Remembering JJ Zhao ’14, a fearlessly shining light
Brightening lives from China to Waukesha to MIT and beyond
Jie Zhao, known by most as JJ, passed away on Friday, Oct. 5 after being fatally struck by a reversing vehicle near her home in West Cambridge. She was 27 years old (Sept. 14, 1991 – Oct. 5, 2018).
JJ is remembered for her incredible enthusiasm for life, her brilliance, her propensity for self-improvement, and her constant drive to better the world around her. She always made time for friends and family, never hesitating to grow her community by bringing new and old friends together from different walks of life. With her energy, kindness, and confidence, she drove others to better themselves and make an impact on the world. Her positivity and optimism never ceased to influence others and continues to inspire others to be their best selves.
She valued deep personal connections with her friends, always sharing her latest aspirations and seeking feedback to fuel her self-improvement. JJ loved to bring people together, wholeheartedly welcoming them into her own personal community. The last gathering she hosted took place in her new West Cambridge condo that she recently purchased; friends of many backgrounds, ages, races, and religions joined together to celebrate this exciting milestone.
“It all starts with a decision: I can.”
Behind JJ’s bright eyes and unforgettable smile was a woman whose life was refined many times over through her upbringing, experiences, and the difficulties she overcame along the way. She arrived in the U.S. at age 14 and moved to Waukesha, Wisconsin, where her mom had recently started a job. At that time, JJ spoke no English but pushed herself to learn by continuously practicing and joining the debate club.
In a newspaper article describing JJ’s journey leading up to her MIT admission, her teacher noted that JJ needed to quickly learn to use English not only in an academic context, but also to support her mother as they settled into a brand new community and culture. When asked by her high school about this experience, JJ shared the following advice: “Open your mind, and don’t get discouraged if it’s tough or you get laughed at because of your language skills. You’re capable of achieving anything you want — just don’t be ashamed to ask for help.”
As she adapted to her new environment in Wisconsin, JJ developed a strong interest in science and mathematics. She began to conduct research outside of her coursework, submitted to an academic journal, and had the opportunity to visit the MIT campus. After returning home, her mother remembers JJ putting a photo of MIT on her wall and looking at it every day, determined to attend and “eventually invent something to help people everywhere.”
"If you can dream it, you can do it."
At MIT, JJ double majored in Economics (Course 14) and Management Science (Courses 15), and minored in Mathematics (Course 18). She was an enthusiastic resident of Baker House and McCormick Hall, always making members of these communities feel at home. As a member of Alpha Phi, she consistently brought joy, confidence, and a positive attitude to her sisters, inspiring them to be their best selves and to “always be growing.” One of her sisters remarked, “She brought so much energy and enthusiasm to everything she did. I was inspired by her constant desire to learn new things and to meet new people in order to learn from them as well.”
A natural leader, JJ also founded MIT’s Smart Woman Securities, an organization focused on introducing women to investing and financial markets. In creating this community of like-minded women, JJ served as an irreplaceable role model of intelligence and determination balanced with kindness and encouragement.
After graduation, JJ began her professional career as a financial analyst in New York City. She returned to Boston to pursue a private equity role focused on energy infrastructure investments for one year before transitioning to tech, taking on a product role at Cambridge-based software company, HubSpot.
During her two years at HubSpot, JJ rose from a member of the Product Insights team to a Manager on the Sales & Operations team, demonstrating her aptitude, ability to tackle difficult challenges, and leadership potential. Her colleagues remarked: “Doing her best work was not just a principle, but a lifestyle: she would run three miles to work nearly every day, carry her backpack along the Charles River, balance meetings and heads-down analyses, eat an astonishing number of blueberries, and finally leave late in the evening. Her energy was infectious, her contributions to HubSpot significant, and her kindness truly remarkable.”
Though she poured herself into her career, JJ’s friends were amazed by her ability to balance her work; she built her life around three pillars of which she never lost sight: family and friends, self improvement, and spirituality.
