THINKING OUTSIDE the CRAYON BOX
The original soybean crayons Jocelyn Wong’s team invented at Purdue still sit on her bathroom vanity 25 years later. “I can look at them every single day to remind me of the moment in time that helped influence so much of who I am,” she says. Wong (BS ’96, agricultural and biological engineering), the eldest of three daughters, immigrated to the United States from Hong Kong when she was 3. When the time came to choose a college, Wong knew her choices. “I was going to be an engineer or I was going to be a doctor, and that was it.”
Wong started her agricultural and biological engineering degree at Purdue and struggled academically for the first time. She also faced financial difficulties, donating plasma twice a week to pay rent. “Those first couple years of not finding myself, I felt like I was disappointing my family, who sacrificed so much. All of their sacrifices to put me through school and I wasn’t doing well. It was such an enormous burden for me to carry,” she explains.
A professor told Wong about the inaugural Student Soybean Innovation Competition in 1994, which invited teams of Purdue students to invent products using soybeans and analyze their market potential. “Through the process, I became so inspired, so energized, so motivated. It was like a different part of me was coming out,” Wong says.
That year, crayons imported from China were recalled after some were found to contain lead. The news led Wong’s team to see if soybean crayons could provide an alternative. “When we won the competition, I was completely overwhelmed. At 19 years old, the idea that we could be recognized for bringing this idea forward … was beyond words.”
The team sold the rights to Dixon Ticonderoga, a manufacturer who marketed the soy crayons under its Prang brand. “The contest gave me so many opportunities,” Wong says. “It was more than just the money. It taught me what I was capable of.” With renewed confidence, Wong pursued her career. She recalls sitting across a table from Procter & Gamble’s vice president of engineering during an interview her senior year. “Why would I hire you?” came the VP’s question. “Your grades are mediocre at best.”
Wong took out her crayons and a blank piece of paper. The picture she drew was colorful, although not particularly good. “This is why you will hire me,” Wong replied. “The story I’m about to tell you separates me from every other student you will interview with on this campus today.” Wong got the job and learned a valuable life lesson. “Play to your strengths. Sometimes you have to take that risk, and you’ve got to believe in your value.”
She began her career as a process engineer with Procter & Gamble, but her managers soon realized she was better suited for marketing. “Every day since, I have loved my job,” Wong says. “It was so much like the soybean experience. I worked on brands like Crest, and it was all about finding those marketing needs.”
After more than a decade with Procter & Gamble, Wong approached another crossroad: the prospect of a new position. “It was a big job. I was just coming off maternity leave with twins. I had three kids under the age of 3, and I was afraid.” Wong found herself thinking, “I don’t think I can do it. Our life is comfortable.”
Once again, Wong’s parents offered advice and support. “I didn’t come to this country to sacrifice everything for you to turn away opportunities,” her father said. “We came to this country to give you opportunities.”
Taking his advice, Wong continued her climb. After leadership positions at Safeway and Family Dollar, she joined Lowe’s Companies Inc., where she has worked her way to chief marketing officer. She leads digital marketing customer relationship management, as well as advertising and media.
Wong regularly incorporates lessons she learned at Purdue. “It taught me how to think and how to have a framework to solve problems. It taught me how to balance the logic and the analytics,” Wong says.
“The contest showed me the work that I would end up actually pursuing for most of my career. It gave me that confidence, that moment I could look back to and remember that anything is possible.”
Jocelyn Wong (BS ’96, agricultural and biological engineering) spoke at the 25th anniversary of the Soybean Innovation Competition. Her team won the inaugural event by inventing soy-based crayons.
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