Trailblazing Business Executive and Cultural Diplomat
Shirley Young, a former Vice President of General Motors who played leadership roles in several major cultural organizations, had been Executive Vice President of Grey Advertising, founding Chair of the Chinese-American leadership organization Committee of 100, and Chair of the US-China Cultural Institute.
Ms. Young, who immigrated to the United States as a child at the end of World War II, was a trailblazing business executive perhaps best known for her critical role in General Motors’ billion-dollar investment in China's auto industry through the Shanghai SAIC-GM joint venture to produce Buicks. Ms. Young initially joined GM in 1988 as Vice President for Consumer Market Development at General Motors' headquarters. Her office was on the famed “14th floor” of the General Motors Building where she was often the lone woman in the executive dining room.
In the early 1990s, Ms. Young became involved in GM’s efforts to expand its business in China, and was asked to move to Shanghai and made Vice President for China Strategic Development and Asia Pacific Counselor. In this new capacity, she worked to shape GM’s strategy and achieve its goals by understanding the needs of its Chinese counterpart, and of the many entities that had a role in the auto industry and the joint venture approval process.
Prior to joining General Motors, Ms. Young spent nearly three decades in the research division of Grey Advertising, where she was involved in pioneering the use of psychographic research and brand character. She eventually became Executive Vice President, a member of the Agency Policy Council, and President of Grey Strategic Marketing.
Shirley Young was one of the five prominent Chinese Americans featured in the documentary series Becoming American: Personal Journeys, where she was interviewed by journalist Bill Moyers and talked about her story of becoming a Chinese-American business woman.
Full interview transcript (Public Affairs Television, 2003)
Ms. Young’s business success led her to be invited to serve on the boards of many corporations, oftentimes as the first woman and the first Asian-American. Corporate boards she served on include Bank of America, Bell Atlantic/Verizon Corporation, Dayton-Hudson/Target Corporation, Holiday Inn/Promus/Harrah's, Teletech Holding, Inc., and Salesforce.com, and as Vice Chairman of the Nominating Committee of the New York Stock Exchange. She also served on the boards of many nonprofit organizations, including the worldwide Board of Directors of The Nature Conservancy and its Asia-Pacific Council; Associates of Harvard Business School; and Philips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts; and a former trustee of Wellesley College. She was a founding member of the Committee of 200, an international organization of leading businesswomen.
In 1990, Ms. Young helped establish the Committee of 100, together with other prominent Chinese-Americans including the architect I.M. Pei, the cellist Yo-Yo Ma, and the philanthropist Oscar Tang, and remained active in the organization for the rest of her life. In her later decades, she became an ardent, engaged, and strategic supporter of the arts and served on the boards of the Interlochen Center for the Arts; the Detroit Symphony Orchestra; the Detroit Institute of Arts; the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra; the New York Philharmonic; the Lang Lang International Music Foundation; and the National Dance Institute. She was an International Advisor to the Chamber Music Society at Lincoln Center and a member of the Advisory Council for Shen Wei Dance Arts and the Tianjin Juilliard School.
Ms. Young championed and befriended countless musicians from China and established many constructive and enduring cultural exchange partnerships between the US and China. She played a key role in organizing a major concert to commemorate the 1997 return of Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty; the concert, in Hong Kong, featured a set of 64 ancient Chinese bronze chime-bells, known as bianzhong, for which the composer Tan Dun wrote Symphony 1997: Heaven Earth Mankind, and in which Yo-Yo Ma performed. In 2002, Ms. Young put together the program “Perlman in Shanghai,” which brought the world-renowned violinist Itzhak Perlman to China for a three-week workshop under the auspices of the US-China Cultural Institute. She created “Dancing into the Future,” a collaboration between the National Dance Institute, the China Welfare Institute Children’s Palace, and the Shanghai Minhang school district that has given more than 10,000 primary and middle school students from diverse socio-economic backgrounds the opportunity to study dance. When Ms. Young learned that the United States had no plan to showcase a pavilion at the 2010 Shanghai World Expo, she got involved and helped raise enough money to ensure that the US would have a presence after all. Earlier this year, she was the honoree of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center’s fiftieth anniversary gala
SIAS Interview with Shirley Young
At the time of her death Ms. Young was completing a professional memoir titled From an Outsider to an Insider: Getting to Win-Win. In the book, Ms. Young used her life experiences to underscore what she called “the Power of C,” or culture, character, and comfort. To become an insider who could make an impact and bring about positive change in any setting, wrote Ms. Young, one had to work hard to understand the culture; demonstrate character by generating trust and showing others that you had their best interests at heart, rather than just your own; and create comfort, meaning to make others comfortable working with you, even if you came from very different backgrounds and seemingly had little in common.
In an interview with Shanghai Institute of American Studies in 2019, Shirley talked, in Shanghainese and Mandarin, about making people-to-people connections through arts despite the current challenges in the China-US relation.
Courtesy of Shanghai Institute of American Studies
Shirley Young was born in Shanghai on May 25, 1935, to Juliana Yen and Clarence Young. Her father, a graduate of Princeton University and Tsinghua College, was a diplomat who represented the Republic of China in postings that included Geneva, where her older sister Genevieve was born; London; and Paris, where her younger sister Frances was born.
Following Clarence Young’s execution by the Japanese occupiers of the Philippines, Ms. Young’s mother - a renowned Shanghai society belle and one of the earliest women to graduate from Fudan University – married the statesman Wellington Koo, a leading participant in the founding of the League of Nations and the United Nations. In 2018-19 Ms. Young produced “Wellington Koo the Diplomat – A Life in Song” in Shanghai and New York.
Ms. Young received a scholarship to Abbot Academy (later Phillips Academy), which she considered one of the best things that ever happened to her, since the school taught her to be American and to embody her new country’s “core values, work ethic, morality, and generosity.” She then attended Wellesley College, graduating Phi Beta Kappa, an experience that broadened her understanding of people, deepened her intellectual foundations, and taught her, she wrote, “that everything is connected; it ultimately doesn’t matter whether it’s art, or economics, or language, they're all connected. So, if you can connect the dots, you really can make things happen, much more than if you just stay in one particular channel, because, in the end, you’re dealing with people — and that’s what life is all about.”