Alumni Voices: Michelle Huang ’18

Michelle Huang ’18: Co-founder and Chair of Multiethnic Young Leaders NZ
Hometown: Auckland, New Zealand 
Major: Global China Studies, minor in Environmental Studies and Humanities

Michelle Huang ’18 didn’t expect to pioneer NYU Shanghai’s environmental studies minor. Post-graduation, she didn’t expect to build a nonprofit organization in New Zealand or become a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion leader. What guided her down these uncharted paths was her insatiable curiosity, passion for learning, and a desire to contribute to a more equitable world. 

Michelle graduated summa cum laude from NYU Shanghai in May 2018. During her time at NYU Shanghai, Michelle was a member of the 2015 Reality Show cast, elected as Student Body President, and spearheaded a number of environmental clubs, events, and initiatives.

You were the first student at NYU Shanghai to minor in Environmental Studies. How did that come about? 

Starting college, I wasn’t immediately drawn to environmental studies. However, in our first year, all freshmen were required to take Global Perspectives on Society with Vice Chancellor Jeff Lehman. The course pushed us to explore a variety of new topics and ideas. One of those topics was sustainability and the environment, which had a lasting impact on me. That summer, I picked up the book The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert. I must have read that book about four times. When I came back as a sophomore, I just wanted to learn more. 

During my junior year studying away in New York, I completed so many environmental studies classes that by the time I returned to Shanghai, my professor, Yifei Li, backed me to seek formal recognition for my academic experience. This led to me graduating with a minor in environmental studies, a path that wasn’t initially intended.

As a student, I had the incredible opportunity to undertake a summer Deans’ Undergraduate Research Fund (DURF) project with Professors Yifei Li and Lena Scheen, where I examined recycling in Shanghai, focusing on the consumption of plastic takeout containers in the early days of food delivery apps. Alongside this, I was fortunate to have completed internships with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), where I gained exposure to wildlife conservation and green finance. Additionally, I had the privilege of contributing to the ideation and organization of the 2018 NYU Global Leadership Summit, centered around the theme “Leadership in the Anthropocene.”

michelle speaking to students
Michelle speaking with students during a visit to campus in October 2023.

What inspired you to found a nonprofit organization, while working a full time job? 

Despite New Zealand’s status as a small island nation of 5 million people, we stand as one of the most culturally diverse countries in the world, home to over 200 different ethnicities. Unlocking the full leadership potential of all New Zealanders, particularly those from ethnically diverse backgrounds, is crucial given the country’s rapidly evolving cultural landscape and the current underrepresentation of promising individuals from ethnically diverse backgrounds in higher leadership.

In my first post-university job, I crossed paths with several senior leaders across government, community, and business. I saw a genuine desire to address challenges related to diversifying leadership, establishing talent pipelines, and ensuring everyone can reach their full potential in New Zealand. 

However, the barrier often came down to the ‘how.’ 

Problem-solving and decision-making frequently occurred in silos, behind closed doors, lacking the necessary inclusion of the right people at the table. This issue is bidirectional, of course; individuals from ethnically diverse backgrounds also struggle to address leadership and representation challenges without the presence of the right stakeholders in the room.

Recognizing this gap in collaboration, we established Multiethnic Young Leaders NZ as a nonprofit organization committed to working with all stakeholders across sectors, industries, and leadership levels to address the ‘how.’ 

speaking at launch1
Michelle speaking at the official Launch of Multiethnic Young Leaders NZ at Government House (Auckland) in March 2022, hosted by Her Excellency Dame Cindy Kiro, the Governor-General of New Zealand.

Today, Multiethnic Young Leaders NZ hosts events and workshops, operates a mentorship program called 3 Kapu Kawhe (3 Cups of Coffee), which pairs ethnically diverse young leaders with experienced New Zealand executives and directors for three coffee chats, and maintains a leadership database that provides transparent access to information on all youth leadership opportunities in New Zealand for those under 35.

launch of 3 cups of coffee
Michelle (left) at the launch of the 3 Kapu Kawhe mentorship program in May 2023.

How did your time at NYU Shanghai impact your career and goals? 

I like pushing myself into new spaces, where the challenge is to create something entirely from scratch. I find it really exciting, and that’s partly what attracted me to NYU Shanghai. It’s likely what draws a lot of people – those who are not necessarily afraid of stepping into the unknown and finding comfort in being uncomfortable.

During my time at NYU Shanghai, I also enjoyed proposing new ideas and initiatives. My curiosity and ‘courage to try’ have generally served me well, although they’ve also led me to some interesting situations – from spending an entire day in a rubbish truck in Shanghai to stepping in as a surgical assistant for a pangolin surgery in Vietnam.

michelle in reality show
Left: Michelle performing with the 2015 Reality Show cast at Shanghai Symphony Hall. Right: Reality Show cast with NYU’s 16th President Andrew Hamilton at an NYU reception in Shanghai.

Being at NYU Shanghai, and being part of such a diverse cohort of students, has no doubt inspired the work I do in the diversity, equity, and inclusion space. Despite the initial challenges and hurdles of bringing together such a diverse community, there were many genuine examples of cross-cultural dialogue, collaboration, and understanding,  as well as authentic relationships formed through humility, empathy, and open-mindedness. 

Since graduating, how have you stayed connected with the NYU Shanghai community and your mentors? 

I actually unexpectedly found my first job in New Zealand with a connection through Provost Joanna Waley-Cohen at an organization called Global Women New Zealand

Since graduating, I’ve been eager to stay connected with environmental studies. I’ve kept in touch with Professor Li and worked as a research assistant for one of the research projects he led on dairy consumption in China, as part of the NYU Center for Environmental and Animal Protection. Last October, Professor Li invited me to visit NYU Shanghai’s New Bund campus for the first time to chat with students interested in environmental studies. 

I’ve also maintained contact with Professor Lena Scheen (I must have taken almost every course she offered because I love her classes so much) and Professor Anna Kendrick, who has always been super supportive and encouraging of all my professional and academic pursuits.