Seconded by: Matt Fisher and David Cullen
Clara, who was born in Hong Kong, moved to the United States with her family when she was four and grew up in Chicago. Her parents encountered the many challenges of immigrants, trying to understand the tacit rules of a new culture. Her father, who had been a mathematics professor in Hong Kong, changed career to work as an electrical engineer and her mother, who had been an art teacher, trained to become a special-education teacher. The immigrant experience taught Clara the importance of hard work and the value of being entrepreneurial. She learnt from a young age how to be resilient and to turn being different from those around her into an opportunity to introduce diversity of thought.
The school she went to did not teach English as a second language so Clara was placed in a class for children with speech impediments. She has said that this “worked out well because we had to pronounce sounds over and over, and I’m told that I don’t have an accent today.” She leveraged challenges of this nature to her advantage and went on to score 1420 (within the 94th percentile) in her SATs – the exams in the United States which are commonly used for university admission – when she was 14 and still in 8th Grade.
Attending Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy High School, Clara says “showed me that anything is possible and that you’re never too young to think big.” She became captain of the women’s varsity tennis team, concert mistress of the orchestra, editor of the student newspaper, captain of the debate team, and a member of Mu Alpha Theta Mathematics Honor Society. She also applied what she had learnt as an immigrant and, having learnt English as a second language, now gave English lessons to other immigrants.
Aged 15, Clara got a job working as a computer programmer at Fermilab, United States’ premier particle physics laboratory while still in high school. In 2000, she graduated from High School and was named a Presidential Scholar, an honour reserved for the most distinguished students graduating from high school.
After high school, Clara moved to California to study economics and computer science at Stanford University. While there, she interned at Microsoft, where she developed the news aggregator for Microsoft Outlook and was named a ‘Microsoft Women’s Scholar’.
In 2002, she returned to China to conduct field research for her thesis and, during her time there, attended Beijing Foreign Studies University. While at Stanford, Clara co-founded the Stanford Engineering Public Service Centre, was the president of the campus chapter of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, served as an officer of the Stanford Society of Women Engineers, was named a Society of Women Engineers Scholar, and was elected to Tau Beta Pi Engineering Honor Society.
Never losing sight of the challenges of being in a minority, in her spare time, Clara volunteered as a mathematics and science teacher for elementary students from families with low-income in East Palo Alto, a part of the Bay Area which is home to a large number of people who are ethnic minorities. However, her focus was not just on local minorities. In 2003, she founded Camp Amelia Technology Literacy Group, a student-run international non-profit organization dedicated to providing free educational software to improve basic education in under-served communities. Camp Amelia had volunteers from such colleges as Yale, Harvard, Dartmouth and Duke and partnerships with both the Ghanaian Ministry of Education and the United Arab Emirates’ Ministry of Education as well as UNESCO.
In 2004, Clara was one of just eight people selected by Google as an Anita Borg Scholar (now called a “Women Techmakers Scholar”), in the inaugural year of the scholarship which is awarded to women studying computer science, computer engineering – or a closely related technical field – who maintain a strong academic record. She was also named a Mayfield Fellow in her senior year at Stanford, admitting her to a program designed to give students the opportunity to develop the knowledge and leadership skills needed to start and grow technology companies, while working as an intern in a Silicon Valley start-up.
Clara earned her Bachelor’s Degree in Economics and Computer Science from Stanford – graduating 1st in her class – in 2005, and also earned a Master’s in Computer Science under a “coterminal degree program” that allows select students study for both degrees in parallel.
She was awarded Marshall Scholarships by the British government to study in the UK following her study in Stanford and enrolled in the University of Oxford. Clara earned her second Master’s degree, an MSc. in Internet Studies from the Oxford Internet Institute in 2006. While studying at Oxford, Clara also worked in Corporate Strategy and Business Operations for Google.
In 2006, after leaving Google, Clara was asked to join Salesforce.com and agreed to do so as a Product Director of AppExchange, its sales store. Again, illustrating her capacity to engage in multiple projects at once, and her role as a pioneer in the social media industry, in 2007 as a side project she developed “FaceForce” – the first business application for Facebook – which connected Salesforce with Facebook, enabling people using Salesforce to view their Facebook contacts information in Salesforce when allowed. FaceForce was a big success and brought Clara to the attention of book publishers, Prentice Hall.
Clara’s first book – The Facebook Era: Tapping Online Social Networks to Build Better Products, Reach New Audiences, and Sell More Stuff – was published in 2009 and became a New York Times bestseller (the story goes that the editor wanted to name the book ‘The MySpace Era’ but Clara, illustrating her forward thinking, insisted on ‘The Facebook Era’). An expanded second edition in 2010 has been referred to as ‘the one indispensable social networking guide for every organization’ and the book is now used by Harvard Business School as one of its marketing textbooks.
Having received numerous calls from Fortune 500 companies asking “how do we do what you’ve described in the book?”, Clara – who had long since realised that “social media would be transformational for businesses” – decided to start a software company that would help Fortune 500 companies manage their marketing efforts using social media and so, in 2009, co-founded Hearsay Social (now known as “Hearsay Systems”) along with Steve Garrity, a former computer lab partner whom she recruited from Microsoft.
Clara has been its Chief Executive Officer since then. Originally run from her apartment, in 2013, the San Francisco headquartered company raised over $50 million in investment and is now the leading provider of predictive analytic client engagement and marketing solutions for banks and insurance companies. The company, which takes its name from the necessity of advisors to ‘hear’ what a client needs first, then ‘say’ what they can do to help (perhaps reflecting Clara’s experience learning English) has operations in the U.S., Asia, and Europe.
In December 2011, having been recommended by Facebook COO, Sheryl Sandberg, Clara was elected to the board of Starbucks and has served there since. Since 2013 she has also acted as an investor and advisor for several technology companies including BirdEye, Clarify Health, Color Genomics, Goldieblox, Gusto, Jewelbots, and Work4. Clara also served, between 2012 and 2014, on the board of the Ad Council, a non-profit organization that uses volunteers from the advertising and media industries to deliver public service advertising campaigns.
In 2016, Prentice Hall published her second book The Social Business Imperative: Adapting Your Business Model to the Always-Connected Customer. Glowing reviews for this book were provided by some of the world’s leading CEO’s and COO’s including Marne Levine (COO of Instagram), Robin Hayes (President of JetBlue), Walter Robb (Co-CEO of Whole Foods Market), Ted Mathias (Chairman and CEO of New York Life) and Chip Bergh (President and CEO of Levi Strauss).
Clara has been named one of Fortune’s “Most Powerful Women Entrepreneurs,” Fast Company’s “Most Influential People in Technology,” Businessweek’s “Top Young Entrepreneurs,” and a “Young Global Leader” by the World Economic Forum. In 2012, she was listed in both Fortune’s and Ad Age’s “40 Under 40,” and has been listed also as InvestmentNews’ “40 Under 40” and ThinkAdvisor‘s IA 25 – Industry Influencers.
Clara is married to Daniel Chao, CEO of Halo Neuroscience, who holds a Master’s degree in Neuroscience and a medical degree from Stanford. Her career to date reflects her ability to convert challenges and the assumptions of others into opportunities to create lasting, meaningful and fruitful relationships. She has found it intimidating at times having to work in male dominated environments but believes that even by showing up, she and other women are helping forge a path that will make it easier for others in the future. She is active in encouraging women in business and technology and continues to encourage women and girls to pursue studies in mathematics, science and engineering.