The unofficial motto of the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs comes from its dean, Franklin D. Gilliam, Jr. Oftentimes he says that students and alumni from UCLA Luskin are “changing the world — one place, one project, one person at a time.”
Joy Chen is taking on a slightly larger role in her efforts, adding “one generation” to that refrain.
“I’m interested in changing the world, which is a carryover from my Urban Planning days,” says Chen, a 1998 graduate of the program, “but the way I’m changing the world is by helping women in China.”
Which initially was odd for Chen, who was born and raised in America. Despite her stateside roots, her book aimed at a generation has become an international success in transforming the culture of women in China.
Do Not Marry Before Age 30 challenges years of Chinese tradition that instructs women to get married early and have children, erasing most thoughts enjoyed by their American counterparts who are free to place education and career success ahead of marriage and family.
Chen’s best-selling book, released last summer, has helped empower women in China who were previously viewed as “leftovers.”
“The purpose isn’t to persuade people but to start conversations about women that need to happen — how they can unlock their own potential and make their dreams come true,” Chen said. “This generation of women are living in an in-between period. There is the tradition telling women their role in life to be a wife and a mom, but this generation is educated. Because of all the education of women, they have new dreams for their lives and careers and dreams for love.
“I think the central question facing modern women in China is how do they sort out this huge social pressure? They’re sorting through all that and trying to figure out how to carve out their own path as women with their own dreams and own ideas.”
Chen didn’t set out to become a writer, although that title falls short in describing her role at this point in her career. The success of Do Not Marry Before Age 30 has turned her into a media star in China, and Chen now hosts television shows, writes magazine columns, produces Internet “websiodes” — which are far more watched than regular TV because of the Chinese government’s control over standard television. As a result, she refers to herself as a “full-time media creator in China.”
This new career is actually Chen’s fourth since graduating from UCLA Luskin. After a successful stint as a real estate developer, she served as a deputy mayor for special projects in L.A. Mayor James Hahn’s administration, all before she became a corporate headhunter, landing CEO’s for major companies.
On the side she began writing a blog, based on her headhunting experience, about how to climb up in global companies. It became quite popular as Chinese students who were attending universities in America began sharing the site with each other.
One day Chen wrote a post titled “Do Not Marry Before Age 30” and, as she puts it, “it went crazy.
“It was passed all over the world, through the Chinese media, and I had all this new incoming traffic that my server crashed,” she says.
She wrote from experience, too, as she was a successful single woman, earning her Deputy Mayor title at 31 before becoming a headhunter at 35. “I had 20 years of dating experience, which was more than anyone in China,” she said.
She was soon contacted by one of China’s top publishers about writing a book along the same lines.
“As a headhunter, I started getting headhunted,” she says with a laugh.
Chen kept the publishing company at arm’s length for a year, saying “I still had a lot of doubts about how, as a Chinese-American, I could write for women in China.”
During her second maternity leave in as many years Chen was again contacted by the publishers. This time, she thought, she might as well jump.
“I said as long as I am on maternity leave, I could turn it into book leave,” said Chen, who spends a few days a month in China doing all of her media work and in-person meetings, but mostly works from her home in Pasadena. “I had had two maternity leaves in two years and probably couldn’t take another one, so if I was going to write this book, I better start writing it now.”
She never went back to work as a headhunter.
The first portion of the book helps Chinese women understand themselves and revel in themselves, according to Chen. Then she employs her headhunting experience to help them find Mr. Right, the same technique she used to find her husband, Dave.
“The final chapter,” she says, “is about loving the world and how to become happy through changing the world.”