Jennifer Yu Cheng’s childhood and upbringing has afforded her a life and career many young girls could only hope for. But, as she shares with Prestige, her work in education is helping teens discover their full potential as future leaders.
There’s a saying that behind every great man there’s a great woman. Although there was a time when we knew little about Jennifer Yu Cheng, wife of the New World Development head and “cultural entrepreneur” Adrian Cheng, who also oversees Chow Tai Fook Jewellery and the lifestyle brand K11. These days, however, it seems as if Cheng is stepping into her own. Having spent years working behind the scenes and allowing her work to speak for itself, Cheng is at last offering us a glimpse into her life, which is clearly dedicated to the betterment of children’s future and the empowerment of young women. And to see what a formidable force she is.
When we meet at K11’s private-member Gentry Club, filled with rare object and fine-art pieces sourced by the K11 Art Foundation, Cheng is evidently supportive of her husband’s work and shares his enthusiasm for art.
She gives me a brief tour of the place, easily elaborating on a few of the pieces that catch my eye: an English cutlery set decorated in luodian, a Chinese art of mother-of-pearl inlay, and porcelain teacups so thin they look almost translucent.
But on sitting down to talk, her husband’s name never comes up once – and to be fair, nor do I feel the need to ask about him. Cheng isn’t just a wife or mother figure linked to one of Hong Kong’s most established families. She’s a fearless leader, charting her own path in a world of education, empowering girls to take on leadership opportunities and offering teenagers a chance to become future-ready for the workplace and life itself.
But why does this daunting task appeal to Cheng and what set her on this path? To understand who she is, and how she got to where she is today, we begin with her childhood in Canada, growing up with a brother and cousin in the most wholesome way possible. “When I was in grade school, my cousin, brother and I had made this ninja base in our garden,” she recalls fondly. “We even made a wooden door to the ninja base, and we painted a lion on it just to scare the bad guys away. Exploration played a huge part early in my life.”
She watched her father make things in his backyard DIY workshop and learned the joys of tinkering with him. Building Lego blocks, making T-shirts and working on science projects were some of her happiest moments. She’s a natural-born innovator – “I remember when my grandmother had broken her thumb and I made her this thumb brace. Those are some of my earliest memories, of kind of seeing a problem and trying to find a solution and creating something out of it,” she says.
Exploration played a huge part early in my lifeJennifer Yu Cheng
I ask Cheng if she thinks her fixer-upper attitude is also part of the reason she found her calling in education. Were there perhaps problems in the sector that she felt she wanted to solve? She agrees with that assessment wholeheartedly. Fresh out of college, that wasn’t what she’d set out to do but it was certainly the choices she took that led her there. Graduating with a major in engineering and a minor in economics from Columbia University, Cheng had her starting in the field of finance, first with JP Morgan then at Goldman Sachs, where she worked in the fixed-income securities division. The company had a summer internship programme in which she was champion for her division. This was the first time she saw first-hand that there was gap in education that needed addressing.
“Through the interview process, interacting with the candidates and successful hires, I saw there was a gap in Hong Kong’s education, in particular, preparing students with the skills of communication, critical thinking, creativity and guidance counselling,” says Cheng. “That’s what really inspired me and my partner, Jennifer Ma, to start ARCH Education in 2009 and address that gap.”
It was a bold venture, but one for which Cheng says she found support among her friends, colleagues and even bosses, who sent their own children to ARCH Education’s first programme. “They really believed in our vision in bridging the education gap, and helping students find direction and fulfilling their full potential,” she says.
From then onwards, Cheng hasn’t looked back. In 2017, she spearheaded CTF Education Group, a second venture that gave her an even greater standing in the field of education. “We saw a need to start CTF Education Group to deliver our vision of empowering the next generation to be future-ready through education,” she explains. CTF Education Group brought together the myriad resources in Cheng’s network and consolidated her many efforts.
Beyond looking solely at education resources, Cheng saw the need to explore business collaborations, as students (and their teachers) required a deeper understanding of the evolutions of the workplace. CTF Education Group also looked at talent development – how to empower students and train teachers to deliver a future-ready education, and how to embed digital and technology readiness into existing school curriculums – and even to rethink the entire process, from kindergarten to Grade 12. A charitable side to the organisation rounds out its overarching mission – reaching out to those unable to afford CTFEG’s schools, but who could benefit from its programme.
Cheng is entirely aware that her upbringing afforded her opportunities that aren’t always available to every teenage girl. She herself pursued STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) while studying at Columbia University, but concedes that not many girls set out on the same path. “In local schools today, there are still gender biases around teen girls pursuing advanced science and math in secondary school,” says Cheng. “This then precludes them from pursuing STEM in university and jobs of the future in these high-growth sectors and also other industries that are adopting new technology and experiencing digital transformations.”
Covid further acerbated the situation, with industries everywhere turning to tech and digitising the workforce. In 2020, Cheng set up the Jennifer Yu Cheng Girls Impact Foundation to further her mission to inspire, equip and empower teenage girls to become future-ready leaders.
“Even though industry transformations were already underway, they exponentially picked up speed after Covid. The pandemic rolled back so many of the gains made by women in the workforce,” Cheng explains. “At just one in five management and leadership roles, and one in six STEM students in university, women in Asia were already underrepresented.
