Stacey L. Zhou
Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology
11th Grade
Alexandria, VA
Virginia – 2nd Place

Four Questions to the Washington Business Leaders
- Perspectives from a Student of No Legacy and No Athletic Talents 

    On a Sunday morning as I was pondering on how to start the essay, I was truly confused. Maybe the Washington business community wants to study us like some lab objects - our spending behaviors, our social networking styles or even our driving patterns - so they can fine tune their ads like precision bombs for that elusive extra sales. Or maybe the situation has changed and they indeed want to see if we can offer any fresh thinking into their business - as peers. This is uplifting. I know we need to have a healthy fear of “giving advice” in areas where we have no expertise. But hey, what’s to lose? I wouldn’t pass an opportunity to influence our business leaders on what kind of a corporate America they intend to pass on to us. 

    For the Greater Washington business community, welcome to the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology! It has been ranked number one public high school in the country for the past three consecutive years. Something seems working here. But it’s definitely not the facility. The school building dates back to 1964. Students take many of the classes in trailers that lined up on the tennis court. Half of the school toilets do not work. 

    So what’s the one thing that virtually every student here has in common? Busy! We are some of the busiest people in the world! Take myself for example: in this junior year, I take eight courses with four of them at AP levels. My extracurricular activities include playing for my school’s varsity tennis team since freshman year, serving as the communication coordinator in the school’s Student Government Council, and volunteering in the Special Olympics tennis programs at Reston, Virginia and weekly painting class at Chantilly, Virginia. Sounds like a lot, but the truth is, I hate to admit this, I’m only an average student there. Almost all my classmates have similar course load, plus abundant extracurricular activities, clubs, sports and community services. Students in the school have even formed over 150 clubs of various interests. 

    Behind all these buzzing scenes lies a very clear theme: we set our goals, we drive to achieve them and we share the joy with our friends along the journey. Like any high school, there are basically three types of students: those with legacy genes, those are athletically talented, and the vast majority rest of us along with international students who can afford full-tuitions. But this classification doesn’t prevent us the normal students from setting our goals high, chief among them, to get into our dream colleges, say Princeton or Stanford. The odds are wildly unfavorable to us normal students: most selective colleges and universities pose an ever increasing challenge – where applicants outnumber available spaces by multiple of ten or even twenty to one. What do we do? We keep on dreaming stubbornly. We may not get in, but we dare to hope the unthinkable. 

    Most businesses in the Greater Washington area are probably just like us: not a legacy like IBM or HP nor naturally talented like Google or Facebook. But do we still remember, Apple was a marginal PC player just a few years ago? If Steve Jobs was not bold enough, can he pull Apple away from the brink of extinction and deliver iPod, iPhone and iPad to the world? Its market value is larger than Microsoft now. Absent of a worthy dreams, where are the excitement and motivations? You may not be a legacy, but you can choose to become a legend. So my first question to the Washington business leaders of “normal firms” is, “Is your company aiming high enough?” 

    Worthy dreams stir passion and motivation. One reporter described about life in our school as “Dinner by the laptop is routine. At parties they talk about homework and all-nighters spent studying for tests. A few cast aside Facebook, a life force to many teens, as a time waster.”1 I know exactly why. Beside no legacy or super talents, I’m not even a Presidential Award winner nor an Intel Science Competition finalist. We the majority ones have to work the angles for every point we can get. Dreaming is not enough, execution is key. To stretch for an A in Spanish, I had to go to a downtown D.C. theatre to watch a Spanish opera for two hours so as to squeeze in just five extra points. Here no one believes in some random quirk of fate. Everybody knows that it’s the daily grinding that will get us to where we want to be. 

    That’s why I often marvel at today’s adults that can afford all the time in the world to squander. They watch TV for hours. They linger at lunch tables for hours. They travel afar just to play golf. They stopped learning and reading serious books long time ago. We high school students know intimately that if we slack, we fail - everything just winds up spiraling downward from there. Doesn’t this sound familiar in today’s business environment? For business owners and executive management, I wonder if you still have that entrepreneur spirit in you. That is, the raw wild animal spirit at the start of every great companies. I imagine an entrepreneur would never have enough time studying his customers, suppliers and competitors, and perfecting his products or services just to have a tiny edge. So my second question to the Washington business leaders is, “How passionate are you about your company?” 

    To many of us, high school is no doubt our second family. It’s the place to forge unbreakable bonds with our friends. Selling a friend out for a possible boyfriend? No way! That’s a capital offense. Friends are the ones who would put up with my eccentricities, and who, despite their sleep-deprived states, are always willing to hash out ideas with me during late night chats. Together we make mind-blowing spirit day costumes during Homecoming week that, as one fellow student put it, made Lady Gaga look plain. This is my family. 

    I don’t know if true friendships (partnerships) still exist in the business world. My only “business” experience is a short internship at a hedge fund firm. At the beginning of the past summer, I was still under sixteen. That disqualified me for most domestic internship positions. Fortunately through a family friend, an asset management firm in Shanghai was willing to take in an American high school student as intern - thus culminating my summer with a trip to China. I thought I was just going to be an office girl picking up printouts and delivering lunch boxes. Instead, on the first day at work, the firm’s head researcher gave me names of the three major local airlines and asked me to research them and pick one I’m most likely to board myself. The work was fun. But what impressed me most is that the firm puts a lot of thoughts into bonding employees: after-work tennis outgoings, mountain top climbing, karaoke singing parties and most important of all, generous profit sharing. Interests of the firm and its staff are perfectly aligned. To the employees there, the firm is their family. 

    Reading newspapers and watching TVs, I get the unsettling feeling that employee loyalty today is becoming scarce. Employees are mentioned as some numbers on the payrolls, easily to be subtracted or added. In return, increasingly you hear people talk about their workplaces like “Why do I care? I just work here.” It’s difficult to imagine a company with heartless employees can ever thrive. Just by walking into Kmart and Wal-Mart stores and looking at the faces of those tellers, you know which one will go bankrupt. Maybe we high school students are still innocent and it may be platonic to believe that companies and employees, despite the economic downturn, can still have each other’s backs. So my third question to the Washington business leaders is, “How passionate are your employees about your firm?” 

    For one English assignment, I selected a video clip from the movie “Wall Street” as attachment. Douglas’ performance may be better, but I like what Charlie Sheen said most, “Life all comes down to a few moments. This is one of them.” High school life is definitely THE moment to us. Eventually we all get what we want from high school: we choose to excel, to be mediocre or to languish. As for me, no matter where I’ll go eventually, I’m actually feeling really content now. When I have tried my best, how can I have any regret? So my last questions to the Greater Washington business community are: “what is your moment? What is your choice?” and ultimately, “Have you tried your best?”