Learned Mandarin at... 37
New York City
When Stephanie Hunt first visited Beijing with a friend in 2007, she'd recently launched an etiquette business, Swan Noir, so the city's customs—which include slurping one's soup—were startling. Aware that American executives were streaming into China, Hunt sensed an opportunity. But back in New York, she was too busy with local clients to pursue a Chinese expansion. It wasn't until 2011 that she finally found time to enroll in Mandarin classes. Her goal: Offer international business etiquette consulting to American and Chinese executives.
Hunt spent hours memorizing complicated characters and taped flashcards all over her apartment. "Sometimes it felt like my head was going to explode," she admits. She also frequented shops and restaurants in Chinatown. Eventually she booked a trip to Shanghai, arranging through a local language school to stay with a host family. Hunt's stylish Chinese hostess taught her to pay the cook a compliment by belching properly. "You just go for it and never cover your mouth," Hunt explains. By day she asked for directions when she didn't understand a sign. "There aren't many black women in Shanghai," she says. "But when I opened my mouth and Mandarin came out, the stares turned to wow."
Hunt now studies with a tutor and attends Chinese cultural events to keep up her skills. Later this year, she'll return to Shanghai to build guanxi—i.e., the trusting relationships necessary to conduct business in China. "At a certain point, I accepted that it was going to take me years to master this language," she says. "But I love a challenge. Sometimes I think,'This is so much fun—what else is possible?'" —Yvonne Durant