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Looking at her dazzling LinkedIn profile that enumerates the US-based conglomerates and Fortune 500 companies she had served as head of finance in the past two decades, it is hard to imagine Bonnie Chan came from fairly humble beginnings. She grew up in a one-income family in Hong Kong, where her father attended college in his 30s while doubling as a private tutor to make ends meet. ‘I didn’t get to see my father much. Every night I had gone to sleep before he came home, and when I got up in the morning, he had left for either school or work. The only evidence of his presence was the raisins he gouged out from his breakfast bread and left on a plate for me. He knew I liked them,’ recalled Bonnie, her voice slightly trembling with emotion.
‘I basically grew up with the feeling that one must overcome much hardship to earn a good living. From a very young age I had been looking toward the day when I could finally provide for my family and take away their worries.’
After she was accepted by CUHK where she majored in professional accountancy, Bonnie took up as much part-time tutoring as her father once did, determined to save enough for an entrance ticket to an American grad school. In 1993, after turning down all offers by the then Big Six accounting firms, she flew halfway around the world to the University of Texas at Austin to pursue a Master’s degree in financial accounting and auditing.
It is one thing to pass English exams in Hong Kong and another to live in an English-speaking country. ‘I thought I knew English fairly well enough, but I was terribly wrong,’ she recalled. ‘Even if what I said was grammatically correct, it sounded awkward to the locals who use a different, more vivid set of vocabulary and expressions. I felt like a square peg in a round hole.’
She could have pulled back and hung around only with her compatriots, but Bonnie flung herself into various local activities to ‘look, listen and learn’. ‘I paid heed to what people would say on different occasions, like how to make conversations in cocktail parties or what to say during a handshake, and I made mental notes.’
After graduation, while the top students in her class went to investment banks and consulting firms, Bonnie, who was an international student without a green card, managed to land a government job at the City of Austin in performance auditing. ‘I told myself it’s only the beginning of a journey and I intended to make my way to the Fortune 500 companies.’
What followed was a relentlessly upward career trajectory. After a brief stint at Gateway 2000 in South Dakota, Bonnie took a finance position with Dean Foods in Chicago and later found herself at Sara Lee, a consumer-goods company best known to Hongkongers by its pound cakes. An MBA earned from the Kellogg School of Management of Northwestern University in 2008 catapulted her into vice-presidential and CFO status in a few more global names. The zenith of her career saw her helm US$2bn of revenue and lead 200 team members.
She described herself as ‘more than an accountant who counts the beans’. ‘There’s a general impression that CPAs are boring, stodgy guys who sit behind their desks crunching numbers. I am definitely not that type. I would navigate through all the data to identify the white space for growth and profitability. I simply love to dive into the business, see the actions, and be in the front line. I consider myself not just an employee but a business partner who grows the beans for the company.’
As her career advanced, Bonnie also launched herself into charity and served on the boards of various NGOs, including YWCA and Between Friends, the latter being the largest domestic violence service in Chicago.
The path to success is inevitably fraught with obstacles and frustrations. When asked how she deals with setbacks, Bonnie said her mantra is ‘tomorrow is another day and it will be better.’ ‘Of course I have had my fair share of failures, but at the end of the day, as long as I haven’t done anything that goes against my conscience, I will go to sleep and wait for tomorrow to start over again.’
She puts mementos of her successes in a box that she pulls out during challenging times. ‘Opening the box jogs my memory that I have come a long way.’ Among the memorabilia is a crayon drawing by a former CUHK classmate, depicting seven girls standing in a line with Bonnie on the far left in a purple dress standing on a wooden crate, hinting at her petite stature. The backdrop is the sinuous hills of CUHK laced with campus landmarks like the water tower and the University Library. ‘It’s a precious picture for me to remember friendship and to summon strength when the going gets tough,’ she quavered for the second time. It reminds one of the saying that the brave men and women are not those who do not know fear, but those who keep moving forward despite the trepidation.
By Christine N., ISO
Photos by Eric Sin
This article was originally published on CUHK Homepage in Aug 2017.