Shirley Young, Businesswoman and Cultural Diplomat to China, Dies at 85

Ms. Young’s ideas were not the only revolutionary thing about her. At the time, most employers offered severance packages to pregnant women, on the assumption that once they gave birth, they would never return to work. When in 1963, expecting her first child, she insisted otherwise, Grey Advertising had to invent its first maternity policy.

The firm clearly thought she was worth it. In 1983, a time when a global recession was forcing the advertising industry to slash research budgets, Grey went the other direction, creating an entire research subsidiary, Grey Strategic Marketing, with Ms. Young as president. She amassed a long list of Fortune 500 clients, including General Motors, which hired her away in 1988 to become its vice president for consumer market development.

Almost immediately, she pushed her new employer to invest in China, and later moved to Shanghai to help oversee development of a billion-dollar joint venture with SAIC Motor, a Chinese company, to build Buicks.

To Ms. Young, many American companies failed to appreciate the size of the cultural differences between the two countries and, at the same time, the possibility of bridging them. She encouraged G.M. to broaden its executives’ exposure to Chinese language and society through education and cultural exchanges, the sort of focus she would later emphasize in her work in the arts.

Indeed, even as she continued to lead G.M.’s expansion in Asia, she became increasingly involved in cultural and nonprofit endeavors. In the wake of the Tiananmen Square massacre, in 1989, Ms. Young joined other prominent Chinese-Americans, including Yo-Yo Ma and I.M. Pei, to create the Committee of 100, a group dedicated to shaping trans-Pacific dialogue. She served as its first chairman, a position she also held at a spinoff organization, the U.S.-China Cultural Institute.

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