The Cowen Partners Origin Series profiles executives from across the globe who are changing the face of business. Read along to hear their stories.
Melody Zhang experienced firsthand the importance of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) as an immigrant entering the U.S. workforce.
Nearly 20 years ago, new to corporate America, the China-born Zhang landed at Anheuser Busch in St. Louis as the human resources business partner (HRBP) manager for its corporate and international divisions.
“I struggled in my career when I first started,” Zhang acknowledged. “The culture there was not very diverse.”
Coworkers had trouble understanding her still very heavy Chinese accent, and how Americans conducted business differed greatly from Asians or the Chinese because of the groups’ very different cultural norms.
“Back then, there was not the supporting system or initiative like diversity and inclusion in the market compared to today,” Zhang said.
She pushed through, and today is chief HR officer (CHRO) for Ste. Michelle Wine Estates in Woodinville, Wash. After joining the premium wine producer in late 2020, she started its DEI efforts in earnest. Ste. Michelle has an Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Advocacy (IDEA) program and four business resource groups catering to Asian, Latino, LGBTQIA+ and female employees.
“We’re having a conversation about being different,” Zhang said. “That’s a great opportunity to generate general awareness, and then that potentially will lead to better understanding. The diversity inclusion work truly helps bring our authentic selves into the workplace and also develop that sense of belonging, which I think is a huge catalyst for having a very positive and engaging culture.”
Zhang’s successive HR executive leadership turns have come with her own insight into her place at the table.
“Consistently I have been the only woman or the only minority in the leadership team,” she said. “The biggest learning is really not to try to convince other people they can work with me comfortably — it’s more to convince myself I can work with the rest of the organization comfortably or rest of the leadership comfortably.”
HR wasn’t Zhang’s first calling, but it became her passion.
“I have a lot of passion for HR because we touch on so many different things within an organization,” she said. “I’m not afraid of doing anything anymore. Dealing with a people issue is probably the most challenging role. It requires a lot of emotional intelligence, it requires a lot of hard thinking and requires a lot of art rather than science. I think art is much, much harder to learn.”
Growing up in Xi’an, China, Zhang thought she would become a journalist. She was good at writing and worked for her school’s radio station. After taking China’s national college entrance exam, she was accepted by the university of her choice – Renmin University of China in Beijing – but her score redirected her into the HR management program for her bachelor’s degree.
Zhang admits being disappointed, at least initially. But it was the early 1990s, and China’s open-door economic policy was luring more Western multinational companies into the country. Zhang’s father and a school advisor helped her understand the market potential for HR managers, and she grew comfortable with the major. The university had the earliest and best school of industrial and labor relations in China, Zhang said, and students benefited from U.S. and other Western professors, including from Cornell University, under an exchange program.
Zhang’s first career opportunity came at Aircraft Maintenance & Engineering Corp. (Ameco Beijing), a joint venture of Air China and Germany’s Lufthansa Technik. Zhang held progressive HR positions, including compensation and benefits supervisor and HRBP, while gaining exposure to more contemporary and innovative Western HR practices.
She next heeded the advice that students seriously pursuing an HR career should attend a Western school for an advanced degree after getting some on-the-job experience. Zhang headed to the University of New Hampshire with a full scholarship for the master’s in public administration program. She then earned a second master’s degree, this time in industrial and labor relations, from Cornell.
Those U.S. college days helped Zhang not only professionally, but culturally, giving her a better grasp of conversational English and American social norms, while helping her build a professional network.
At Anheuser-Busch, Zhang eventually moved into more technical roles, first as manager of international compensation and then as global talent mobility leader after the company’s acquisition by InBev. She later worked in global talent mobility again as an HR director at The Hershey Company.
So when a headhunter called about a global head of HR opportunity at Carlisle Companies, a Scottsdale, Ariz.-based supplier of building envelope products and solutions for more energy-efficient buildings, Zhang worried her recent technical background would keep her out of the running. But she won the position, and she credits it as the most impactful on her career.
“They were actually looking for someone who had a deep expertise in international HR,” Zhang said. “It is a very global international company with the majority of its revenue coming from outside the United States. I had a team reporting to me from global, and I was serving the president of the division directly. That’s truly the role, fundamentally for me, that established my confidence: I do have a future career in HR, and I have the opportunity to be a CHRO one day.”
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