I ate Thai food at the same restaurant every lunch for a week; I think that was about the only constant from the first three weeks of our Global Consulting Project (GCP). By the time I headed back to Cambridge, I had flown for 57.5 hours, changed my bed 11 times, experienced a snow storm and a heat wave, dealt with exploding toilets, learnt three new ways of cooking tofu, and almost decided to move to China.
But more importantly, to put it simply, I have learnt so much: about life and about myself. And realised just how much there is still left to learn. Here is some context:
I travelled with four classmates, two from China and one from Thailand to work as a team with the founders of Juicy Couture on their new brand ‘Pam and Gela’ in Los Angeles. Firstly, as an economics major with a background working in infrastructure and aspirations to work in education, I never thought I would be working with a fashion house. Secondly, I never thought three shy Asian girls could be so consciously self-aware of their fabulousness in the most modest way possible.
We worked on an e-commerce monetisation strategy for Pam and Gela (sounds fancy right? Thank you business school). But what we were learning was hidden behind the jargon of omni channel marketing and O2O. We met the founders, two successful women in their forties, starting their careers from scratch with childlike enthusiasm. We saw them infuse their employees with the same passion that they woke up with each morning. We saw them listen, listen to every single person who was a part of Pam and Gela: from the distributor to the sales person to the customer. We saw them use all this listening to continuously evolve and drive their product without losing their personal touch. (We call this double loop in the business school, but they probably wouldn’t say that).
We saw them not burdened by the success of their past. They didn’t wake up one morning and say: we have done this before, let’s raise funds and open 200 stores of Pam and Gela. They said, let’s see what people are saying and let’s make sure we are here to stay. We saw them ambitious and ready to grow but never letting it cloud their pragmatism. We saw them say ‘we are really not good at this’ when it mattered and then exclaim with joy ‘isn’t this awesome?’ about something else. We saw the importance of building relationships, engaging the people in your life in what you love and how that leaves each one cheering for your success. I, in turn, saw that it was not important to know the right people but know the power of the right people.
At this point if I had to draw a Venn diagram, I would have one circle to represent what I learnt from my client company Pam and Gela and another for what I learnt from my teammates. What the two have in common taught me what it takes to be a kickass woman.
Pam and Gela have built a culture of comfort in the office that is really an extension of their personalities. They are completely at ease in their skin and know how to work hard and have fun. Their kind of fun. They have built a team of people who they trust and do not need to keep tabs on to get work done. And I can say the same about my teammates. Mercy, Lena, Grace and Sasirat – intelligent women who wanted to get the work done but knew having fun made you so much more productive. I saw Sasirat drive a car abroad for the first time and try hard not to go crazy on the accelerator. I saw Mercy bust out dance moves every single time a camera was pointed at her. I saw Grace always stay focused no matter that she was working remotely in London (Visa troubles). And I saw Lena put together outfits every day that should be on the cover of Vogue.
I don’t think we ever ate a single lunch without learning ten new things about the world. I now know that Alibaba is going to take over the world and would win a game of Risk in two moves. We think we know social media but really we have not even started. In the western world, we are light years behind the technological revolution happening in China. We see their fancy bridges, eat their Szechuan food and travel to their manufacturing units but that is not even what China is about. It is about successfully building communities around everything from banking systems to shopping using great tech tools. It’s also about eating rice porridge and corn porridge for breakfast.
Thailand was another adventure altogether. I would be zipping my suitcase (for the umpteenth time) and another set of hands would suddenly appear to make it easier. The let-me-try-to-do-it extended from not only making business models but also to making our own organic fertilizer.
But more importantly, we laid the foundation of lovely friendships. Honest and filled with humor. Where we could point out our idiosyncrasies and laugh about it (yes, apparently every time I order food, I make exactly two alterations to the listed item). Yes of course, we whined and we fought but it only made us closer because there is so much respect for where we have been and where we are going to go.
So why am I writing this? What I think is important to say is be bold; do the things you thought you’d never do. Travel with people that you barely know. And don’t just do them once. Do them continuously. We are taught to focus, find our niche, build our resumes, become the best at that one thing that we do. But in the end, no matter what you do and what level you do it at, if you are going to be a leader, the recipe for success is to become comfortable with curiosity and change. And the maturity and the modesty to do that will never come if you are not able to get up and learn, unlearn and relearn.
So go out, let your brain feel like its exploding with everything it is learning and pray that someone manages to invent a ridiculously comfortable travel-friendly zero-weight mattress. That should be the only constant in life.