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The “Very Cool Stuff” Pick Up Stix Founder Charlie Zhang Picks Up On at Concordia University Irvine

Charlie Zhang


Not every university would have as its Entrepreneur in Residence a person who only hoped to one day have a good education, but didn’t get the chance. But Concordia University Irvine does – Charlie Zhang, founder of the fabulously successful Pick Up Stix restaurant chain.

“Getting an education was something I dreamed and valued very much even at a young age, but the hardships and even tragedy that I and my family experienced necessitated that I become an entrepreneur instead,” said Zhang, who immigrated from Shanghai to America with just $20 in his pocket. One decade later, he had opened more than 100 of his popular Chinese eateries.

“They say that necessity is the mother of invention and in my case, that was certainly true,” Zhang said. “I dreamed of going to school and becoming a musician. Because I never got that opportunity, I am very passionate about education and mentorship for our youth. I would like to pay it forward.”

That’s exactly what he’s doing at Concordia, where, as Entrepreneur in Residence, he mentors business students, helping them learn the process of creating sound business plans. The perspective he passes along to them is something he calls “applied education.”

“If the secret to wealth and success was to just read books, then librarians would be the richest people on the planet because of the valuable resource they control. But it is the application of knowledge that is important. This is my passion – I’d love to find out what could be possible for some of our youth if they combined the determination and tenacity I learned in the ‘hard knocks’ world with the high standard education that is found at Concordia. No doubt some would reach even farther than I have.”

Why Concordia?

Someone with Zhang’s story and success would be a valuable addition to any business school. Why did he decide to dedicate his energies to Concordia?

“When I met with Stephen Christensen [Dean of Concordia’s School of Business], I was impressed with his passion and purpose. I thought, ‘Here is a man on a mission. He is really making an impact in the community.’ He and all the faculty are lovers of Jesus Christ. I want to support that because that is what I believe in, so I am really excited to help future Concordia entrepreneurs and business people avoid some pitfalls and help develop the mindset I feel is critical for success in all areas of life and business.”

Concordia’s Plans to “Adapt & Improve” Its Campus

Concordia University is currently processing plans through the City of Irvine to revise its approved Master Plan so it can “Adapt & Improve,” keeping pace with the greater demands placed on higher education. Zhang sees parallels between the University’s plans and a good business plan.

“I feel that in the information age you either adapt and improve or become obsolete. The speed of change and advancements in the marketplace, and even complex and fast-changing social trends, means that a business has to have its ears open, mind open, and heart open to be effective,” he said.

“Universities are a business. Just a different kind of business,” he continued. “A typical business is accountable to shareholders and success is measured by dollars and cents. A university is accountable to stakeholders in very much in the same way, but success is measured by the lives that are changed and how many students’ minds are illuminated. This is very cool stuff. Universities and businesses both must adapt quickly, since the speed of information and the competition level is exponential. It’s always a matter of adapt or die, which means a daily focus on constant, never-ending improvement.”

He worries, though, that some of Concordia’s Asian neighbors may not fully understand how hard the University must work to gain approval from the City of Irvine to undertake the improvements it is proposing.

“The public review process in California does not favor new development,” he says. “Comparing Asia, where projects can be built in a matter of months in China, to California, where projects can take years, is really comparing apples and oranges. This explains in part the greater economic growth in China compared to the US. I hope that the university’s neighbors will understand that responsible development here must give back to the community, and Concordia’s plans should be supported for the common good.”

The University has met many times with its neighbors to hear their concerns. In response, many changes have been made to the plan: Athletic facilities were not expanded as originally planned, so they can’t host big sporting events that draw a lot of traffic. Athletic field lighting has been designed so no glare or “spill-over” light will reach neighboring homes. City-imposed limits on the university’s size are being strictly adhered to, and Concordia is paying its fair share for traffic improvements that will enhance road safety and reduce congestion in the Turtle Rock area.

“Those of us from Asia place a high value on education. We always have, so it doesn’t surprise me at all that Irvine, with its great K-12 schools, UCI and Concordia has attracted a high Asian population,” Zhang says in conclusion. “Wherever you find good schools you will find Asian families, and Asian students from abroad flocking there. I just hope that we will see that for Irvine to continue to be a strong center for education, universities like Concordia are going to have to continuously improve. The value the Asian communities place on education should make them active supporters of these improvements.”

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