Girls should dream big, too

Updated: 2013-08-13 00:31

By Zhang Yue (China Daily)

  Print Mail Large Medium  Small 分享按钮 0

She has achieved many firsts in both China and the United States, but her main concern is to encourage leadership qualities among the young, especially women. Zhang Yue sits down with her to find out more.

This will be Shirley Young's third visit to China this year. The 78-year-old Chinese-American has been traveling between China and the United States often during the past four decades, both because of family, and to work at increasing cultural exchange between the two countries.

Born to a diplomatic family in Shanghai, Young is widely known as the first and only Chinese vice-president at General Motors in the history of the company since 1908.

She currently lives in the US with her mother Yan Youyun, and leads the Committee of 100, an independent nonprofit group of prominent Chinese-Americans based in New York.

Girls should dream big, too

Top and above: Shirley Young is in Beijing for an all-women seminar on "Global Political Challenge: Women Leading Change", with most participants from Wellesley College and Peking University. [photos by Zhu xingxin / China Daily]

Many of her previous trips to China were made for the Committee of 100, which aims to encourage a stronger relationship between the people of the United States and China, and the full participation of Chinese-Americans in all aspects of American life.

This June, Young visited China with some members of the board of directors of Wellesley College in the US with one aim in mind: promoting leadership in women.

"The notion of leadership is not very clearly and openly rooted in ladies at a very early age for most females around the globe, including China," she says.

"Girls are usually taught to have good academic performance at an early age, especially in China," she continues. "The leadership education is lacking in basic education of China."

That is why female undergraduates from Wellesley College came to Beijing for a one-week seminar with 20 counterparts from Peking University on June 20.

The workshop also invited women with great influence in both countries, such as Mona Lee Locke (wife of US ambassador Gary Locke), professor Wu Qing (daughter of renowned Chinese writer Bing Xin) and Chen Zhili (former president of the All-China Women's Federation).

As a permanent trustee of Wellesley College, Young made great effort to ensure the one-week event ran its course successfully.

"This is our first time holding the forum, and we hope to make it an annual event so female students from both China and US can keep long-term communications," she says.

During that week, the students heard lectures on urbanization and environmental protection.

Xiong Wanru, 22, a student from Yuanpei College at Peking University, says she senses the difference in her Wellesley College peers during the discussions in the seminar.

"In my class, girls perform better in grades, but are comparatively weak in leading activities and expressing ideas," she says. "I feel enlightened when I was having discussions with the students from Wellesley. They are very competent in expressing ideas. They are not shy at all."

Young insists that this is something that needs to be developed in educating women in China.

"I do not feel girls are different from boys, because we only have daughters in our family," says Young, who grew up with two sisters.

"And when we were younger, our parents encouraged us to do everything. They never said that there are things you may not do because you are girls, like becoming the president of the United States.

"They encouraged every good idea we had."

This attitude toward education stayed with Young all the way to college, when she entered Wellesley College in the early 1950s.

"I joined Wellesley College because girls were not allowed to enter comprehensive universities back then," she says.

Today, Wellesley College remains one of the best liberal arts colleges in the US.

"In the past, Wellesley aimed at educating girls only. Today, the value of Wellesley lies in nurturing their confidence in leadership," she says.

The confidence Young developed through her Wellesley days helped her career path when she joined General Motors in 1955.

"There was a period of time soon after I joined GM that the company kept losing money," she says. "And all the leaders changed. As a result, company morale was shaky. I was very persistent, and I stayed on."

In 1988, Young was appointed corporate vice-president of General Motors, a post she held until Dec 31, 1999.

She says the collaboration between Wellesley College and Peking University was first mooted a year ago.

"We want to spread our communication program worldwide, and China is our first stop," she says. "This is because Wellesley College has been having an increasing number of Chinese students in recent years, and Sino-US relationships also play a vital role."

Born and raised in a diplomatic family, Young's dream was to be involved in diplomacy in some form, a dream encouraged by her father, a diplomat, and her stepfather Ku Wei-chun, also known as V. K. Wellington Koo, China's first representative to the United Nations.

Although she devoted her career to business, Young did not give up her dream and realized it in 1989, when she became a Sino-US "cultural ambassador" with the founding of the Committee of 100.

The group, now consisting of more than 160 prominent Chinese-Americans, includes cellist Yo-Yo Ma, architect I. M. Pei, former American Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao and figure skater Michelle Kwan.

As founder and now governor of the committee, Young has taken up the mission of introducing China and outstanding Chinese to the world over the past two decades.

"China is still a strange place to Americans to some extent. It has not completely internationalized by virtue of the language and different thought processes. It is always helpful to have a bridge," Young says.

Contact the writer at