“Empower each other.”
Despite her strong professional focus, JJ's parents and friends remained at the center of her world. One of her former roommates recalls JJ speaking with her mom and dad nearly every day, and remembers how much the following words resonated with her:
"My mother was the most beautiful woman I ever saw. All I am I owe to my mother. I attribute my success in life to the moral, intellectual and physical education I receive from her." — George Washington
Though her mom lived in Wisconsin and her dad remained in Shanghai during and after her time at MIT, JJ always stayed in close touch. She described her mom as her rock who supported her through tough challenges and enabled her to maintain a sound mind in even the most challenging of circumstances. Her dad was her guiding lighthouse, serving as her confidante and closest mentor, despite the distance between them.
JJ was treasured by her ever-expanding circle of friends. While others may reserve their friendliness and enthusiasm for close friends, JJ had a willingness to dedicate her undivided attention to others, whether to catch up, talk through a problem, or try out a new activity. As the link between so many, she also never hesitated to connect friends with one another. In remembrance of JJ, her friends from different chapters of her life came together to share the personal legacy she created with each of them.
“JJ did not waste any time making her mark on this world. It breaks me to think of how much more she could have achieved if only she were blessed with a long life. I owe it to her to continue what she started: extending friendship, fully; even when it is not convenient, when it pulls you off your path, when it makes you nervous.” — Sterling Watson, MIT ’15
“We always reframed turmoil and personal struggle as a growth opportunity, as a chance to repurpose the space in our heart that was carved by suffering to be filled with the liquid light of wisdom. You told me to be thankful for our hurt, because our suffering allows us to illuminate and discover our resilience.” — Sean Batir, MIT ’14
“You were so dedicated to and passionate about everything you did, from your work, to your religion, to your friends and family. And your successes spoke for themselves as to the incredible person you were. You were an inspiration JJ; a mentor to many, and a guiding voice when your friends were struggling.” — Rohan-Kabir Amin, MIT ’14
“You were always the most positive of spirits. Even when you faced adversity, your ways of overcoming them by being proactive and improving self rather than creating blame and excuses took levels of maturity I looked up to. Your strength was inspiring. Being around your ambition for success also drove me to always strive to perform at my best.” — Jody Fu, MIT ’15
“Grateful each day.”
JJ loved coffee (she frequented Barrington when she lived in Back Bay and Flour Bakery throughout her time in Boston/Cambridge), but unlike many others who share this love, coffee wasn’t the way she started her days. Instead, first thing upon waking, she always wrote down the experiences for which she felt most grateful from the previous day. She made sure not to forget the little things: an endorphin-inducing workout, a great conversation with a stranger at a coffee shop, a phone call from her mom or dad. She would then sit quietly and imagine how she hoped the day would unfold.
During these reflections, JJ also opened her mind to anything new that she could try. She once said “without an exception, I never regretted taking a step forward to face a feared activity...which has helped me build my confidence little by little.” Perhaps this is why her friends remember her as always excited to try anything new, from mountaineering (with an ice axe!), to spending her Saturdays learning to gallop horses in New Hampshire, to completing a half marathon with nearly no training (and running the entire race in sub-eight minute miles).
On her blog, you can learn more about JJ and her growth path, resilience, awareness, and glass-half-full optimism despite the difficulties in her life; the quotations in this article come from there.
“Be open to what the day brings, with wonder and acceptance.”
Between her second and third year at MIT, JJ discovered, explored, and ultimately embraced a new realm — faith. During a difficult and demanding phase of life, she found balance, positivity, and spirituality through the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. She was especially drawn by feelings of peace and eternal self-worth. She became an engaged member of the Church, attending a congregation near Harvard Square for students and young professionals. Fellow Church members remarked that when JJ’s turn came to give the sermon, she brought unusual enthusiasm, rejoicing in the purpose, meaning, and direction that her newfound faith offered. In one particularly memorable sermon, she spoke of her decision to forgo her lucrative private equity career in favor of technology; she firmly believed that this was God’s plan for her, and she chose to follow it without regret.
