Lifelong Learning and Lessons Learned

July 7, 2015, Singapore

“So, what do you hope to accomplish with this degree?” my fellow classmate Jakob asked, as we celebrated after our graduation ceremony earlier that day from the National University of Singapore (NUS) Business School.

The question struck me — was this second chance and effort at reinvention going to lead to a more balanced professional career, or will it be filled with as many thrills and spills as the preceding go around?

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Life can be ironic as it is forgiving as I had come full circle after two decades and double degrees from the same institutions UCLA and NUS (a BA in 1994 and an MBA in 2014 from UCLA; a Fulbright Fellow in 1995 and an MBA in 2015 from NUS), and had reached a point where I was finally finished with school, but not with learning.  In fact, I was far from done in my association with these repeat alma maters…

July 14, 2015, Da Nang, Vietnam

“It’s official! Welcome to the Executive Committee as VP!”  Wendy the president of the UCLA Anderson Alumni Network of over 30,000 Andersonite Bruins, wrote in a congratulatory email I received upon waking 14 hours ahead in the place of my birth, Da Nang, Vietnam.   I had been confirmed as vice president of the alumni network a year after graduation and having served as president of the class of 2014 UCLA-NUS Global Executive MBA for the Asia Pacific.

As I gazed outside towards the bright, rising sun as it dashed above the South China Sea, the moment seemed all the more amazing.  All this privileged education, the ability to serve in global institutions, pursue a creative passion, and yes, perhaps still have the drive and ability to accomplish something more meaningful.   What do I hope to accomplish?  How should it be defined or measured?  (maybe based on return on investment (ROI); now that I have an MBA, I probably should think that way!)

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Why was I provided such incredible opportunities, as opposed to the fisherman hauling in his catch that morning to feed his family, or the taxi driver waiting to earn a 40,000 Dong fare (about US$2), or the budding local entrepreneur who had a later start than I did as Vietnam embraced capitalism two decades after the end of the war?  Not to downplay their livelihoods, but I do feel very grateful.

Coincidentally, 1995 was when I first returned to visit the country after leaving in 1975 at the age of two as the war ended with just a small suitcase of clothes my parents had packed, though with plenty of space for a hopeful future.

Over the past two decades, I’ve returned to study, work and vacation on more than a dozen trips to Japan, Great China, Indochina and the rest of Southeast Asia.   Every time, I’ve been amazed by the energy and dynamism of the region — and how increasingly interlinked it is with the America and the rest of the world, whether culturally or economically.

Given my cross-cultural upbringing and education, if I can serve as a bridge between East and West and improve commerce and understanding — then that’s a useful purpose.

July 17, 2015, Hanoi, Vietnam

Văn Miếu known as The Temple of Literature — is Vietnam’s first imperial university founded in 1070 by then King Lý Nhân Tông for the nobility and wealthy based on Confucian principles and worship of knowledge.  I first visited this historic site in 1995 along with two American classmates studying at NUS in Singapore.  Today, I thought it would be fitting to end my latest journey to Asia by paying homage to this academic mecca.  For good measure and appreciation, I brought along my latest credential earned over the past two years of hitting the books and sweating out the exams (not to mention, in sweltering humidity that day).

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For over 700 years, this esteemed institution paid utmost respects to its teachers, laureates and elite students that excelled in their tests as they strived to attain revered status as mandarins and become public leaders.  Since 2010, it has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is often filled with tourists as well as locals who come to pray for skill on their own exams (or usually, parents praying on behalf of their children), and all can now buy lucky amulets with encouragements like “Study” and “Intelligence” for just a dollar.

The temple’s layout is similar to the Chinese temple at Qufu in Shangdong, Confucius’ birthplace, and divided into five main courtyards, with the third containing the “Well of Heavenly Clarity” before approaching the inner sanctums.

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I came here today to reflect, whether divinely or in egalitarian spirit, upon my own lessons learned in the classroom or otherwise over the past two decades (and recognize we all have different objectives, so not proselytizing).

