Wen Zhang, founder and CEO of the If Not Now Wen Institute, chases her dreams.
By Wen Zhang, Photo courtesy of INNW Institute
Growing up in a small mountain village in southeast China, life was simple for me. The close-knit community meant everyone had a defined role, and we didn’t have cars, so we rode bicycles or motorcycles to get around. The internet wasn’t even a thing yet. As a result, no one ever left the village.
As a young girl, my future was already mapped out for me. I was expected to follow the traditional path of marriage and motherhood. But I always knew that there was more to life than what my small mountain town had to offer. I would often take walks around the village, gazing into the distance and dreaming of a bigger world.
When I was 7 years old, I had a life-changing experience. While riding bikes with my mother, I saw the moon following me from our house all the way to my grandma’s house. That moment instilled a sense of wonder and curiosity within me and made me believe that there was a whole world out there waiting for me to explore.
One afternoon I stumbled upon a cassette tape player in the corner of a library. At that moment, I made the decision to teach myself English and apply for college, as I knew this would be a way for me to explore the world beyond my village. It was challenging at first, especially at the beginning. It took me an entire afternoon to understand a 15-second English conversation. I had to search for each word in the dictionary, break it down and listen to my cassette repeatedly until I could comprehend the sentence without my notes.
After months of intensive study, I took my first TOEFL language exam and received a low score. In the span of four years, I took and failed the test nine times! So, I decided to switch gears and take the GRE exam, creating an intense nine-month study plan and dedicating eight hours a day to studying.
Passing the GRE exam was the key to escaping my village and exploring what lay beyond. I received a score of 1280 out of 1400. I was shocked. With a nearly perfect GRE score and a sub-optimal TOEFL score, I applied to 12 schools with an advertising major. With unwavering determination, I devoted countless hours to improving my English proficiency and excelling in my studies. Through my efforts, I was accepted to the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign in 2011, and on Aug. 6, 2011, I arrived at Chicago O’Hare International Airport with four large suitcases and a pair of high heels. (Although I have no idea why I chose to wear them!) I was bursting with excitement as I started my journey toward my American Dream.
After graduation, I chose to stay in Chicago and work on a few startups. It didn’t take long for me to realize that I wanted to start my own business.
I loved what I was doing, but I couldn’t help feeling that I had made a promise to myself to see the world if I ever left my village. While I had gained valuable experience in the startup world, it was time for me to chase a bigger dream. I moved to North Carolina to study at Duke University, where I received my MBA in 2018 and had an opportunity to join the Dell Technologies team in Austin the same year.
So, I followed my passion for storytelling and helping others and created the If Not Now Wen (INNW) Institute. Our business accelerator program is designed to empower entrepreneurs and dreamers to tell their stories with the goal of securing funding or investment. Our mission is simple: to guide and support business owners who may need help communicating their vision.
Since its launch, the INNW Institute has served over 300 entrepreneurs worldwide, helping them raise over $40 million in capital to make their dreams a reality. And we’re just getting started. Our commitment to helping entrepreneurs reach their full potential has resulted in a thriving community that I’m incredibly proud of. Working with some of the most inspiring people I’ve ever met has taught me valuable lessons about entrepreneurship, leadership and the power of storytelling.
I believe that while the universe always has your back, it first tests our commitment. In my experience, if one shows dedication and determination, the universe will eventually come around and support your journey full-heartedly. But it starts with us.
There is never a “perfect” time to chase your dreams. If you have a passion burning inside you, don’t let fear or doubt hold you back. Seize the opportunity now, because tomorrow is never guaranteed. Don’t wait for the “stars to align” or for everything to be “just right.” Take the first step toward your dream today. If not now, when?