August 02, 2019 6 min read 763 Comments

Cynthia Shih is the Global Director for Sustainable Communities at McKinsey.org, a new nonprofit seeking lasting and substantial impact on complex social challenges through serving as an incubator for new solutions. Their first initiative, Sustainable Communities, focuses initially on how cities can radically increase the amount of their recycled waste, particularly plastics and organic materials. Over the past 17 years Cynthia has released five studio albums under her stage name Vienna Teng, performed over 1,000 concerts across the United States and Europe, and written the score for The Fourth Messenger, an original musical theater production.

Passions and talents don’t always neatly align with just one profession. Cynthia, for some time you have juggled both being a musician and a consultant, two professions that aren’t known to overlap. What advice do you have for women who are interested in having careers on more than one professional front, perhaps even simultaneously, especially when they may not have an easily apparent (to the outside world) overlap?

I had to embrace that I was going to be weird and the odd person out in whatever world I was in. I was way nerdier and more into spreadsheets and Scientific American reports than the average musician. On the other hand, as a consultant I might not see things the way others do. There are times I had very unsure footing and felt I didn’t fit in, but I leaned into that discomfort and learned to see it as a strength.

Once you’ve learned the ropes of the world you will inhabit and can speak the language of your peers and collaborators you can then help colleagues see how your perspective is both really fun and useful. As an example, on my last album in the studio, Aims, there was a lot of research on climate action and the Occupy movement that went into the lyrics. It was wonderful to chat with my music producer, who was sympathetic to these issues and interested in learning more, about how this could inform the way we want the album to sound.

On the other side of things, I performed at McKinsey & Company’s Global Sustainability Summit a few years ago. It was really moving and also surprising how many people came up afterwards, choked up, telling me they had never had their life’s work reflected in that way. For example I played a love song between capitalism and ecosystems – like any relationship there will be times of great conflict. Performing the song for sustainability professionals gave them even more of an understanding of the meaning of what they are doing and created some real magic.

How have you navigated the balancing act between your professional aspirations and being a healthy and happy human being?

You have to be peace with feeling tugs to do more in every direction. At the beginning of my McKinsey career one of my assigned evaluators/mentors didn’t really “get” me;  he came from more of a classic strategy consulting world. He’d ask me what I’d want and I’d say I wanted to do music, sustainability, be a leader in my office, and pursue knowledge of new industries. He said he didn’t know how to help with a laundry list like that and that I needed to pick a primary axis. I was annoyed at the time, but it has become a useful guiding principle that at any point I need a primary axis. Right now it’s clear to me that the work at McKinsey.org is my primary axis, and it’s by design that I only have four music performances this year. Every time I play a show people ask me why I don’t play more often and write more music, but I am comfortable with the choices I’m making right now.

My dark secret is that I’m a pretty lazy homebody. Left to my own devices I might not do anything at all. I’ve realized it is rewarding to I push myself, so I’ve put myself in situations where I had to deliver. It has been hardest when said I’ve yes to too many things at once. The older I get the more I realize the importance of knowing my capacity. I sometimes do need to hang out on the couch, and spending time with my family is a really important part of how I want to spend my time on this earth.

Finally, in the 21st century more employers understand different paths in life. I don’t know that my path, which includes a resume with three different degrees and multiple careers, would have been seen the same way even ten years ago.

 

What are some of your thoughts on the complex decisionmaking processes around living a life of sustainability?

When it comes to my clothes I only buy those that are responsibly produced, like Maven Women, or from the secondhand market. That helps with getting out of fast fashion and, more broadly, figuring out how to tap into secondary markets for all kinds of things.

I see anything I do as a consumer as a learning process around the systemic change I then want to fight for. Personally, I don’t feel obligated to live that every day, although I admire people who do. If I have limited energy I want to aim it at systemic change so that the rest of America, including people who don’t spend as much energy thinking about making sustainable choices, will make the right choice without even knowing they are doing it.

It can be really easy to get caught up in whether you do or don’t get a plastic straw. If you need to put your energy somewhere don’t sweat the small stuff. If choosing whether to purchase the item with less packaging or the organic item is stressing you out make your best choice, save that energy, and make your voice heard in the political arena. Call your representatives for better policies that make the choices easier. 

What are some every day, impactful lifestyle choices we can all make around being more sustainable?

Think of recycling as providing a valuable resource to an industry. When in doubt, keep it out. Everything you recycle needs to have a marketable value in that industry, and admittedly it can be really confusing depending on where you live. Go against your instinct of saving every possible item from the trash and think of everything you recycle as something that can go back into a circular economy. 

Eat more plant-based foods. I’m a “lazy omnivore”, so I’ve decided to be an ambassador for people who feel like they could never try vegan foods. I’ve experimented with being vegan part of the year and found new, delicious plant-based proteins. Explore what is coming into supermarkets with meat, dairy, and substitutes that are getting better all the time. You don’t have to go 100% anything, just being plant-based a few days a week makes a big impact.

Family planning can have environmental impacts. When my partner Jacob and I were talking about whether to have a child he pointed out that by my waiting until I’m 40 I’ve practically skipped a generation in terms of people on the planet. Thus it could be framed as environmentally responsible to have kids when you are older, and this actually ends up aligning well with women pursing careers.

Your favorite of our pieces is The Karyn dress in sapphire. What do you like about this dress, and what are some of the ways you plan on wearing it?

I love this dress. The minute I put it on I felt that someone “gets me”. Jacob immediately complimented me on the dress as well. It’s wonderful because of both the aesthetic and that it is super comfortable. I must confess that I was working a long day the first day it came in and I wore it all day and even slept on the couch in it. The Karyn is easy to take care of, easy to look great in, and I can take it along with me as a I switch between different worlds. I can certainly wear The Karyn on stage in a performance; in fact I’ll be wearing it at my performance this month in Detroit!


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