A “counter-mainstream” move: from management consulting to international development

“Stories of professional hippies”

So called this series of blogs.

I was unsure of the definition of “hippies”, so I looked it up: “A counterculture youth movement”.

What an appealing idea. We are young. We are counter “mainstream”. And we are trying to expand our influence and hopefully to even start our own movement.

To tell the story of my “counter-culture” professional path, I would have to start with the one my culture expected of me. 

After getting my bachelor’s and master’s degree from two world renown universities, I would enter a top-tier financial service or consulting firm as an investment banker, analyst or consultant. After three or four years of hard work, I would have earned a reputable resume, ready to leave the “training school” and scout for an even better paid job with acceptable work-life balance, which could be a management position of strategy function in a Fortune 500 company or tech unicorn. After another five to seven years, I would have changed my job again as an experienced “job-hopper”, hopefully settling down in a prominent C-level position.

That’s almost every Chinese parents’ ideal career path for their kids and what I was supposed to strive for. However, with great prospects ahead, I decided to leave this path. It is by no way that I think this mainstream path is bad. I firmly believe that anyone, in any position, could and should play their own unique roles in doing social and public good. The only borderline “counterculture” element of my decision is that I’ve chosen to dedicate myself into promoting the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals directly and at an early stage of my career.

What has lead me to this “counter-mainstream” path?

After two years at McKinsey, the most prestigious management consulting firm in the world, I have earned my reputation through 15 hour working days and countless power point slides. Things seemed all good and exactly as planned. Then it came the turning point of my story.

Early 2017, I joined a circular economy study in cooperation with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation where I modelled the potential of a more circular urban food system for China in 2030 and 2040 (also where I first met the host of this blog). The most precious legacy from this project is not the concept of circular economy, knowledge on waste management or responsible agriculture production, but the great friends I met and their genuine passion to fight for a more sustainable world. I still vividly remember how the associate partner from McKinsey on this project would refuse to order beef and urge us to pack left-over food to reduce food waste. I am also deeply impressed when Vigil, my colleague by then and a great friend by now, would try her best to avoid ordering delivery and bring her own containers to reduce packaging waste. As I see it, they live their lives by the principles of sustainability, which was absolutely eye-opening for me at that time.

The turning point is when I realised that this choice of living exists.

I used to think that the default career choice for top talents is in financial services and the consultancy industry. However, working with different cohort and meeting interesting people has broadened my horizon and finally led me to the “Aha” moment – At the end of day, no one is prescribing what I should do, and it’s not an imperative that I follow the “mainstream” way.

After the circular economy project, I seized the opportunity of a one-year secondment at Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, working as an associate strategy officer in the China HQ. The majority of my work is devoted to promoting China-Africa cooperation and Chinese innovation for the foundation’s priority areas – global health (malaria), agriculture, private sector engagement etc. It has been a truly inspiring and self-exploratory experience, during which I discovered my deep concern for the poorest people in the world and the challenges they face. Reducing poverty is listed as the primary SDG by the UN, and it is by no means an easy task. The roots of poverty is deep and intertwined, such as lack of financial resource access (financial inclusion), health burden caused by shortage of health care infrastructure, low health literacy and suboptimal vaccine and drug development, weak economic development constrained by low agriculture productivity and lack of light-manufacturing opportunities etc.  But I am convinced by this quote from <The blue sweater>: ” If you don’t like the way the world works, you have the obligation to change it. You just have to do it one step at a time.”

I am taking a small step out of my comfort zone into this new territory of sustainable development as a “professional hippie”. The path in front of me is exciting but uncertain. I’m ready for such a challenge and I sincerely hope that such a career choice and a more sustainable way of living will no longer be “counterculture” in the near future.


*Joanne and her friends from Oxford are the hosts of this wechat blog, where they share insights from their work life, books they’ve read, travels and etc. Highly recommended if you can read Chinese.