My name is Clive Chang, and I'm currently the Director of Strategy and Business Development at Disney Theatrical Group. There, I oversee long-range business planning and also new venture development for the live entertainment arm of Disney. And even though my current life is corporate, my background is actually as a musician; and so I still maintain a very active life as a musician outside of my corporate life, and I'm a pianist, composer, and music director. And I still do a lot of that in my life.
I think the way I would describe myself is equally musician and also equally businessperson. And it's very important to me to present myself that way, because I think a lot of people generally think – or have a pressure – of trying to pigeonhole themselves into some kind of identity that's really easy to present. To say, ‘I am this.’ And I'm very much always been sort of the opposite, where I celebrate the fact that I have a very diverse range of interests. I am curious about a lot of things besides music and business right now. I have a huge passion for fitness and I've explored that to great depth over the last 10 years. So it's very important to me to self-describe, and I hope that others would describe me this way as well – as very multifaceted and having lots of different layers and lots of different interests. So both culturally, educationally, interest wise, very diverse.
Tell us about your career journey.
I think in some ways my career journey has been quite natural, given what I spent my time doing as a youngster and then how my education evolved. But I actually approached my career very opportunistically, and I think that allows you sort of the mind space to really seize opportunities as they come along rather than really trying to plan out every step of the way.
As a young child, I was a very studious piano student. I played all the competitions, you know from a wee little lad; I was at probably six or seven years old when I started playing piano competitions. Over time, I developed a strong interest in music theory and as of age eight actually started composing music. And I had this really awesome Russian theory teacher who said one day – literally sent me home with a homework assignment – and said, “Go try to write a prelude in the style of Bach.” And that literally was the one homework assignment that launched me into this love of composition. As time went on, of course we were getting closer to high school graduation, and it became very clear to me that I had some traditional Asian parental pressures to be dealing with. And in my family, it just wasn't an option to go to college for music. And I fought this quite hard, and in in the end of my conviction actually prevailed; and I struck a deal with my parents where for the privilege of studying music in college, I would also choose something else practical to study. And the three choices that were given to me were engineering, finance, and life sciences – which is sort of the precursor to medical school.
At the time, I sort of falsely chose finance because I thought, ‘Well it's going to be interesting. I'm going to need to manage my own money in life.’ So I sort of just falsely chose that path, not knowing that would later develop a really strong interest in business. And so now, in hindsight, I kind of thank my parents for putting that kind of pressure on me – otherwise I may not have discovered this aptitude and also passion for business that I now have.
Going through college I really went sort of full-steam both paths. I was a conservatory kid, but then I also crossed the street over to the other building and pursued my finance degree. And coming out of college, I was not done pursuing that dual path. So I applied to all sorts of music schools, all sorts of business schools, and in the end – having been admitted to both sides – I ended up pursuing both graduate degrees in succession. So I first obtained my Master of Fine Arts in Musical Theatre, which has become my recent musical and artistic passion, and then later also completed my MBA at Harvard Business School.
And coming out of that, it was just very natural for me to launch myself into this very special niche that is the intersection of art and business. That led me to Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, right here in New York, and I spent three years there and had a wonderful time. At the three-year mark, this opportunity at Disney came up; and I thought how interesting to leap from the nonprofit side of the Arts over to the commercial side of the Arts. So I've been there for coming on three years now, and I intend to have a pretty fluid journey through the nonprofit side, through the for-profit side. And because I'm so interested in other things, I don't necessarily think I'm married to music or art for my entire life. I think I have a lot to give in other realms of the world too. But I think I'm sort of letting my career unfold in an opportunistic way and enjoying it along the way.
What are your top accomplishments?
I would really say the accomplishment that I'm most proud of in my life is this very fluid existence I have between my artist identity and my business identity. And every day I think about how one makes me better at doing the other. A perfect example of this is in my current job, where a lot of what I have to do is spend time with the creative – with the creative development, with the production people – and then go and translate all that into a language that the studio suits understand. Translated into economics, translated into finance. And I really do think that the optimal person to do that is somebody like me who can, like a chameleon, sort of press my artist button and go and talk shop with them, and then literally turn my other identity on and go back and say okay now I'm speaking the other language. And that not only I think makes me better at what I do, but also helps me be a more vivid person, and a more sort of inspiring person to others, as well to be able to cross both those worlds back and forth.
