20 Questions with Lina Yang
BY CHRYSTA CHERRIE
In her post-Ross years, Lina Yang, MBA ʼ01, has run the gamut from finance to marketing to market research. Today, she's a corporate futurist running the tech lab at Hershey, examining new technologies and seeking innovations that will deliver growth, insights, and operational effectiveness for the confectionery company. For a generalist thinker and an agile problem-solver, it's the sweet life.
As futurist and director of Hershey's Advanced Technology Lab, Yang asks provocative questions to identify transformational opportunities that will make Hershey different: "'How can I put the company out of business? What kind of technology will put the company at risk?' At the very least, we can prepare for an uncertain future that continues to rapidly change. At the very best, we can turn those risks into great opportunities."
This may seem like taking a startup frame of mind and applying it to a large company — and it is, as Yang also bridges the gap between Silicon Valley and the corporate landscape. She sees the diversity of attributes and assets in those environments as a potential recipe for success. "I love the tension between large companies and startups. Startups are so agile and adaptable; they're willing to take risks and to move very quickly. Large companies have scale, deep pockets, lots of resources and experience. That can be like oil and water — but when you can find a soluble mix, it's like magic, and everyone can benefit."
After learning about Yang's fascinating career, we felt the enchantment, too. And naturally we wondered what led her down this forward-thinking path. Take an open road, she says. "I simply leaned into any position that was interesting, catered to my passion for how consumers behave, and that I knew I could learn something new from."
Speaking of something new, Yang switched gears from asking questions to answering them as she joined us in the "20 Questions" hot seat.
- What's a book that you've read recently? How was it?
Justice by Michael J. Sandel. It breaks down several moral philosophies to their basic essences. Not a beach read, but it's intriguing in building one's own personal philosophy.
- First album/CD you bought?
Cyndi Lauper's She's So Unusual. I can do some mean karaoke on that album.
- What's most played on your iPod?
Jason Isbell. Genius lyricist.
- What's the most thrilling/adventurous thing you've ever done?
I'm a pretty seasoned rock climber, but I'm always either top roping or following someone else's lead and cleaning gear. Last summer, I finally led my first route. It was an easy climb, but the way I was anxiously sweating you would have thought I was climbing Everest.
- What is your guilty pleasure?
Road Trip and a big bag of Cheetos.
- Who is your personal hero? And why?
A group of teens with Down syndrome. I volunteered for the Special Olympics one summer, and at the track and field event the gun went off and they started running. One of the participants fell, and the rest of the racers stopped to make sure he was OK. I was stunned. I learned so much in that single moment.
- Describe your first job.
I was the cashier at the local Wendy's in high school. And remember when they had a register that automatically spit out the change? I didn't even have to do any real math. It was mindless, but I enjoyed getting to know my fellow workers from all walks of life. Want to know about diversity? Get a job at a fast-food joint.
- What advice would you give yourself 10 years ago?
Don't obsess and think you have to have your career mapped out. In fact, allow yourself to take jobs that seem like a bad idea, at least to others, but where you know you'll learn something new. Not only will it always pay off, it might lead you to new adventures that would never have crossed your path otherwise.
- Favorite person to follow on Twitter? (And why?)
@StartupLJackson. This "anonymous" player in the Silicon Valley scene has great insight about what's happening in the startup ecosystem but delivers it the way Samuel L. Jackson would in Pulp Fiction. It's fantastic!
- The one thing you learned in business school that you'll never forget is...?
Professor Allan Afuah and his repeated refrain, "How does that make MO-NEY?" But seriously, back in 2001 when we graduated, there was a startup bubble when all these companies didn't have a sustainable business model, but instead were building to be bought by someone. Now that cycle is coming around again, and how many of those unicorns in Silicon Valley have a sustainable business model? We'll see.
- Most important room in your home?
The kitchen. It's a place of creativity and the social hub.
- Business or charity you wish more people knew about?
The Milton Hershey School. Milton never had kids, so he left his entire estate in a trust to continue his school for orphan boys in perpetuity. Today, it's a school for disadvantaged kids from all over the country. They are housed right in Hershey, Pa., and receive an incredible education, and if they want to go to college it's paid for as well.
- First website you access in the morning?
- Favorite comfort food?
- Three people, living or dead, you'd have over for dinner?
1. My maternal grandmother. I never got to know her very well.
2. David Chang, the mastermind behind Momofuku. He's nuts, and I want to get me some of that.
3. Quentin Tarantino. Need I explain?
- What did you want to be when you were a kid?
- Pet peeve?
Drivers who don't respect the left lane. It's a passing lane, folks. I don't care that you're "going the speed limit." That's not a good excuse to cause traffic.
- Favorite workout?
- Favorite sport to watch?
Michigan football, of course!
- Favorite thing happening in the food/beverage world right now?
I'm really digging how food affects one's microbiome. I believe that will be critical to driving one's personal health and wellness in the future. And we've only just brushed the tip of the iceberg.
Digital Dividend Online Exclusive
We asked Lina a few additional questions for our online audience.
- What gets you out of bed in the morning?
Work. Corporate America is fashioned around morning people. As a serious night owl, I find that terribly unjust.
- What are you afraid of?
- What job would you hate to have?
Customer service at a call center for a developed country.
- Favorite drink?
An inspiring glass of red wine.
- What do you miss most about Ann Arbor?
I used to live close to where the marching band practiced. I would open my window and study while the band serenaded me.
- One piece of advice for women in business?
Let's support each other, ladies. Some of the worst bosses I've ever had are women. Why is that? That needs to change, and that starts with us.