BULLETIN | FALL 2016 43
CLASSNOTES | Profile Ronna grew up in a close-knit community in Hong Kong, along with her brothers, William, who attended Lawrenceville, and Ronald ’91, who died in 2010. Although her parents didn’t expect her to follow William to boarding school, Ronna became frustrated with her school’s practice of funneling students into either an arts or a science concentration. On the recommendation of a family friend, she submitted an application to Choate, sight unseen, and didn’t set foot on campus until orientation. “What welcomed me was the PMAC,” she recalls. “I remember thinking to myself as my mom drove, “Wow! This is a high school?” Life in a new context suited Ronna, and she found her perception of herself as a student shifting. While she’d never considered herself strong in mathematics, Choate’s small classes and style of teaching drew out her enthusiasm. Ronna eventually became a math tutor and a member of the math team. “The whole Choate experience was such a life-transforming experience for me,” she says. “Basically, every teacher was nurturing, and built my confidence, regardless of the subject.” While at Choate, Ronna spent a term in France, and then, as a student at Brown University – where she majored in International Relations – she spent a year in Tokyo, at Keio University. She lived with a family in the city, and discovered the difference between classroom and applied learning. Although she’d done well in Japanese at Brown, once she arrived in Tokyo, “I realized that what I had learned was not at all practical Japanese,” she recalls. Instead, she found instruction through “daily grocery trips, cooking, eating, laundry, dog-walking with my homestay mom.” After college, Ronna moved to New York to work at Goldman Sachs and then at Tommy Hilfiger, until she left to pursue an MBA at Stanford. That degree obtained, she finally moved back to Hong Kong, where she joined the Novel Group, a textile business owned by her family. She is now the managing director of Novel Investments Limited, the family investment office for the business and its shareholders. When her parents launched the Bai Xian Education Foundation in 2013 (the Institute was founded in 2014 to implement the AFLSP, which is funded by the Foundation), Ronna stepped in to the CEO role. Fifty-three scholarships – up to $25,000 a year for two years in pursuit of either an undergraduate or graduate degree – were granted its first year, and 103 scholars were expected to enroll in the 2016-2017 year. In addition to their studies, many of the scholarship recipients participate in a range of activities meant to deepen their immersion in the host country. And all scholars take part in a three-week summer program that helps establish relationships between students studying in different countries, enhancing the students’ experience. In the 2016 summer session, Ronna enlisted her classmate Danny Goldfield, a photographer and filmmaker, as a speaker (see p. 47). “At Choate, I was encouraged to think critically and express my views freely, knowing full well that there are other views that may be valid as well,” Ronna says. She aims to foster similar relationships among the scholarship students. These relationships, “built when people are young, more open-minded, more inquisitive, more willing to accept and embrace differences,” she says, create “even better connections when these young people become leaders in their respective fields and industries later on in life.”
Building Bridges Across Cultures The typical experience of studying abroad – immersion in a foreign culture, language, and style – lasts a handful of months. Not so for Ronna Chao ’85. Raised in Hong Kong, she left home at 15 for Choate Rosemary Hall. She didn’t return to live in her native city for 14 years. During that time, she lived in Connecticut, France, Rhode Island, Japan, New York City, and California. “These experiences taught me the value of differences and the importance of respecting and embracing them,” she says. Now, Ronna helps make such experiences accessible to others in her role as chair and CEO of Bai Xian Asia Institute, a non-profit organization founded by her father, Ronald Chao. The Institute’s Asian Future Leaders Scholarship Program (AFLSP), which launched in 2013, sends students to partnering universities and provides summer programs and other enrichment activities. In the past two years, 148 students – predominantly from China, Japan, and Korea, but also from Afghanistan, Iran, Cambodia, India, Mongolia, and other countries – have enrolled at 16 universities across Asia under the auspices of AFLSP. “We are about building bridges across cultures and nurturing future leaders,” Ronna says. “There are a lot of top Asian universities, and we believe that, in the 21st century, it is really important for everyone, especially Asians, to understand Asia.”
By Andrea Thompson Andrea Thompson is the co-author, with Jacob Lief, of the book, I Am Because You Are.