When Jack Shao emigrated to America, he spoke no English, save for “hello,” a greeting he learned a few days before he arrived from China’s remote Jintang Island. It was enough. At the young age of 7, Jack hit the ground running, building a new life in the United States that would include a global bent that continues to this day.
Jack oversees international pork exports for Hormel Foods. In addition, he manages Korea and Japan exports, and works with the company’s licensee and joint-venture partner in South Korea and Japan, respectively. One of his proudest accomplishments is that he helped establish HAPA—the Hormel Foods employee resource group (ERG) for Asian professionals—and even before that, was among those former President and CEO Jeff Ettinger tapped to foster the Hormel Foods diversity and inclusion culture.
“The question we asked is, ‘How can we make Hormel Foods better for everyone?’” Jack says.
ERGs surfaced as an answer, he says, adding that they bring several benefits, including community involvement, workplace engagement and ultimately, development of the marketplace.
In many ways, Jack is living the dream. His dream, that is. He realized before his career began that he wanted it to have an international scope.
In fall 1996, Jack attended the Semester at Sea Program through the University of Pittsburgh. One of his first stops was Kyoto, Japan, where he was immersed in the culture, even becoming a houseguest of the city council president. He also visited Hong Kong, Vietnam, India, Egypt, Israel, Greece, Turkey, Morocco and China, a stop made more special by the many family members who came out to see him.
“It was really valuable to find my roots and become more Chinese again.”
The trip was transformational for Jack. “It opened my eyes and probably influenced what I am doing today. The things that I saw, the people I interacted with, the food I tried in various countries.”
It was really valuable to find my roots and become more Chinese again.Jack Shao
Jack’s parents moved him and his older sister in 1982 from China to Arlington, Virginia, in close proximity to other family members. While his mother worked as a dishwasher and his father as a busboy, Jack began first grade.
“I was just thrown in there,” he says. Needless to say, the initial months were difficult. “I had no idea what everyone was talking about.”
He credits friends and a good English-as-a-second-language teacher with giving him the jumpstart he needed. “Plus, playing outside with new friends helped me learn the language.” A strong student, Jack did well and eventually enrolled in Goldey-Beacom College to study international business.
His discovery of Hormel Foods was serendipitous. The year after his Semester at Sea experience, Jack stopped by his college’s career services department. It was before the internet was very popular, Jack recalls, so he browsed some brochures. “Hormel Foods really stood out,” he says. “I liked that it was a global company. The international opportunities were enticing.” He contacted the company, interviewed via phone and then made a trip to Austin, Minnesota. That was nearly 20 years ago.
“That’s what happens when you work for a great company,” he says.
Jack began as a production supervisor in Rochelle, Illinois. He was on second shift for nearly two years, during which time he says he got to see how ham, bacon and sausage were made. It intrigued him. “I knew I wanted to learn more,” he says, so he accepted a sales position in Philadelphia. While he was in the process of learning the lay of the land and buying his first home, he learned of an opening in the international business segment of Hormel Foods.
“I never lived in that house,” Jack laughs. “That’s usually how things work, right?”
He moved to Minnesota in the blink of an eye, seizing the opportunity to pursue his lifelong dream. The years that followed have been everything he imagined and more: increasing responsibilities; international travel, including a four-year assignment in Seoul, South Korea; and even a chance meeting with his life partner, Rachel.
The latter occurred when Jack missed his connection and was placed on a different flight, one where a Japan Airlines crewmember named Rachel was on duty. The two hit it off. In the beginning, it was a long-distance relationship. Jack laughs when he remembers how difficult the 1 a.m. phone calls were.
“They were interrupting my eight hours of preferred sleep time,” he says.
Things are easier now that Jack and Rachel are married and living together in Rochester, Minnesota, with sons Billy, 12; and Sam, 10. Since Jack travels quite a bit, he likes to “stay home, spend time with my family, grab a good meal.” He is often on the soccer field, playing or coaching. He coaches Sammy’s soccer team. Billy plays flag football.
As a world traveler, Jack has had more than his share of culinary experiences. He’s eaten nearly every part of a hog and many exotic dishes as well. Among them, cricket tacos, and live shrimps and octopus. “I’ll try anything once,” he says, adding that his favorite eating establishments tend to be where the locals eat, especially street stands in places such as Mexico, Singapore and Turkey.
It’s one of the ways Jack makes the planet his home. He’s grateful to his company for helping him do that.
“I wouldn’t have his life today if it weren’t for Hormel Foods.”