Remembering international advertising executive Shirley Young (1935-2020).

The World War II immigrant from war-torn Asia became a pacesetting executive in the New York ad world before shifting to the corporate sphere.

As we begin a New Year, let’s pause for a brief moment to remember Shirley Young, the successful New York ad executive who passed away in the waning days of 2020.  She’s a person whose life story is as fascinating as it is inspiring.

Ms. Young may be best-remembered as a noted advertising executive whose career included a quarter century at Grey Advertising.  As president of Grey’s strategic marketing division, one of Young’s clients was General Motors, a company she later joined to help spearhead GM’s strategic development initiatives in China. 

Ms. Young moved in the worlds of business in the West and Far East with equal ease and poise.  To help understand how she could do so, looking at her early life helps explain her success. 

Born in Shanghai in 1935, Shirley Young was the daughter of Chinese diplomat Clarence Kuangson Young.  The family moved to Paris in the late 1930s and later to Manila, where her father had been appointed consul general at the Chinese embassy there.

In interviews later in life, Ms. Young would recount how soldiers had came to their Manila home when the city was overrun by the invading Japanese army.  Her diplomat father was arrested — and executed, as she later found out.  The occupiers sequestered little Shirley, her mother and her two sisters in a communal living space with other family members of jailed Chinese diplomats.  There, Shirley and her siblings helped raise pigs, chickens and ducks to survive wartime conditions in cramped quarters that were frequently left without electricity and basic water supply. 

Speaking of these early experiences, “I learned that whatever the circumstances, you can be happy,” Young told journalist Bill Moyers in a 2003 interview.

Following the Second World War, Shirley Young and her family emigrated to New York City, where her mother worked for the United Nations and later married another Chinese diplomat — this one representing the Chinese Nationalist government in Taiwan. 

Graduating from Wellesley College in 1955, Shirley had few concrete plans for the future.  Indeed, she considered herself more of a dreamer than a person whose heart was set on a business career.  But taking the advice of a friend to explore the emerging field of market research where she might be able to combine her natural curiosity about the world with gainful employment, after numerous job application rejections she finally landed an entry-level position in the field.

Learning the basics of market research at several New York employers, Ms. Young then joined Grey Advertising in 1959 where she rose steadily in the ranks.  As a senior-level woman in the then-male dominated world of advertising agencies, Young stood out.  In so doing during a time when major companies were just beginning to show interest in more diversified corporate direction, it’s little surprise that Young would be invited to join the boards of directors of several major companies.

Young’s field experience and keen strategic acumen drew the eye of General Motors, a Grey Advertising client that would go on to hire her as vice president of GM’s consumer market development department in 1988. It was an unusual move for a company that up to then had typically promoted senior managers from within the company’s own ranks.  Her key role at General Motors was in formulating and implementing the GM’s strategic business initiatives in China.

In the years following her retirement, Ms. Young slowed down — but only a little.  She founded and chaired the Committee of 100, an organization that seeks to propagate friendly relations between the United States and China.  Related to those Chinese/U.S. endeavors, a statement made by Ms. Young in 2018 was this memorable quote:

“We have to work together.  Given the intertwined relationship and globalization, it’s ridiculous to think we cannot work together.”

[These days, the jury may be out on that statement; the next few years will probably tell us if her view has actually carried the day …]

Looking back on Shirley Young’s life and career, it’s hard not to be impressed by her pluck and spirit.  A child born of privilege but who soon lost it all, she could easily have retreated into a world of “what might have been.”  Instead, she pieced together a new life that turned out to be “bigger and better” than she could have ever imagined in her early years.

One other facet of Ms. Young’s life and work is worth noting:  her love of the “high arts.”  She was a notable supporter of such musicians as the cellist Yo-Yo Ma, composer Tan Dun and pianist Lang Lang, and was also a tireless promoter of artistic exchanges between the United States and China.  One could certainly say that she was a significant catalyst in the burgeoning interest in Western classical music that has developed inside China over the past several decades. 

Acknowledging her contribution to the arts, Lang Lang’s organization wrote this epitaph about Shirley Young following her death:

“The Lang Lang Music Foundation mourns the passing of our director Shirley Young, a remarkable woman, patron of the arts, and a dear friend … she was unique and can never be forgotten.”

I think that sentiment is spot-on.