By Liesl O’Dell
China’s Great Wall. Australia’s remote Outback. Italy’s ancient ruins.
From her perch atop the global travel industry, Jane Sun, CEO of CTrip, Asia’s largest online travel agency, connects people with the best destinations the world has to offer. She even quotes Confucius when explaining how cultural experiences can bridge divides, strengthen industries and create peace.
Sun should know. She is a living, breathing advertisement for how travel can change a life. But her journey was much longer and more difficult than her recent climb to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro or her completion of the Shanghai marathon.
She was lucky, however. As a young Chinese student she was able to connect with students and professors at the University of Florida (UF) in Gainesville, which is what she says changed her life.
In 1989, while attending Peking University in Beijing, Sun was invited by visiting Levin College of Law Professor Joe Little to attend the Introduction to American Law program at UF. Law professor Fletcher Baldwin and his wife Nancy directed the program and offered a spare room in their home to Sun.
“She became one of our own children,” Nancy Baldwin says.
Sun still calls Nancy “my American mother.”
Each night over dinner, the Baldwins talked about law, globalization, the U.S. Constitution and the Founding Fathers’ ideals.
“I learned a lot from my experience in the USA,” says Sun, who ultimately enrolled in UF’s accounting program. “I have a great appreciation for the people there.”
Compared to her fellow students, Sun’s pace was intense. She bicycled 6 miles to campus each morning, taking the earliest classes available so she could spend the remainder of the day, and Saturdays, working to pay her tuition.
Nonetheless, Sun recalls her UF days fondly — Gator football games, the pageantry of Homecoming weekend, and working in the law library.
Her favorite recollections, however, are of the many conversations she had with her business and law professors.
“People at UF are dynamic and open-minded,” Sun says. “Professors are among the most kind, thoughtful intellectuals in the world.”
Sun says many discussions she had at UF still influence her leadership style today. In particular, she developed an appreciation for hearing other viewpoints.
“I try to put myself in other people’s shoes,” Sun says. “In order to penetrate in a global market, you have to have a very good understanding of different peoples and their motivations, and different cultures.”
Before her graduation from UF in 1992, Sun, following the Chinese tradition of filial piety, told the Baldwins that she wanted to one day take care of them. Touched, the Baldwins assured her they were prepared for retirement and suggested she pass on their goodwill to other students in need.
Twenty-four years later, Sun surprised her American family by announcing that she had established a scholarship named after Baldwin and Little for business and law students from China.
Sun says she feels obligated to help the next generation prepare for their place in global industry. She meets with UF students in Gainesville and Shanghai as often as possible. Her tips for them include, “be open-minded,” “give 100 percent effort to whatever you want to accomplish,” and “love your life.”
In 2005 Sun, who has two daughters, couldn’t pass up the opportunity to become the youngest female CFO in CTrip history.
“Some people ask me why I work so hard, but I feel mothers are the best role models for children,” Sun says. “I show them that working is challenging, but if you double your efforts at work and double your efforts at being a mother, it is doubly rewarding – challenging but rewarding.”
Over the next 13 years, Sun’s efforts to strengthen CTrip’s travel services led to her promotions to COO and later president and CEO of what is now a $25 billion company.
“Every step has built on the role before it,” Sun says. “I am very proud of how our team has grown.”
She is also proud of her UF Gator football team, whose games are televised around midnight in China.
“We are the only Chinese people we know who enjoy watching football,” Sun says.
As for her future endeavors, Sun is preparing for the day when virtual reality, augmented reality, advanced vehicles and even space travel will change the travel industry.
One thing that won’t change: the power of travel to build bridges.
“We become a better person when we explore,” Sun says. “Meeting different people from different places is good for everyone.”
Excerpted from University of Florida