Vienna Teng at a piano.
Photo credit: Karen Shih

Cynthia Shih/Vienna Teng (MS/MBA ’13)

Singer-songwriter Cynthia Shih (MS/MBA ’13) travels the world playing her soulful indie pop music to audiences large and small. Performing under the stage name Vienna Teng, Shih draws inspiration for her songs from the world around her, including climate issues. 

These days, Shih’s fans not only can see her perform live at their favorite club, but they can also participate in climate action workshops facilitated by her. It’s a way to connect Shih’s love of music with her background in environmental sustainability—something she has long aspired to do. 

“I had always hoped there was a way to bring my music career and my sustainability career together,” says Shih, who worked at global consulting firm McKinsey & Company for nine years with a focus on decarbonization and the circular economy.

“I’ve built a fan base that has been really loyal over the years, and I wanted to work with them to do something very tangible and concrete about climate change.” 

Using the skills she gained on the job and in the Behavior, Education and Communication specialization at the University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability (SEAS), Shih gathers with fans at intimate music venues to help them create personalized climate action plans. 

Shih describes it as an opportunity for participants to “discover what enjoyable, meaningful climate action looks like”—from identifying what motivates them to act and the barriers that prevent them from doing so, to practical next steps they can take to make a difference. 

I had always hoped there was a way to bring my music career and my sustainability career together.”

Shih, who began playing classical piano at age 5, will even perform a song or two for inspiration. “I’m bringing back a lot of what I studied at SEAS,” says Shih. “I think of it as me learning how to be a community organizer.”

The climate action workshops are open to the public and advertised as part of Shih’s tour. More-committed fans can join Shih’s online community on Patreon, a subscription-based service, where they can get access to exclusive content, such as new songs, behind-the-music extras, and climate action check-ins and learning sessions.

Before enrolling at SEAS, Shih had been a software engineer at Cisco Systems who moonlighted at open-mic nights at coffee shops and other venues. Her big break came when Michael Tarlowe (BBA ’94), another U-M graduate whom she had never met, reached out to ask if he could represent her. Tarlowe had recently left his finance job to start an independent record label.

Neither had any music business experience, Shih says, but they “took a huge mutual risk on each other.”

It was a gamble that has paid off in spades. Since 2002, Shih has released six albums, made an appearance on CBS’s “Late Show with David Letterman,” and opened for Joan Baez, India Arie, and Brandi Carlile, among others. Her songs “Harbor” and “Level Up” were even featured in U-M’s welcome-back videos for the past two years, which Shih says is meaningful.

“I would love for my music to be the soundtrack for changemakers in the world,” Shih says.