Never mind that she’d already experienced a lifetime’s worth of events prior to even completing her undergraduate degree, or that she’s been featured on Oprah, done a Fulbright Fellowship in India and secured at internship at 3M for the summer. Sheng Lee Tomar, a Full-time UST MBA student set to graduate in 2014, has arrived where she is because of her “work hard, play hard” attitude, as well as her unfailing positivity in the face of continuous challenges.
When deciding on a graduate school, Lee Tomar was choosing between the one that gave her an undergraduate degree – the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities – and St. Thomas, but ultimately wanted something different. “What I loved about the St. Thomas program are the people here,” Lee Tomar says. She entered the full-time MBA program about a decade after completing her undergraduate with enough work experience to fuel her career, but with the desire to figure out her next step. “I thought that the people here would really be able to give me the support that I need,” she says, “and that, so far, has been true.”
But without Lee Tomar’s backstory, it’s hard to fully appreciate the position she’s in today. She was born in Kasi, Laos – about three to four hours away from the capital city of Vientiane. The Lao Hmong had been involved in the Vietnam War, with the CIA serving on their side. After they lost the war and began facing persecution from Communist forces, the CIA agreed to help relocate the Hmong to the U.S. Lee Tomar was six years old when her father moved the family to the U.S. in the mid-80s, spending the first three years with a sponsor family in New York and then relocating to the Twin Cities to join family who had arrived before. Because Hmong communities often arranged cultural, but not legal, marriages for females at a fairly young age, Lee Tomar was married at 16 and had her first daughter at 18. The relationship didn’t work out, and Lee Tomar went through a divorce while only a junior in college. However, divorce wasn’t accepted in the Hmong community, so she found herself disowned by her father and, as a result, homeless. Refusing to give up, she borrowed money, rented an apartment, bought a car, got a job and went to school full-time while taking care of her infant daughter. Her story caught the attention of Oprah, who recognized her on the segment “Beat the odds graduation.” Her father, cognizant of her achievement, became more open to having her as part of the family again.
Lee Tomar went on to attend and graduate from Carlson, and has filled out an impressive résumésince then. She worked as part of the management development program at Minnesota Life Insurance for two and a half years as her first job, also getting remarried during that time and having a son. However, she decided to leave her job and be a stay-at-home mom because of health issues with her son. “My husband would say that I’m the stay-at-home mom who’s never home because I like to stay busy,” Lee Tomar laughs. At that time, she was working with two Hmong women’s organizations, helping them get organized and established as nonprofits. In 2007, she traveled to India, the country her husband is originally from, through the Fulbright U.S. Scholar Program. She spent nine months in the country as a Fulbright Fellow, researching community economic development and collaborating with local non-government organizations to teach English.
Upon her return from India, Lee Tomar was recruited directly to work for Hmong American Partnership, a Twin Cities nonprofit organization. Her main task involved managing the Minneapolis office as well as developing a new department in the company’s housing and economic development in response to Minnesota’s foreclosure crisis, addressing issues ranging from unemployment to homelessness. “That was a hard time economically, so there wasn’t a lot of money to establish those programs,” Lee Tomar says, which makes the fact that she raised half a million dollars to get the program up and running even more impressive. “A lot of people said ‘You’re not going to be able to do it,’ but I was able to establish that department within three years.” She worked with the organization up until her enrollment in the MBA program.
Thus far, Lee Tomar’s favorite part of the MBA program has been the integration piece. “(The dean) talks about how intentional the classes are and I have to agree that they are…in terms of how the courses are organized. You get to a certain point and they all talk about the same topic, but from different angles.” With crossover between classes such as marketing, organizational behavior and economics, Lee Tomar agrees that the integration piece helps understand what’s really important. “It’s easier for you to apply the knowledge when you get that big picture…I don’t think I got that in my undergrad. That’s definitely what I’m looking for at this point in my life,” she says.
Teresa Rothausen-Vange, her organizational professor last fall, says Lee Tomar brought a certain maturity. “She was a leader in terms of bringing her experience into the classroom,” Rothausen-Vange says. “She was always very respectful in terms of how she made class contributions.” She understands why Lee Tomar especially liked the program’s integration piece, specifically the blend of marketing and management. “She’s a marketing person, but then seeing the internal organization side of that, how you can do a marketing campaign – if you don’t get your employees on board, they’re not going to be able to deliver what’s being promised out there in the market.”