How has your background shaped your success?
I think my background has had a tremendous impact on who I am today. I think back to what about my Asian heritage has really contributed to the way I function, particularly in a corporate setting today. And it strikes me that being raised in a background where there's a strong focus on deference to the elders, and almost like an overly emphasized politeness that you have to show in a work setting and in a professional setting; I think that has at times come across as not assertive or a little bit too shy or deferential.
I think the way I like to spin that around today as who I am, is that I've taken those qualities and been able to use them as subtle influences of power. Subtle manifestations of influence within, say, a meeting setting or even just a day-to-day interaction with colleagues. And I now fight feedback that I get at times from superiors when they say, ‘you're not behaving aggressively enough or loudly enough,’ and I turn that back around to say, ‘well why is it that the only way to be assertive is to be loud,’ or ‘why is it that the only way to be assertive is this one particular way.’ Because I think I like to wield my influence in a very different way, which is more akin to say a string quartet; where at any given time, the cello might be leading one section then they pass the lead to second violin, who happens to have a very important line in the layer of the music at the moment. And it's a very fluid back-and-forth of who exactly is leading the ensemble and I think in a meeting, I kind of like to take that sort of fluid approach where I don't always have to be steering the conversation, yet I am still facilitating a group in having a discussion.
I think the subtlety that our culture brings to the table in a corporate setting is often misinterpreted as ‘lack of assertiveness.’ And that's something that I think about a lot these days, and try to demonstrate and also help educate my leaders who may not be thinking about that – thinking and maybe misinterpreting these subtler actions that are very powerful.
How have the P.O.L.I.N.G.® principles shaped your life?
The P.O.L.I.N.G.® framework is quite powerful, and I think of two stories – one is sort of a past story and one is actually a present story. So I'll start with the past story. And the past story is really about (P)erseverance, and we go back to the time in my college life where I entered University and really was dead set on being both a music major and also a science major. And at the time, when I entered the counselor’s office and said I'd like to be a dual degree student here, I was told ‘no’ – there's just no way you can logistically and physically make that happen. None of the credits in your music degree would overlap with your business degree; you just can't do it. And I was very set on doing this, so I went back to my dorm room, I pulled up the syllabi of both degrees, I patch-worked together, ‘if I do it in this exact sequence over five years, take eight classes a semester, take five classes of summer, I can get both of these done in five years.’ And I marched back into that counselor's office and I said, “there is a way to do this and here it is. Here's the excel sheet that will show you exactly how this can be done. And I know it's a lot but I'm committed to doing this and really if I can't do this here, I'm going to go somewhere else where I can do this.” And in the end they really allowed me to sort of craft my own academic program where I could fluidly move between the two faculties. And I sort of think of that as, when you get a ‘no’ in the first instance, maybe it's a ‘not yet’ or ‘I'm not quite sure how you can do this’; and it really behooves you to go back to say, ‘okay what exactly were the resistances and what exactly do I have to show in order to change the person's mind who holds the key to me being able to do this or not.’ So I like to think back to that instance as a prime example of my perseverance and my real commitment to my passions and my priorities in life, and not letting go of them.
My P.O.L.I.N.G.® story of the present is really about giving back to (O)thers. I think I'm in a rather transitionary stage of my career, where I'm not yet experienced and old enough to serve on boards, but yet I have more to give than doing labor volunteering. And so what I'm thinking about in my life now is, what is the most valuable way for me to ‘pay it forward’. And I think of this as related to all of the communities that make up who Clive Chang is today, and that includes the Asian American community, it includes the artist community, it includes the artist turned MBA community, it of course includes the LGBT community, it includes the running and fitness community. And I actually am actively involved with organizations in each of those communities. For example, in my running life, I participate as a Marathon Mentor for the New York City Marathon because I had the help of mentors who guided me through my first marathon when I thought there's no way I'm going to run 26.2 miles; and here I am you know 14, 15 marathons later and paying that forward. Similarly, I get a lot of unsolicited emails from non-traditional students who are interested in their MBA. And I love to go back to the time when I thought, ‘okay, I'm a piano player – what am I going to do going to Harvard Business School?’ and sort of sharing my story of how it's actually such an advantage for you to be a very different non-traditional candidate in a setting that's full of bankers and consultants, who frankly have trouble differentiating themselves, and coaxing them and encouraging them to go down this path. So I spend a lot of time meeting with these artists who are tentative, and talking to them, helping them with their application process, talking about interviews, and things like that. So for each community that that makes up the composite that is me, I'm trying to spend time contributing to helping others grow.
