Born in Hong Kong and raised within a family that was “passionate about democracy and freedom of speech,” Elsa Sze was inspired by the sacrifices her father made, for her, for her education, and for his ideals. “He worked so hard to make sure his children could go to college, something he couldn’t afford when he was young,” she says. But she believes her gratitude cannot be fulfilled by what she accomplishes for herself alone. “I don’t want to work just for my kids, but for all kids, so that everyone has an opportunity to succeed.”
After completing her BA in Economics at the University of Chicago, she spent a brief time in investment banking. “I was impressionable,” Elsa says. “As an undergraduate, investment banking meant prestige.” But her work in investment banking, and a subsequent role as a consultant, failed to satisfy her deeper ambitions. “As a consultant, I would wake up stressed, worried about how I would help a CEO make another five million dollars that day. That’s not why I want to get up in the morning.”
Appreciating the power of business and government together
Her work at the International Monetary Fund opened a new perspective onto the world – and her potential career. “About ten days after I joined the IMF, Lehmann Brothers declared bankruptcy,” says Elsa. “The world as I knew it was falling apart. But what I admired was that in a time of crisis, when there’s a call for extraordinary leadership, the role of government is especially important. I realized that if I wanted to have influence, I needed to speak the language of the marketplace and the language of government.”
Elsa is convinced that the “dichotomy between doing good and doing business” is misconceived. “I recognize the public’s love-hate relationship with the business world,” she says. “But I also see that the business community has so much potential to do good while achieving business objectives.” With a will to reconcile business and government, and profit motives with social ones, Elsa is pursuing the joint MBA/MPP (Masters in Public Policy) degree with HBS and The Harvard Kennedy School.
Leading, even when it’s risky
At both schools, Elsa pursues a commitment to leadership that is rooted in values. “Leadership is not about titles or money, it’s about responsibility,” she says. “We have to put it in action every day.” For Elsa, that means exercising that responsibility even when it is difficult – and even when it is unpopular on the HBS campus itself. Disturbed by the “heritage” of the Priscilla Ball, an annual party in which male students dress as flamboyant women, Elsa challenged the tradition in an op-ed piece she published in The Harbus, the school’s student newspaper. “I noticed a gap between what we talk about in class and what we do outside of class,” she says. “Leadership takes a willingness to speak up, the courage to be the first to raise your hand.”
Ultimately, Elsa would like a career role in which she can influence public policy. Yet regarding her immediate ambitions after completing the joint degree, Elsa openly confides, “I don’t know. But the ability to say ‘I don’t know’ is a big change for me. I used to think of my career as a kind of ‘five-year plan.’ Both schools have taught me to embrace uncertainty. What matters most is to follow your heart by trying different things. Your career picture is more like a mosaic than a straight line.”