Here is my simple list of three:

Humility Leads to Growth:  The more I am able to learn, whether it be a new skill or from an unforeseen perspective, the more I feel humble and enlightened.  Humility often arises from an open mind and heart, which allows growth to take place.  This could come from an engaging conversation with someone we thought was too different, or experiencing the world.  Otherwise, we may become too fixed in our ways.

Giving is Rewarding:  I have found that offering my time, knowledge or resources to support others or a cause is a wonderful and fulfilling investment, especially when it’s done with no return expected.  Generosity is rewarding in itself as well as to society.

Opportunity Offers Great Potential:  Perhaps being an immigrant, I have had an engrained sense of not taking opportunities for granted.  In approaching each new idea, partnership or innovation — I instinctively think of whether it is possible to attain the synergistic 1+1 = 3, which should make something that is not ideal better.  Opportunities can be remarkable if we achieve their greatest potential.

With these lessons learned and latest credentials earned… I still have much left to accomplish whether as a business leader, a humble servant or in lifelong learning.

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Second Chances and a “New Age” in Singapore and L.A.

1 June 2014, Singapore

MarkBlog-SporeFront-June2014“… ‘Welcome to the new age’!  the familiar chorus from Imagine Dragon’s global hit “Radioactive” reverberated through the atrium at the NUS Business School.

Earlier this year, the band joined me at CES to see Fleetwood Mac in Vegas — and a year ago, I entered this building to embark on an educational journey with familiar institutions NUS and UCLA, and destinations along the way — Shanghai in November, India in February — and this summer, the conclusion of the academic adventure in Los Angeles.

Today, as I prepare to depart Singapore, I am a bit wiser, more optimistic and ready for the dawning of a ‘new age’… MDN”

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August 23, 2014, Los Angeles, California

“Congratulations! Look forward to what more you will do for the program,” Dean Judy Olian said as I accepted my second degree from UCLA, an MBA from the Anderson School of Management, after having received a bachelor’s degree from UCLA in 1994.

Anderson-Graduation-Smaller Like twenty summers ago, my parents and brother returned to the campus to witness the ceremony, thankfully.  A year prior, my father was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and had a major surgery known as a Whipple procedure in January and was still undergoing chemotherapy treatments.

Life sometimes gives you a second chance,” he said, both in self reflection and as a proud parent.  For him, each new day is hampered by uncertainty… though filled with a stronger awareness of the present.

UCLA-Family-Graduation2014The hope and irony of the moment struck me.  Two decades of promise had passed with much ebb and flow, peaks and valleys, marked by cross-cultural studies as a Fulbright fellow at the National University of Singapore (NUS), to a global trade career in Washington D.C. and Geneva, followed by a return to L.A. to pursue creative expression and entrepreneurship.

Then, coincidentally, back full circle at UCLA and NUS again, where I had to start over and retrace my steps in order to find a path forward.  Once again, I became a starving student strapped with huge loans… but more optimistic and humble than ever.

Notably, this year marked the tenth anniversary of the partnership between the two renowned business schools.  What started as a sensible concept of facilitating business education between East and West, led to an established reputation and global rankings of #3 by The Economist and #4 by the Financial Times in 2014.  Of course, we had to celebrate the program’s progress, and since I was known in the class as a professional “party planner” (as a result of all the Planet LA Records showcases), I became highly involved with the commemorative events.

Paul A. Hebert / www.PaulHebertPhoto.com

Paul A. Hebert / www.PaulHebertPhoto.comSomehow, it made sense to align an MBA anniversary celebration with talented musical performers and corporate sponsors including from my new employer, and in historic settings in Southern California.  It was gratifying to help create these memorable experiences, which sure required a lot of education and risky business ventures to master the art of party planning (lol).

At the graduation, my classmates chose me to present one of the teaching awards to Professor Prem Shamdasani, our most entertaining marketing professor who guided us on concepts about branding and customer loyalty, and with much humor and passion.

“Before I begin, I wanted to thank my classmates for the undemocratic election,” I said jokingly before presenting the award to Dr. Prem.  This was due to my selection as the class president, which happened while I was away on an urgent business trip during our final intensive session in August.

Joking aside, it is an honor to represent the class on the UCLA Anderson alumni board and continue to build the academic brand, while helping to sustain the camaraderie of our group… and yes, probably more reunion parties to plan!

