When Wanla Cheng arrived in the U.S. as a 17- year-old college student from Japan, she says she spoke fluent English and had the benefit of a top-flight Western education.
Yet "it didn't matter that I grew up with a Western education," says Ms. Cheng, principal of Asia Link Consulting Group, New York. "I didn't know Americans and I didn't know America. I had to learn that on my own."
Ms. Cheng, who is Chinese, says she worked hard to pick up on American culture, but the real understanding of how to get ahead came later after she entered the agency business.
She started off in account management at what was then Benton & Bowles, New York, in 1980. Job changes and career turns took her through agencies Needham Harper & Steers, N.W. Ayer & Son and Dancer-Fitzgerald-Sample. Later, she moved to the client side, at American Express Co.
She says when she entered advertising she noticed there were few Asians in the field -- particularly account management.
"My theory is that the advertising business is a cultural and service business. When people relations weigh so heavily as part of the work you do, one of the most important things you have -- other than your talents -- are your relationships."
She credits her mentor, Philip Wallace, then a senior VP in account management at Needham, with nurturing her career.
She embraces the concept of training and mentoring -- but not merely for the sake of diversity.
"I don't think it has anything to do with ethnicity. People who have worked for me have blossomed," she says. She laments, however: "There are so few training programs at agencies today. Agencies used to offer training programs for new hires. These programs would rotate the new hires through every department to give them a full view of the business. Training is such a luxury.
"In the past decade it has become very bottom line oriented. That has changed