This story was originally published in a book written by BusinessBecause editor Marco De Novellis, in collaboration with Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business (CKGSB).
Lights, camera, action! Actors in Han Empire-era dress parade across an ornately-decorated set. In the golden corridors of the imperial court, artwork, statues, and decorative candles line every wall.
It’s a rags-to-riches story in which a lowly servant’s daughter becomes the empress. The show is The Virtuous Queen of Han. And Michelle Lau is handling production.
It’s a big job: the TV drama series is 47 episodes long. It will go out on over 20 online platforms and TV stations internationally. It will cost around HK$10 million.
Michelle’s team from Now TV in Hong Kong is working with contacts in China. There’s editing to be done, music lyrics to be written, and costumes to be made. It’s the backstage reality behind the glitzy front-end world of prime-time TV.
Michelle’s in her mid-20s now, but she started out in the TV industry aged 21. While she enjoys life and work in TV, she feels it’s time for a change. She’s still young, but TV is all she’s ever known, and she’s unsure where to go.
Determined to make a career switch, Michelle moves to mainland China to pursue an MBA at CKGSB.
Growing up in Hong Kong, Michelle was in showbiz from the start. She started ballet classes aged four. For over a decade, she trained three times a week, with dreams of becoming a professional ballet dancer.
Aged 15, Michelle decided to stop and concentrate on her studies. She comes from a family of academics—her father went to Stanford and was a professor of medicine at a university in Hong Kong before starting his own medical group.
After following in her father’s footsteps by studying in the US, where she majored in communication and media studies at the University of California, Berkeley, she returned home to work in TV, starting out as a screenwriter for a leading media firm in Hong Kong.
“I was the youngest person in the entire TV station!” Michelle recalls. “People in TV in Hong Kong are usually very experienced and very local. It’s unusual for someone to come in from overseas— most of my colleagues didn’t even know what Berkeley was!
“On my first day of work, my supervisor told me, ‘You’re in charge of a Chinese TV show,’” she continues. “I understood Chinese, I could read Chinese, but I didn’t know how to type Chinese—that was my biggest problem!
“At first, everything was very fast-paced. Whenever we went out for a shooting, it was always about how sharp you were. Everything was different every day. But it was exciting and that’s what always attracted me to it.
“After a few months, I got the hang of it, and gradually my colleagues realized that I could handle things, too.”
A young woman in a challenging industry, Michelle worked hard to carve out a successful career in TV. She wrote scripts for her own travel log program, a show on hot trends for teenagers, a celebrity talk show, and reality shows where, in reality, everything is scripted. She even secured a HK$1.5 million government investment for a program on her TV station — a company first.
Then came her big break. Working on the production of The Virtuous Queen of Han, she acted as the bridge between her team in Hong Kong and another production company in mainland China. Her interest in China was piqued.
Around the same time, Michelle started thinking about doing something else. She had worked closely with China, from the outside looking in. But she knew that to really understand Chinese culture—so different to the culture in Hong Kong—she would have to experience it firsthand. To do so, she decided to pursue an MBA at CKGSB.
“I was still a little uncertain at that point—I wasn’t sure whether I should continue my career in the media industry or not,” she says.
“But my dad gave me a lot of direction—in terms of motivation and moral standard. I look up to my father a lot. And one of the things CKGSB helps you with is finding out what it is you want to do.”
Alongside her MBA studies, Michelle took CKGSB’s Next Generation Leadership for Business Succession program, a part-time Executive Education course designed for students looking to take over their family business. Midway through the MBA program, she started working for her father’s medical group— by then, one of the leading private medical firms in Hong Kong.
Right after graduation, Michelle was offered a media job in China, but she turned it down. Instead, she took up a role at her family’s healthcare firm back in Hong Kong. A true millennial, she wants to make an impact and help people at the same time.
A new beginning
For Michelle, an MBA was all about personal, as well as professional, growth. She joined as the youngest student in the class. When she arrived in Beijing, it was snowing. She didn’t speak much Mandarin.
Throughout her MBA experience, she challenged herself. She took part in the Asia-Pacific Business School Desert Challenge—a three-day, 75-kilometre race in Inner Mongolia for Asian business school students.
Michelle and her team from CKGSB walked non-stop—on sand, carrying their own food and water—for eight hours each day, surrounded by hundreds of competing business school students, and all through extreme weather.
“It was actually a horrible experience!” Michelle laughs. “A lot of people gave up, but our team finished—it was all about team spirit.
“An MBA is not only about getting a degree,” she continues. “It gives you an entirely different perspective; a different way of looking at the world.
For Michelle, CKGSB stretched beyond the academics. She developed a close network of contacts and life-long friends. “Even today, CKGSB is like a family that I can reach out to whenever I need to,” she says.