On a personal level, the past two years have been an amazing opportunity to gain more practical career skills, and to offer greater emotional value in every moment… given this precious, second chance at learning and life.

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From Bollywood Premieres to Hollywood Releases

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14 February 2014, Mumbai, India

“We had our wedding reception here,” Bappa mentioned as he and his driver picked me up in a bright red Audi from this hotel (ITC Maratha Mumbai).

As we drove past the airport, there was a huge billboard announcing the release of the Bollywood film “Gunday.”

“Dad has a super hit in this mega film by producer Aaditya Chopra,” Bappa explained.

The name of this Indian movie icon didn’t register, but should have since I represent Bappi Lahiri — India’s “Disco King!”  So unfamiliar, yet somehow makes sense like this overwhelming country! … MDN

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August 16, 2014, Los Angeles, California

“I am so happy to release my latest album ‘Bappi Lounge’ today,” Bappi Lahiri announced as I stood next to him at Yamashiro in the Hollywood Hills, known for its majestic views of Tinseltown and the urban sprawl of L.A.

BappiLounge-FrontIt was the fifth album we have released together in less than four years since my label Planet LA Records has represented the prolific artist “Bappi-da” as he is affectionately known by millions of South Asian fans.  The first release “World, Peace, Love and Harmony” on September 29, 2010 was almost a fluke as I knew practically nothing about Bollywood.  My business partner and I were reluctant to take on such a daunting task, but we did it anyways.

“You are like my brother… I have so much music to share.  Someday I will get nominated,” Bappi has insisted, while I assisted him with Grammy consideration for each new release.  Every year since 2010, Bappi has returned to L.A. with his latest collection of contemporary and traditional songs, cross-over genres and unusual collaborations with American jazz greats, notorious rappers, Middle Eastern pop stars and Indian gospel singers, to name a few.

This time around, he came with his family including his son and producer Bappa Lahiri — who I met for the first time in February of this year in Mumbai, during a trip to India as part of my global studies with UCLA.  Bappa cued up the tunes as his father performed two new songs “Mystery” and “East Meets West” from the electronica-infused album.  The mellow lounge tunes held sway over the courtyard, keeping the conversation hushed.

BappiRelease-pic2“Now, I am going to sing my super hits,” he told the crowd, which was an eclectic mix of Grammy staff, a former member of The Supremes, Bollywood fans and my classmates and alumni from the UCLA Anderson-NUS global executive MBA (“GEMBAs”) who were celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Asia-Pacific program.

“Oh La La… Oh La La!” Bappi belted out.  The song’s fast tempo and catchy chorus quickly changed and uplifted the mood.  The song was a huge single off the popular Bollywood film “The Dirty Picture” — which led to Bappi’s resurgence in recent years.  His duet partner on the song, Shreya Ghoshal has over 21 million Facebook fans (more than Madonna’s 19 million likes)… India’s “Disco King” was back!

As Bappi sang to the dance track, I pulled the audience towards the stage, starting with my Indian classmates, then the rest of the global contingent joined the party.  I knew well from working with creative talent that many of them feed off the energy from the crowd.  Many artists are brilliant because they are egocentric.

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Bappi  began to sing with vigor as the crowd danced around him.  He kept going beyond his scheduled set with encore numbers including his 80s megahit “Jimmy Jimmy” which has since been covered by M.I.A. (a female rapper of Sri Lankan origin who sang with Madonna during half-time at the 2012 Superbowl, and caused a mini scandal with her middle finger).

“Thank you, thank you,” Bappi repeated as he placed his hands together in a namaste-style prayer, signifying the end of his performance.

As my classmates and industry colleagues surrounded Bappi for a group photo in front of the UCLA-NUS step-and-repeat banner… I felt deep inside that somehow, my seemingly impracticable foray in the music industry in recent years — followed by an academic restart in B-school since last year, was beginning to make sense.

BappiRelease-pic1This evening involved many moving parts and dots to connect, marked by years of trial and error.

For the most part, I believe it was a memorable experience for every star and guest that danced and smiled that night — which made it worth the overwhelming effort expended since I began on this passionate journey… five Bollywood albums and counting!

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