Sinovator — Stories of China Innovation and Innovators by a Native Chinese Living in Silicon Valley — Part I
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So I am part of the team that puts together a strategic CSR program at Cisco called Cisco China Leadership Program. It is a CSR program that aligns with Cisco’s vision and strategy in connecting the world and making an impact in China (esp among significant stakeholders in both policy and business), in the form of executive education. I am a content and curriculum designer for the program.
The program has been running for 8 years, and it partners with a top business school in China to deliver leadership training program about innovation in the digital age for government leaders and enterprise leaders in China and the US. It tries to bring the most frontier technology in digitization and their application in enterprise, society, industries, introduces the best practices from companies like Cisco, or rather its journey in adapting to the digital age and remain relevant and competitive. It also introduces the controversies, implications and policy debates around new technologies. The programs we are running have a group of highly selected attendees from China’s top innovation policy makers, SVP/VPs of the largest state owned enterprise (practically largest enterprises in “commanding high” /utility/ strategically important sectors in China), and education leaders (central education policymakers and college heads at college level in the middle to bottom of pyramid –because top schools all have their fancy well-connected alumni to bring them up to speed with what’s happening in the world, it’s the 1000+ second tier colleges in tier 2/3/4 cities and vocational schools who need to expand their vision most,……to name a few.
The program is the brainchild of Cisco’s former CEO John Chambers who continues to be the main sponsor of the program, it was launched in 2008. It has been an effective way to convene/build a relationship/make an impact on the company’s most important stakeholders in a country where knowledge gap, policy hurdles, cultural differences with the US continue to make it a desirable but “difficult” market for the US and other global companies.
Pause to think a min about Uber’s withdraw from China, aside from the fact that no company can sustain burning tens of millions cash every week subsidizing Chinese consumers for an extended period, few other reasons may explain why Uber failed in China. For one — having the decision-making center (HQ, in the US) and insights and consumer-driven innovation (in China) in two different places, and not properly talking to each other (according to a friend who used to work in Uber Shanghai office). The reason? Because usually, MNCs end up picking someone who speaks better English (call him/her A) to be the main POC for China rather than a person with most local insights and knowledge (call him/her B). In most cases Mr. or Ms. A had spent years in the US, either growing up in the States as second-generation immigrant or studied and worked in the US for most of his/her adult life, has Chinese face and name but really not so “jie di qi” (“connect to earth” if translated literally, or have deep local knowledge), after all if you live the lifestyle like a westerner in Shanghai with your comfortable corporate expat package, how do you know the problems/pain-points of the majority of people in that country waiting to be solved?? You might overhear them from hotpot dinner parties at reunions with your old classmates from colleges or high-schools or even elementary schools… or even your close relatives who haven’t emigrated out of China. but you are out of touch. B grew up and spent most of his/her career in China, originally from a second third-tier city, worked his ass off to make it to this well sought after seat at this awe-inspiring skyscraper office in the CBD of Shanghai/Beijing, he knows what majority of China is like from his own life and his peers’ , unfortunately B speaks English with an accent and his/her style is a bit “earthy” . B can’t do the small talks with laowai in the HQ because hmmm not everyone feels natural looking for small talks with strangers or yelling at each other at bars with only cold food served.
(I relate and connect to both groups in different ways, I am lucky enough to be able to pass the test for A’s group, went to school and worked with many of the A types for the past 30+ years, thanks to my American teachers from Minnesota who gave me my English name corrected my accents and taught me American culture in my early teenage years — the middle school I went to was a school Princess Ms. Xi went to in Hangzhou, a place no longer the city I rode my bike within 20 min to cross. Now it’s an up and coming Chinese version of silicon valley thanks to Jack Ma and Alibaba. Already my collaborator at China Academy of Art which works closely with urban planning body in Zhejiang province is asking me which city can Yu Hang (a small city near Hangzhou) related to within the Bay Area so he can help the city government position itself.
Interesting parallel now that we moved back to CA and decided to settle down in Palo Alto after years of moving around in China and US (Hangzhou — Guangzhou/Shenzhen — Beijing — Shanghai — New York — Beijing — San Francisco — DC — Palo Alto) , I found our current home closer to heart and closer to my childhood home than anywhere else. I grew up right by Zhejiang University (Qiushi, near West Lake until recently the main campus moved to another location to accommodate the rapidly growing school) our main after school activities were hiking in ZJU campus and gather wild fruits as a kid. Now I find taking a stroll with my family at Stanford campus after dinner as peaceful and inspiring as it can be. Speaking of Jack Ma, I went to the same “English corners” Jack Ma went to by west lake in Hangzhou to practice my conversational English… )
That being said, IN my heart I have always been identifying with and appreciating B type. I suppose it has to do with my 2 years spent with Caijing/Caixin, a top local news outlet founded by the queen of investigative journalism Hu Shuli. It’s a news powerhouse full of local talents in B’s group. And my job as a journalist in China. BECAUSE I think they (B group) are more likely to be ORIGINALs, oftentimes they are more authentic, and I am drawn to these qualities.
Back to the Uber example, due to the trust and communication reasons, A is more likely to be heard and trusted by HQ than B. Worse situation, B’s voice is blocked by A, so HQ has no clue and little chance to be fiercely competitive compared to its competitor (think DIDI). I heard the same thing from my middle school close friend who is now an R&D exec for a major US-based consumer MNC in Beijing. She told me this “the real consumer innovation is happening here, in Asia, in China” but alas I guess she doesn’t have enough autonomy from HQ to make the right bet.
This leads to another topic I’ll discuss- “copy to China is not new, copy from china is here and the future”, stay tuned.
But now, back to the Cisco program, it sounds an unusual thing for a large corporation to get involved but it actually makes sense. Top-down impact programs when it comes to China can be effective, I believe that through inspiring and educational content you connect people on human and aspiration level- Innovation and entrepreneurship to me is that connecting point across culture. So here I am after my 3 years departure to be an entrepreneur, back to the same program and back to Silicon Valley, this place has changed quite a bit. One noticeable change is the increasing visibility of Chinese capital, companies, and entrepreneurs with global ambition. The Chinese backed G-Summit kicked off at pebble beach this week, a private event with A list speakers and attendees among tech startups and investors. Chongqing based Sokon, a Chinese auto company, is building a new EV company called SF Motor with HQ in Santa Clara, and a newly acquired factory in Indiana (Hummer’s old factory)
We just closed our enterprise leader program, where I learned a huge amount about Cisco and Chinese large enterprises (state-owned), and where China stands today when comes to knowledge, ideas, and practices of innovation and digitization in the state-owned system….. which I’ll share, in my next post. but now, my lunch break is over.