Fast Talk: China Rising

We talked to five of the best and brightest recent Chinese MBA grads — whose careers will be followed in a 20-year study by Katzenbach Partners — about China's future and their own hopes and dreams.

Patience Is Key

Liyang Jin, 33

Vice director, Small and Medium Enterprise Board,
Shenzhen Stock Exchange, Shenzhen
MBA: Harvard

Shenzhen is a young city. Twenty-four years ago, it did not exist. The area comprised just a few fishing villages when the Chinese government decided to open a special economic zone near Hong Kong. Now it has a population of more than 7 million. When I came here in 1994 for an internship, my boss told me, "If you are old, you should go to Beijing. If you're young, you should come here." In Shenzhen, there's no sense of seniority. Everybody is evaluated on their merit. It's an immigrant city, and it's quite free from the traditional culture. Every aggressive Chinese person comes here to pursue their dream.

In 2000, I helped try to build a Nasdaq-like market for China. But then the Nasdaq bubble burst, and there were many scandals on the main board in China. The Chinese government got more and more worried, so it decided to suspend the market's development. Instead, it agreed to build a market for small and midsized enterprises. Unlike what we were trying to establish in 2000, the SME board isn't lowering the listing requirements. The SME board requires that companies be profitable for the past three years.

I learned a big lesson: You must be patient. The main difference between China's economic reform and the reform in Russia is that China is taking a path of gradualism. The society and economy are so complex, you cannot see all of the difficulties and all of the outcomes. You have to be cautious. I tried to create the ideal market overnight. Even so, grassroots companies are China's future. They're growing fast, and their leaders are clever visionaries. These companies have long been denied access to capital markets. No more.

The Power of One

Yuan Yong, 30

Group account director, J. Walter Thompson
Shanghai
MBA: Harvard

I worked for J. Walter Thompson for six years before business school. I thought I'd want to do something different with an MBA. But after Harvard, I realized I'm really an ad guy. I tried to look at different industries such as consulting or banking, but I really like the combination of the conceptual and analytical required in an advertising agency.

Chinese people are very protective. It's rooted in the culture. Part of Confucianism is protecting your family against the rest of the world. Because many families in China are having only one child, these children are the center of the family. Everyone wants to do anything for these "little emperors," especially in two broad categories: their health and anything that will help them be competitive. Talk about products that make a kid competitive in school, and they'll sell. If the product can make a child healthy, it will sell.

China's business culture is changing. Through my work, I've talked to a lot of people in China's state-owned enterprises. Several years ago, they might ask how much money they could get under the table. Everything came down from the top boss; he was like a god. Nowadays, there's a marketing department that can actually make decisions. The structure is getting flattened. People are getting power, even if it's not yet ideal. I got frustrated right after I returned, because after two years in the States, I had a lot of ideas about how companies should run effectively. Now I feel that I am making a difference every day. I can have some effect in terms of making those changes and closing the gap between how Chinese companies should run and how they are.

Never Stop Learning

Shauna Xie, 28

Consultant, Monitor Group
Beijing
MBA: Stanford

I studied architecture in China for two years before transferring to the University of Toronto. That really changed my view of myself. My classmates there were a lot more creative than I was, artistically, and I think that's probably because of the way I was educated in China. Our whole education system is focused on learning knowledge from textbooks and isn't focused on individuals and their special interests. Rather than just focusing on textbooks, I want Chinese students to have more practical social experiences, to understand how society works, and to be able to experience things that are really their true passion.

China also needs better continuing education for adults. A lot of people say relationships are key if you're doing business in China. They're key because Chinese people are not straightforward with one another. They don't tell their true feelings, and you have to guess a lot of the time. A lot of this is really just soft-skills training. I've thought about starting a for-profit night school or continuing-education school. I would want to make this a viable business, targeting young professionals who have the purchasing power and the desire to develop skills such as public speaking, giving and receiving feedback, and managing effective interactions with people. I've also thought of doing human-resources consulting, providing corporate training for Chinese companies to help their employees communicate better.

Long term, I want to do more for China. I want to work for a Chinese business, or run my own. But my dream position is to be the minister of education.

Think Globally, Connect Locally

Shi Yu, 31

Partner, Unknown Space
Beijing
MBA: Beijing International MBA

I was recruited as a network infrastructure researcher for Nokia, and after two years I transferred to the marketing department because it's more interesting to deal with customers than with machines. The company responded slowly to the Chinese market. Our competitor was improving its product very quickly. It was small, local, and its R&D was local. Our R&D was in the United States, and the communication channels between marketing and R&D weren't good. Multinational companies should provide opportunities for people working in different areas to meet and establish relationships. Sometimes business isn't pure business: You want a personal or emotional connection.

For me, one of the frustrating things about working in a global company was that I felt like a worker in a production line. I am the kind of person who likes to make decisions; I like to be in charge of my future. A friend of mine approached me in 2004 with his business idea, and we cofounded a company based on an online community called Unknown Space for Chinese who live overseas. Thus, we didn't have to start from scratch. We developed other Web sites for it, such as online dating and job recruiting. We were attracted to the growing number of Chinese who can afford to go to school overseas. The online-dating site is already profitable, and we have expanded domestically, too.

We believe in a way of doing business that generates more return for stakeholders. We don't just mean investors. "Stakeholders" has a wider meaning. It includes investors, creditors, customers, employees, communities, suppliers, and societies. Serving all of them is our goal.

Bridge East and West

Lulu An, 29

Associate, AdMedia Partners
New York, New York
MBA: Columbia

I grew up in Harbin, a very cold city that's close to Russia, on a university campus. My mom taught chemistry there and would give me enough freedom to do whatever I wanted; I would take the bus to visit my grandmother by myself when I was just 4 years old. I didn't realize until later on that such independence was built into my blood. I started my own advertising agency when I was 22. Every day, I woke up thinking about how I could get clients, pay people, and grow the business. I had to be a servant, trying to make my employees happy, my suppliers happy, and of course, my clients happy. I take a lot of pride in the path I chose. Dealing with that kind of pressure and developing a practical attitude is not something you can get from second-hand experience.

The advertising industry in China still has a lot of room for improvement — in particular, in market research, which is really in its infancy. One of the obstacles is the audience: the people who would answer questions on a regular basis. People aren't used to the concept of market research, so it's really hard to collect data. It's a great opportunity because it's so difficult to get into.

Ideally, I want to be a bridge between Eastern and Western cultures. The uniqueness of China is that because its culture is a mystery to outsiders, local expertise is extremely valuable, and that's something that Chinese companies can bring to the table. The foreign companies have advanced skills. Partnerships between the two will make it easier to explore the Chinese markets and help Chinese companies play at the global level.

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