Cynthia Shih

Cynthia Shih, MBA/MS '13

Launching to Advance Global Sustainability

Cynthia Shih arrived at Michigan Ross as a professional recording artist. For years, Cynthia had been writing and recording her own music, playing venues and festivals across the country, and even performing on national television as a guest of the "Late Show with David Letterman." Known to audiences as Vienna Teng, by 2010 she had published three studio albums of classical piano and folk/pop songs.

So what prompted Cynthia to put her successful career as a musician on pause to pursue a full-time MBA? According to Cynthia, it was a persistent desire to do the most good. While touring, that desire became increasingly focused on how to help combat the climate crisis and promote global sustainability. Cynthia wanted to take action on the issue in a meaningful way, and saw graduate education as the best way to gain the skills and knowledge base she'd need to maximize her impact.


Pursuing a Dual Degree

Though a West Coast native and Stanford alum, it was the University of Michigan upon which Cynthia set her sights for grad school. U-M offered a unique dual degree program that combined her interests in sustainability and climate science with a comprehensive graduate management education. Through this offering from the Erb Institute of Global Sustainable Enterprise, Cynthia could earn a master in science from the School for Environment and Sustainability and a master in business administration from the Stephen M. Ross School of Business in just three years. 

Michigan was always at the top of my list for its reputation, for how long the Erb Institute had been around, and for the kind of alumni that were coming out of that program. And once I got to Michigan Ross, I was pleasantly surprised to find that a lot of people were also there to take their own personal potential and leave a positive contribution to the world.

Cynthia spent her first year of graduate school taking courses solely from the School for Environment and Sustainability. Dual degree students choose how to sequence their coursework, and Cynthia notes the two-step approach she chose worked to her benefit. She rounded out her first year with an internship through the Environmental Defense Fund's Climate Corps, which gave her an opportunity to work directly with Facebook's headquarters to identify ways to decrease their environmental footprint. Following her internship, Cynthia began two years of coursework at Michigan Ross. 

Rather than serving as distinct chapters of her time on campus, Cynthia describes her two degree experiences as interconnected. She was surrounded not only by fellow dual-degree students, but other like-minded MBAs who were similarly driven to career paths that allowed them to do the most good. 

Prepare to be surprised by what your classmates can provide, both in terms of their perspective and their generosity. People were always thinking: 'what can I offer to this community?'

Leading with Purpose  

The Michigan Ross Detroit Revitalization and Business Club, which Cynthia co-led during her second year in the MBA program, exemplified her classmates' generosity and purpose-driven leadership. The student club strengthens connections to the city of Detroit, located just 45 minutes from Ann Arbor, through various outreach initiatives, including impact projects that pair groups of student consultants with businesses and nonprofit organizations. Cynthia's impact project partnered with the first Whole Foods Market to open in the city of Detroit. She says the experience underscored the importance of exercising "sensitivity and humility coming into a community" and how that reminder is "something I carry with me to this day." 

In her final year of the program, Cynthia gave more thought to a field she had not envisioned for herself three years earlier: consulting. 

The more I went through my MBA education, the more I realized that I was just scratching the surface of the things I needed to learn, and I really wanted to keep going. I realized consulting was a great way to do that.

The Michigan Ross Consulting Club gave her the infrastructure needed to get up to speed and prepare for successful consulting recruitment. 


Sustainability & Social Impact at 

Cynthia went on to join McKinsey & Company, where she has been able to carve out a career path specific to her strengths and interest in sustainability. By leveraging networking skills honed during her graduate experience, Cynthia was able to identify and join climate-focused projects. Her work included publishing research on what cities can do to accelerate climate action and consulting for clients in the renewable energy and battery storage sectors.

These projects eventually led Cynthia to help lead the launch of, an independent nonprofit focused on complex social challenges like global sustainability. Cynthia currently serves as the organization's director of knowledge, and describes her role: "How do we rapidly scale up recycling systems around the world, especially in emerging markets? There's a lot of knowledge generated through our programs that we want to share with the broader world, and we needed a director of knowledge to share, distill, and radiate out these learnings." Cynthia draws on her MBA foundation to inform her daily work, whether it's thinking about, as she says, "what does it mean to responsibly manage risk?", "what is going to create positive contributions?" or "thinking in a more holistic way". 

As for her music career, Cynthia is still creating. Her recent work points to her ability to find inspiration almost anywhere. She says two of her newest songs reflect distinct perspectives when played separately, but when played together make up a singular, "more interesting" song. As Cynthia puts it, "You could say this is me trying to express being a dual degree student in musical form."