Engineering an American Dream With Courage, Character and Crayons

Jill Yarberry-Laybourn Issue 15 - Jan/Feb 2015, Marketing & Sales Leave a Comment

First-generation American and Family Dollar SVP and CMO Jocelyn Wong shares the inspiration she’s drawn from her parents and how an experience with crayons helped draw her career path

Since news of a land vast and grand was carried across the seas, people have risked their lives, used their life savings and even chosen indentured servitude, all for a dream. That dream, that hope, was that their lives and the lives of their children could be better. They sought freedom—to own and work their own land, to worship and to create the life they wanted where the sky was and is truly the limit, regardless of class or race. It is a dream in which risk-taking, sweat and labor will be rewarded.

Family Dollar’s Senior Vice President (SVP) and Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) Jocelyn Wong and her family are proof that the American Dream isn’t just an ideology, but a reality. She is proof that dreaming big, taking risks and working hard can equate to a better life.

Wong’s parents left Hong Kong when she was just three years old. They had a good life in China, but “the reason they sacrificed everything, the reason they came to America, was so I could have the chance for a better education, a better life.” Wong did not take their sacrifice lightly; in fact, she felt a constant pressure to succeed.


Breaking Cultural Barriers

Although Wong never particularly enjoyed math and science studies, she went to Purdue University in pursuit of a degree in Engineering. “I never really questioned it: I would study math and science,” she said. “The belief was that it would provide me with the best opportunity for a job.”

Adding to the pressure was the patriarchal nature of the Chinese culture, where boys represent strength, pride and honor. Wong, affectionately known as Jo to her father, became the “son” he would never have. As a child, the “phenomenal relationship” with her father included going to work with him, her father speaking to her like an adult, and him introducing her to books about business at a young age.

“The defiant nature in me as a little girl wanted to prove to him and to all of China, through the thousands of years of history, that they are wrong.”

Struggles & Sacrifice

That defiance would serve Wong well and indeed bring honor and pride to her family. College certainly wasn’t easy. While other students were throwing the Frisbee on the campus lawn and attending fraternity parties, she had her nose to the grindstone; in fact, she still breaks into a “cold sweat” when she thinks about her undergraduate years.

“I had such a fear of failure,” she said, especially considering her family’s sacrifice and struggles while she was grew up. Her parents had to work extremely hard to make ends meet and pay for the small attic space in a Chicago house, and their language skills were limited. Long before her father became General Manager of a U.S. company, he sold watches on a street corner. Her mother cleaned houses to get by, and Wong was “right along aside her cleaning the toilets of rich people to make a few extra dollars.”


Crayons: A Career Maker

While in college, Wong had an inspirational experience that kept her pushing forward despite the difficulties she was having in her engineering classes. Purdue University, located in America’s heartland, holds an annual Student Soybean and Corn Innovations competition in which teams create a new innovation using corn and/or soybeans. The contest opened her eyes to a broader view of engineering.

“It didn’t feel like an engineering problem, a math problem or a physics problem,” she said. “It was a world problem.” And Wong thought to herself, “Now this is really cool.” She and her team developed the winning idea, soy-based crayons.

Not only did they win the contest, but the idea was eventually purchased; the royalties from the crayons helped her pay for college. Equally important, the win helped give her the confidence she needed to finish her degree and provided her with clearer perspective of what she was good at—creatively solving problems. Furthermore, the icing on the cake, the crayons helped her land her first job.

Wong_Jocelyn_image3Switching Gears—Big Time

Wong started at Procter & Gamble (P&G). “I thought there was no way I was going to get this job,” she said. “[An interviewer] asked why I thought I should get it, and I took out a piece of paper, and I had the crayons. I drew a little smiley face, a tree, a rainbow. He was like, ‘What is this?’ I said this, the crayons, is why I think I should get the job.”

Wong admits that she was a less-than-perfect engineer, but that weakness steered her toward her strengths. After a time, she was advised by the Engineering Director to meet with Diane Dietz, a Marketing Director at P&G.

“I have loved my job every single day since I made that move to marketing,” she said.

Over the years, Dietz helped Wong develop the marketing skill set. “She always assumed I should be at the table,” Wong said, even when Wong didn’t believe it herself. While working with Dietz at P&G, the up-and-comer worked on some prestigious brands, including Crest, Oral B and Scope.

Trusting Your Gut

Once Wong started to believe in herself the way Dietz had all along, she was able to go out on her own, “to take all the things I learned and put them into action.” She trusted her gut, and like her parents, she took a risk and accepted a job at Safeway and moved her family to the West Coast.

