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When Elaine Lingying Zong, ’98, arrived in Chicago from China as a new student in Booth’s Full-Time MBA Program, so much was new: the language, the country, and, at the time, the very idea of pursuing an MBA in the United States. Her experience at Booth proved to be transformative: she emerged with lifelong friends and a new career path in investment banking and private equity. Since then Zong has made engagement with Booth a priority, serving on the Global Advisory Board, co-chairing her 20th class reunion, cosponsoring the “Meet Us at a Million” matching challenge for alumni, and giving to both The Hong Kong Jockey Club University of Chicago Academic Complex | The University of Chicago Francis and Rose Yuen Campus in Hong Kong and Booth’s London campus.

Why was an MBA from Booth the right decision for you at that point in your career?

I was working in a highly sought-after job in China’s new capital markets as an assistant to the CEO of the Shenzhen Stock Exchange. There, I had very good exposure to investment bankers and leaders in high finance from Hong Kong and other countries. Such exposure shaped my decision to pursue investment banking as a career. At the time in China, it wasn’t popular yet to go to the United States for an MBA. But since an early age, I really liked Western culture and the principles of liberty and freedom.

How would you describe your experience at Booth?

I came from a pretty good life in China, but in Chicago, I was living a simple student life in a small dorm at I-House. My English was not good. I had little knowledge of Western economies and finance, or other background knowledge. The learning curve was steep, and it was humbling for me. I know some people might complain about how challenging Chicago is and how much studying it requires. But I had the opposite experience. I made very good friends and had so much fun. I wondered, “Why is it only two years? Why not four years?” After Booth I got a job at J. P. Morgan, and my training class consisted of 40 to 50 associates from around the world. I scored one of the highest in the class on financial modeling and corporate finance. The finance training I got from Chicago was just absolutely awesome.

You’ve said your experience at Booth changed the trajectory of your life and career. How so?

I attribute the critical and independent thinking and the values system that I strive to follow to my Chicago education. I dare to be different. I try to base my decisions on gathering data, reading extensively, and thinking vigorously. I embrace the ideas of free-market capitalism, pivoting on freedom of speech and rule of law. After many years in investment banking and private equity in Hong Kong, I’ve retired and now manage my own investments. All those things still apply. I say I’ve been lucky in my investments, but a lot of my good decisions in investment and in life come from the framework of thinking and the values system that I formulated in my MBA years.

Why has it been important to you to remain so engaged with Booth?

I’m very close with the classes of 1998 and 1999; some of my classmates are in the very inner circle of my friends. We debate a lot about politics and investments, and we challenge each other and we disagree with each other. But that’s part of the education we had. It’s a heritage of our campus culture, which as [University of Chicago president] Robert Zimmer has said, is “committed to discourse, argument, and lack of deference.” With that, we sharpen each other’s minds and we have trust and loyalty. We refer jobs to each other, and I’ve invested in a few funds that my friends are managing. We all feel that Chicago changed our trajectory and collectively we’re very grateful. It’s quite special. I don’t see that in other schools.