Please talk about a time when your background caused a challenge.
There's no better example of how I've had to overcome a challenge, due to a central issue with my background, than my rather long process of coming out of the closet. As I mentioned previously, I had very traditional Asian parental pressures growing up; to the point where I knew it was expected of me to marry a Chinese girl, and have Chinese grandchildren, and live with my parents when I was older. These were all things that were ingrained in me, and so that made coming out a really difficult process for me. And I would say it all came to a head during college. At that time I was really wrestling with how I was going to deal with it, and in a way I was really suppressing it by throwing myself into multitude of academics and extracurriculars, keeping myself such that I had no spare hour to think about anything other than my schoolwork and my extracurriculars. And in hindsight, I look back at that now and say I was actually just escaping – I was finding every excuse possible to not have to deal with this issue, not have to one day face my parents and say, ‘I am not giving you a Chinese wife and Chinese grandchildren and I don't know how to explain this to you.’ And in a way I think back to that time of my life and think, ‘was all my ambition just fabricated and in a way false, because it was just a coping mechanism?’ And for a while I actually struggled a little bit with that and said, ‘I'm not actually an ambitious person. I just needed a lot of distraction to get through a tough period.’ And now I think I can look back fondly and realize that everybody comes out on their own pace, on their own terms, in their own specific life circumstances and context, and I'm completely now at peace with how –even if I think back to it being long – it was my way and I did it on my schedule. And it's taken me a while to come to that realization, but now I sort of celebrate that hardship of having to do that back then.
Who have been your biggest influences?
There are many influences and influences in my life, and I think it comes from my desire to be this multi-faceted and multi-dimensional person. So I actually draw inspiration from living and dead people; people that I know and don’t know. I’ll give you an example in each category.
A corporate leader that I very much love and admire is Disney CEO Bob Iger. And what I love about him is that he, as a leader, strikes such a perfect balance between humility and confidence and also being able to be a strong, decisive decision maker but also being very gracious. And there are just many leadership qualities about him that I hope to adopt and absorb into my own leadership journey one day.
I draw a lot of influence from Johann Sebastian Bach. He is the father of the modern tonality system. Sometimes I get lost for hours playing through his ‘Well-Tempered Clavier’ collection and just dissecting the genius that is Bach’s music. I try very hard to then sometimes take a little trip into his brain to say, ‘what is it about his brain that allowed him to create something so ethereal and so above human?’ So there’s someone there.
In my fitness life right now, I draw huge inspiration from the American CrossFitter Matthew Fraser, who is 5 foot 7 and quite a muscular and large guy, but what he can do physically is just incredible. And defies at least my understanding of what human beings can do on a fitness level.
Last night, I was very inspired re-watching a figure skater. Yuzuru Hanryu of Japan, who has literally just pushed entirely new boundaries in that sport, and won the World Championships with a world record breaking performance. So I always take these little dips into other people’s lives and try to draw inspiration from everybody around me. And I think that’s a great example of what I said earlier about myself, which is that I just have this love of other humans. And I think, on average, most humans are extraordinary, and you have to take a little closer look and a little closer peek to find out exactly extraordinary about them. And so I intend for the rest of my life to really learn a lot about a lot of different people and draw a lot of inspiration from them.
What advice would you give your younger self?
I think there are many things that I would say to younger Clive, one of which is, ‘don't ignore the detours in life.’ I think when we're younger, we get very ‘tunnel visioned’ and very resolute about getting from point A to point B – and get really annoyed when there are two or three intermediary steps that we then have to take in order to get somewhere. And I think, looking back, it's exactly in those intermediary steps that you actually gain the richness of experiences in your life. So don't be frustrated with them. Know that in ten years, those detours will actually be what you appreciate the most about your journey.
The second thing I would say to my younger self is, ‘don't worry so much about what other people think of you’. And while I think it's unavoidable, I think we all in the back of our minds are always thinking about the perception of ourselves and things like that; and I think my advice would be let that be a passing thought. Don't let it consume your life, and your attention, and your day-to-day, because ultimately it's not about that – it's really about you, and only you can really understand your authentic selves. So don't let that noise overcome you.
