Nspire Alumna Profile: Annie Zhang
Erin Kay Yeung
Wed Jan 25 2017 • 6 Minute Read

Nspire alumna, Annie played an integral role within the Nspire organization. She championed the Western division when it had a small presence and went on to take the lead as Senior Vice President. In her last year of studying economics at the University of Western Ontario, when she became the president of Nspire.

You were President of Nspire last year but before that, what was your role in the organization?

I’ve been a part of Nspire for the past 3 years. In first year, I was lost as to what I was interested in because I went to an arts high school, figure skated, and didn’t care much about school. When it came to applying for universities, I barely thought about the decision. I chose psychology because I was always fascinated by people, but my parents were against it. Just two weeks before applications were due, my parents encouraged me to consider business school. They said to just apply for AEO (Advanced Entrance Opportunity) and make a decision later, but I never understood what that meant; I didn’t understand the business world. Since I went to an arts school, my world view revolved around getting solos or auditioning for the lead of the musical.

After quitting figure skating and music, I joined several clubs. One of them was PBSN (Pre-Business Student Network), and they partnered with Nspire for an event. The event really caught my attention and everyone I spoke with was so professional and knowledgeable; it made me realize Nspire is not just a student organization, but something more.

Since my brief introduction, I wanted to join Nspire but didn’t think I would get in since I was only in second year. I applied anyways and got the role of managing director at Western, which meant I was leading everything that was held on Western’s campus.

It was not an easy year, that’s for sure. Nspire holds an extremely high standard of excellence and I never felt like I was able to meet those standards. Interestingly, those feelings of incompetence and insecurity drove me to work tremendously hard. Without realizing that I performed well that year, I had already planned to take on a minor role in Nspire or even quit the year after. Much to my surprise, I was offered the position of senior vice president. This moment was really powerful for me as a realized the value of being humble, always striving for excellence, and never being over confident.

Who was your biggest mentor?

The people who were mentors or leads in Nspire are still valuable mentors to me to this day. Layan Kutob was the president of Nspire when I first joined and she was an extremely great leader. I never understood the power of great leadership until then, so she’s someone I really look up to. I would watch the actions she would take and how she would think through problems. Every time I face a problem or tough situation, I always think, “what would Layan do?” She really set a good example and I learned a lot from her. To this day we still have a really good relationship.

The year after, Ananya Tandon-Verma was the President, and she was a phenomenal leader as well. I don’t know how she handled so much, but if you look at her resume, it contains the most impressive list of experiences. She’s an excellent leader because she’s so unselfish and so giving; she’s motivated to never let people down. Even with Nspire, for every event she would ask us, “what is the impact we’re creating, what is the value we are adding to people, and how can we make this even better?”

One memory that stands out about Ananya was during NBTC (National Business and Technology Conference) in 2014. We were all there the night before setting up, and at midnight, while everyone was still working, she left. Not knowing her well at the time, I was disappointed that she was leaving first despite being the lead. Turns out she was working at Merrill Lynch and she actually went back to work and pulled an all-nighter to complete a deadline. With no sleep, she came to NBTC the next day and ran a phenomenal conference. I was so shocked to see such hard work and dedication. Not a lot of Nspire people are my dedicated mentors but just by observing their actions, I was able to gain inspiration and learn a lot.

Do you have any career advice? How to deal with ups and downs of the working world?

I don’t think I give the best career advice because I tell people to always take advice with a grain of salt, and to listen more to themselves rather than others. What has worked for me is to really understand what I’m interested in and not be affected by peer pressure or by what everyone else is doing. I didn’t end up going to business school because I fell in love with the startup world. I felt the path I wanted to take didn’t necessarily require going to business school.

Going into third year, there was a lot of opportunities available. I was going to expand BrainStation to London, but that it didn’t happen because they were acquired.Instead, I started a coding school of my own. While I was working at BrainStation, the trade-off was that I could take any coding classes. I wanted to make sure I took the next year to practice coding, because if you don’t practice, you end up losing the skill. I also took a major role in Nspire and I wanted to make an impact with the work I did. There were so many things I wanted to do that year that if I went to Ivey, I was sure I would not be able to develop the skills I needed to for my dream jobs (to be doing product management in tech).

I also surrounded myself with friends from all different faculties, and when we’re together, we don’t talk about school or careers. I also had a blog called Creators of Toronto and got the opportunity to talk to so many different people with incredible backgrounds and experiences. It opened my mind to so many other things available to me that I would have otherwise not been exposed to. That was the best thing I could have done for myself. I really love my job now and it’s because I listened to what I really liked, developed the skills I needed to, and tried as much as possible to not let peer pressure affect me.

Would you ever consider starting your own startup?

I don’t think I’m well suited to work for other people and that’s why Shopify is such a great place to be; it’s actually kind of an anarchy. Decisions are made based on the merit of the idea, not your position in the company. It’s also a place that requires a lot of autonomy and personal initiative because no one will ever tell you what to do; you have to provide value however you think will be best.

In terms of entrepreneurship, this spirit is a constant in my life, but it manifests in different ways. It’s actually very limiting to start a company with little experience, connections and resources. In order to keep a company afloat, there are so many things that needs to be done. When you start a company, you have to do every role on your own. And I say this simply because I have started a business of my own before. As a new grad, I wanted to be able to gain expertise in certain areas of work before I started my own company. This is possible at Shopify where I have autonomy to make decisions about what I do, but still get to learn from people who are really good at their jobs about how to become an expertise at product development.

I certainly want to start my own company one day, but I also wanted to give myself the opportunity to learn and witness the inner workings of running a company first, develop a hard skill, and build more powerful networks before I get started.

You talk about coding and product growth. Did you study that in university?

I studied economics with a minor in philosophy. I distinguished school from work because even though I enjoyed school, I knew fundamentally that it wouldn’t contribute much to my work. That is not to say that school was not at all helpful. Economics is pretty math-heavy so I was able to have a good knowledge in statistics. Everything that I do now at work is data-heavy and requires me to have a good understanding of the significance of data so I am thankful I could develop these skills during my undergrad. However, I learned many other skills through work, leadership experiences or self-learning, and I would definitely urge others to do that as well. Understand the role and industry you want to be in, talk to people in those positions about what is required for the role, and learn everything you need to fulfill those requirements.

What would you say gets you up in the morning?

I like my job a lot and I thoroughly look forward to what results I can get from what I’m doing. I’m currently working on the Facebook Messenger sales channel at Shopify. Essentially, you can browse and buy products from business using Shopify directly in a Facebook Messenger conversation. It’s a very new concept, so I’m excited to see how it will turn out. I truly enjoy my work and how I can be deeply involved in the process of creating really innovative and impactful products.