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Real Humans of Google: Helen Zou, Stanford GSB MBA/M.Ed. ’18, Product Manager, Education on ChromeOS

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Helen Zou was passionate about making education more accessible, personal, and equitable, and her dual MBA and Master of Education program at Stanford GSB enabled her to fuse tech, business, and education. In today’s Real Humans: Alumni, Zou describes how Stanford GSB provided an environment that encouraged working together and where Zou could expand her perspective on the world.

Helen Zou, Stanford GSB MBA/M.Ed. ’18, Product Manager, Education on ChromeOS at Google

Age: 32
Hometown: Vancouver, WA
Undergraduate Institution and Major: Duke University, B.S.E., Biomedical Engineering
Graduate Business School, Graduation Year and Concentration (if applicable): Stanford University Graduate School of Business, 2018, MBA
Stanford University Graduate School of Education, 2018, Master of Education
Pre-MBA Work Experience (years, industry): 3 years, consulting & product management in Fintech
Post-MBA Work Experience (years, industry): 5 years, product management in Edtec

Why did you choose to attend business school?
What drew me most to business school was the chance to meet and become friends with some incredible people from backgrounds different from my own. So, I wanted to make sure I was in a place where students were encouraged to work together to become better people, and then bring those lessons to business.

Also, business school was a chance to expand my perspective of the world. In undergrad, I had been solely focused on being pre-med & doing research; business school gave me exposure to a much wider range of careers and industries in the world.

Why Stanford GSB? What factors figured most prominently into your decision of where to attend?
Like I mentioned above, I wanted to go to business school to make friends, and so I wanted to pick an environment where collaboration was encouraged and fostered. The students I met while I was visiting GSB were both impressive and kind, a combination of attributes that I value. Also, Stanford GSB has a reputation for investing a lot in soft skills – with classes like “Touchy Feely” and “The Art of Self Coaching” – so the culture felt aligned with what I was looking for.

I also knew I wanted to work in edtech after I graduated, and Stanford offers an amazing dual degree masters program where I could study both business at GSB and education at GSE to explore the intersection of tech, business, and education.

What about your MBA experience prepared you for your current career?
It’s been so helpful in so many ways.

The most important of which has been the people. The friends I met at the GSB are incredible in many different ways, and I often rely on them as sources of inspiration for moving ahead in my career and navigating work opportunities. For example, I have a friend group of GSB women that call ourselves the “Bay Baes.” We go on hikes together, often discuss career topics and support each other through changes.

Stanford also highly encouraged us to take risks – it feels like every student wants to start a company at some point while they’re here. (Maybe it’s something in the water? :)) While I ultimately decided that the founder life wasn’t the right balance for me, exploring that route while I was at the GSB emboldened me to take bigger career risks later on because I gained confidence that I could learn and adapt to many situations.

Finally, the joint degree was incredibly eye-opening into specific companies that I might want to work at, especially because many of my classes featured guest speakers from the edtech industry. During one of my classes on Disruptions in Higher Education, the CEO of Coursera came as a guest speaker and I was impressed with the company’s strategy so I decided to join after business school. And during a GSE-specific class on Early Childhood Education, I met someone from Google for Education who I now work with at Google.

What was your internship during business school? How did that inform your post-MBA career choice?
During both school years and for my summer internship, I worked on FreeWill, a startup my classmates founded in our first year at GSB. FreeWill is a B-corp that provides free online will-writing services to consumers and helps nonprofits fundraise for important causes. I ran sales & partnerships at the time (both of which were new to me) and learned a lot about how to sell a product, how to build a company, and how to handle ambiguity. Ultimately, I decided that I was still more passionate about edtech and product management, so I left for edtech in my post-MBA career. That being said, I grew so much as a person and as a manager during my time at FreeWill, and am so thankful for the opportunity.

Why did you choose your current company? What factors figured most prominently into your decision of where to work?
Google has always stood out to me as an incredible company to work for, and Google for Education, in particular, has done an amazing job of providing resources to teachers and students around the world. I personally admire teachers so much for what they do, and want to work on tools that make their lives easier so that they can keep focusing on what matters – inspiring students.

I joined Google ChromeOS in particular because Chromebooks have made it possible for so many students to explore the world in new ways, and I want to be a part of that mission to make education more accessible, more personal, and more equitable. And, as we’re increasingly seeing teachers adopt Chromebooks, I’m excited to work on products that make Chromebooks great for teaching.

How has COVID impacted your industry/career plans?
COVID created an explosion for edtech, because the pandemic highlighted how important a role technology can play in giving students access to learning anywhere, anytime. Many schools purchased devices so that every student could stay connected to their classmates and teachers. Now, even as students return to in-classroom learning, those devices are still in use and there is so much opportunity to build edtech features that encourage students and teachers to make the most out of what computing has to offer.

Advice to current MBA students:
Explore! An MBA offers you so many opportunities to try out paths that you might not have considered before and to meet new people that you might not otherwise run into. Take the time to tap into your curiosity. Reach out to people you admire and learn about what they do. Travel (if the opportunity allows) so that you can expand your worldview. Get to know your professors and classmates – many of them can become lifelong friends and mentors.

–One thing you would absolutely do again as part of the job search?
I would continue to reach out to people on LinkedIn for informal informational interviews. I was surprised at how effective it was to introduce myself with “I’m an MBA student at Stanford and would love to learn about your industry/role/company.” and use that to explore different career options. That being said, if you’re going to reach out to someone in the industry, I highly recommend doing your homework beforehand so that it’s a richer experience for both you and the person you’re reaching out to.

–One thing you would change or do differently?
I wish I had spent less time worrying about FOMO and trying to do everything. One of the biggest changes I made in my second year was being more intentional about which activities and people I wanted to spend my time on, and being willing to let go of the rest. I wasn’t perfect at it, but the intent helped me find better balance.

Were there any surprises regarding your current employer’s recruiting process?
For Product Managers, Google has a path where candidates recruit for a “general PM” role, and then get matched to a team afterward. After I first passed the general PM interview process, I had to be fairly proactive in reaching out to my own network and via LinkedIn to find a team that I was excited to join within the company.

What piece of advice do you wish you had been given during your MBA?
Savor it! It can be overwhelming how much stuff there is to do, and you might feel like you’re just running around from activity to activity. Take the time to truly savor the things you care about, and remember the power of quality over quantity in terms of where you spend your time. 

Christina Griffith
Christina Griffith is a writer and editor based in Philadelphia. She specializes in covering education, science, and history, and has experience in research and interviews, magazine content, and web content writing.