- IMD Business School
Emerging Market

Back to school: how one MBA changed career to help others succeed

January 2022
Moving jobs to an educational NGO that helps people in China’s rural communities access higher education and training, gave Shalom Tang, MBA 2008, something his global corporate career could not offer him: purpose.

It’s a little word that packs a punch – purpose. An overriding sense of it is what drives Shalom Tang to spend his average week travelling across China’s vast and varied geography to visit partner schools in rural mountain communities, only to then use his evenings to attend black-tie donor events for the education foundation he heads up.

As Secretary General and Board Member of the Xin Hua Education Foundation (XHEF), Tang runs the signature Hope For Pearl project. Now a household name in China, Hope for Pearl sponsors high school students in the country’s most remote, often mountainous regions. The students complete their high school education with financial support and mentoring and then go on to complete university courses.

“They are what we call ‘first-generation college students’. Some of them became teachers, doctors or civil servants. They shine in different sectors and many return to their hometowns, to continue to develop the region and, through their educational successes, their lives and those of their families and communities are transformed,” said Tang.

His admiration for how the students develop and achieve their personal goals and their community’s ambitions for them led Tang to give up his lucrative corporate career in Shanghai and move to Jiaxing City where he became a full-time social worker supporting students for the foundation.

Having trained as a chemical engineer, Tang worked in Singapore before completing his MBA in 2008. He then worked for both Coca-Cola and Rovio in China. The two organizations were markedly different.

“Coca-Cola involved a lot of internal meetings with bottling plant partners and market researchers. It was very different at Rovio where I was actually their fifth employee in China. We were basically a startup company and had zero budget. We had no team and we had to build everything from scratch. But it was a very exciting and dynamic place to work,” he said.

Leap of faith

So what sparked the career change?

“I was seeking meaning all the time. What’s the meaning of my job? And how could I make an impact and make a difference? Just as Jean-François Manzoni used to encourage us to think back at IMD,” he said. When he and his wife were invited to attend the launch of the XHEF training center in Jiaxing (“Pearls’ Home”) and met the founding couple in 2016, things fell into place.

Since it was founded in 2007, the XHEF focused its efforts on the education and nutrition of the poorest children in China. Having launched programs such as ‘an egg a day’ for children from malnourished households, XHEF went on to fund book corners, primary schools and libraries. To date the foundation has sponsored 78,000 Pearl students and partnered with 199 schools. By 2025, it expects to have supported 100,000 graduates in achieving their ambitions.

The founders of XHEF, Mr. Wang Chien-Shien and his wife, convinced Tang of their cause and later that year he and his wife moved to Jiaxing City. Tang was immediately smitten with his new role. In fact, in his first months he met a young student from a remote region who, like himself, wanted to be an engineer. The next summer, by chance the two met again and this time, Tang suggested his own alma mater Zhejiang University as a potential university for the student.

“But I didn’t want to put pressure on him because it was the final year of his high school, so I just gave him my card and suggested he get in touch when he got his results or made his final decisions regarded universities,” he recalled.

Less than a year later, Tang received a WeChat message out of the blue and opened it to find it was from the same student. The message was simple – an image of his admissions certificate to follow an engineering program at Zhejiang University.

“I met the student twice. Within less than two years, I saw the results. I saw someone walk out of the mountains and walk into a classroom and eventually enter college in a big city. You might make great progress in your career, but having the privilege of witnessing someone else make their way in the world is way much more exciting,” he said.

Your next career move?

For those in the corporate world who feel an itch for greener, perhaps more socially-oriented pastures, Tang has considered advice to share. First, he said, engage in some self-reflection to reveal where your skills, capabilities and influence might be best deployed. Could it be that staying in the corporate world but developing your organization’s Corporate Social Responsibility agenda might be the best place for your ambitions? XHEF has partnerships with corporates such as Microsoft and Egon Zehnder who provide students, social workers with internships and mentoring support. Perhaps you could place your efforts there?

Secondly, consider your relationship with money. “I have never been motivated by money, but some people are, and there is no business class travel in the NGO world,” said Tang. “Ask yourself if you can live without your executive assistant and your expense account before relaunching your career,” he said.

Those who are truly determined, he said, must prepare to be patient. In the non-corporate world, frank discussion and split-second decision-making might jar the senses. Trust is built slowly but surely. “Take your time and learn to be humble, patient and compassionate. Believe me it opens all the doors,” he said.

Find out more about the IMD MBA.