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From Supply Chain to Creative Confidence

January 8, 2020

Fay Zhao


Fay Zhao was working in supply chain management when her curiosity kept pointing her towards design. When applying to the Global Executive Master of Science (GEMS) program, she was unsure of her capabilities and wondered if she had what it took to work in design. By the end, she had her dream job in design for IKEA. We chatted with Fay to see how GEMS helped her unlock her superpowers.


Tell us a bit about yourself and your career path.

I was born and raised in China and always curious about the rest of the world. I was lucky enough to have a family that sent me to study in the UK for 5 years when I was 17. I studied economics and marketing, and later got a master’s in strategic marketing. My first job was with IKEA in my hometown in China. At 22 I moved to Shenzhen where I continued with IKEA until I got the opportunity to work with IKEA’s product development and supply chain in Sweden. At this time I was more involved in the product development side.I’m still with IKEA, but now work in the design space, which was always a dream of mine. The GEMS program helped make that possible.

Why did you decide to apply for the Global Executive Master of Science in Strategic Design & Management?

I wondered if another career path was possible, but I wasn’t sure if I had the capability to make the change. But I never stopped searching for answers. I dove into various programs and short courses. It was my mentor who encouraged me to look into design thinking given my interest in the holistic picture, strategic side, connecting, and collaborating. When I found the GEMS program I was desperate for structured learning, and it also happened to be the answer to all the questions I’d been exploring.I always wanted to transition from business into design. I was curious to see if I was creative or not. To that extent I wanted to see what my business background would mean in a design world. How does leading in a creative environment differ—or not? What are the other disciplines of design, and how are they similar or different?The format of GEMS enabled me to do it. All the full-time programs were not feasible for me. I had been looking for the right program for years. I applied to GEMS about twenty days before I gave birth. Even though I worked for a great company with tons of their own learning opportunities, I did this out of my own initiative. I wanted to do it for myself, free of any employer. I didn’t want to ask anyone’s permission.

You’ve had many opportunities in your career to engage with various global networks from working in studying in various countries, from the UK to China to Sweden. What did you learn from the GEMS global intensives that you may not have learned in your previous experiences? 

It was amazing to experience all of these together with a group of people, seeing the world through their eyes, giving me another lens to see the world.We also have GEMS coming from the US, Hong Kong and Japan, which means I’m also learning about their cultures and ways of learning and collaborating. I believe the global perspective is further strengthened by really working with people, not just by travelling and sightseeing. It’s truly global citizens who can solve global problems.

How have you benefited from the global network you’ve gained as a result of your involvement in the GEMS program, from peers, alumni, faculty and more?

There’s so much to learn from in this program: the diversity, hands on experiences, the passion. I truly learned that anything is possible. The quality of students is due to the fact that they show up. It is not a program where you just sit and receive information. The amazing network of guest speakers and as well as previous GEMS means I know who to turn to when I have a concrete question or problem to solve.

The teachers in the program don’t do it because it’s a job. They teach because they love teaching and having an impact. Every teacher was excellent and humble, and they were the first to say that they learn just as much from us as we learn from them. We now have lifelong relationships. No one is here for the transaction of leaving with a diploma or title at the end.

How have you been able to leverage this program to support your own professional growth?

I was looking for a professional transformation when I entered the program, and I didn’t expect to have a personal transformation too. The personal transformation made the professional transformation possible.

I have been practicing and getting support in expressing my creativity so much that I have more creative confidence than ever. It is not so much about the drawing ability, but it is about a way of thinking and approaching things. Now I really am able to see now how to lead in a creative environment, how to balance between chaos and structure.

I didn’t expect to get so much out of the leadership aspect of the program. It turns out what I knew about leadership coming into it was very limiting. Roger Manix challenged us to think about the ecosystem not the ego, and that we can leave our mark on the world. We also learned that leadership requires solitude and reflection. The leadership map we made in Johann Verheem’s class was a simple but powerful tool. It all helped us prioritize what we want to do in life and work.

What specific tactical skills do you have now that you didn’t before? How were you able to use these skills immediately? How have these skills driven business growth?

There was so much I didn’t know coming into the program. I didn’t know you can “DESIGN” a business model for example, or that you can prototype anything! I now see how a hypothesis can help us at work. It means we don’t have to argue who is right, or about what is THE way to do something. Instead, make a hypothesis, test and try it out!

