Studying at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, one of the best business schools in the world, wasn’t originally part of the plan. Truth is, studying abroad wasn’t even in his list of goals. As a Xavier School grad, Jacob Johann Wee was expectedly set to enter Ateneo de Manila University.
But an irresistible opportunity opened up. He got really high scores in his Scholastic Aptitude Test (he got 2270 out of 2400, and 800 in Math 2 and Chemistry subject tests), which qualified him to study in the most prestigious universities in the world. He was also quite an achiever in grade school and high school, and was a member of the Philippine national debating team.
Thinking of carving a career in business, Jacob thought it just made sense to apply at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, which ranked No. 2 in best business schools in the world, and where the likes of Elon Musk, William Buffet, John Sculley and Jeff Weiner graduated.
Jacob initially thought it was a long shot, since the school is famously difficult to get into. But he tried anyway. “I remember telling my parents not to expect anything, kasi na-pressure talaga ako,” the soft-spoken 21-year-old recalls to ANCX. So when he got the news that he qualified at UPenn, it was a really happy moment for the whole family.
Jacob comes from a notable family. The eldest among John and Elaine Wee’s three kids, he is the grandchild of the Philippine Ambassador to Indonesia Lee Hiong Wee and Pearl Buck International awardee Rosalind Wee. His grandparents on his mother’s side are George Go Pen Siong, President Emeritus of the Association of Volunteer Fire Chiefs and Fire Fighthers of the Philippines, and Rosalina Go.
Earning a summa cum laude in the two courses he took—Bachelor of Science in Economics from the Wharton School of Business and Bachelor of Arts in Psychology—wasn’t exactly a surprise, he says.
“To be summa cum laude, you need a certain grade threshold. I knew I could do it. So I might as well try hard, do my best,” he says. “My parents sent me to this very expensive school. I was lucky and grateful to have the opportunity to study abroad, so I thought I have to really put in all my effort.”
He decided to take up economics and psychology because, well, he’s interested in both, and didn’t have to pay extra for it. “I thought I might as well take as many classes,” he says.
He realized studying psychology would help a great deal in propelling his business career. “It’s really important, not just understanding how to best improve yourself but also understanding other people. It’s valuable when you are negotiating a deal, or even understanding what makes other people effective or happier than others. That was why I was drawn to psychology,” he says.
Leaving his comfort zone
Living alone in the US for the first time was a huge adjustment for Jacob. “I was not used to being by myself. I was always in a house with my family, so I would really get homesick in the US,” he shares.
To cope, he would often go to a communal study room to be in the company of fellow students. “I’d just sit there, study the whole day and I was happy na,” he says. That also got him into the habit of making sure his grades were always good.
Cooking Filipino food—adobo, sinigang, sisig —provided comfort and allowed him to bond with other Filipinos in Pennsylvania. “I learned [to cook Filipino food] first online when I was in the US,” he shares. “Then when I was back in the Philippines during a summer, I learned to cook Filipino food the right way from my mom and lola.”
Being in the company of American students, who he realized were much more extroverted, he was forced to come out of his shell, deal with his shyness, be more assertive and confident. While he was a debater back home in the Philippines, he shared that confidence was something he had to consciously develop and work hard at.
“I went from stuttering onstage and having major stage fright to eventually becoming a good debater. That was how I proved to myself na if I can do that, I can do other things—as long as I put in the effort,” he says.
Independence and being away from his family in a very competitive environment molded him into a better, more confident man. “Because I was not in my comfort zone, I was really challenged, and that was how I grew as a person,” he says.
Jacob says that what allowed him to excel in UPenn was something he learned in psychology—the growth mindset. “It’s a belief that you shouldn’t box yourself into an identity,” he explains. If people say you’re only good in Math, that shouldn’t stop you from mastering English as well or other fields of study. “You can change your brain and learn something new, if you work hard.”
To get good grades, he studied a lot but also learned to optimize—and by that, he meant getting enough sleep. “I don’t think it’s effective to study without a lot of sleep,” he says. It also helps to study with other people, he adds.
Showing clear signs of good business leadership, Jacob says one of the subjects he really enjoyed at UPenn was Organizational Behavior. “What really drew me in was making sure that people are motivated, happy and working together cooperatively.”
He shares one important learning that could be very useful to the Philippines—“If we want Filipinos to be motivated for education and excel in an international stage, they have to be rewarded for doing so with better-paying jobs and more support. People will be driven to work and strive for an education if there are better rewards and opportunities they can aspire for.”
Come September, Jacob will be joining the “Leadership Development Program” of Restaurant Brands International, which owns Tim Hortons, Burger King, and Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen. Meanwhile, his goal is to stay in the US for a while to gain experiences that he can use when he returns to the Philippines.
Jacob’s eventual goal is to start a business so he can help provide jobs to fellow Filipinos. “I thought that’s one great way to help the Philippine society,” he says. With everything he’s already learned and accomplished, we can’t wait for this wunderkind to start the future he has in mind.
Photos courtesy of Jacob Johann Wee