Coming back home to join the circus

How one Arts grad found her way to the workplace of her childhood dreams

Growing up as a gymnast, Andrea Zhu (BA ’13) dreamed of performing in the magical world of Cirque du Soleil. Now, she works at the iconic entertainment company – not as an acrobat, but as a business strategist.

Zhu took a winding route to get here. Like many young graduates, in a world where career paths are far less clear-cut than they used to be, she made her own way -- guided by instinct, a determination to keep learning new skills, and a willingness to take calculated risks. Her journey took her to a U.K. beverage company, then to a U.S. West Coast tech startup, and finally back to Montreal, where she works alongside five other strategists at a cluster of desks on the second floor of Cirque’s international headquarters in the city’s north end. The open-concept office overlooks a cavernous studio where artists practice their routines.

Looking back at her circuitous path from McGill to Cirque, Zhu says she’s come to appreciate how much she learned along the way. “Sometimes there’s a track you can follow. And when there isn’t, you just figure it out.

‘A great city’

Zhu did most of her early schooling in French, then graduated from an International Baccalaureate program in Ottawa. She chose McGill partly for the university’s reputation, and partly to be in Montreal.

“Montreal is a great city,” she says. “You’re exposed to so much culture here, and the lifestyle is so great. If you get out to all the different neighbourhoods, it’s hugely enriching, especially if you’re from a smaller city.”

After her first year at McGill, Zhu – who also speaks Chinese -- took a semester off to work at the Canadian pavilion at the 2010 Shanghai World Expo, where she was one of 15 Canadians selected to represent the country. As it happened, the concept for the pavilion was designed by Cirque du Soleil, giving her a connection that would come into play again years later.

Back at McGill, Zhu majored in Industrial Relations, a program that combines courses in Economics, Sociology and Management. While working toward her degree, she applied for job openings at Cirque, but didn’t receive any responses.

By the time she graduated, she once again had her sights set abroad. “I wanted to develop my career,” she explains. “I felt that if I was going to go into the corporate world, a city like London would give me strong opportunities.” So she began sending job applications to the U.K., then set off for London to interview for openings. In a city where many employers look for Oxford, Cambridge or Ivy League pedigrees, “people recognized the McGill brand,” Zhu says. “That’s not true of every school.”

“Moving to a new continent without a job felt like a big risk,” Zhu recalls, but it paid off. She got a job at Innocent Drinks, a popular maker of smoothies and juices, where she established demand-forecasting practices across the company’s European offices. “Living and working in Europe was a great way to get to know a new part of the world.”

Adding skills

Since entering the working world, Zhu has sought to develop her capabilities and be responsive to how she fits -- and how she’s perceived -- in the job market. She soon realized, for example, that her Arts degree meant she carried an extra burden of proof when it came to quantitative skills. To address that, she took online courses, did workshops, and seized opportunities to learn on the job. “I’m always trying to learn,” she says.

After three years in the U.K. corporate world, Zhu became intrigued by the more entrepreneurial culture of technology startups. She began reading about the Silicon Valley scene, made contacts there, and traveled to San Francisco to check it out. She decided to take a job with a software startup that a friend was building. “I just took the leap and moved there,” she recalls.

It was a “super-intense” and valuable experience, but the fledgling company struggled to get off the ground. After four months without a salary, Zhu decided she would have to pull out and look elsewhere to secure her livelihood for the near future. (She did eventually get paid, and the company wound up finding its footing.)

At this point, in 2016, Zhu spotted an opening on the analytics team at Cirque that she thought would fit her profile. She asked a Cirque producer whom she had met in Shanghai – and who had become a mentor to her over the six years since then – for a recommendation. This time, with a connection and a few years of relevant work experience, she got an interview and landed the job.

Peg Brunelle, a career advisor at the Desautels Faculty of Management, has known Zhu since she was an undergraduate minoring in Management. “She knew where she wanted to go, and basically did what she had to do to get there,” Brunelle says. “She was very proactive in her career search. It goes to show that if you focus on it and take the right steps, you can do pretty much anything you want.”

Bridging worlds

Since joining Cirque three years ago, Zhu has worked alongside senior management on a variety of business strategies to promote growth. One current project: optimizing the scheduling of shows. The work involves “a lot of modeling, talking to different teams – infrastructure, tour-planning, marketing, and so on – that come together to make it happen,” she explains. “It’s essentially internal consulting, with the ability to really get to know the people and problems because you’re all working for the same company, which I think is great.”

The job also gives her a chance to meet performers as they pass through headquarters to prepare for shows. Getting to know some of the artists has given her “a glimpse of what their world is like – and vice-versa.”

In this multicultural work environment that bridges the worlds of business and creativity, “I feel very at home,” she says.