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iconWhat gets you out of bed and in to work each day? Are you there for the money or a sense of who you are? The Gallup Organization asked the same thing. Check out some results.

Physics and beef jerky

Ph.D. at the counter

October 25, 2000
Web posted at: 10:07 a.m. EDT (1407 GMT)


In this story:

Doritos, Bud Light, politics

A long way from home

Success, small and big

RELATED STORIES icon



(CNN) -- "Knowledge is money. You know Confucius, he said that the one thing that makes him happy is having the best students to teach. That reflects my philosophy."

And while some might assert that doing well in business is a science, Cheng-san Chen knows better.

He also knows Sigma processing, applied linear algebra and nuclear theory. But the best way to glimpse the good doctor's business philosophy is to step inside Louie's Superette on the outskirts of Harvard University's main campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

"The most important thing in a job is whether you find it interesting, whether you find it a challenge. The money always comes. And my goal is not to look for money."
— Cheng-san Chen

Chen, 57, has had many jobs in his life -- military officer, teacher, mathematician, computer engineer, marketer. But he says it took him nearly five decades to find his true calling -- that of a convenience store clerk.

"The most important thing in a job is whether you find it interesting, whether you find it a challenge," says Chen, who traveled to the United States from Taiwan in 1969 to study at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Buffalo. "The money always comes. And my goal is not to look for money."

If it were, Chen might best look somewhere other than Louie's, his modest corner store about a mile from Harvard Square and a few feet from the college's easternmost dorm. Here, he dispenses not only junk food and beer, but also advice, political predictions and plenty of smiles.

Ask him and Chen will tell you he's a rich man. While his education and many careers have made him comfortable financially, "Louie" -- as he's known to many patrons -- deals in a different currency.

graphic

Doritos, Bud Light, politics

Despite the good-natured urgings of customers, Chen didn't take the podium for Harvard University's 349th commencement on June 8. (That honor was left to Indian economist and 1998 Nobel laureate Amartya K. Sen.) For Chen, Louie's Superette makes just as good a public forum as Harvard Yard.

"Some people think I'm strange," Chen says, when they hear his impromptu dissertations on world and U.S. affairs.

  WORK AND IDENTITY
The Gallup Organization wanted to know how many careerists got some sense of identity from their work -- and how many mainly saw it as a job, a means to make money. See what respondents said.

Since becoming an American citizen 15 years ago, Chen says he's correctly called the victor of every White House campaign -- no word yet on the current tight race. Perhaps his favorite subject is Asian politics, particularly the relationship between Beijing and Taipei. The Chinese government considers Taiwan to be a renegade province, bent on achieving independence.

Chen says Harvard students from the island province, the mainland and the United States are surprised when his forecasts prove accurate in politics, trade and Beijing-Taipei relations. "I don't understand why I have that kind of sense," he says. "Sometimes it's based on my judgment, sometimes it's based on history."

Although trained mainly as a mathematician and scientist, Chen also has had experience in Taiwan's military. During one stint in the army, he served on a general's staff and had a hand in defense budgeting. His twin brother Cheng-chi Chen, he says, currently is a representative of the Taiwan government in Germany.

Chen says the international environment at Harvard -- where many ethnicities, nations and viewpoints are represented in the student body -- complements his international interests perfectly. In this sense, Chen says he's as much the student as the teacher when he interacts with patrons.

"If it's not Harvard students, I quit," he says. "They are smart, and they will be the world's leaders."

graphic

A long way from home

The oldest of seven children -- brother Cheng-chi was born 12 minutes after he was -- Chen says he and his family lived in a government-owned house and worked on a rice farm in suburban Taipei. In his earliest years, during World War II, his mother would carry him and Cheng-chi to underground hiding places to evade relentless bombing.

"Education is very important. Just to have knowledge. Because knowledge is another form of money."
— Cheng-san Chen

Neither of his parents went past elementary school, but Chen says they made education a priority in the family. After attending local schools as a child, Chen was accepted into one of Taiwan's elite public schools, studying alongside two grandsons of Chiang Kai-shek.

Chen received his bachelor's degree in applied mathematics in Taiwan and taught high school math there before coming to Buffalo in the late 1960s. After earning masters and doctorate degrees in theoretical physics at SUNY, he moved to Pennsylvania and worked at the University of Pittsburgh for four years.

Chen credits education for allowing him to go from his "very poor" upbringing to having several successful careers and many hundreds of thousands of dollars in income and real estate. "Education is very important," he says. "Just to have knowledge. Because knowledge is another form of money."

In 1981, Chen ventured into private industry with Xerox. A year later, he moved on to Digital and worked in advanced development, Sigma processing and storage systems; later in marketing and sales; and eventually in computer design and engineering.

graphic

He bought the small store on the corner of Surrey Street and Putnam Avenue from the original "Louie" in 1989 as a theoretically "silent partner." His business partner left two years later, just as downsizing was expediting Chen's departure from Digital.

"I had management offers in many different areas," Chen says of his options at that point in his life. His final decision was to work at Louie's full-time.

And life as a convenience store owner and clerk isn't always easy. In 1993, a fire gutted the structure. Chen says he also had to fend off several robbery attempts in the 1990s.

Despite such problems, he soldiers on, driven by his relationships with his clientele.

"The big difference is that [in the other jobs] I talked to the machine more often," he says. "Here, I talk to people more often."

graphic

Success, small and big

Today, Chen's success can be defined in many ways. He has his academic degrees, career resume and rapport with customers.

"I didn't play around with the money. The real-estate market in Cambridge just went crazy. It happened."
— Cheng-san Chen

Moreover, he says he has a net worth of some $1 million dollars. That figure doesn't include the value of his store or his home in suburban Boston, near Wellesley College. ("The first female President will come from there. It is not a joke, it'll come true.")

"That's just lucky," Chen says of his financial situation. "I didn't play around with the money. The real-estate market in Cambridge just went crazy. It happened."

Chen says he takes great pride in the achievements of his two children, both recent graduates of Columbia University. All in all, he says, he wouldn't trade his life -- where he's come from, and where he is -- for anything.

  QUICK VOTE
graphic Could you see channeling your training and background into a service career because you enjoy personal contact?

It's pretty appealing to me. Looks like a viable option.
Hard for me to decide. I see the attraction, but ... .
No, I just couldn't do it. I'd feel I was wasting my training.
View Results

Those future tycoons from Harvard Business School frequently petition Chen to spread his wisdom to his faithful devotees across the Charles River. And he is still awaiting his invitation to speak at Harvard's tradition-rich commencement -- "to talk about how to run a small store next to Harvard."

But at Louie's, Chen is rarely without an audience to discuss anything and everything, and especially Beijing-Taipei relations. Though he hasn't been to Taiwan since 1993, Chen says he remains keen on its history, its present status and its future. Harvard's international environment allows him, he says, to talk to his fellow countrymen and American students, as well as the sons and daughters of mainland China.

Last spring, while Washington was looking for an ambassador to China, Chen wrote a letter to President Bill Clinton informing him of his interest in the job. He says he even asked one of his "regulars" -- Kristin Gore, second-oldest daughter of Vice President Al Gore -- to put in a good word for him at the White House.

That lead didn't pan out, leaving Cheng-san Chen at Louie's to sell Budweiser and hold court on life and the world. In whatever career position, he says he believes he and his customers can make a difference in world issues.

"We should use the global youth to see what's going to happen," he says. "Everything is correlated."

graphic

 

RELATED STORIES:
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Albright urges China talk with Taiwan
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Taiwan decides, CNN in-depth
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