Moments before filing onto my high-school football field in my cap and gown, I ran into my fifth-grade teacher. Mr. Combs had a type of perceptive intuition that I used to think all adults had, which made his disappointment that day feel especially pointed.

“So, what’s next?” he asked. “Which art school?”

What an unexpected question to hear after spending the preceding four years making pitch decks and organizing Excel spreadsheets. “I’m a business student now, Mr. Combs. I’m going to Wharton!”

“That’s too bad. You were always such an artist.”

I hadn’t thought of myself that way since the blithe days of arts and crafts. I would linger behind in his classroom after the recess bell rang, flattening empty tissue boxes to repurpose into greeting cards, each topped with a healthy dose of glitter. But before I could explain how the creative kid I once was had since made way for a pragmatic businesswoman, the line began to move. Onward I strode, cutting across the field, flying from Seattle to Philly, and marching through nearly three years of undergraduate business school.

These days, I’m sprinting full speed ahead. The few moments of deliberate slowness leave me retracing my winding footpath, starting with memories of my third-grade craft sale and making my first $5 profit off handmade earrings. Then I’m in Billund, Denmark, for a retail-themed Wharton International Program trip, interviewing executives from Lego about customer centricity. Summer comes, and I’m working in Thailand. Many sights are left unseen as the pressure to get that Very Important Consulting Internship leaves me case-prepping during all my free hours (and no, I didn’t get the offer). Suddenly I’m in my Corporate Valuations class, scribbling down strategies on cash-flow timing for firms; I recall wondering about jewelry companies where the bulk of their invested capital is illiquid, locked up in vaults of precious metals and diamonds.

Now I’m back in my room on 41st and Pine. On the top floor of a 10-person creative co-op once home to painter Herman Herzog, I do what I love. I’m crafting a custom necklace for a friend, based on his lover’s obsession with maps.

Three years of organized chaos. Where is the time going, and where am I going?

To create meaningful business for humans, we need to remind ourselves what it means to be human.

My turmoil in choosing a future since coming to Penn has been provoked by extreme binaries. How can I succeed in business — a fundamentally profit-driven discipline — when the compass of my passion threatens to steer me toward becoming the Starving Artist? Do I follow a path of specialized pragmatism, or do I fall into the risky unknowns of creative pursuits? I questioned my urge to create something beautiful in a culture of relentless productivity and working hard to play harder. In an undergraduate population that prides itself on the compartmentalization of self and work, I grew weary.

So I returned to my fifth-grade instincts and found myself holding fistfuls of glittering gems and tchotchkes. My summer internship at Sethi Couture in San Francisco illuminated the inextricable relationship between creativity and commerce. Observing design-sketching sessions back-to-back with long-term inventory-planning meetings made the question that had led me here now seem foolish. My previous attempts to bifurcate my life at Wharton ignored the fact that business and art must be in constant conversation.

Back at Penn, armed with this orienting revelation and my chest of hand-collected baubles and beads, I began offering personalized jewelry consultations in my room. Each session starts with a series of questions over lemon ginger tea. My housemate’s Ethiopian jazz hums in the background as I jot down notes and start pulling pieces that resonate. “Our first date was a Bloomers comedy show.” “I’m learning to be gentle to myself.” “I want to feel opulent, like Beyoncé.” “My mother loves dolphins and Chinese chess.”

Jewelry condenses the moments of life into bitesize trinkets. It has the unique ability to memorialize a feeling — a connection, like that one shop in that one town by the beach, or the souvenir of a grandmother’s youth. It begs you to reflect on what you like, why you like it, and how bold you’re willing to be with it. Some visitors to my bedroom studio come with the intention of honoring a lover for Valentine’s Day with vintage watch faces and lustrous pearls. Most, however, are celebrating the mundane triumphs of being a student at Penn: surviving a particularly difficult fall semester, a 21st birthday, the last months in Philly before New York. In these hour-long sessions, I pull out fragments and tidbits, fastening silver charms to stories.

While business and humanities courses fight for the limited hours in my day and my Google calendar appointments fluctuate between Baker Retailing Center case competitions and Jane Austen movie nights for ENGL-1095, I end each day with a similar sentiment in mind: To create meaningful business for humans, we need to remind ourselves what it means to be human. Art is the gateway for us to peer into each other’s humanity; the essence of art is essential to business.

It is with this conviction that I experiment with the resources at Wharton, attempting to understand the intricate levers of business to a deeper degree so I may have the tools to take my creative visions to their fullest potential. Notably, Wharton has introduced me to pricing strategies of luxury goods and the process of working with suppliers and manufacturers overseas. I dream of disrupting the jewelry industry’s traditionally steady pace with VC growth strategies just as I envision designs mixing Chinese nephrite jade with red rubies and white gold. Sustainable creativity requires financial and economic decisions, just as innovative business requires the unleashing of the creative spirit.

It is not without reason that they call the popular B-school news website Poets and Quants: There’s a business to art and, simultaneously, an art to business. I am an artist who ended up in business school. Like the ephemeral fragments of life immortalized by my jewelry, I, too, am the fusion of elements, crafted together with intentional contradiction.


Tina Zhang W25 is from Seattle, Washington, concentrating in marketing and OIDD with a design minor. She loves collecting antiques, looking at trees, and chatting with the girls after a long day.

Published as “Of Artistry and Industry” in the Spring/Summer 2024 issue of Wharton Magazine.