Alumna survives fire and autoimmune disease, then runs a Fortune 500 Company

Catherine Liang ’21 beat personal struggles — and 14,000 other applicants — to win a one-month internship serving as CEO of The Adecco Group.

A diagnosis of chronic illness while an undergraduate inspired Liang ’21 to start her own health and fitness platform, which she runs while also working as a financial analyst at Goldman Sachs. (Photo: Lisa Xie.)
A diagnosis of chronic illness while an undergraduate inspired Liang ’21 to start her own health and fitness platform, which she runs while also working as a financial analyst at Goldman Sachs. (Photo courtesy Lisa Xie)

Shortly after graduating from the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences this summer, Catherine Liang ’21, like many of her peers, logged into her first day of work. Unlike most in her graduating class, however, Liang’s new employee nametag read “Chief Executive Officer.

Liang had beat out 14,000 other applicants for a coveted internship at The Adecco Company, placing her in the role of CEO for the United States region for one month at the staffing organization, which employs more than 30,000 people around the world.

It wasn’t an easy application experience. Time differences between Liang and the company’s Zurich headquarters meant she completed a final round interview for the position of Global CEO for One Month at 2 a.m. before returning to her full-time job with Goldman Sachs just a few hours later.

She’s an old hand at early morning call times, however. A few years before, Liang decided to attend the United States Naval Academy Summer Seminar. Her friends and family thought she had a death wish for wanting to complete the rigorous program. Yet, soon enough, Liang was out on the field at 5 a.m. alongside Navy officers, top athletes and ROTC recruits, sweating through burpees.

“I walked out of that experience realizing that the only person that could determine what I was capable of was myself,” says Liang.

Citizen of the world

Liang grew up in Sonoma County, California, where her mother encouraged her to explore a wide range of interests, from ballet dancing to piano. “My mother’s been the greatest source of positivity and support. One of my favorite things that she says is to ‘have an open heart and an open mind,’” says Liang.

She was drawn to USC Dornsife because of its emphasis on global citizenship and its array of study abroad options. Liang majored in international relations and global business, interned as a Global Fellow in Taipei, Taiwan, then spent spring break aboard the Trans-Siberian Railway.

Classwork helped her home in on international issues, including IR 310: “Peace and Conflict Studies” with Douglas Becker, associate professor (teaching) of international relations and political science. The course focused on effective philanthropic approaches in countries plagued with few resources or dominated by regressive human rights policies.

Liang picked up some additional hobbies as well: pageant competitor and photographer. She won the crown of Miss Los Angeles Chinatown and took photos for The Daily Trojan.

Peaks and valleys

College life wasn’t all travel and pageants. During Liang’s freshman year, her family’s home was burnt to the ground during the Tubbs Fire, which ravaged Sonoma County in 2017.

“It felt incredibly isolating and stagnating trying to go about my daily college life knowing there was little I could do to help out my hometown,” says Liang.

She was also diagnosed with Hashimito’s disease, in which the body’s immune system attacks the thyroid. Liang went from swimming, dancing and playing the piano to having hardly enough energy to eat dinner.

Determined to get better, she threw herself into health and fitness. She challenged herself to post her workout progress on her Instagram stories, a project that soon grew into a YouTube channel with workouts and her own website with exercise plans. Now, Liang runs her own brand, sharing tips on fitness, healthy diet and skincare.

Woman in charge

Liang continued her fitness advocacy during her time as CEO, which ended in August.

“I developed a ‘Move with Me’ campaign that encouraged employees across The Adecco Group to practice wellness and movement,” explains Liang. “Together, we logged over 8,000 active hours that translated into philanthropic dollars donated to Plan International [which advances the rights of children].”

Now Liang gets up at 5 each morning to fit in a workout before she heads to her job as a financial analyst at Goldman Sachs. She’s the only female analyst on her team, but that isn’t slowing her progress.

“I would be lying if I said being the only female analyst on my team was not intimidating at times. Nevertheless, I feel that having feminine interests, whether that’s fashion, pageants or dance, can differentiate you in a masculine field,” says Liang.

She’s hoping to build her career at Goldman Sachs for the next decade, taking a philosophy that she learned from Joyce Russell, president of The Adecco Group, with her: “Her motto is ‘Putting the Cherry On Top,’ to go above and beyond what a leader can do for her employees,” says Liang. “Rather than demanding loyalty and dedication, simple acts of humble service can go a long way in developing a community of colleagues that have a personal investment in the organization.”

By Margaret Cable

>Read the original story on the USC Dornsife College website.