Most recently, JJ found an outlet for her spiritual energy as the congregation’s volunteer public affairs specialist. She magnified this role, analyzing what the Church could offer the broader Boston community. Her deep experience in the tech and finance communities, along with her daily-lived faith, produced a vision for a speaker series featuring highly professionally successful Church members presenting in a secular setting on the topic of seeking professional and spiritual balance. She succeeded in collaborating with a Fortune 100 CEO as the first speaker, whose talk is set to take place next Monday (Oct. 22) at Harvard Business School.
“Take in the good, brush off the bad, get stronger and wiser and be ready to be reborn.”
JJ, some words from your dad:
I love my baby girl. She is our everything, and her death makes it feel like the sky has shattered. She was energetic and cute, smart and extroverted. She worked seriously, dared to innovate, thought with clarity, loved her life, and was both diligent and thrifty. She developed all these good characteristics from both her education at MIT and her own efforts. Right now, we can only hope that she rests in peace up in Heaven!
From your mom:
我始终不能接受这个事实。我亲爱的女儿，她甜美的笑容，始终浮现在我的眼前。我还能听到她银铃般的嗓音在情切的叫我“妈妈，妈妈”。 每每听到她的声音，做母亲的我是多么的幸福和甜蜜，她给我带来了无尽的欢乐和希望。 她是那样的勤奋，努力无论是在工作还是学习。对待朋友她是那样的真诚和友善。我为有这样的女儿而骄傲。我任然不相信这个事实，她这么爱我，她不离开我。我亲爱的女儿，她不离开我
I still can’t accept this to be reality. My dearest daughter, her sweet smile, always comes to my eyes. I can still hear her silver bell-like voice calling me "Mama, Mama." Every time I hear her voice, as a mother, I feel happy and sweet. She brought me endless joy and hope. She is so diligent and hard working, whether she is at work or studying. She treated her friends so kindly and sincerely. I am proud of having such a daughter. I still don't believe this fact, she loves me so much, and she can never leave me.
From Kezi, Claire, Josh, Olivia, and Sean:
We miss you so deeply. You are a light that will never dim in our hearts and by which we will be guided as we move forward in our lives. We will appreciate the small but powerful lessons that you’ve taught us: be kind to others, be hopeful, grateful, and unapologetically strive to be the best we can be. You have inspired us to lean on one another during this difficult time, taught us to heal by giving our fullest presence to others, and united us by teaching us how to give and receive love.
May your beautiful soul rest in peace. We love you so much.
JJ ran by the Charles River every day to work and shared with many that it was one of her favorite places. In particular, she loved the view of MIT from the esplanade near Back Bay, where she lived for several years. In memory of JJ's vibrant energy and appreciation of the world around her, her friends and family would like to sponsor a bench and/or tree on the esplanade in her honor. We hope this memorial will remind others of JJ as they enjoy her favorite place. Sponsorship of a tree requires a contribution of $2,500 for 10 years, and sponsorship of a bench $5,000 for 10 years, and both will be marked with a plaque in her name. Donations in JJ’s honor can be made on this Go Fund Me page.
At this time, logistics for the funeral and a celebration of JJ’s life are still being finalized. Please reach out to Claire O’Connell ’14, Kezi Cheng ’15, Olivia Papa ’14, Josh Zeidman ’14, or Sean Batir ’14 with any questions and revisit the comments of this page for an update.
A heartfelt thank you to all of JJ’s friends and family who contributed to this article: Anna Blatz, Carina Caligiuri Kurban, Claire O’Connell, Creed Jarrett Mangrum, Geoff Daigle, Jake Reisch, Josh Zeidman, Kezi Cheng, Lefang Jiang (Mother), Liz Cader, Melissa Yan, Olivia Basil, Olivia Papa, Paul Syta, Sean Batir, Shao Min Zhao (Father), Skipper Plowman, Sterling Watson, and Tom O’Connell.