Overall, I’m definitely much better a visual thinker than before. I am much clearer with my own values, purposes, and missions in life and work. It all helped me to get the right job and work with the right people, be in the right environment

Why is a globally focused design driven program important today? What is a challenge your industry faces today, how does this program give you the tools to solve these design problems?

In talking with my cohort I’ve learned whatever the industry, there are always problems around how we work and collaborate together. It’s about solving problems. We need to consider how we can treat obstacles as opportunities. The program taught me a lot about collaboration and opening up perspectives so we can be really empathetic. Basically you can treat all problems as a design challenge. Who is our user? What are their pain points? How do we involve them in coming up with solutions and validating solutions? How can we flip the problem again and again? How can make sure we are not RIGHT, but always GET IT RIGHT?

During your time in the program you hosted fellow GEMS at IKEA in Sweden. What was that like?

Some of the cohort came to IKEA in Sweden where we met with people who have different roles in various design disciplines—style, co-creation, product design—to look at how design is not one thing, but includes many aspects and disciplines. We visited the IKEA museum which tells the history of how the company started with its entrepreneurial roots. The company was started in a small village without a lot of resources. We stayed at the IKEA hotel and had lunch at IKEA. Älmhult is a small town, but also very global.

By meeting the people and learning about the history, heritage, and philosophy, the culture and values become more powerful. The experience was a way to show there’s more to IKEA than the stores.

Fay Zhao

Members of the GEMS cohort pose for the cover of an IKEA catalog during their visit to Sweden as part of their IKEA experience.
Being from China you were a huge help with the Shanghai intensive. What was it like for you to share your experiences with your classmates and see it through their eyes?

It was interesting for the cohort to get to know me as an “in between” before the Shanghai intensive. I’m Chinese, but I’ve also lived and worked in an international environment for a number of years. It meant they could feel safe and I could be a bridge where they shared observations and doubts. It also meant I understood where their questions were coming from.It was interesting to see China through their eyes and through another lens. Many of their thoughts were clouded by what they’ve seen in the media, but it’s important to be there to see it for yourself. I know my own city, but not Shanghai. Visiting new places expands my understanding too as China is developing every single minute.Like with the Sweden trip, it was surreal to bring both parts of the world together, as both have been so important in my life. I like to connect dots and add value for people. I think both worlds benefit from the connection.

You moved locations and jobs in the program. How did you juggle all that with school?

When I started I was still on maternity leave. Most people thought I was crazy to do it as a new mom. It ended up being a nice distraction and the excuse I needed to lock myself away for a couple hours every day to study.

I learned how much was due to my own determination and taking initiative. If you want something enough, you can manage it. What I learned in GEMS I’m able to immediately take back to work, and vice versa. Even if my work and studies look at different topics, there are always elements to relate them both. I feel very lucky to have had this experience.

Now I’m currently in my dream role, around the right people, subject, and environment. It’s a dream come true.

What was it like going to Paris for the intensive weekend?

Living in Sweden (and London) during the program, it was nice and easy to access for me. I’d been to Paris many times before. But now when I come I feel a connection with the city. I know the shops in the neighborhood and the guy at my hotel.

Fay Zhao

What surprised you about this program? Did you come away with any personal insights? 18 months later, how does it feel?

I didn’t expect that we as a cohort could be so tight and close, and the huge impact it would have on me. I didn’t expect I’d be meeting such a diverse and interesting group of people, who are now my lifelong friends, and my support network. It’s incredible how much trust we have built with each other over the past 18 months, with various ups and downs.

I came into the program unsure about my capabilities. I thought creativity was thinking about illustration and picking colors. I didn’t believe I was creative, but my cohort kept telling me that I was. “Really? Are they just being polite?” was how I felt at first.

Now I know I’m totally creative and I don’t need to compare myself to anyone else. I have a new mindset where I feel sure of who I am. Now that we’re at the end, it doesn’t feel like the end. It feels like the beginning of something new. We’re so connected. We’re saying goodbye to this format, but lifelong relationships were formed.

I feel so lucky to meet so many interesting people. On the first day I met Joey and heard his stories from his time on a military boat, Patrick’s run for political office, and Livie’s background in music before getting into business.

Life is not linear. Life is so diverse. Life is full of possibilities. As GEMS’s program director Melissa Rancourt says, anything is possible.

Written by Anne Ditmeyer.

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