Helen H. Wang is an award-winning author and expert on China’s middle class. She is the founder of The Helen Wang Group, an organization that provides innovative programs and strategic consulting for companies doing business in China.
Originally from China, Wang has lived in the U. S. for over twenty years. After finishing her masters degree at Stanford University, she joined at a prestigious think tank, Institute for the Future, in Menlo Park, California, and consulted for Fortune 500 companies including Apple Computer, Oracle, and Bank of America.
Wang then became an entrepreneur in Silicon Valley Internet start-ups. In 2004, she returned to Stanford University as a Reuters Fellow, developing technology solutions for underserved communities. She founded a social venture, e-Mobilizer, to help woman micro-entrepreneurs in developing countries using mobile phone to access online markets. E-Mobilizer was nominated twice for the San Jose Tech Museum Award.
Wang’s new book The Chinese Dream: The Rise of the World’s Largest Middle Class and What It Means to You has won the 2012 Eric Hoffer Book Award and First Horizon Award. Wang has appeared on BBC World Television News, CNNMoney, NPR, been quoted by The Economist, the Wall Street Journal, The Time Online of Germany, and featured in San Jose Mercury News, China Daily, and other major media.
A Forbes contributing columnist and sought-after speaker, Wang now divides her time between consulting for companies doing business in China and helping non-profit organizations make a difference.
Here is Helen’s story in her own words:
I grew up in China in a city called Hangzhou, the capital city of Zhejiang province with 6 million population. Hangzhou is known for a beautiful lake, named West Lake. It has an exquisite landscape with traditional-style pavilions and pagodas.
While in college, I came across class reading materials that included Abraham Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address” and Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. It was an epiphany for me. I may not have fully understood the significance of these speeches, but something in them touched me profoundly – all I knew was that I wanted to go to that great country!
In 1989, I came to the United States to pursue my graduate study. Like thousands of Chinese students, I was coming to America not merely for a chance at academic advancement. It was a way to seek a better future in this “land of opportunity” and “country of freedom.” Today, these phrases sound more like clichés. But for those of us who had not known the meanings of words like “opportunity” or “freedom,” America was a place for the impossible, and a romantic version of what the world was not. To me, America was a dream coming true.
My first few years in America were overwhelming, to say the least. I was stressed by the sounds of cars on the highways, horrified at the prospect of giving a class presentation, and confused at the supermarket when the clerk asked, “Do you want a paper or plastic bag?”—as I was not used to having choices. There were so many things for me to absorb, to learn, and to adjust to.
My first American experience was to work as a waitress to help support myself while earning my master’s degree. I enjoyed running around the restaurant with a large tray of food, smiling and sweating. It was so American! Something about the experience was very satisfying. That was the beginning of my American Dream.
After finishing my masters degree at Stanford University, I joined a think tank where I consulted for Fortune 500 companies including Apple Computer, Oracle, and Bank of America. Then I became an entrepreneur in Silicon Valley start-ups, riding the high and low tides of the Internet boom. My story is no different from other Chinese students and immigrants. I struggled and suffered. I fell and picked myself up and tried again.
In 2004, I returned to Stanford University as an industrial fellow to work on projects that use technology to help underserved communities. I was interested in addressing social problems and finding innovative solutions that could help transform the system and allow society to take new leaps.
The project I developed, e-Mobilizer, was to help microentrepreneurs, mostly women, to access the Internet marketplace using their mobile phones. Being at the intersection of entrepreneurship, technology innovation, and social improvement was both exciting and rewarding. I worked with energetic students, professors, and technologists to develop a prototype. During this period, I traveled back and forth to China extensively to do field work.
Each time I went back to China, I saw amazing changes. Its cities are bigger, and its skylines are more impressive; more things are happening there than in any other part of the world. At the same time, I found an increasing fear of China’s spectacular growth in the West. While some fears might be legitimate, most are unrealistic or due to misunderstanding or mistrust. These fears can be a self-fulfilling prophecy, and they are a source of global instability.
As a Chinese native and an American citizen, I feel compelled to bridge the difference in understanding between China and the West. I believe that the world’s stability and prosperity will depend on how well China and the West understand each other, trust each other, and learn from each other.
In writing The Chinese Dream, I interviewed over one hundred people in China and spoke to leading economists and China experts. Because I grew up in China, I have an insider’s view of the cultural and social background of current events in China. On the other hand, I have lived in the United States for twenty years. I understand the perspectives of American readers and can easily identify some misconceptions people in the West have about China.
My experience of straddling two cultures allows me to transcend some of my limitations and become richer and fuller than I would otherwise have been. Today, I am not proud of merely loving my countries (by birth or by adoption). Instead, I am proud of loving the whole of humankind. Whether we are Chinese or American, in essence, we are all one human race, like the leaves of one tree and the waves of one sea. It is in my struggle to seek oneness within myself that I came to see that “the earth is but one country and mankind its citizens.”