2018 Best EMBAs: Sophia Wu, University of Toronto (Rotman)

Beibei (Sophia) Wu

University of Toronto, Rotman School of Management

“A proactive and energetic professional that wants to make a difference in the lives of others.”

Age: 48

Hometown: Hefei, China

Family Members: Son

Fun fact about yourself: Love to edit small home videos, and I am an avid fashion design watcher.

Undergraduate School and Degree: Ryerson University – Bachelor of Commerce (BComm)

Where are you currently working?

Toronto West Academy – Co-Founder & President

Chief Financial Officer at Cestar Education Group (CEG), and a partner at Cestar College/Lambton College in Toronto.

Lambton College, a public, not-for-profit college, has been serving Canadian and international students since 1967. Lambton College has licensed its curriculum to Cestar College to deliver its academic programs to international students in Toronto. Lambton College in Toronto targets international students to fulfil the increasing demand from international markets. Enrollment increased from 35 students in the Summer 2011 to 5,100 full-time students in the Fall 2017. More than 27 post-graduate and diploma programs cover business, healthcare, hospitality, quality engineering, chemical, and information technology.

Extracurricular Activities, Community Work and Leadership Roles:

I am a member of several local business organizations, including the Toronto Region Board of Trade (TBOT) – one of the largest and most influential Chambers of Commerce in North America; the Association of Chinese Canadian Entrepreneurs (ACCE), and the Canada China Business Council (CCBC). I am also a member of CCIBD (Canada China Institute for Business and Development) and presenter for Chinese entrepreneurial leadership distinction panel. As a successful female Chinese immigrant sharing my experiences for business, career, and settlement here in Canada. I also mentor and provide career advice to a group of Chinese university students who want to study aboard.

Which academic or extracurricular achievement are you most proud of during business school? I am most proud of the company, Toronto West Academy, that we were able to create while completing the EMBA program. With the next generation of students being even more comfortable using online services in their daily lives, plus with the growing demand for education in developing economies, we believe Toronto West Academy could take advantage of a new niche whereby it could provide global students with the opportunity to access a better education that could improve their lives. This is based on the ideology that “Education Equals Opportunity”.

During the EMBA program, we studied many case studies and models and I was very inspired by the success of many of those companies – especially how they grew from the ground up to become global players. Two noteworthy cases that I studied were for the leading online companies Alibaba and Amazon. The online business models made me think of potential opportunities within the education sector and other online business segments in Canada, which prompted me to start researching in this specific area.

After completing the preliminary research, I was able to form a team to start our project during our Capstone project – the last course of our EMBA program. Upon completion of the EMBA program, we incorporated Toronto West Academy and the school went live on February 1, 2018. I am so proud of this achievement that utilizes the new-found knowledge that I acquired during the Rotman EMBA program that was able to be turned into a real business venture – all started from an initial idea on paper to a fully licensed school that is generating revenue.

What achievement are you most proud of in your professional career?

I am proud that I was able to make a difference in people’s lives by increasing the capacity at our college by 300% in 2.5 months, which allowed more international students the opportunity to study in Canada. I believe that this was able to help these students to change their lives and helped them to reach their personal goals. When I see these young people succeed, it makes me feel proud and very happy.

As acting President during that time, I managed the daily college operations and was also responsible for the new project requiring extensive building renovations. We scheduled the classes to increase enrolment from 300 to 1,000 in three months. It was a very stressful period for me as I had to manage the college and the renovations during the daytime, and in the evening, communicate with an owner who was in China for four months. I worked closely with the manager of the construction company that led the renovation project, which helped me to learn a lot about this industry. I believe that this opportunity helped me to enrich my project management experience and enhanced my time management skills to prioritize job tasks, deal with increased stress, and create a better work-life balance.

The most recent achievement that I am so proud of is that I was able to recruit global students for our online high school, Toronto West Academy and secure partnerships with schools in China in a very short amount of time. Don and I worked together closely and in a period of only two months, we were able to successfully obtain a license from the Ontario Ministry of Education on February 1, 2018, hire our principal and teachers, obtain an office space and begin offering classes, including a Mandarin adult learning program for local professionals.

Who was your favorite MBA professor?

My favourite professor is Doug Hyatt. He is an excellent professor and academic director who taught me how integrated the world is and the realistic opportunities that exist for entrepreneurial individuals such as myself.

He can convey complex academic knowledge and relates it to current real-world situations. I was impressed by his knowledge, teaching style, and the sharing of his life experiences with our class. He not only taught us academic knowledge but how to live life in so many ways. Shared many personal thoughts with us regarding how the world and Canada will be in the very near future. The learning from him exceeded my expectations from a professor.

What was your favorite MBA course and what was the biggest insight you gained about business from it? My favourite course was Macroeconomics, which was taught by Professor Doug Hyatt. I saw the “big picture” of how integrated the Canadian economy is to the rest of the world and witnessed a real-world perspective of how the inflow and outflow of resources move from country to country. For example, I was surprised to see how the change of population, as indicated in a population pyramid, related to the various countries’ economies. This fact increased my knowledge base regarding the future market opportunities and where the best places are to grow a business.

For the first time, I realized how important that international trade is for a country’s economy and the benefit it can bring to people’s lives.  This provided me with direction I was looking for related to my future business and career. I truly believe Professor Doug Hyatt’s last lesson to me, which was that “trade is good.” As such, I would like to be the bridge for both people and businesses in China and Canada that want to conduct business, thereby helping to increase trade between these two countries that I am proud to call my homes.

