Monday, November 14, 2011

    My Networking Story

    Last Monday, I got an email from my boss

    Hey – this just came out. Big kudos to Jonathan for helping!

    It was a link to a presentation on the startup scene in China and on the “Special Thanks” slide was my name.

    Is that really my name there?

    Looking at this slide with my name tagged with 500 Startups, I am amazed by how far I have come. To think that while still in college, I would have meaningful professional connections that could help someone. It just leaves me speechless.

    Just a year ago, I could not drop a name to save my life. There were no relationships with professors or even high school teachers to speak of. Only when I needed a letter of recommendation to study abroad did I have my first real conversation with a professor and that relationship died as soon as he wrote that letter.

    My first attempt at real networking was during my political internship in Los Angeles. The internship coordinator pushed my intern class to go forth and network any chance we got. The plan was for me to collect as many cards as I could while being as memorable as possible and then email the card givers the next day telling them how much I enjoyed meeting them. For my efforts that summer, I ended up with a large collection of business cards, but only one of those cards ever ended up in a meaningful conversation. Something just was not working.

    While studying abroad in Shanghai, I made no effort to network because I believed that it would be meaningless since I would be gone in a year. I started going to networking events for the drink specials and guest speakers, making no effort to schmooze anyone into giving me their business card. Surprisingly, during my stay in Shanghai I made significantly more connections than at any other point in my life.

    Thinking back, I realize there were two reasons for the explosion in connections. First, by not having networking be the end goal of meeting someone, my interactions upon meeting people for the first time became much more genuine. I cracked jokes, talked about my personal life and was just generally much more relaxed. This helped people warm up to me quickly, allowing for a connection to happen organically. Second, I got involved in a non-profit and Toastmasters. Through these two organizations, people would not only see more and more of my personality meeting after meeting, but also see the kind of skills I brought to the table through the work I did for the organization. Cementing everything together was the understanding that we were all working towards a common goal, which made the relationships extra meaningful and more resilient.

    In short, if you want to make meaningful connections, skip the networking events and cocktail parties. Just keep it real and get involved.

    Monday, November 7, 2011

    Study Abroad Advice for China

    Pudong, Shanghai built in just the last 20 years

    From September 2010 to July 2011, I studied abroad in Shanghai (SH) at Fudan University. I experienced a very different China from my classmates and the experience opened up my eyes and radically changed my perception of the country and culture. Recently, I was asked about my experience by a prospective study abroad student who was planning on going to China. The advice I gave her did not seem to do my experience justice so I was compelled to finish this post that has been on draft for weeks.

    This is what I would tell every American student looking to study abroad in China:

    Breadth vs. depth
    Early on you will have to decide what kind of experience you want from China. The amount of time you have is severely limited meaning that you will have to decide between breadth or depth. China is a large country with many sights to see and at the same time is an incredibly complex society with many layers. It is a zero sum game in that seeing sights will mean understanding fewer layers and vice versa.

    The class of Shanghai Young Bakers with French master chef Pascal Tepper

    After backpacking for a week, I realized I was not much of a backpacker and opted to spend the large majority of my time in SH. I got involved in a nonprofit called Shanghai Young Bakers, as well as joining a local Toastmasters chapter. A lot of my time was spent exploring and trying to understand different parts of the city. I got off the tourist path and started acting like a resident, attending expat networking events, non-profit fundraisers, gallery openings. I even became a recognized regular at a café!

    Sometimes, the art was in some strange places like this former opium storage facility

    Other times, it just got creepy

    This all came at a cost, as I skipped out on many of the things people expect you to see while you are in China, like the Great Wall, Forbidden Palace, and terracotta warriors just to name a few. I certainly saw the least tourist attractions out of all my classmates, but I do not regret it as I was able to see a China that was not in the tourist books. For instance, as part of Shanghai Young Bakers I was able to travel through AIDS impacted rural China and hear the stories of working class people my own age.

    In rural China, sometimes getting off the beaten path means not much of a path at all

    Learning Chinese
    Not understanding Chinese, does not mean that you cannot get off the beaten path. First tier cities, like Beijing and Shanghai have large expat populations that will allow non-Chinese speakers to do unique and non-touristy things, such as partake in the local art scene. However, not understanding Chinese does severely limit your interactions and understanding of the locals.

    Learning Chinese is an extremely time consuming process that will cut into your time exploring and experiencing the country. My advice for learning Chinese is to skip the university classes, which are largely impractical and instead hire one of the many student tutors. Also focus solely on learning to speak and pin yin, as these will immediately y improve your ability to interact with locals and get around the country. Armed with a smartphone or iPod touch loaded with Chinese-English apps and a rudimentary understanding of Chinese, you will be able to survive 80% of your day to day interactions. For the other 20% just guess and hope for the best, it is more fun that way anyway.

    Do things alone
    The truth is that no matter how many friends you may have, there will be many instances where due to school, work or just general disinterest, they will not be accompanying you to what you want to do. Many times, I found myself at an event or wandering alone in SH, and though it definitely would have been more fun with some company, I never regretted it. Do not wait upon others to do what you want, or else you will miss out on a lot. Also, one plus of going alone is that it opens you up to making new and unexpected friends.

    Hang with non-Americans
    Nationalities represented at my birthday party: American, Canadian, Chinese, French, Indian, Korean, Singaporean and Thai

    Arriving in a foreign land like China where you do not understand the language, the immediate impulse is to attach yourself with the familiar. I saw this happen with my classmates who mainly hung out with each other in large groups. This did not make much sense to me because I had not traveled thousands of miles to interact with more Californians. Due to my insistence on minimizing the amount of time I spent with Americans, I spent my first semester with a very international group of MBA students and then later with Singaporean exchange students. The most valuable thing I walked away with after a year in China was not the experiences or knowledge, but the friends I made that came from all across Asia.