We start our Debater Spotlight series with Grant Zhang, one of the founders of the Rural Debate Initiative. Read on for his story about how debate was able to uplift him from an environment that discriminated against him and failed to support him, and how he found fulfillment through the thrills of competition and coaching others with similar backgrounds.
(Grant after a debate tournament in high school)
Middle school years are often some of the most formative times in a person’s life; we start exploring our interests and contemplate what kinds of adults we want to be in the future. However, from my middle school years to my freshman year in high school, I was in an environment where I struggled to find confidence and drive. I attended schools whose student academic performance significantly lagged behind that of the national average. Physical altercations between students were commonplace, and those between students and teachers were not unheard of. I was one of the very few Asian Americans in my class and experienced incessant verbal and physical bullying and felt like an outcast. While I succeeded academically before middle school, these hardships damaged my sense of self-worth, and I found it difficult to focus on school or to even like school.
When I was registering for classes for my sophomore year, I had noticed that speech and debate was a possible elective. I always had an affinity for argumentation, so in that moment, I said “why not” and enrolled myself. I did not anticipate that this would be one of the pivotal moments in my life. It was a rough time at first because I was shy and soft-spoken, and really struggled to articulate myself. But for the first time in a long-time, I found myself in a room full of people that wanted me to succeed and were interested to hear what I have to say, and I stopped caring about what my detractors thought of me. Soon after, I started exceling in class again. I found that debate provided an excellent set of tools to aid me in school given the extensive research and critical reasoning at the core of the activity. I found myself with an amazing foundation to tackle any challenge school could throw at me, including essays, exams and standardized tests.
It was a long and difficult process for me to prepare for my first tournament, and I was nervous about it. I even thought of not showing up because I felt so unprepared. When I was sitting in the room of my first round, I felt like I was being strapped to the seat of a roller coaster. Too late to quit now. And when the roller coaster took off and I started my speech, I felt the adrenaline of competition pump through my blood, and I was hooked. In that moment I was infused with a new sense of drive and competitiveness and believed that I could be the best that I could be, both in and outside of debate.
By the end of my sophomore year, I had a string of successes at the local level, but I really wanted to succeed nationally. When my junior year came around, my head coach retired and was replaced, and my new coach didn’t support policy debate (which is the style of debate that I competed in). I was not able to find a consistent debate partner, and there was no support from my school to travel to national tournaments. I transferred schools to a new program that had a longer track record of supporting policy debate based on the advice of friends from that school. What I did not anticipate was that my new school was cautious about the optics of my transfer and did not want my transfer to be perceived as the result of recruiting on the school’s behalf. I was barred from competition for the entirety of my junior year.
While the news was devastating, I loved the activity, and I didn’t let this issue stop me from realizing my ambitions. Instead of competing, I coached our less experienced debaters and spent my efforts producing research that was critical to the success of our other teams. I also watched countless videos of the best college debaters to absorb their knowledge and pick apart their strategies. While my junior year was very difficult, it taught me invaluable lessons in humility, adaptability and leadership. Those lessons paid dividends in my senior year, and I ended up becoming one of the top debaters in the country and was the most successful debater and in my high school’s history. I cherished the time I spent coaching less experienced debaters when I was a junior, and I chose to coach a high school team that faced similar issues to the ones I faced (lack of institutional support for policy debate). They too were able to become one of the top teams in the country.
As I transitioned to a career in investing, skills that I gained from debate were also critical to my success and development. Debate instilled in me a critical lens, superior research and synthesis capabilities, presentation skills and the confidence to be a strong advocate. As I grew throughout my career, I became intimately familiar with the process of scaling and professionalizing organizations, and I was inspired to develop an organization focused on spreading debate to young individuals that could use the activity to unlock their potential. I co-founded the Rural Debate Initiative to bring debate to rural areas where there are significant institutional barriers that have made competition very difficult.
Grant Zhang is co-founder and Executive Chairman of the Rural Debate Initiative. He currently works as an investment professional at H.I.G. Capital. Outside of his time with H.I.G. and RuDI, Grant likes to explore restaurants in San Francisco with his partner, Skype his dog in Las Vegas, stream the best guitar solos from the 70’s, and learn how to grill the perfect medium rare steak.