Why did you choose this executive MBA program? I chose the EMBA program at Rotman because of the excellent reputation of the University of Toronto and alumni network around the world. Most importantly, I believe this program led to the ultimate objective of advancing my education and helped to achieve my career goals. As a female entrepreneur, I would like to enrich my knowledge in management skills, as my background is in finance with many years of experience in various industries – both in Canada and China. The world-class faculty and alumni network will help me reach my career goals. I believe that this came true with the creation of our company, Toronto West Academy.

What did you enjoy most about business school in general? I enjoyed learning from professional educators and peers who have a positive attitude and have enlightened me on the various perspectives regarding real-world issues. And through the program, I was able to meet Don Trynor, who has helped me to launch a new business. The two of us bring together our unique skillsets to create a complimentary team, that we believe will allow us to be successful with this new business venture.

What is the biggest lesson you gained during your MBA and how did you apply it at work? I learned a great deal from those real business cases and CEOs’ stories, such as how they faced difficult situations and handled those tough problems. These cases taught me tactics and strategies that I can use in business and the application of specific tools related to time and stress management that will help me in my everyday work life. Also, I learned the resilience that these CEO’s possessed to overcome the challenges that they faced was very inspiring to me and will serve as an excellent model that I can use in my own career.

Give us a story during your time as an executive MBA on how you were able to juggle work, family and education? I remember getting very ill when we had our leadership retreat at Kingbridge Centre in King City retreat. I went to the emergency room of the hospital and had a significant assignment due at the same time. I sent a note to the Rotman faculty and asked for additional time to hand in the work and they were very helpful, as they understood my situation and were able to provide accommodation for my situation. Even though I was very sick, I was able to submit my assignment on time without the extension. Before getting sick, I had done much of the work related to the assignment; otherwise, it would not have been submitted on time. Many such incidents happened during the program and through time management, proper scheduling, and the prioritization of tasks helped me a lot to balance work, family and studies.

What advice would you give to a student looking to enter an executive MBA program?  It is a worthwhile program. The knowledge gained from your professors and peers is invaluable. The connections made can last a lifetime. It is hard work, but I strongly recommend the program to anyone wishing to advance their career.

What is the biggest myth about going back to school? The most significant myth involves the “naysayers” who said that I could not do it. People would say that you do not need it and that it is hard to balance family, work and school. I wanted to advance my career by learning how to be more successful. After successfully launching our new venture, Toronto West Academy, I believe that studying an EMBA was one of the best decisions I have ever made in my entire life.

What was your biggest regret in business school?The biggest regret is that I wish there were more time to develop additional networks with our instructors and my classmates. I would suggest to future students who are interested in taking this program to allocate as much time as they can to develop networks with classmates and professors.

Which MBA classmate do you most admire? I admire Justin Wong. He has incredible energy and is very talented. He did his EMBA, then a Master of Management Analytics (MMA) and even found time to take a machine learning program.

“I knew I wanted to go to business school when…I did not feel challenged at my workplace, and I wanted to make serious changes. There were concepts, ideas and terminology that I did not fully understand in today’s competitive and global world. I immediately thought I need to learn these things if I want to advance my career and reach my future goals.”

If I hadn’t gone to business school, I would be…in a rut and wouldn’t be able to be up to date on the latest thoughts and strategies in today’s world. One of my goals was to attend a top university in Canada, so fortunately, I have had the opportunity to experience the Rotman EMBA program to gain both personally and professionally from it. Most importantly, by completing the Rotman EMBA program, it has allowed me to create a new business with my classmate, which will allow me to continue to growth professionally

What is your ultimate long-term professional goal? To give back to society by utilizing my experience and assistance to make the lives of others even better. I really want to help people around the world and one way that I can do this is through our new venture, Toronto West Academy.

In one sentence, how would you like your peers to remember you? An optimistic, hard-working international entrepreneur.

Favorite book: Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg.

Favorite movie or television show: The Ellen Degeneres Show

What are the top two items on your bucket list?

  1. Spend more quality time with my parents.
  2. Travel to 10 countries in Europe with the richest histories.

What made Sophia such an invaluable addition to the class of 2018?

“As the Partner, Acting President and CFO of a growing private College in Ontario, Canada, you may not think of Sophia Wu as a typical EMBA student.  Not only had she already achieved great success in her career, with the titles to match, but she was spending much of her remaining free time involved in local business organizations and mentoring fellow Chinese immigrants and students.  Nonetheless, Sophia wanted to keep challenging herself and expand her skills and abilities further and embark on a grueling and intensive 13-month Executive MBA.  Sophia’s outlook as a student is what makes her unique.  She took the assignment presented to students in the Capstone course to create a real business opportunity with a classmate.  When she says that she wants to make life better for others, she truly lives this value, and it continues to drive her ongoing success.

It was lovely to see the transformation that Sophia went through during her EMBA experience.  When she entered the program she seemed quite serious and quiet.  As we all got to know the real Sophia, we experienced the positive energy that she puts into everything she does.  Running a college and then partnering up with a classmate to create a new school to enhance the chances of international students to be successful in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Math) curriculum and English language skills really does fulfill her motto of “Education Equals Opportunity”.  An entrepreneurial mindset, sharp business acumen, and a focus on social good make Sophia Wu a powerhouse in the international business community and a great ambassador of the Rotman Executive MBA program.”

Kristen Ligers
Director, Program Services & Student Life,
Professional MBA & Specialized Programs
Rotman School of Management

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