Please share your thoughts about the iD community.
I think the ID community can be really powerful, and I was very excited when I first was introduced to you, Betty, and heard about what you're trying to do here. I think there isn't really a go-to place or a go-to platform right now, where one can go to look for inspiring stories of other people who come from very different backgrounds. And even just the very existence of such a place, especially if it were known to people who are going through a bit of a questioning period like I was when I was back in college, to know that there was a resource out there that where I could really go and look for inspiration – I think that's very powerful. And then I think a lot of organizations, a lot of companies, are looking for an answer of how to solve some systemic diversity and inclusion challenges both internally and also from an audience / consumer standpoint. And I think that, given the how broad Inspiring Diversity can be in terms of encompassing many different communities that are diverse in some way or another – not necessarily just culturally diverse – I think that can be very powerful, and eventually can help large companies solve their diversity issues too.
What is something that no one would guess about you?
One of the things I love to do the most – you know how some people binge watch Netflix or whatever? My favorite activity to get lost in is going down a ‘Wikipedia rabbit hole’. So a perfect example of this is, I recently went down this crazy rabbit hole that started with ‘tectonic plates’ and went all the way to ‘super continents’ and the evolution over the millions of years of super continents. I just love going down those ‘Wikipedia rabbit holes’ and can literally spend hours upon hours. And I would much rather do that than binge watch the latest ‘Stranger Things’ or whatever everyone else is watching these days.
What do you want your legacy to be?
I think in terms of a legacy, I would love to eventually be remembered as somebody who didn't subscribe to societal norms and didn't subscribe to people's expectations of what I might or should become. Somebody who decided to be both a musician and a corporate leader, and was able to be both for his entire life.
The other thing is, I once received a fortune in a fortune cookie three or four years ago that I still keep in my desk. And it was so shocking to me, because I usually open up the fortune cookie and I read the fortune and go, ‘well, the grammar is wrong,’ and ‘this doesn't mean anything. Like, what a waste.’ But this was so poignant to me, and I try to live by this fortune – it's not really a fortune, it’s a statement – and I try to embody this every day. The fortune read, ‘you project the kind of confidence that strengthens others.’ And I found that to be such a beautiful statement because I think sometimes confidence can be approached as a bit of a zero-sum thing. Like you have to be confident a bit at the expense of the other people in the room, or it's a little bit of a there's always one person that is submissive if you decide to act confidently. And I think it's such a beautiful thought of, ‘you are a very confident human being, but what your confidence does is actually inspires others to be stronger and inspires other people to be more confident.’ And so this little fortune I still keep in my desk at home and I try to live by that every day.
On Asian Pacific American Heritage Month
Asian Pacific American Heritage Month is a wonderful way to celebrate people who come across the spectrum of that pan-Asian background. And I think that this has really come a lot more in the forefront since I have participated in the Ascend program, where I met a lot of my Asian Pacific Heritage colleagues from across the company and was shown a set of very startling stats about the ‘Bamboo Ceiling’.
As a person who hasn't, in my life, faced great adversity as a function of my Asian background, it was very eye opening to see what the statistics were in terms of the percentage of executives across the board who are of Asian-American descent compared to the general corporate population – and especially of women, Asian women, who are in the work place. It’s definitely given me a heightened sense of what the community as a whole is facing, and perhaps how lucky I am as a person who has been relatively unaffected. And so that’s why now, I welcome any way to be able to participate in this community and help rally a cause to make this a little more visible and to help in however way I can; to hopefully move the statistics in a completely different direction. So having a month that celebrates this is quite poignant to me.
On LGBT Pride Month
With regard to LGBT Pride Month, when I think back to even 10 or 20 years ago and what I remember of the world back then, I think it's amazing that now most companies will even have a celebration month like this or have alliances within their companies. I always think back to the people who did a lot of hard work to get us to this place today. All the people and their rallies and you know and the protests that had to happen in order for the new generation, like me, to be able to step into a world where these things are much more out in the open, and in fact celebrated in a way like LGBT Pride Month. Similarly I'd love to be involved in and contribute in any way I can to that community.