Tucked away in a charming building in Old Town, Sophia Cheng has found her place in Lansing as Chief Financial Officer and Research Director for Message Makers, but her story started on the other side of the globe, and her journey has helped her reach far beyond what she thought was possible.
After earning her Ph.D. in Economics from the Eli Broad College of Business at Michigan State University in 2002, Cheng was determined to step away from the world of academia and implement the strategies she learned as a student in the real world.
“I met [Terry Terry, founder and president of Message Makers] at a Buddhist Temple, when I graduated I wanted to know about the real economy, the real people and how what I had learned worked in the real world. Terry said, ‘Why don’t you come try it out.’ And as it turns out, it worked for me and it worked for Message Makers. I started formally working as the financial analyst when I was part-time and then the controller before becoming CFO,” Cheng said.
But Cheng’s drive to learn about the world started long before she joined the Message Makers team. Cheng grew up in Taiwan where school came easy for her and opportunities were there for the taking, but she yearned for a challenge so she came to the U.S. to further pursue her education.
“I think that I changed when I came here. In Taiwan, everything was right in front of me and it was easy. After I came here, I found a drive I didn’t have back home. When I transferred to Economics, I talked with my friends and they told me that with my background it would be difficult to understand and that I didn’t have enough training. But that’s what I wanted to do, so I did it,” said Cheng. “I wanted to learn more and it was ok for it to be a challenge because I just pushed myself harder. It was tough for many years but I learned how to overcome frustration and it made me appreciate the things that I learned that much more.”
Cheng’s educational mountain wasn’t the last one the fearless leader wanted to climb. After earning her degree and kick starting her career, Cheng set out on a much longer journey to gain her citizenship. In total, the process took Cheng 10 years to complete, but throughout the journey, she found a great appreciation for her new home.
“After I came to Message Makers and was working full-time, there was still another mountain I wanted to climb. I’m an immigrant and I wanted to succeed here. I went to school and started my career here, so I wanted to become a citizen. It’s a long process to go from getting a green card to a work permit to becoming a citizen. As soon as I was eligible, I applied and I was finally granted my citizenship in 2013,” Cheng said. “Along the way, I recognized that it was harder as an immigrant to succeed. It’s not my home, but I put in a lot of time and effort into my work and to my community. I learned that you need to listen, you need to observe and you need to appreciate. I appreciate all of the help that I received. I work harder and that appreciation keeps me going. It’s important to me.”
After accomplishing so much and reaching each goal she set for herself, Cheng found yet another mountain she wanted to climb to keep herself moving forward. She reentered the academic world to pursue her love for law and continues to work and take classes to reach her next goal.
“After I got my citizenship, I wanted to look into something else. When I got out of MSU I was tired of school and I wanted to work, but there was always something I wanted to learn about, and that was the rule of law. It’s so unique and such a large part of this country; our founding fathers set those checks and balances in stone. This country was born in law and I was interested in learning more. I’m interested in fairness and justice. People would always say to me, ‘You are kind of argumentative’ and I like to ask questions, so it was a good fit. Cooley Law School provided me some scholarships and recognized my dedication. Last fall I became a part-time student and Terry (and Message Makers) continues to encourage me to do what I want to do and still works and helps the team,” Cheng said. “It’s very demanding but I find it fascinating. Law is part of the history of this country so in a way I am studying history too. Studying law itself is very empowering.”
With so many demanding and challenging goals, Cheng has found a way to find balance in her life by making her health and fitness a priority. She finds time each day to take care of herself and works hard to find peace and calm in her life.
“I have to take good care of myself. I pay a lot of attention to both my mind and body because they impact each other. Meditation is really soothing to your mind and allows you to reflect on yourself and all the things that happen every day. Our teacher says you need to find your anchor so that no matter what you’re feeling, you can come back to that anchor and you will not go out and do something that is not who you are,” Cheng said. “I also do Tai Chi sword. It’s a slow and calming exercise, which is a good thing in modern society where everything happens so fast.”
But Cheng doesn’t just take good care of herself, she’s dedicated to being a nurturing owner to her partner in crime, her curious cat April. April has made an enormous impact on Cheng as her sweet disposition and curiosity for life matches that of Cheng herself.
“I used to take care of our office cat Gracie; and when she passed away I thought I could give a cat a home. I adopted April from the Capital Area Human Society and it really started a different life for me. Taking care of her is a very positive thing; it’s a wonderful thing to be nurturing. Taking care of something that has life, whatever that is, gives life right back to you; it softens you. April doesn’t participate in anger or anything negative, she only adds joy and is always happy,” Cheng said.
Cheng has carried that lesson forward as she plans to work in the future to give back what she has been given by working with immigrants as a voice to help them find their place in the U.S Cheng is dedicated to giving back and being appreciative every day for what she has experienced in her life here.
“There is always a part of me that is an immigrant, but I am so appreciative of this chance,” Cheng said. “America is a breath of fresh air to me, there is so much freedom and so many opportunities for people to explore. I want to appreciate that every day for the people I have met, for what I have and what I am enjoying here.”