Every two weeks, Jane Lin-Baden shelves her day job as a software entrepreneur and flies to San Francisco to attend Wharton's prestigious executive MBA program. But the life she leaves behind is 16 time zones away—in Shanghai, China.
Our classes are on the weekends, so I leave Shanghai Friday morning and arrive in San Francisco Friday morning. My flight is 15 hours long, including a stopover in Tokyo. It's not so unmanageable. I meditate, but I can't sleep because it's my only time to focus on my studies. Usually I go straight to class from the airport, so I often go 24 hours without sleeping.
My husband travels twice a week for his job as well. Sometimes he is leaving when I am coming home, so we meet in the airport and talk. Or he stops over in San Francisco for a dinner or Wharton family event with me. Most people think this is crazy. For me it's a matter of will. This program is important to me, and so is my company and my family.
I haven't had a very traditional career path. I've worked in advertising and chemicals, and I used to dream of my own art gallery. I grew up in Taiwan; my father was minister of finance there, and my mother was an executive at Hoechst, the German drug company. I got my undergraduate degree in marketing in Taiwan, then a master's degree in the history of contemporary art from the University of London. I also lived and worked in Germany and India before we moved to China.
I applied to Wharton in 2000, the same year that I started my company, Audacee Digital Inc. My dream was to help businesses create more value with fewer resources. Audacee provides business intelligence solutions to retailers in China—things such as price modeling and sales and inventory analysis. In China, there is a vacuum of such tools, so what I've learned in my MBA classes enables Audacee to be a pioneer.
Education is a gift to be cherished and used well. I always knew that I wanted to go to one of the best business schools. I would even have flown to Philadelphia if Wharton hadn't opened a West Coast campus. It wouldn't have been so different. Instead of 15 hours each way, I would have had 24 hours. You can get more done in 24 hours, more time to study!
It's not so much that I wanted to be in the United States per se—but the United States is very welcoming to entrepreneurship. It's harder to be a woman entrepreneur in China. The cultural expectations are different. A woman in business is okay in China. A woman boss is another matter. In China, we see an aggressive man and we think, "He is a mover." We see an aggressive woman and we think, "She is eccentric."
So I find inspiration with my fellow students. The average age in my class is 34, like myself, and they all pursue thriving careers. Some of them run their own businesses, like I do, so they know what I'm going through—the things I deal with in my life and in my work. We have a really terrific network. It's like having a team of consultants available every two weeks.
I went to Wharton looking for cutting-edge business theory and a degree to make it in the corporate world. Once there, though, I realized that the fundamental issue is leadership. If I really want to take Audacee to the next level, I need to focus on people, not skills. The key is to inspire people to identify with our goals and go the extra mile to make it happen.
People ask why I want to make such an effort for two years. But for me, this has meaning beyond knowledge; it is an attitude, a commitment, and a way of thinking. I'm in my last semester now. I graduate in May. Having flown over a million miles in two years, I should be exhausted and glad it's over. Physically, I am tired. But mentally, every time I fly back to China I feel refreshed. Wharton is like an intellectual spa—like pulling up to a gas station and filling up my tank.
A version of this article appeared in the Table of Contents - April 2004 issue of Fast Company magazine.