True to her nature, Lee Tomar has stayed busy outside of class as well. When asked, she jokes her hobby is her three kids, but outside of St. Thomas, she and her husband invest in real estate and she will also serve as the AMA’s assistant vice president for the upcoming year. On campus, she’s served in nonprofit organizations Net Impact Club and First Book. She’s also been involved in two clubs in which she will serve as a leader next year, taking the position of president for the International Business Club and a leadership team position for MBA Women International. In the past year, she served as a graduate assistant to Peter Young, working on global business education initiatives. She also participated in the leadership development program, Art of Honoring Leadership Development Mentoring, run by the nonprofit organization Honoring Women Worldwide. The program pairs students with mentors who work for Fortune 500 companies in the Twin Cities and provide career advice and guidance. According to Lee Tomar, the program was co-founded by and supplied half its mentors from 3M, a facet that was instrumental in helping her secure her summer internship.
In helping develop her relentless drive in life, Lee Tomar can pinpoint several key experiences growing up. She attributes her family’s decision to move to the U.S. to her mother, who unfortunately didn’t make it on the way out of Laos. “Because our people were being persecuted and the Laotian government didn’t want to let our people out of the country, we had to escape basically by the dark of night going through the jungles – most of our people actually escaped by crossing the (Mekong) River to go into Thailand,” Lee Tomar explains. She recalls that her family had to squeeze into a small boat, and with too many people onboard, the boat capsized when it had just barely gotten offshore. Her mother, six months pregnant and wearing a heavy trench coat, didn’t survive. Lee Tomar’s father swam to shore with his daughter on his back, but by the time he turned around, his wife was already gone. “It was my mother that said, ‘Your family – they’ve all gone on to the U.S. and I think we should follow in their footsteps because it’s really not safe for us to stay in the country,’“ explains Lee Tomar. “She knew she didn’t know how to swim and she made that choice to risk it anyway…Her sacrifice gave me the opportunity to be here in the United States,” which is an opportunity Lee Tomar says she’s very fortunate to have. “Here, in a country where there are equal rights,…I know I’ll be treated well, but at the same time I have opportunities to have education so that I can support myself and improve and grow.”
Once in the U.S., conflicting cultural expectations threatened to hold Lee Tomar back, but her belief that “Life is 10% of what happens to you and the 90% is your attitude about how you respond to it” has kept her going. After her father got the two of them into the refugee camps in Thailand and later remarried, bearing eight more children, a large share of family responsibilities fell on her. “In our culture, girls are expected to come right after school and to cook and clean and take care of your family,” she says. “I was very focused on going to college and doing what it meant to get there (like) being involved in extracurricular activities. My parents didn’t understand that.” Lee Tomar was also the first in her family to get a college education. She said her arranged marriage was, in a way, a way for her parents to get rid of her after continued family conflict, but another situation in which she was expected to take care of her husband and his family. These challenging life experiences molded her into a driven, ambitious, focused woman. “I feel that I need to be like that in order to be successful. At first, it was just a survival technique, but now it’s kind of the characteristics of successful people…I’ve learned what it takes to really make it.”
At the same time, she knows not to take things too seriously. She loves the saying “Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take but by the moments that take our breath away,” since she believes that living life to the fullest is what makes the hard work worthwhile. “If you’re working just to work, there’s no meaning in that,” she says. Rothausen-Vange believes Lee Tomar’s way of doing things can serve as an inspiration for other students in the program. “She’s got a good perspective on not panicking about the small stuff like some students can get into – (getting) so wrapped up in the grades and wanting to do well and that kind of thing.”
Lee Tomar’s experiences and education have culminated in an internship with 3M for the summer, a Fortune 500 company “UST MBA students who are especially hard-working, strategic and focused on what they want to get out of the program versus just coming into the program and floating along…have gotten really good internships with these companies,” Rothausen-Vange says. “I would definitely put her in that category – the top 10% who’s really thoughtful about what she wants to get out of the program.” Lee Tomar hopes to get a full-time job with the company after her 2014 graduation, but retire early to start another stage of her life. “My dream is to start a social enterprise,” she says – more specifically, a for-profit business with a social mission that will donate proceeds to support and empower women around the world, particularly in developing countries. She says her husband loves to travel, and the two will be sure to take long vacations in the midst of their work.
Sheng Lee Tomar’s accomplishments leave one to wonder: How does she do it all? Her answer to this commonly asked question is to be organized. “It’s definitely challenging, but I think it’s a worthwhile challenge,” she says. “When you’re organized, you can do it all.”