“There’s a lot of failure in my life, which is good. It’s a learning opportunity,” Lianne Zhang.
The Great Recession that ensued a global economic downturn devastated American life. Americans all over the world faced the biggest economic meltdown in the U.S since the Great Depression lasting over 18 months. Its effects were felt across the country leading to lower fertility rates, historically high levels of student debt, and diminished job prospects among young adults. So when Lianne Zhang graduated Smith College in 2008 smack in the middle of all the chaos she was forced to carve out her own path in the face of adversity.
Lianne Zhang was born in Berkeley and raised in Palo Alto, California. She spent most of her formative years in Palo Alto, living through the dotcom burst. A product of two Chinese immigrant parents, they mined the importance of hardwork, a quality education and stronger math skills. Her parents envisioned she would and follow in their footsteps be an engineer, a dream Lianne did not see for herself. Lianne loved to read, she was always more of a bookworm than someone who liked to do math problems “a way in which a lot of Chinese parents liked to supplement their kids education.” Lianne went to an elementary school known for its unique core curriculum that emphasized learning at your own pace with a zero homework approach. Her parents focus on improving her multiplication skills and her love for reading allowed her to skip 2nd grade. In high school, Lianne felt the effects of skipping a grade as she lacked a lot of emotional maturity compared to her peers.She did not notice the challenge it would cause until those high school when she started struggling to keep up with the typical highschool experience: extracurriculars, school work, emotional development and the daunting process of applying to college.
When she started the college process financial assistance played a major role in her decision. Growing up in a lower middle class (for Palo Alto) home, Lianne had to prioritize her family’s financial needs. Smith offered Lianne the most financial aid and across the country her parents felt a lot more comfortable with her going to an all women’s college. Lianne’s socioeconomic status fueled her personal ambition to make good money; at the time, this translated into her taking lots of math, economics and engineering courses. She majored in Economics and minored in Engineering. At Smith, she fell in love with the environment and found herself. She became involved with the Asian Student Association on campus and even ran for office. Lianne recalls Smith as “a unique environment that was instrumental in shaping a lot of my ambition and my confidence.” She liked the shared amount of resources including career development and the recruiting support Smith had. By the time Lianne got to senior year she cashed in all her AP credits so she could save her parents a semester of tuition.
Upon graduation in 2008, Lianne recalls few if any of her friends had jobs. With so much financial instability, it was a rough time to be looking for your first job. Barely anyone was interviewing in the spring of 2008, and by the fall, millions were being laid off. Lianne thought of extending her net and looked into many career paths. She thought of applying to law school but she knew she did not have a passion for law. Jobless with no clear path, Lianne recalls what a demoralizing and depressive experience it was. In a crippling economy, Lianne did as most young adults did and returned home to her parents. In search of a stable career, Lianne pursued an accounting certificate in hopes of landing a job at the Big 4 accounting firms – she was thinking foremost of work stability in this rocky economy. Her parents agreed to pay for her to attend a one year program that would give her an accounting certificate at the end of it. While in the midst of this program, she stumbled upon the Financial Engineering program in the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa Shidler College of Business. She finished her accounting certificate and then moved to Hawaii for grad school.
After graduating from her program, Lianne knew she wanted to move back to Silicon Valley. Her parents were there for support, and there always were jobs available. She interviewed at Goldman Sachs among other firms, and despite her new degree she was rejected at all of them. Lianne accepted the failure as a learning lesson and continued her search. She finally found a staffing temp agency where she was hired to conduct sundry research projects where she did a lot of data entry and there they also connected her to different temp positions at various hedge funds where she continued with even more data entry and analysis.
Four months of temping and uncertainty finally led Lianne to a full time job at a startup called Nebo. Lianne describes Nebo as a learning opportunity because she remembers how much she struggled “I had a formal warning, ‘if you don’t shape up in six months, we’re gonna fire you,’ which was actually very scary at the time.” She had not had a formal role at a company before, and some of her liberal art instincts had kicked in to research and learn about the problems that Nebo was facing, but that was not what she had been hired to do.
Faced with yet another obstacle, Lianne preserved in the role and focused on improving her performance based on the feedback. She was able to get out of the warning and stayed at Nebo until they were acquired by Google in 2012. Lianne had always known that she loved being helpful and making meaningful connections. While everyone on her team looked for jobs and mentally checked out during the acquisition period, she spent a lot of her time building her network with the Googlers and was as available as possible to those transitioning. Helping others eventually helped Lianne land her next move as a revenue accountant at Google. She had been recommended by the people at Google she had helped train to take over her previous job. “Google wouldn’t have looked at me otherwise, but because I was already there and met the people, I was able to get my foot in the door.”
At Google, Lianne got projects she enjoyed. The revenue accounting team allowed her to pursue more project based work where she assisted cross functional teams. Her work was broad with individual contributions, management, coding and planning. She was able to leverage this exposure during performance reviews and secured promotions and Silicon Valley bonuses. She later got another certificate in Project Management from Stanford University as part of Google’s internal program to encourage their employees to continue learning. When a chance to do more than just accounting projects on Facebook opened, Lianne took the risk and rose to a new challenge – joining Facebook’s broad finance Project Management Office. The transition to Facebook was difficult as she juggled its corporate politics and her second pregnancy. Utilizing her connections, she learned of a role at Google and she returned after two years.
Reflecting on her younger self, Lianne was never motivated by competing or becoming the best instead she was moved by what brought her utter enjoyment. Despite upheaval and economic crisis, Lianne remained steadfast in her goals. She pushed past rejection, failure and a lack of opportunity and made a path for herself. In many ways, Lianne’s story is very relatable to the vibrant up and coming talent in today’s constantly fluctuating pandemic world. Lianne’s view on failure is an important one to learn from. She is resilient in the face of adversity and focuses on what she can control: her strong network, her skills and helping others. Lianne’s outlook and approach to facing obstacles is an example of how we can all carve out opportunities for ourselves if we just believe that failing is one step closer to succeeding.