When Cynthia Chu (BBA ’99) thinks about how much things have changed since she graduated from college, she doesn’t have to look any farther than the phone in her hand. It’s light years beyond the one she remembers having when she began her career, a chunky thing that someone today might mistake for a walkie-talkie.
“It wasn’t even a flip phone yet,” she says with a laugh as she talks about the device that was a phone and nothing more.
While digital technology transformed the world around Chu, it has also transformed her career. Chu is chief financial and growth officer at Audible, the market leader for premium audio storytelling, including audio books, podcasts, and Audible Originals that defy genre. A market that was once traditional books on cassettes and CDs has seen rapid and continual growth due to digital delivery. By riding technology’s changes over the course of her career, Chu has been able to continually pursue the goal that sparked her initial interest in business: problem-solving on a large scale in a way that impacts consumers’ lives.
“When I started my career, digital media barely existed,” she says. “When I mentor younger employees or people who are a year or two out of college, I say, ‘Don’t think that you are on a certain path.’”
Chu’s path continues to take her unexpected places, even within her current role that extends beyond the CFO’s global finance and accounting role. She also oversees Audible’s corporate strategy and development team, the business development/strategic partnership team, the fraud and business assurance team, and the marketing team.
“I keep telling people that I’m a jack-of-all trades and I think that goes back to a lot of things I learned at school,” says Chu, reflecting on what she gained being part of a diverse student body and taking courses as varied as accounting and literature.
“I appreciate the variety of things Wisconsin provided,” she says. “The university made me a well-rounded individual and professional. My life is not defined by just one function.”
Chu has been with Audible, owned by Amazon, since 2015. She joined the company with 12 years of entertainment industry experience after financial roles at NBCUniversal, including the CFO of USA Network and Oxygen Media. Even as a business student, Chu knew she wanted to be in a consumer-facing company and has pursued that goal throughout her career.
Drawn to problem-solving
Chu grew up in Hong Kong, and was drawn to UW–Madison by two simple reasons: Her best friend was already enrolled and the School of Business’ strong reputation. At first Chu had her eye on pre-law, but statistics and accounting classes caught her interest because of their problem-solving nature. She majored in finance and marketing.
“I wasn’t thinking about building a business, I just knew you had to have a fundamental understanding of the economics of business. That’s what drew me to finance,” she says.
Various consumer-facing companies appealed to Chu when she graduated but she chose to go into a two-year financial management program at GE because of the variety of roles in which she could gain experience. After completing the program, she joined GE’s corporate audit staff. She traveled the world working with a range of industries when one particular assignment piqued her interest and changed the course of her career.
At the time, GE owned NBC. The company was looking at buying Universal and Chu was part of the team doing due diligence on the studio’s film business.
“I had worked on projects as varied as health care and aviation, but this one was really appealing,” she says. “It resonated with me because as a consumer it was something I could connect to.”
After two director roles in finance with what became NBCUniversal, Chu rose to the C-suite as CFO of Oxygen Media in 2008, followed three years later with a move to CFO of USA Network. Both roles put her in charge of the finances of major cable companies, and neither were roles she sought out.
That doesn’t mean Chu doesn’t have ambition; she just has always defined it differently. It’s not about the title for Chu, it’s about excellence.
“Some people think, ‘What’s my next thing?’ and I never did,” she says. “I tell those I mentor, ‘Do the best job you can now. Look for those opportunities to highlight what you do.’ It’s about building your skillset.”
Growing her role
Not having that specific plan helped Chu immediately at Audible. The company was growing and evolving quickly, and two weeks into her new job she was asked to also take over the company’s disparate analytics and data science teams and build a global function.
“You’re never going to be ready for your next thing,” she says. “It goes back to problem-solving and being analytical. I break the problem down into pieces that I can solve. That’s a skillset that to this day helps me.”
Last year Chu helped lead a major product launch at the company—Audible Plus, which created a new lower-priced membership tier. The genesis of the new membership was a pricing study Chu had commissioned, which led to a reassessment of the product line.
Chu approached the launch the same way she has approached products throughout her career—with the consumer in mind. While at NBCUniversal, she’d watch programs from the point of view of the consumers. With Audible, she’s continually on the app to understand it as a customer and matching the experience to what the data says about how consumers are using it.
“That’s what I think the real CFO job is—helping the business leader and building the business from what the data is telling you,” she says. “From customer behavior data to financial data, you have to be able to connect the dots.”
Adapting to change
The new product launch wasn’t the only thing that made 2020 notable for Chu and Audible. Like just about every business, Audible was upended by the COVID-19 pandemic. Overnight, the biggest uses for Audible’s content―traveling and commuting—went away. The challenge for Chu and her colleagues was to discover and market other uses for the audio books and entertainment Audible offers.
“You don’t commute anymore, but how about listening when you’re cooking? When you’re walking the dog?” she says. “We really had to pivot as a company. Now we’re climbing back to pre-pandemic listening level and we’ve built new habits, so it’s very exciting.”
The potential business challenges were only part of why Chu was eager to be at Audible; she was also intrigued by its purpose-driven approach to business. Audible’s founder moved the company’s suburban headquarters to Newark, New Jersey, to help spark urban revitalization there. The company’s Audible Scholars program enrolls local high school students in paid internships and gives them early professional training with the goal that they will return from college to Audible or other Newark employers.
“A lot of the things we do in the community are what draw employees to Audible,” Chu says. “We strive to be a company that means more than what we do commercially.”
Chu is the company’s executive sponsor of its Black Employee Network, an employee impact group that asked her to serve in the role. She is also a mentor in W.O.M.E.N. in America, an organization with a mission to help the next generation of women leaders. Mentors have served a key role in her career, Chu says, and she is eager to pay it forward.
As technology continues to evolve, she’s also eager to see what might come next in a career she wouldn’t have predicted when she was a Business Badger simply looking for problems to solve.“
If you had asked me 20 years ago if I would be a CFO and the head of marketing, I would have said no,” she says. “I have many years to go in my career and I’m excited to see what the next path might be.”