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Q&A: Interview with Chenyu Zheng

chenyu-display-paintings-on-highline

Chenyu Zheng, who was living in New York City and is now based out of southern California, shares her experiences as a female Asian entrepreneur.

By Audrey Wang (Author, The Wang Post)

First, to start: where were you born, and where did you grow up?

I’m from Wuhu (pronounced “Woohoo”) in Anhui Province, a city on the Yangtze River, 5 hours from Shanghai by train. It’s known for street food and was one of the four ancient rice markets of China. I came to boarding school in the U.S. when I was sixteen, and since then I’ve been a “global citizen” of sorts – I volunteered in India, studied abroad in Ghana, England, Nicaragua, Panama, Spain, and have traveled to Sweden, Switzerland, Cambodia.

Was there a special interest from your childhood or school years that led you to your current path?

I grew up learning traditional Chinese watercolor, but mostly mimicked masterpieces. My art teacher and faculty advisor Mr. Noyes helped me to discover and to develop my passion for art: he trained me to have a strong foundation in 2D design, color and perspective theory, but encouraged me to pursue my own original style and techniques. I studied German Expressionism, which deeply influenced the painting subject (human portraiture), style (expressive and capturing more liveness over likeness), and material (acrylics ) in the Tech Giants artwork.

Without Mr. Noyes’ innovative teaching style and constructive feedback and encouragement, I couldn’t have carried my passion for art this far.

How do you answer the question: “What DO you DO?”

I am a visual storyteller passionate about sharing knowledge, positive energy (inspiration), and facilitating human connections enabled by technology.

One dream I’m working on is combining my passion for startup with inspiring others and my skillsets in painting and storytelling. The intersection turns out to be the Tech Giants Art Project – this is my “tennis ball” (more on that, below), which I hope to contribute to both the tech and art worlds. My long-term mission is to accelerate the greening of China through effective collaboration for a healthier world.

Tell us the motivation behind your project, Tech Giants?

In June 2013, I was inspired by Drew Houston’s MIT Commencement Speech, when he gave graduates a cheat sheet for life: “tennis ball, circle, 30,000”. The “tennis ball” refers to a passion that people pursue, and “30,000″ refers to the days of life we have: after discovering our passion, we should get started rather than wait for a “perfect” moment.

Combining my interests for art and startups, I realized my “tennis ball” is to paint tech giants, retell their stories, and inspire other young people to action. So I started the Tech Giants Art Project: a series of acrylic portraits of tech entrepreneurs and quotes to inspire people to appreciate art and to take away a message and act upon their own passion. These tech entrepreneurs have preserved to succeed and built products we use daily, fundamentally disrupting the way we communicate, work, and live.

I apply startup methodology to painting (such as MVP, crowdsourcing feedback, and reiterations) to demonstrate that entrepreneurship isn’t just about starting companies, but about starting from scratch.

What is the link between entrepreneurship/startup and art?

At Startup School 2013, Jack Dorsey noted the similarities between Henri’s descriptions of creating art and what it’s like to be a startup founder; to quote, “We work so hard to get some sort of acceptance in the world, to get some sort of positive feedback. We look at others, who seem to reach their success so quickly. But it takes years and years, and patience.” In a nutshell, founders (like artists) need to find their own way to create products that they’re passionate about. That is, what matters is not so much the ideas themselves, but the execution of those ideas.

One of my most respected professors at Princeton, Professor Ed Zschau, once told me: “Entrepreneurship isn’t about starting companies. It’s about starting from scratch.” You can be an entrepreneur in anything you do. We can start small: it’s all about finding that “tennis ball” and building up. Therefore, Tech Giants is my own interpretation of Professor Zschau’s message.

What’s been a “favorite” entrepreneur you’ve met and/or painted, and why?

One of my favorites is Jack Dorsey, who drew the parallel between artists vs. startups founders, which helped connect the dots in my mind. He emphasized that:

One of most important things: you are building what you want to see in the world. You are making a bet that other people want to see the same thing in the world. Sometimes you lose the bet; sometimes you win the bet, but the most important thing is that you have the passion to build for yourself. Because that is what’s infectious, that is what brings other people to your cause and to your team.

