2021 Best & Brightest MBAs: Heidi Xu, Cornell University (Johnson)

Heidi Xu

Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management, Cornell SC Johnson College of Business, Cornell University

“A dreamer who strives to make a difference with determination; a doer who leads by example with humanity.”

Hometown: Guangzhou, China

Fun fact about yourself: I have lived in eight different cities over the past decade – from Jonesboro (Arkansas) where I got to mine diamonds, to Madison (Wisconsin) where I saw snow for the first time and then learned my new daily routine would be having to find my car under all the snow.

Undergraduate School and Degree: University of Wisconsin-Madison, Bachelor of Business Administration

Where was the last place you worked before enrolling in business school? Apple, Greater China Regional Administrator (managed projects for 52 Apple stores in China)

Where did you intern during the summer of 2020? Amazon Web Services, Partner Sales Team, Senior Product Manager Intern

Where will you be working after graduation? Amazon Web Services, Americas Sales Strategy and Operation Team, Senior Manager

Community Work and Leadership Roles in Business School:

* President of Johnson Greater China Business Club

* Emerging Markets Institute Fellow

* Skaneateles Cohort Captain—Johnson assigns students into 6 cohorts across Johnson’s One-Year and Two-Year residential Ithaca MBA programs into six cohorts as a way to encourage students to interact with peers they might not otherwise meet in order to foster a more inclusive, supported, and spirited residential MBA experience. Johnson’s cohorts draw their names from several of the nearby Finger Lakes as a means of acknowledging that Cornell sits within the territory of the Cayuga Nation, one of the member nations of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy.

* Big Red Consulting Consultant

* Teaching Assistant, Product and Brand Strategies (EMBA course)

* Teaching Assistant, Managerial Spreadsheet Modeling

* Mentor Teaching Assistant, Strategic Product and Marketing Immersion

* Forté Foundation Fellow

* Asian Development Network member. The Asian Development Network at Johnson is an initiative owned by the Asia Business Association that aims to bring Johnson’s Asian and Asian-American communities together on issues and activities related to career development, identity, and belonging.

Which academic or extracurricular achievement are you most proud of during business school?  What I am most proud of is how the Johnson Greater China Business Club and other Asian clubs come together to support the Asian community at Johnson. As the President of the Johnson Greater China Business Club (GCBC), I worked with my six vice presidents to take on initiatives to create more support and resources, from career development to cultural inclusion. I reached out to all our Johnson alumni in the Greater China region. Thanks to alumni dedication, we were able to connect our Chinese students with incredible job opportunities. Within the Johnson community, China’s development and changes have become a hot topic during our classroom discussions. I encouraged our GCBC members to speak up and to be bold about sharing our perspectives so that more people can hear and learn from our diverse input.

My passion for helping Asians finding their voice stems from my own experience as an international student 11 years ago, in which I experienced a lot of culture shock. I am incredibly grateful that at Johnson I was able to take on initiatives with the tremendous support from the Johnson faculty and students to make sure our international students feel like they have a home here, no matter where they are from.

What achievement are you most proud of in your professional career? When I was a manager at an Apple retail store in China, I transformed our daily internal meetings from being manager-led, information downloads to employee-driven, interactive sessions.

This change wasn’t easy. I had to encourage people to speak in front of a group of 60 people, which is especially tough in an Asian cultural setting. I took every opportunity to share the vision behind this reinvention. Once the first few pioneers started to lead by example in the meetings, people started to see the benefits. Over time, more and more employees stepped up and came to the stage to share their knowledge. The meetings had evolved to cover a wide range of topics, from technical tips to peer feedback sessions to development workshops. We even had people sharing personal passions.

This reinvented meeting created rapport and trust among the team, which led to significant improvements in productivity and employee satisfaction. We became the No.1 store in the Beijing market. It was a great experience that taught me the power of servant leadership: the people are the soul.

