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.”
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.”