BCG Laid the Foundation for Freedom in My Career

Yan Lou, a former principal from BCG’s Beijing office, is now the president of PADI (the Professional Association of Diving Instructors) China. She sat down with BCG to discuss her career path, environmental conservation, and what inspires her.

Tell us about your career journey.

I certainly haven’t traveled in a straight line from A to B in my two-decade career. I have worked in finance, consulting, fashion, and diving—dabbling also in entertainment and NGOs. Many people, myself included, often wonder whether it’s better to be an expert in one field or to have broad experience in several. While I envy those who had a clear and determined mission early on, I have found most people settle on paths either by accident or through the process of elimination. I am no doubt part of the latter group. Through my trials and errors, I realized that while specific industry expertise is important, when you're running a company, a broader perspective and set of experiences are certainly a huge plus.

When I got to PADI (the Professional Association of Diving Instructors), diving was just beginning to transition from a niche sport to a lifestyle. For me, PADI was a breath of fresh air and promised a challenge. At the same time, the diversity and hands-on nature of the work involved, which was expanding at a great pace, allowed me the opportunity to make a positive difference in society. It was more fulfilling than anything I had experienced in my career.

Tell us about Padi and the diving industry's long-term prospects. What is the diving market like in China?

PADI is mostly focused on recreational diving instead of industrial or technical diving. Although it is the world’s leading diver-training organization today, PADI was not the first in the game. In the 1960s, diving courses were like boot camps, as diving schools wanted to ensure that all the trainees would be able to fare on their own in the most dangerous open water environments. It was almost like training athletes or special-purpose soldiers. The experience was not very trainee friendly. PADI’s founders dreamed of creating a “safer, easier way for people to learn to breathe underwater,” and this has become one of the key factors behind PADI’s broad appeal today. As the years progressed, PADI gradually evolved the standardized, American SAT-style teaching system we know today.

PADI has been quietly but consistently working in China since 2000 and only started to experience breakaway growth in 2015. We are becoming more of consumer lifestyle company. I have been fortunate to be at the forefront of this change, and I have witnessed PADI’s slogan go from “The Way the World Learns to Dive” to “Seek Adventure. Save the Ocean.” This new slogan reflects the shift in our values from a training-focused organization to an adventure- and environmental-sustainability-focused consumer organization. Our core business has also seen a shift from professional divers and institutions to consumers.

What’s unique about diving is that you can’t get the same feeling of exhilaration just by being a viewer, as is possible with other sports; everyone must dive for themselves to really experience the other 71% of the planet’s surface. Only diving allows us to understand the earth that sustains us, so the future potential for this market is tremendous.

How has your team been affected by the pandemic? How have you responded?

Diving is very much travel oriented, and, given that 75% of our divers are trained overseas, we were heavily affected. Fortunately, we also have a domestic business and city-based dive centers.

Domestic dive destinations, led by the city of Sanya, started to attract many more divers. We’ve continued to find freshwater diving sites, such as Thousand Island Lake and caves in Guangxi. In the face of the pandemic, we also developed and promoted a series of classes that can be conducted in city pools, including basic freediving, a mermaid course, and digital underwater photography.

The pandemic is not over yet, but it is pushing us to be more creative, adaptable, and united.

Please share some of PADI's efforts in ocean conversation.

Everyone involved in outdoor industries is naturally concerned about the environment because it is our life support system. For PADI, protecting the oceans is especially important because it’s the source of our business. Due to its broad diver base, PADI is able to make a difference in the ocean environment and protect it. PADI set up an NGO that has already been working in this area for close to three decades. One part of its work is the annual call to divers around the world to participate in the cleanup of rubbish from our oceans and lakes.

Today, PADI hopes to get more consumers involved in this kind of action because 90% of rubbish in the ocean comes from land-based plastics. We want to stop the problem at the source. If all of us uses just a little less plastic, that will have a significant impact on the planet. At the same time, we hope that through our training, divers will realize the importance of preserving the marine environment and the part they have to play as torchbearers. PADI continues to work with environmental- and marine-species preservation experts to provide professional, directed content that supports their work. We continue to invite conscientious media outlets and celebrities to amplify these voices.

How did your experiences at BCG help you in your later career?

For me, BCG is where I discovered who I really am. BCG’s wide reach of industries and its project approach allowed me to pursue and experience various companies, functions, and topics. The way of attacking complicated problems also afforded me the necessary skills, confidence, and peace of mind to take on almost any job. The possibility of unpaid leave also offered valuable opportunity for risk-free exploration. I envy people who had a clear vision for life from early on—but I reached where I am today by trying different things. The freedom BCG offers ultimately leads to the feeling that you can follow your heart in the pursuit of a less conventional career path.

I am particularly grateful to the training I received in structured thinking and project management at BCG, which, to this day, helps me break down large, complicated issues into smaller, manageable tasks. The key is to stay calm, composed, and resilient.

BCG’s pioneering and daring spirit continues to inspire me.