This decision was once again driven by sacrifice. Wong was just coming off maternity leave with nine-month-old twins and a three year old, and she struggled with the decision to move, start a new job and still balance her home life. Her mother reminded her of why they came to this country and that fear was not an option; she had decided to sell her business and move with her daughter to San Francisco to help with the kids.

In 2012, Wong again trusted her instinct and moved her family from California to North Carolina, where she assumed her current role at Family Dollar. For Wong, being SVP and CMO has been part of a personal evolution. The job hasn’t been without its challenges. “It has been a journey,” Wong acknowledged.

Going from P&G, a company with deep pockets, to Family Dollar, a lower-cost operator, is one of the biggest trials, but she has no regrets. And Wong and the Marketing Department have risen to the challenge.

“I have refined my marketing skills,” she said. When she arrived, marketing for Family Dollar was mainly focused on the circulars in the Sunday paper. Now, she has her team talking strategy and looking outside the box. They pride themselves on being “scrappy and resourceful.”

The key to strategizing was “really getting to know who our customer is and how to reach her in the most meaningful and relevant ways. What does that mean for our digital strategies? How do we think creatively about attacking different business issues?” One thing her team discovered is that the Family Dollar customer is very reliant on influencers who steer them toward products that have proven their value.

“Our customer leverages the mobile world. Her phone is her ticket to the world,” Wong said. “The role of digital and of influencers is so important.” Wong leveraged that information, and the team planned an event where they brought in vloggers and let them test Family Dollar products as well as receive a makeover using store merchandise. In return, the vloggers shared the results with all of their subscribers. The event was a strategic success, and “next year the event will be even bigger and better,” Wong noted.

For Wong, one of the biggest rewards of working hard, struggling through engineering school and eventually taking a risk to go out on her own with Family Dollar is the connection she has established with the company’s customers. “The connection I have to this low-income customer—and the hope and optimism she has, the resilience and the strength she has—I love her.”

Wong also loves the pureness of her company’s mission. “I love the purpose because it reminds me of where I came from. It really brings me back home,” she said.

Family Dollar customers’ hopes and optimism is what makes up the American Dream—the same one that inspired Wong’s parents to come to the U.S. and that pushed Wong to succeed. Today, for Wong, the American Dream is no longer a dream, rather an achievement.

Jill Yarberry-Laybourn is a freelance writer based in Colorado.


Right & Left Hands

As people go through life, they learn a lot from those surrounding them: teachers, friends, great bosses, and even horrible bosses. For Wong, one of the people who has influenced her the most is her father.

During Christmas breaks as a child, Wong inadvertently learned a valuable lesson from watching her father at work. That lesson has served her well and helped make her an effective CMO.

“He was brilliant, but he wasn’t a people person,” Wong said. “I recognized he is really good at this, but not so good at that.”

What this taught the younger Wong was “to know thyself,” which is advice she shares with budding professionals. By knowing oneself, Wong believes that a leader can “cover [his or her] blind spots.” That is to say, knowing their own strengths and weaknesses, leaders can hire people that balance out their imperfections.

“I absolutely surround myself with people who can make up for my faults, if you will,” Wong said. “It is so critical to have a right hand and a left hand that are going to think differently than me. They are going to be better at certain things.”


Favorite Quote…

“The task of the leader is to get his people from where they are to where they have not been.” – Henry Kissinger

Books I recommend…

“The Four Agreements” by Don Miguel Ruiz, “Playing to Win” by AG Lafley, “The Fountainhead” by Ayn Rand and “Pillars of the Earth” by Ken Follett

Things I carry with me…

Carmex, Aquafor hand cream, iPhone

Apps on my phone I can’t do without…

Seeking Alpha, Facebook

I can’t start my day unless…

I have a cup of strong coffee!

I don’t consider my day done unless…

My sisters and I have texted each other the joys and miseries of our day.

I start my day by…

Recapping any news, reading my Google Alerts, prepping my thoughts on the day ahead

Favorite leader…

AG Lafley, Nelson Mandela

My definition of retirement…

I am not consumed by the idea of retirement. For me it would ideally involve continuing to pursue my passions—spending time with my family, but maybe with a great view of the water, with happy hour occurring a little earlier in the day.

I unwind from my day by…

Cranking my playlist on the drive home, which is my time to adjust back to mommy mode.

One of the best lessons I’ve learned in my career is…

To be an authentic leader, take risks and dream big

It’s 5:00 on Friday, and my drink of choice is…

A really good Old Fashioned. This is a new drink of choice since my move to North Carolina.

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