In fall 2011, I had the opportunity to meet with Jack along with a group of students from the Princeton Entrepreneurship Club at Square HQ in San Francisco. I was deeply inspired by his attention to detail in observing the design of the Square conference room. A Golden Gate Bridge model was on a wooden desk with square patterns, and a No. 8 color block with reflection of Square logo in addition to carpets with square shapes – such high attention to detail in the office design carries a lot about a company’s philosophy.

As an innovator, Jack and his team have revolutionized how we communicate (via Twitter) and empowered everyone to be a merchant (via Sqaure). Jack not only disrupted, but started two revolutions. Take a moment to imagine the lives that this work has impacted – everyone can join a “dinner conversation” and be informed of what happens around the world, or a mom-and-pop store no longer needs to turn away customers without cash in their wallet.

Another of my favorites is Sam Lessin, a personal hero of mine in product management; Lessin is the architect behind Facebook Timeline, and I’ve learned so much from him (at a distance, thanks to his talks, which are available online).

As an Economics major, what Sam made me realize is how economic theories help analyze disruptive ideas empowered by technology – for example, cost and benefit analysis of sharing economy.

What has been the most rewarding experience from your Tech Giants activity, and conversely, what’s been a challenge associated with the project?

One of the most rewarding experiences from Tech Giants is to hear people passing by my Highline display and say “You inspired me today!”, and see friends taking actions to pursue their passion. One friend asked me to make a tutorial on Minimal Viable Painting and she started painting again. One friend got his art business off the ground. I’ve been invited to speak at tech meet-ups in NYC, as well as in China, and I’m currently writing a Chinese column on Tech Giants to inspire young people in China. It’s heartwarming to see the impact of this project go beyond the English-speaking community to Chinese youths.

The biggest challenge I face is time management – I often wish I had more time! Fifteen paintings in 100 days, after work, was a very demanding physically; in order to meet the goal, I had to sacrifice social time with friends. I also realized that once you find your “tennis ball”, it’s hard to stop focusing (working) on it, especially because I had a deadline in early October to debut these paintings in NYC.

Well, having limited time and a deadline – it’s been helpful in developing an agile painting style, and I know now when to move on. For a painting, it’s hard to know when it’s “final”, because you can always revise just a bit more. What I learned is to paint a draft and gather feedback from friends (the “crowdsource” I wrote about, earlier) before revisions. When I’m done revising, I let it go and move on to another painting, maybe a last touch-up later.

What else are you working on?

I’ve served as Community Manager of JUCCCE (Joint US China Collaboration on Clean Energy) since 2012, and a volunteer/intern since 2010. My main responsibilities in the U.S. include volunteer recruitment, organizing meet-ups, and representing JUCCCE at North America conferences. China’s environmental problems is a global problem, and therefore, a continued mission of mine is to green China for a healthier world. Being able to recruit and connect with  like-minded Chinese overseas to build a more sustainable future has been extremely rewarding.

Since spring 2011, I’ve been working on the JUCCCE China Dream Initiative, featured twice on New York Times by Thomas Friedman (“China Needs Its Own Dream” and “Too Big to Breathe?”), Vogue, The Guardian, China Business News, among others.

The China Dream project seeks to reimagine prosperity and reshape consumer desire in China; the goal is to catalyze a new aspirational lifestyle that is innately sustainable for the emergent middle class in China.

On a lighter note, I’ve also been working on the CoffeeLove Project, a travel collage board and blog featuring the best local coffee shops in New York City, San Francisco, LA, Chicago, and Boston.

If you could have a superhero ability, what would it be and why?

I’d love to get somewhere instantly! I love to travel and to explore new places, but Chinese citizens often have to go through laborious visa applications; it’d be so nice to be able to travel to anywhere, at any time.

This post previously appeared on The Wang Post.

Profile-150x150About the blogger: Audrey Wang, a former English major, previously worked in media and communications; currently, she works in advocacy and public policy. Her interests are literacy, women and children’s rights, and nonlinear thinking. Say hello at [email protected] or @AndAudreySays.

Photo credit: Alexa Carlin at helloperfect.com