Why did you choose this business school? I chose Johnson because of its inclusive, close-knit community and deep engagement with emerging markets. Cornell is a place for “any person, any study.” As an international student, I was looking for a business school that really embraces inclusion and diversity. By engaging with alumni and students, I felt deeply connected with Johnson’s family-like relationships. It was an environment where I could see myself striving to take on different challenges. Moreover, I consider my long-term career to be involved with Asian markets. Johnson possesses great resources to equip students for the global economy, from its international treks to dedicated alumni resources. The Emerging Market Institute provides thought leadership on the role of emerging markets—and emerging market multinationals—in the global economy. On top of it all, our One-Year and Two-Year MBA programs are STEM certified!

What surprised you the most about business school? I am surprised by how much I discovered about myself through the different experiences that Johnson provides. My MBA turned out to be a two-year journey of self-discovery. It opened up so many doors for me, from career opportunities to leadership activities. Some growth happened naturally, while other growth came from stretches (e.g., taking on a leadership position because I was nominated by my classmates) or being invited to be a guest speaker in our market research class. By trying, failing, and reflecting, I moved closer, step by step, to understanding my value, potential, and opportunities. 

What is one thing you did during the application process that gave you an edge at the school you chose? Johnson is a close-knit school in which students’ contributions make a massive difference to the community. When I applied to Johnson, I made an effort to speak with students and alumni from various backgrounds. Those genuine conversations helped me understand what the Johnson spirit truly means and how to take advantage of Johson’s endless opportunities to prepare me to be a better leader. By reflecting on my passions, I was able to convey my commitment to contributing to the Johnson community in a compelling way.

Which MBA classmate do you most admire? Natalie Kirchhoff is one of the most caring and determined people I have ever met. She is a firm believer in women’s empowerment. As the President of the Johnson Women’s Management Council, she led by example by creating a supportive and inclusive environment for women from different backgrounds. I admire her for leading with great courage, empathy, and genuineness. She is a true role model who I look up to and someone I know I will call for advice even after we graduate. 

How disruptive was it to shift to an online or hybrid environment after COVID hit? After COVID hit last spring, my professors at Johnson quickly adapted to teaching online. However, being on Zoom all day can be challenging. My professors implemented different adjustments to make their classes more engaging, such as inviting more speakers from around the world to speak with us online. I cannot emphasize enough what an excellent job Cornell has done to manage the pandemic on campus, making our hybrid in-person/online study possible. Cornell conducts surveillance testing for all its students every week. The University can monitor the situation and keep the positivity rate really low, which means I feel very safe and informed.

Who most influenced your decision to pursue your MBA? Richard Hame, my former boss and mentor. I was hesitant on whether I should give up my six-year career at Apple to pursue an MBA. Richard encouraged me to always look at things from a long-run perspective and to live a full life with no regrets. Even now, I still remember our conversation. Richard told me, “Uncertainty also means possibilities. Sometimes a comfortable and safer option seems less intimidating. But one day, you probably would look back and ask yourself, What if I had chosen to go get an MBA? How would my life be different? Go and find out the answer.” And here I am—on a journey of exploring what’s possible and embracing the unknown.

What are the top two items on your professional bucket list? When reflecting upon my journey, two things are most close to my heart. First, the world needs to see more role models we can look up to. These role models remind us that someone else turned our dream into reality – and so can we. Secondly, we need to lift each other up. There is never a self-made man or woman. I want to become a role model for Asian women and contribute my efforts to help more Asian women find their voices and purposes.

What made Heidi such an invaluable member of the Class of 2021?

“Heidi was a student in my Financial Markets and Institutions course. She’s exactly the kind of student I love to teach—she’s fully engaged and brings her own experiences and insights into classroom discussions. Heidi has a strong interest in—and knowledge of—emerging markets, and used her professional experience in the tech sector in China to contribute to our learning. That kind of participation makes teaching my class fun. Outside of class, she’s been an active member of the Johnson community, from leading our Greater China Business Association to being a cohort captain and Emerging Markets Fellow. I look forward to seeing what happens in Heidi’s next chapter.”

Maureen O’Hara
Professor of Finance and Robert W. Purcell Professorship of Management



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