Today we finally got around to the main reason behind this amazing trip- learning about doing business in China!
We set out early this morning to meet with the first speaker of the day, Gilbert Von Kerchkove. On our drive downtown to the office, we had our first encounter with heavy Beijing smog. The hazy was so thick that sometimes you could barely see the tops of buildings, and breathing it in was so foul that many of us had to put on our face masks for the first time.
But when we finally made it through the heavy traffic, we were able to start our session with Mr. Kerchkove right away. A little background on him: originally from Belgium, Mr. Kerchkove has been a foreign and trade advisor to many high-up officials in China and Belgium. He is a professor at the Beijing Jiaotong University, and has written a book called Toxic Capitalism which focuses on the wasteful nature of the now capitalistic China.
During his seminar, he talked a lot about the drastic change that has occurred in Beijing over the last 30 years: Internet access, international hotels, rapid growth of smartphones, and city growth. A few decades ago, there was only one big building in downtown Beijing, and that was a hotel. Over 17 years, dozens and dozens of new buildings shot up all around it, and cars began to clog up the streets. When he showed us picture comparisons from the before and after, it was hard to believe that they were pictures of the same city! Now Beijing has a population of 11.51 million people!
The next speaker was someone many of us already were familiar with: Sam Goodman. We had been assigned to read his book, Where East Easts West, prior to our trip. Everyone who read it seemed to really enjoy it, mainly because it was both informative and incredibly funny in its frank description of how doing business in China works. He was just as great in person, as well, which made his talk very enjoyable. He opened up with a question to us: how have the American people changed since the 1990s? He asked this because he has been in China since around that time, and is planning on moving to the US in about a year. Our main response was that while little things may be different, and different regions of America express different lifestyles and values, Americans are still largely the same as they were a couple decades ago. Mr. Goodman said that’s exactly how China is, as well, and knowing that is essential to understanding the people better- a key part of doing business.
After taking a lunch break, we got right back to business, meeting this time with Nicky Szmala, an entrepreneur from Germany who had a lot of experience with building up foreigner-run companies. His talk was mainly on tips for how to get started as a new business in China. His advice was to go into China only if you have a good product the Chinese will take to, not just because the Chinese market is big- a lot of businesses go down that way, because they can’t fit the business with the consumers. He also explained that having a co-founder or partner from China is crucial to getting your feet off the ground, because they will know the inner-workings of the business environment and will also have connections that cane benefit your company. Start-up challenges and hack-a-thons also appeared prominently in his talk, as he said they were great ways to get funding for your projects. Finally, the Chinese social media category of business has spread like wildfire, as they have made their own platforms to replace the banned Western medias (Youtube, Facebook, Twitter, and more).
Mr. Szmala’s presentation ended our academic part of the day, so when he was done we were allowed to walk the downtown mall for a while. There were several American stores and brands, including Forever 21, H&M, Nike, Sephora, and more. For the most part, they were also the largest stores, towering over the Chinese shops (Forever 21 had four floors!).
At night, we got to see an incredible acrobatics show at the Beijing Chaoyan Theater! The performances were incredible, each one more impressive than the last. But there were a couple moments in the act where the performers made some dangerous slips in their act and scared the audience out of their seats! Thankfully no one was really hurt, but it sure got your heartbeat racing!
All in all, it was a fantastic first day of lectures! Tomorrow we get to visit the Caterpillar and Lights Medical Manufacture offices in Tianjin. We even get to go by the high speed train!
(I’ve never been on a train, so that’s kind of a big deal for me)