“But when the pandemic hit, the industries transformed seemingly overnight, so a future-ready education seemed more critical than ever to level the playing field for women and ensure their access to high-paying jobs of the future that require digital literacies and leadership skills and competencies. Through my work in education, I know the power of education to transform people, to break poverty cycles and to bridge opportunity gaps,” says Cheng. After reading the Harvard research paper “Leaning Out”, Cheng was spurred to create an initiative that would offer teenage girls a window to erase and correct biases for an entire lifetime.
I know the power of education to transform people, to break poverty cycles and to bridge opportunity gapsJennifer Yu Cheng
“We’re launching our 10,000 Girls4Girls Coding+ initiative soon,” says Cheng. The empowerment initiative, which began its pilot mode this year, is an ambitious project from which Cheng hopes 10,000 girls will benefit by learning coding and AI in the next few years. Girls who have an interest to learn coding are also trained to become leaders, so they can volunteer with other schools as community outreach to teach coding skills to others. Additionally, students develop a leadership mindset through exposure to changemakers, inspirational women leaders and diverse industries.
“We want to mobilise those girls who already have an interest to learn coding, to become leaders through the train the trainer model,” says Cheng. “The programme creates leadership opportunities for them to learn coding and apply it, and there’s a lot of learning and encouragement between the two groups of girls in learning coding and other future-readiness skills.”
Cheng, who was brought up with strong mentors, believes mentorship is vital for growth and development. It’s a role she’s taken on herself. “I’ve seen so many transformations – students who lacked confidence who are now high achievers, or those who may be on the verge of failing have a big turnaround. The teenage years is a great opportunity for students to experience that change,” she says.
Cheng’s own greatest supporter and mentor is her own mother. “Her spirituality and her values have really served as a compass for me in navigating my life and my work,” she says. “Just growing up, she would always tell us to try our best. She would see failures as opportunities to learn and taught us to see that as well. She encouraged us to be kind and grateful for our successes, and to pursue a meaningful, purpose-driven life, to contribute and make a positive impact.”
As she grew up in Canada, her parents encouraged her to take part in after-school activities, which Cheng believes was important for overall development and education. “I’m a strong believer that extra-curricular activities are
an important part of a whole person’s development,” says Cheng. “Through sports you develop collaboration, leadership and teamwork – even the way you see failure. Through clubs, you learn to problem solve, deal with different situations and learn to advocate for something that you’re passionate about.”
Cheng, who returned to Hong Kong to study at the German Swiss International School before attending boarding school and college in the US, counts her teenage years as the time when she became the person she is today. “Going to boarding school was that period of transformation for me personally,” she says. “It gave me an opportunity to explore myself, to discover my strengths and weaknesses, and to be in an environment where teachers really encouraged me and gave me opportunities to develop leadership skills.
“And as I mentioned earlier, the value of extra-curricular activities in exploring these leadership capacities … it’s not just about going to talks about leadership or going to camp, but how do you put leadership into action? Now that I look back as an educator, high school was really the start of leadership empowerment for me.”
Leaders aren’t born. Leaders are made – and by helping and inspiring girls to rethink what leadership means to them, Cheng hopes they can view leadership as an attitude. She hasn’t forgotten any of her mentors and remains grateful for the opportunities afforded to her at school and later in the workplace. “I had really supportive bosses working on the trading floor. They gave me a lot of opportunities and trusted my work. I was lucky to have had a relatively fast-track promotion to Executive Director while I was at Goldman, but I also know that not all teen girls or women have that. Or maybe I realised that not all teen girls have the access to the kind of education or the preparation for future readiness or the workplace skills that would allow them to navigate successfully, which is why I feel my foundation’s work is important.
“We invest in teen girls today so we can develop a strong talent pipeline of future women leaders who can navigate opportunities and chart their own path in their community and in the workplace,” says Cheng.
Cheng feels a strong connection with every student she’s had the privilege of working with – and the feeling is mutual. She recalls getting Mother’s Day cards even before she had her own children, sent to her by students grateful for the life-changing opportunities she’d offered them. A few years ago, through ARCH Community Outreach, a programme aimed at broadening opportunities for Hong Kong youth through exposure to international education experiences and diverse career networks, Cheng met a young student who came up to her to ask if she could help him achieve his dreams.
“He said, you know, you really encouraged us to try and pursue our interests and dreams. and have an experience abroad, but I don’t know if I’m worthy,” Cheng recalls. Finding the student incredibly mature but lacking confidence, Cheng and her team offered him free coaching and guidance counselling.
“Fast forward, the student got a full scholarship to study at a university in the US, and fast forward to now, this hesitant boy graduated with a degree in economics and applied to PhD programmes and now is a PhD candidate with a full scholarship. He did that all himself,” says Cheng.
“It really is a wonderful story, because the student is so humble and he gives back every time he’s in Hong Kong, coaching kids in our charity. He’s using his own example to encourage others to pursue their goals and dreams, and not be afraid of failure. That’s just one of many transformational cases, whether it’s our outreach work, or our work at CTF Education Group. It’s what makes our work in education so meaningful and impactful.”
This story first appeared on PrestigeOnline Hong Kong