(Originally published November 27, 2014)
He’s an American expatriate in his mid-thirties with a wife and four kids; this former Purdue class president graduated with his MBA five years ago, and he has two companies to his name today. No, this is not my “Where I Want to Be in 10 Years” list; this is a real person, his name is Jared Turner, and I got to sit down and chat with him earlier this week.
Jared is co-founder of a publishing company, Mind Spark Press, which produces graded readers for people learning Mandarin (read my previous blog for details about how Mandarin Companion is changing my life). He also helped his wife launch a cinnamon roll bakery close to the Jing’an Temple metro stop. I found Jared through Mandarin Companion, and I saw the perfect opportunity to talk to someone who went down a path that I am considering—an American, MBA-holding entrepreneur doing life in China. I found his email address, sent him a cold introduction, and hoped for the best.
Perhaps you think emailing someone like Jared out of the blue is a rude thing to do. Perhaps it is, but if you have ever read Bob Goff’s Love Does: Discover a Secretly Incredible Life in an Ordinary World, you know the worst that can happen is someone can say no. I figured that if Bob Goff could get his kids an audience with royalty from another country from a handwritten note, I could try my luck with an email. It turned out that Jared is a very accommodating guy, and so Wednesday afternoon I threw on a tie for the first time in nearly six weeks and took the metro line south into the heart of the city.
That American Charm
After getting lost twice and a couple of wrong turns (I’m getting very comfortable asking security guards for directions), I found my way to Yuyuan Road’s Cinnaswirl bakery. There I found Jared in the middle of catching up with the Canadian who owned the business next door; I had caught him in between his morning and afternoon rush hours. He invited me back behind the counter for a working interview while he prepped the next round of cinnamon rolls.
What immediately struck me about Jared was how likeable he was. He had that quintessential American charm that made him both easy going and upbeat at the same time; in corporate speak, he’s a really rare “IQ/EQ” (Intelligence Quota, Emotional Quota) blend. Normally when I first meet people that I contacted over email, I feel compelled to establish a rapport to make things more comfortable. With Jared, I felt like I was the guest in his personal kitchen.
Throughout the interview, Jared was constantly interacting with customers that were coming in and out. His Mandarin is good—much stronger than mine. He wasn’t just selling, but servicing customers, handling delivery men and getting next-day orders arranged all in Mandarin. He does it all with a smile and an American accent—and if you are Chinese, it is very difficult not to crack a grin at that display.
Halfway through our time together, Jared’s two oldest kids who just got out of school entered the shop. Clearly comfortable around their father’s business, they bobbed and weaved around the shop and interacted with the occasional customer who were family friends. Put simply, Jared and his family-owned western bakery in Shanghai has about as much American charm as apple pie on Independence Day.
It’s Just About Getting People to Like You
My time with Jared was more educational than any individual, 45-minute business class I have taken in awhile. We talked about the intricacies of residual incomes, supply chain licenses, how to expand into Tier-2 Chinese cities, and the pros and cons of incorporating in Hong Kong (things I never thought I would discuss in a bakery, mind you). But one of the standout insights from my time with Jared was his opinion on guanxi.
Guanxi, or connections, is a highly loaded Chinese word that is synonymous with business in China. It refers to the concepts of personal connections, quid pro quo, losing face, and how complex the soft side of business can be when working in an environment influenced by both traditional culture and the current government. Jared makes it very simple; it’s just about getting people to like you. As a foreigner, show them you are learning the language. Tell them about your kids studying Chinese. They will respect the effort. They may be Chinese, but just like Americans and everyone else around the world, they want to be respected and treated fairly. Normally, they return the favor. It’s that easy.
Where There’s One, There’s Many
My conversation with Jared was great not only because of the personal significance it has for me, but because it plays directly into the research I am conducting at Fudan right now in foreign entrepreneurship. It has been hard for me to find many members of the elusive expat community; but like any minority group, where you find one, you find many.
Jared is connecting me with an Austin, TX company that opened its second office—not in Houston—but in Shanghai. Additionally, I just happened to meet the head of China’s Startup Weekend when he came into Jared’s shop for a roll. Another touch point, another door, another rabbit hole to explore.
The Take Away
When I was a freshman in college, I was all about the idea of networking. I went to an obscene number of club meetings and activities, and I was unable to focus on any one activity. In my later years, I began to turn a cold shoulder to the concept of networking, focusing more on my personal development and progression, leaving schmoozing to the schmoozers. After my time in China, however, I am starting to come to grips with a more balanced outlook on the concept.
Networking is nothing short of finding people who have common interests and getting together with them to talk. There is no need for the motives of the schmoozers, nor do you need to commit overkill to be a successful networker. All you need is the curiosity to ask questions, and the confidence to send that first email.
It may get you nowhere, but it also may get you across the table from a serial-expatriate entrepreneur with friends from Austin and customers from Startup Weekend. Who would have guessed?
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