Her life has been anything but linear. Born in Beijing, Amy Wu grew up in Oregon, performed as a concert pianist in her teens, majored in biochemistry at Harvard, conducted HIV research in China and Botswana, and now works 80-hour weeks as a vice president at a tech startup. She also serves on HAI’s International Advisory Council.
Martha Henry, Executive Director of HAI, reached Amy by phone in a conference room in Manhattan.
You were one of the first Harvard undergrads to spend a semester in Botswana conducting HIV research. Almost ten years later, how do you view that experience?
Now, ten years afterward, it still is the most important educational experience I have ever had.
I grew up in Oregon in a middle-class, suburban, comfortable upbringing. Botswana was the first developing country I’d ever visited. No course or textbook could teach me everything I learned in Botswana about the adversity that the country and people were going through with the HIV epidemic. It gave me perspective and empathy that I carried with me.
What advice would you give to current Harvard students considering a semester in Africa?
My advice is to absolutely do it when you’re young. When you’re younger, you have no responsibilities.You’re at the least risk-averse time in your life. That’s when you should fully explore and immerse yourself in an environment that is different—different from yourself. Studying HIV at the heart of the epidemic will stay with you for the rest of your life, no matter what career you end up in. I think I’m a great example of that. I 100% recommend it.
Should everybody do it, or do you have to be adventurous?
You should do it if you have an open mind.
In the real world, once you’re out of the bubble of college, no matter what you do, people have problems, all types of problems. Many of them are larger than anything I could fathom. Spending those nine months in Botswana was a rocket-boost to gaining perspective very quickly. You think, wow, these people have dealt with much harder adversity than I’m ever going to deal with in my life. People may have made poor decisions; I’m not going to judge them for it. I’m going to see how we can work together and how I can help them in whatever way I can.
Today, I manage finance, legal, and operations at a 200-person company. I think without learning how to deeply empathize with people, I could not do my job today.
What are you currently doing?
I’m the Chief Financial Officer at NewsCred, a marketing software company that essentially allows big brands like Pepsi or J.P. Morgan or Goldman Sachs to become publishers themselves and create websites full of narratives that reach the audience they’re trying to reach. We’ve been around for about seven years now.
How does what you do now relate to the work you did as your younger self?
That’s a really good question. Right now, I think I’m still in personal-development mode. I’m learning a lot. I’m building a ton of skills here in the private sector that, in my mind, I’ve always wanted to eventually apply to the public sector later in my career.
The public sector is pretty challenging. There are fewer things a young person in her twenties can do to effect change. I think you can absolutely affect change at a grassroots level, but it’s a lot harder at the higher systemic level.
You can effect a lot of change in the private sector, especially at a tech startup, so it was a way for me to gain knowledge and experience very quickly. I know that I’m going to head back to the public sector in some capacity, maybe on the investment side, at some point. When that happens, I want to bring all these skills from the private sector over.
When you’re not working, what do you do?
I spend almost every vacation I have climbing mountains. I rock climb indoors and outdoors. I do alpine climbing. I do ice climbing. This year I climbed Mount Hood, Mont Blanc, and the Breithorn in Zermatt. I’m going to climb Aconcagua in Argentina over Christmas break.
Do you have a checklist of difficult mountains to climb?
You were a concert pianist in high school. At Harvard, you worked one summer conducting research at the CDC in China, one working at the Clinton Foundation in Botswana, and one co-creating a summer school in Sierra-Leone. After graduation, you worked as a venture capitalist. Now you’re an executive at a start-up. Is there a throughline in your life?
I ask myself that all the time. I’ve always been drawn to things that I’m passionate about—and they’ve just been different at various points in my life. When I was playing piano, I was able to perform in China and Russia, and that made me curious about different cultures. When I went to Harvard, I found myself as a biochemistry major because I took an amazing seminar my freshman year on bacterial resistance that opened my mind to infectious disease. That’s what led me to working at the CDC on what happened to be HIV research.
I wanted to pursue that deeper. That’s why when I found the opportunity to go to Botswana my sophomore year, I jumped at it. As a young student, I thought it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
In terms of deciding not to go to medical school, that was a question of, what did I really want to do? There are a lot of interesting problems in the medical field, but I was more interested in the intersection of problems and people in society. I wanted to learn about organizational structure. What makes a business tick?
I thought I was going to get the best learning from the private sector, which led me first to consulting, and then to technology. I’ve always known that I was going to bring this back to development work at some point in the future. How my career gets there—we’ll see.
We first spoke when you were a junior at Harvard and had just returned from Botswana. Ten years later, you’re a successful tech executive. If I call you in 2026, what will you be doing?
In ten years, I would still be working in the private sector. On an outside-work basis, I would definitely be a lot more involved with development issues. In 20 years, I expect to be fully back to working on something international-development related.
Title image: Amy Wu on the summit of Mount Hood in Oregon