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An MBA Student’s Take on China

Everything in my Washington, D.C. apartment had been to China but me. The Rogue acoustic guitar I was learning to play Greenday songs on? Chinese. The University of Maryland sunglasses I’m packing for the trip? From China. Even the “Japanese” Toshiba laptop I typed this on was actually made in China. Once, I bought frozen organic broccoli at our local Whole Foods Market. I honestly assumed I was doing my part in reducing my carbon footprint, but printed in unmistakable 6-point font on the edge of the bag: Product of China.

This January, I joined forty of my classmates from the full-time, part-time and executive MBA programs at Smith, along with a couple masters and undergraduate students and two MBAs from the Technion in Israel in making the trip to China for the 2012 edition of the Dingman Center’s China Business Plan Competition trip. We were all super excited to see how entrepreneurs fit into China’s “harmonious society.” We toured factories, met with business owners and managers, and did a little sightseeing, too. Learning about doing business in China was nothing short of amazing.

We began our trip with a visit to the U.S. Embassy office. Kevin and Sally, two state department employees, gave a fascinating overview of the business climate in China. It’s a wondrous, fast changing place, they said. There is a lot of money to be made…

…as long as you are very, very careful.

IPR (Intellectual Property Rights) is a phantom! Enforcement of law is more political than judicial! This room you’re sitting in is bugged, and if you brought a computer on this trip, know that the government has already hacked into it! We heard stories of Chinese-U.S. business partnerships going sour for all sorts of reasons. “Do heavy due diligence on your Chinese partners before you make deals,” they told us. “You don’t want to hear the phone calls we get every day.” More than one head was spinning as we headed back to the bus.

A thought-provoking afternoon of speakers from the law firm Jones Day, Venture Capital group CVCA and accounting firm Bernstein Pinchuk lead us to a delicious banquet at Jin Xiang You. Chinese students competing in the next day’s competition met us for the dinner. Much of the conversation focused on the complicated rules of dining etiquette, though a few custom business pitches were passed around the tables as well.

The competition finals at Beida, the so-called “Harvard of China,” were electric. Teams had traveled from as far as 13 hours away by train, with diverse ideas from increasing rail efficiency in northern coal mining cities to teaching newborn babies to read. “Tenacity,” a team of Chinese undergraduate students from near Shanghai, took first place with their idea for an innovative new cane for the blind.  The students proposed a “smart walking stick” that used radars to precisely identify obstacles in the path of a blind person.

Grand Prize Winners from Zhejiang University

Second place went to Smith first-year MBA Marvin Yueh. Along with his partner, first-year MBA Angela Suthrave (not present on the China trip), Marvin has been working on Live-a-Betes, a program of lifestyle education for people who have diabetes.

Second Place Team, Live-a-betes, from the University of Maryland

Smith E-MBA team “Integrata” also placed, winning with their  comprehensive personal executive security system. Honorable mentions went to Smith teams Comrade Brewing, Avatravel and Spark Computing.

In two more days of company visits after the competition, we had our preconceptions challenged again and again. We took a bullet train to visit factories in Tianjin, a huge quickly-developing city closer to the coast. After passing hundreds of boring 30-story apartment buildings that seemed randomly sprinkled along the hour-long rail route, we went right into the boring one-story warehouse buildings where all those people work.

We talked with managers who run the composites factory that makes airplane components for Boeing; saw the manufacturing lines for 20,000 Otis Elevator parts, and even glimpsed the clean rooms where 36,000 bottles of Pepsi get filled every hour, 24/7/365 [read about us inadvertently shutting down the line on the trip blog here]. We met with TenCent, the enormous internet service provider responsible for QQ and several other popular Chinese social media apps. We heard about IPR struggles at Danfoss, as well as the major benefits of doing business in such a huge, dynamic market.

After a week of inside views and privileged conversations I was even more amazed and impressed by the Chinese business world.  What’s more, the Dingman Center’s China trip highlighted for me the beauty of the Smith MBA. We learn about business globalization in the classroom from top-rated faculty, then travel to business hotspots to test what we’ve learned. Whether with CIBER, Dingman or student-initiated trips, classrooms are only one part of our Smith education.

Frankie Abralind, MBA Candidate 2012

Frankie Abralind loves selling new ideas. Before pursuing his MBA, he operated what was once Maryland’s largest biodiesel plant, having designed the facility himself. In the years after finishing his undergraduate degree in Interior Architecture at Cornell University, Frankie also worked as a grassroots organizer fighting global warming, founded and published a real paper magazine with thousands of readers, and learned to love performing improv comedy. Frankie came to the Smith School of Business to learn how to start a profitable business that would make a difference. He’s now the president of the entrepreneurship club.


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