Darden Professor, Alumnus Examine Personal and Professional Change at TEDx Charlottesville

By Jay Hodgkins

“How are you doing?”

It’s a question virtually everyone asks and is asked every day, and the response is typically boiled down to a one-word answer like “fine” that leads to a quick and meaningless interaction.

But what if we changed that question to “What is in your heart?”

University of Virginia Darden School of Business Professor Lalin Anik researched and filmed the result, which she shared with a packed house in Charlottesville, Virginia, at the annual TEDx Charlottesville event 11 November.

A series of random individuals Anik filmed in Charlottesville all paused in various states of befuddlement when she asked the more personal question, then opened up with stories of love, anxiety, gratitude, joy and more. In fact, Anik said her research shows that the average interaction is five times longer than one following the question, “How are you doing?”

Another typical question that results in perfunctory responses and interactions is, “What do you do for a living?” Most people respond with a short description of their job, which Anik said puts them and the ensuing conversation in a box that can give participants a belief there’s nothing new to learn about other people.

Instead, Anik suggested asking, “What gets you up in the morning?” Her video interviews showed respondents taking a deep dive into a wide array of topics.

While Anik acknowledged the average person doesn’t want to have a long discussion with every person they meet, she argued it’s important to change the questions with at least a few people each day. Not only can the deeper conversations be more meaningful for the person who asked them, but it can also help others relieve pressure by discussing issues that were secretly weighing on them.

Anik’s research exploring the multifaceted influence of social connection and power of novel interactions has been put into practice by a number of companies and organizations.

Anik learned the power of changing questions at an early age with her family in her native Turkey. She recalled a woman in Istanbul who smoked heavily in her dark, tar-stained apartment. The woman eventually developed cancer and died without ever telling her family about her disease because, Anik believed, she was never asked the right questions.

“It’s OK to reach into the darkness and bring it to the light,” Anik said before receiving a standing ovation.

From Banker in China to Green Entrepreneur in America

Jerry Peng (MBA ’03) had a very successful career in banking with Goldman Sachs in China, but after graduating from Darden, he couldn’t help but dream about living in Charlottesville and somehow commuting to work in China.

The poor air and water quality in China’s major cities as well as concerns about ethics in the banking industry also weighed heavily on his thoughts about the future.

Then he encountered a team of “grassroots investors and entrepreneurs” in Shandong, China, which he said was investing everything it had into developing a new technology to convert post-harvest straw into high quality paper products.

“They lightened my heart from the very first moment we met,” he said.

Human deforestation has cut forests from 16 million square kilometers to nearly six million square kilometers as of 2012, Peng said, and he feared the trend would only get worse. “Healthy forests are the lungs to the earth. They are essential to all life.”

Seeing the value of the entrepreneurs’ technology to stop deforestation caused by the paper industry, Peng wanted to help the company go global. However, he said none of the company’s top leaders had the sort of top business education like the one he received at Darden, which he believed was necessary to build global scale. So he left his job at Goldman Sachs and joined China’s Tranlin Paper Co. as chief strategy officer.

Before he knew it, Peng was back in the U.S. searching for the perfect location for a major paper product manufacturing facility, which led him to Virginia. By June 2014, Peng stood next to Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe to announce a $2 billion investment to build the facility in Chesterfield County and create 2,000 jobs.

Today, Peng serves as chairman and CEO of the company now known as Vastly, which has broken ground on the facility and continues to pursue a sustainable future for paper products despite what he called a challenging road that produces surprises almost every day.

“It hasn’t been easy. It’s been a race against time,” Peng said. “It’s scary to many people and this is all new technology. So it’s been constantly a test of my faith.”

But the payoff is worth it, Peng said. Developing a sustainable product loop the company calls the “Vastly golden circle” has energized Peng with purpose in his new career.

He said he hopes Vastly is showing other industries and companies they can also be sustainable, and that life as a green entrepreneur is “not just hard work. It’s also having lots of fun.”

Photo courtesy of TEDx Charlottesville.

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About the University of Virginia Darden School of Business

The University of Virginia Darden School of Business prepares responsible global leaders through unparalleled transformational learning experiences. Darden’s graduate degree programs (MBA, MSBA and Ph.D.) and Executive Education & Lifelong Learning programs offered by the Darden School Foundation set the stage for a lifetime of career advancement and impact. Darden’s top-ranked faculty, renowned for teaching excellence, inspires and shapes modern business leadership worldwide through research, thought leadership and business publishing. Darden has Grounds in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the Washington, D.C., area and a global community that includes 18,000 alumni in 90 countries. Darden was established in 1955 at the University of Virginia, a top public university founded by Thomas Jefferson in 1819 in Charlottesville, Virginia.


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