This July, the Confucius Institute sponsored my attendance at the Young Leaders Program for entrepreneurs in China. It was not my first time exploring the world. I’ve been to Buenos Aires and Montevideo in South America, I’ve traveled to Puero Vallarta and Cancun in Mexico, and to Montreal up north. I’ve seen much of my own country, driving across the states in my old Hyundai wagon. But China was on the other side of the world. It’s the farthest from home you can get as a New Yorker, and that meant one thing: every minute of every day spent in Shanghai, Hangzhou and Beijing were opportunities to soak up information about the culture. As a business student, that’s exactly what I needed – an experience that would differentiate me from others and open my eyes to a global view of business.
Photo: Anthony Gould (L) and Michael Arrick (R) at Shanghai Jiaotong University's museum.
The Confucius Institute granted me and my classmate, Anthony Gould, a two week stay in three cities – Shanghai, Hangzhou and Beijing – completely free. I just needed to pay my airfare. My trip was three weeks in total. I flew in three days before the program started, and stayed a few extra days (on my own dime) to explore once it had ended. This gave Anthony and me time to tour Shanghai with a firend and colleague at the SBU College of Business, Harry Xia, a Shanghainese student who was home in China for a summer internship.
My first few days in Shanghai were colored by sensory overload. The sights and sounds of bustling cars and bikes, electronic scooters and people shuffling past – it hits you like a tsunami. On the one hand, the differences are stark; people riding tricycles past you with stacks of garbage eight feet tall tied to the makeshift bed, scooters driving within inches of your taxi as they zip up the wrong side of the street. Traditional marketplaces with vendors selling soup dumplings with straws sticking out, whole small birds and other foreign creatures cooked on a skewer, waiting to be served with “stinky tofu” (that’s its English name), and the constant chatter between locals.
On the other hand, aside from a few notable differences, Shanghai felt strikingly similar to New York City. I felt comfortable walking the streets of downtown Shanghai. The crowds of people, the smells of food (albeit different food), the shopkeepers waiting outside their stores to do business, it all felt somewhat like walking through the East Village or Midtown Manhattan. Everyone is carrying their smartphones (Oppo is a popular brand there), and fashion is of high importance. It was exciting to witness another completely developed city of the world in motion.
Down to business. I was primarily in China to learn how the climate of business has shifted in favor of technology and innovation. The young entrepreneurial scene is expanding rapidly in Shanghai, Hangzhou and Beijing. Startup companies reminiscent of “Silicon Valley” type corporate cultures are growing exponentially, making more traditional organizations seem archaic in comparison.
During our time touring the three cities, our group was directly exposed to young entrepreneurs, organizers of local startups, professors of global business and marketing (some of which were business owners themselves), countless co-working spaces, small business incubators and accelerators, and numerous other forums where we could learn about what it’s like doing business in China, and what these companies were up to, as well as how we could get involved.
Some of my most meaningful learnings came from leaders at companies like Getui, a big data firm. They collect user data from apps on their platform and use it to create real time heat maps of people’s locations, which can be helpful in times of crisis. And from places like Zhongguancun Science Park, where companies are colocating and working in communities to foster like-minded creativity and further research and development in areas such as 3D printing, robotics, and self-driving cars.
While visiting innovative places each day was exciting, I felt a significant impact simply from having conversations with others who were along for the trip. Our group was made up of entrepreneurs and business students from the US and Australia, and represented a wide spectrum of interest. Andrew, for example, a twenty-two year old entrepreneur from Sydney, had started a company which promised a cheaper alternative to the life-saving- but over-priced- Epipen. Mana, a PHD and recent MBA, is building a platform for artisans to share their work with the world while supporting young girls who need health and welfare support globally. Daniel, hailing from Israel and living in Australia, is building a company which focuses on using blockchain technology (the stuff behind cryptocurrency) to secure online transactions by automating traditional username and password login processes, among other things, making the web a safer place for us all. Being a part of this kind of program- sharing each meal with these people, traveling together, learning about Chinese culture together- gave me an opportunity to create real and lasting bonds with real business owners and entrepreneurs around the globe who are looking to make a difference.
I am currently in conversation with another young entrepreneur, a Chinese professor I met during my time in Shanghai, whom I believe will turn into a business partner in the near future. Just one of many opportunities that crossed my plate while I was in China.
This experience was once in a lifetime, and I am grateful to the Confucius Institute (and everyone else I encountered abroad) who made my trip worthwhile. I plan to continue my journey with an important key learning in mind; in life, you get exactly the experience you are looking for. I travelled to China with an open mind, and a desire to learn as much as possible. Did I have fun along the way? Did I climb the Great Wall of China, see nightclubs and sing at KTV (karaoke) while I was there? Of course. But more importantly, I came back with a renewed understanding of Chinese business and how I can be a part of it. And that is exactly what I was looking for.