Data analyst by day, bestselling author by night

In 2020, Kyla Zhao ’21 did the most logical thing a Stanford junior would do during a pandemic: write a book. As a psychology major, Zhao had never taken a creative writing class, but her imagination took over.

Sitting in her apartment, more than 8,000 miles away from her hometown, Zhao daydreamed of high-society socialites pushing themselves to big parties, escaping the reality of her COVID life. This is how the seed of her first book was planted: ‘Fraud Squad’.

“I was really homesick and missed my family very much. I wanted to write a story set in my home country of Singapore. It was like a love letter to home at that time,” Zhao said.

Since its publication last year, “Fraud Squad” has been praised by Cosmopolitan and others as a crossover of “Crazy Rich Asians” and “Gossip Girl.” But beneath the glamorous haze of lead character Samantha Song’s dazzling entrance into Singapore’s socialite scene, the heart of the book, Zhao said, is about imposter syndrome. For Zhao, writing served as a catalyst for understanding her own psyche, becoming a creative platform to explore her own life through fictional characters and worlds.

“My therapist said, ‘Kyla, I want you to think about why you like writing about imposter syndrome,’” Zhao said. “I think a lot of it just came from my own confusion in my own life, not knowing what I wanted.”

After graduating in 2021 with a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a master’s degree in communications (and two books on the way to publication), Zhao spent a few months at Vogue Singapore, writing about the intersection of fashion and technology. She then returned to the Bay Area to work as a data analyst at a technology company.

Now Zhao spends most of the day calculating and writing code, while the evenings are devoted to writing books – a balance she appreciates.

“I wouldn’t want to write all day at my day job and then have to go home and say, ‘Oh, shucks, I have to write more words for my book,’” she said.

Chady Hamida ’21, a friend of Zhao’s who lived in the same freshman dorm, said he did not predict her career changes. Still, he could see how Zhao’s pursuit of many different interests in college influences her work.

“She took on new hobbies very suddenly, and I think that translates into the books she writes now,” Hamida said.

To balance both careers, Zhao’s roommate James Ngo said Zhao is quite disciplined in her writing routine. So, Ngo said, she goes to a cafe to write, but deliberately doesn’t take her charger with her so she has a conscious deadline. “She definitely has to make sacrifices in terms of how she manages her time,” he said.

That doesn’t mean her two professional careers don’t intersect at times. Her second book, “Valley Verified,” draws on many of Zhao’s own experiences. The story describes main character Zoe Zeng’s drastic career change from a fashion company in New York City to a startup in Silicon Valley.

Zhao began writing the novel as she started her new tech job, an era in her life when she felt lost in her career trajectory. So the book, like her first book, explores imposter syndrome and the struggles of dealing with major life changes.

Zhao said she worked out most of the book’s central plot while flying to Singapore for the 2021 holiday season. During the 17-hour trip, she was able to be alone with her own thoughts, forcing her to confront dealing with her biggest case of duck syndrome yet: she presented a calm and relaxed image, all the while struggling to keep her head above water.

“I remember thinking to myself, ‘What should I stay when my parents asked me how my work is going?’ Face to face, they would immediately be able to tell by my facial expression that something was wrong,” she said.

This internal dialogue inspired the first line of the book, which is especially ironic in its context: “Zoe had a blast.”

“She lied to herself. She lied to the people around her, just like me,” Zhao said. “We put on this facade of success when deep down we felt so unfinished and unfulfilled.”

Zhao’s first two books focused on experiences of Asian female protagonists. Her ambition to further nuance representation in literature led her to write her upcoming middle grade book, “May the Best Player Win,” due out in September 2024. The novel is based on her experiences as a competitive chess player in the male-dominated world. chess scene.

Zhao said the book was inspired by the youthful innocence she noticed fading during the 2020 election cycle, when she wrote most of the book. She added that there are even some Stanford Easter eggs sprinkled throughout the book.

Although Zhao hopes to continue writing, she said she has no plans to pursue a full-time writing career anytime soon.

‘If I depended on it for a living, I would be much more tempted to focus on the business and commercial side of it, rather than writing what I would really like to read. I never want to be in a situation like that,” she says. “Life just put me on this path. And I think it turned out very nicely.”

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