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Meet Cynthia Liao, HBA ’14: Ivey’s first Schwarzman Scholar

  • Dawn Milne
  • |
  • Dec 23, 2019
Meet Cynthia Liao, HBA ’14: Ivey’s first Schwarzman Scholar

For Cynthia Liao, HBA ’14, the chance to study in China for a year as a Schwarzman Scholar is a return to her roots. Liao was born in Shanghai, but moved to North America at age six. China has changed a lot since then and Liao said she is eager to learn more about its role in global affairs.

Currently a Senior Associate on the Global Markets team at Clinton Health Access Initiative, Inc. (CHAI), she’ll join a class of 145 students from 41 countries in August 2020 to pursue a master’s degree in global affairs at Schwarzman College at Tsinghua University in Beijing. The graduate fellowship is designed to prepare them for the geopolitical and economic challenges of the 21st century by deepening their understanding of China.

One of only four Canadians selected for the highly competitive program, Liao is Ivey’s first scholar since its launch in 2015 – and hopefully not its last. In the Q&A below, she discusses the importance of the program, why others should consider it, and what lies ahead.

Q. How did you find out about the program, and why were you interested in it?

Through my work at CHAI, I've become interested in expanding my experiences in China. I've been working closely with Chinese medical device manufacturers to identify and develop affordable high-quality products suitable for scale in low- and middle-income countries. I’ve travelled to China to visit these manufacturing sites and negotiate deals with suppliers, and was overall very impressed. China’s role as the global manufacturing powerhouse as well as its investments in infrastructure development across Africa and Asia makes it a force whose activities and priorities will define global trade and international relations in the coming decades.

I realize that to continue my career in global economic development, having deeper experiences in China is a critical part of my toolkit. I've been on the lookout for opportunities to deepen my understanding of doing business in China. I learned about the Schwarzman Scholars program through my network of friends and professional colleagues. I saw the program as a great way to accelerate my career development and professional network in that region of the world, so I put in an application.

Q. How did you react when you learned you were accepted?

I had just landed from an intercontinental flight from Africa. I was returning from a work trip and was quite jetlagged and tired. I was waiting for my luggage at Toronto Pearson International Airport when I got the email. I was really excited and immediately shared the news with my friends and family. I also reached out to my mentors who shared their wisdom and guidance through the application and some of the other scholars I had met during the interview process. We have kept in touch on a WhatsApp group.

I was really excited to hear the news! I had thought it was a bit of a long shot because it’s quite a competitive program and the other applicants I met at the interview were all very impressive in their own domains This is a fantastic opportunity for me to learn from people outside of my field as well as in my areas of interest.

Q. What excites you about the program?

I’m looking forward to having a whole year to explore China – to get to know the way of life as well as the political and business environment. I’d like to improve my Chinese proficiency. I speak some rudimentary Mandarin, but feel, if I can bring it up to a professional level, it could be an asset for me in the future.

I’m also interested in learning more about China’s Belt and Road Initiative. I’d like to engage with the government leaders,policy implementers and private-sector players who are building momentum. I’m hoping to conduct an independent study around examining the impact of BRI on energy access and energy infrastructure development to get closer to the topic.

I’ve observed that there’s a lot of historical and cultural context in political and business decisions in China. I am keen to fill this knowledge gap as a Chinese-Canadian, who was raised in Toronto. I’m hoping that in learning about China’s history, I’ll better understand where the country’s ambitions lie in the future.

Q. Your bio says you’re passionate about health care and energy access in developing countries – can you tell us more about these interests? Let’s start with health care.

I’ve been working with medical device manufacturers to develop and offer low-cost technologies that are easily scalable, specifically for oxygen access and diagnosing pneumonia. Pneumonia is the leading cause of deaths globally for children under the age of five. Most of the deaths occur in developing countries, but it is a global issue, which is shocking because it is a pretty preventable and treatable disease. Diagnosis is an issue – children aren’t being properly assessed and warning signs are missed.

One of the things we realized was missing in both the clinicians’ awareness and training is the assessment of respiratory rate – they're not counting the breath of children. I worked closely with medical device manufacturers around the world to design and commercialize a screening device that automatically measures respiratory rate alongside a few other vital sign parameters. It's extremely affordable, robust, handheld so it can be moved from patient to patient, and noninvasive. We've been working with suppliers in a few countries to develop this product and now we're in the process of ensuring it is available in the market.

Q. And what about energy access?

With CHAI, I helped to launch a solar leasing pilot project in Uganda. Many health facilities are either off-grid or have very inconsistent access to grid power and that has a very direct impact on health outcomes. Solar leasing and other forms of financing for solar projects is extremely common in high-income countries, such as the U.S. and Canada. But in developing countries, that model has not been widely deployed. It has been done at the residential level through pay-as-you-go solar, which has been revolutionary. It allows rural families to make mobile payments to access solar at their homes. So we're taking that approach, but applying it to health facilities. A private-sector developer in Uganda is guaranteeing the power and the functionality of the system. The project will begin in early 2020 and hopefully we’ll start to see the operational and health outcome benefits by mid-year.

Q. You have already accomplished a lot– what are your future goals?

I’d like to start my own company focused on what I’m passionate about – health and energy access in developing countries. I’m not exactly sure what it will look like yet, but the experiences that I’ve had to date have helped me to understand the problems in the space – from on-the-ground, systematic, and strategic perspectives. If I want to be an entrepreneur working in development, having a strong network in China – and the ability to engage with investors, suppliers, and government partners in China – is critical for my success.

Q. In terms of this next experience, did your Ivey education play a part in any way?

The strength of the Ivey Alumni Network has helped me in the last few years. Whether I was looking for career advice or reflecting on the things I’ve learned, I’ve always found great thought partners either among the people I’ve met at Ivey or through Ivey after I graduated. I’m really appreciative of that and continue to hold it as a lifelong value.

Q. You mentioned you were born in China, but raised in Canada – have you visited China much since?

When I was younger, my family would go back every so often to visit relatives. It’s very different to return as a working professional. China has changed so much since I left. It’s incredible to see the pace of change and to engage with it in a professional context and understand the challenges, but also the potential.

Q. Do you have any last words of advice?

I would encourage students at Western and Ivey to look into the Schwarzman Scholar program and consider applying! It is open to students right out of school, similar to the Rhodes Scholar program. Although the program is a Master’s in Global Affairs, it attracts an extremely diverse cohort across industries, geographies, (public, private, non-profit) sectors. I am very excited to learn from these leaders who are experts in their own domains.  It can be beneficial to people at different points in their career and previous experience in China is not required.

Making a difference:

Cynthia Liao’s accomplishments at a glance:

2013 – Chosen for The Next 36, Canada’s most selective program for young entrepreneurs

2014 – Received the Ivey Merit Award for exemplary student leadership

2017 – Helped launch a $300-million distributed solar investment fund at General Electric

2017 – Joined the Clinton Health Access Initiative, Inc., a global health organization committed to saving lives and reducing the burden of disease in low-and middle-income countries

2019 – Received the Schwarzman Scholarship