Li (Jackie) Chen
Vice President, South China Operations, EF Education First Ltd.
Education can be spiritual and make people better versions of themselves.
Skyping from her apartment in Beijing, Li (Jackie) Chen T’06 is very relaxed. “I’m taking a career break right now,” she explains with a smile. In January, she stepped down from an accomplished 10 years working for EF Education First. In a way, this year represents a pursuit of identity and authenticity that was sparked directly by Chen’s Tuck education.
When Chen decided to go to Tuck, people around her saw it as a gutsy move. Then 32, Chen had an established career in China, working in journalism and business development for Dow Jones before co-founding a business magazine, New Fortune, and building its business operation from scratch. She was also mother to a four-year-old boy, who would remain behind in China. But Chen’s intuition told her that Tuck was the right opportunity.
Even though she had worked with American companies in an English-language environment her whole career, Tuck was a mental jolt. “My thinking mode was very much Chinese,” Chen says. “Those of us born in the 1970s still come from a very closed China, not the open China of today. I was trained to follow a route set by others.”
At Tuck, she says, she began to think and speak from her heart, a quality that has never left her. “I landed in a diverse, friendly community that cherished individual thinking and gave everyone the courage to make choices that might seem weird,” she says. She pushed herself to excel at an internship with Goldman Sachs, but felt out of place. “The experience made me realize I was more interested in people than just assets or finance,” she says. Increasingly, she was drawn to education.
At Tuck, Chen interviewed with EF, an international education company founded in Sweden and focused on language training, educational travel, and cultural exchange. That in itself would have been viewed as a curious choice in China, where educational training at the time was a fragmented market with only local brands.
Chen clicked with EF, whose immersive interview process involved meeting 20 to 30 people within a two-week period. The company’s ethos is to give its employees a chance to be creative and entrepreneurial. Over the next decade, Chen ran with it.
She was a superstar at EF, opening nine English learning centers in Shenzhen in 18 months, and growing from one staff member to 400 staff and 10,000 students. Four years later she moved to Beijing and came a vice president of the North China operation, developing many of her 15 direct reports into senior roles while supervising at team of 600 educating 15,000 students.
While still going full tilt in 2013, Chen began looking for something she couldn’t describe at the time—a way to slow down and connect with her Chinese traditions. She signed up for a Chinese calligraphy class, which led to classes in Chinese painting, Chinese medicine, the Chinese tea ceremony, and the zither.
Chen began to have a deeper appreciation for EF’s mission, seeing how Chinese adults learned to think differently through language acquisition. Another part of her job had been to launch educational travel for teenagers, sending them abroad in ways that opened their minds.
After giving birth to a daughter in 2015, Chen saw the practical opportunity to take a break while thinking about how she can use education to impact a larger audience. “Education is not just school,” she says. “It can be spiritual and make people better versions of themselves. The more I think about education, the more I think it needs a better definition.
This year, Chen is working to develop Hua Dao Ecovillage, a sustainable, environmentally-conscious community modeled on Findhorn Ecovillage in Scotland. She has also been working with the Aurora Borealis Foundation, which explores ways to develop better relationships among nations and cultures amid a world beset by geopolitical crisis. In addition, she is consulting with the Eden Project, an educational charity in the UK, and Tang Chinese Education, a company working to make a Chinese equivalent of the TOEFL to enable Chinese education worldwide.
“I see this as a time to integrate the inner peace training of Eastern wisdom and the modern civilization of the West,” she says. “I want to work for wellness in a new age, and education in the broadest sense.”
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