I’m one of many that she reaches out to for her students,” says Ip. “I’m sure the foundation will make a difference.”

See also: How To Find A Mentor: 19 Tips On How To Make Mentors Work For You

“Leadership is an attitude; it’s finding confidence, that’s key, identifying a passion, an interest or purpose”
Jennifer Yu Cheng

Lately Yu Cheng has been reflecting on her career trajectory and what it means to be a leader. After years of hands-on work in the classroom and in operations and development, she is now completing a master’s degree in education and school leadership at Harvard.

“Had I gone into education directly without my business lens, I don’t think I would have the perceptions that I have right now in thinking about the future workplace and education,” she observes, adding that something would also have been lost if she had stayed in finance and contributed to education through, say, philanthropy alone. Her takeaway has become one of the mottos of the JYC Girls Impact Foundation: be open to all possibilities because you never know where life will take you.

Yu Cheng’s personal and professional experiences have also crystallised her belief that leaders are made, not born. “Leadership is an attitude; it’s finding confidence, that’s key, identifying a passion, an interest or purpose,” she says. “So when you’re leading, whether it’s something small or big, there’s personal significance in what you do and the impact it creates, and it makes it all worth it.”


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