China – a controlled country housing millions of content countrymen striving for continuous growth. A country with beliefs; where an army of life size terracotta warriors accompanied Emperor Qin into immortality. A country of creative courage; where once dividing inter-province walls are united to create a single “Great Wall” to shield against Mongolia. From the forbidden city of the past to the pearl tower of the present, a trip to China offers nourishment to the mind, body and the soul and fosters connections at many a levels; with the human and the machine; with the past and the future; with the right and at times also the wrong.
I had a first-hand experience with the Chinese government’s involvement in the business sector as we were expanding LinkedIn’s presence in China and the Wharton connection offered further preview to the upcoming and the undercover business innovations happening in china. The deepest insight for me was to experience the balance the government has maintained between keeping autonomous control and promoting innovation by endorsing incubators like 36Kr.
I also learnt the Chinese definition of “internet”, the “inter-connected world”. A successful company in the rapidly developing China not only enjoys government support but also maintains razor sharp focus on the customer’s changing and ever expanding needs. They strive to offer complete solutions up and down the value chain even bridging the gap between the Online and Offline (O&O) world. Systematic Business Model Expansion to cater to the “other but related problems” for their target customer has created a sticky ecosystem for chart busters BATX (Baidu, Alibaba, Xiomi and Tencent) and fueled exponential growth for startups like 36Kr, Meituan and Bifendian.
In the quest for perfection it did seem that some firms might just have taken things too far. A presenter at one such company commented “We are striving to draw a balance between doing everything properly!”. An analogy can be drawn with the famous Acrobat show that Yongbo arranged for us to see in Beijing. Four fast moving bikers were already juggling in an enclosed ball like structure. We all clinched and shouted STOP as the 5th rider entered. No one stopped …and we saw the 6th, 7th and the 8th rider enter as the ball twinkled with the motorbike lights. Maybe it’s the fear of the competition, but nothing seems forbidden in the forbidden anymore!
We also got a chance to visit the beautiful Penn Campus and meet some Chinese VCs. A hot discussion topic in our trip was if china was forging “Imitation or Innovation”? Innovation for me is not just an invention of a technologically advanced product, but also a radically new solution to an existing problem. I bow to Steve Jobs for enabling me to carry 1000 songs in my pocket, and I am inspired by Elan Musk’s childhood passion to reach the moon; but I am truly thankful to Amazon and Uber for making my life simpler. The Chinese economy is developing and the Chinese entrepreneur is focused primarily on solving real problems for the most populous country. Some call it imitation. I see it as inspiration. Learning from global advancements and adapting to fit the local needs.
We had a free day that Karl addressed as the “Rest day”. For us rest meant scaling the Great Wall of China. The expedition led by Min and Manping became another Beijing highlight. We started at Gate 14 and reached gate 22 beyond which the wall is marked closed. And we marched on. The shrubs attempted to discourage, the dismantled wall tried instilling the fear of failure but someone or the other kept encouraging the gang to move forward, and we did. We even hoisted the flag of our native countries in that serene wilderness and made a wish for our families far away. Two troopers Manish and Khalid continued way past all of us. As the walls disappeared in the shrubs and the climb got steeper these two advanced till the very end even it meant walking on all fours!
Many of us were definitely “All In” to make the most out of our china experience. To balance the competing demands of long working hours between homework, classwork and company visits; socializing, and sightseeing, few of us even discovered the 6 am hangouts at the Gym; especially after the 2 am social hangout at the dance floors. This spirit of leaving no stone un-turned is what I cherish living everyday with this gang!
Nothing beats an intellectually stimulating trip that also fosters friendships for life. Representation from 5 executive MBA campus across the globe (Wharton east and west; INSEAD Singapore, France and Dubai) was another rare highlight of this trip.
We live in a connected world today and lean on friends who accept us for who we are, and push us forward even when we give up. I for sure came back feeling that I have made a few such friends in this trip. You know who you are. And for finding you I am greatly thankful to the Wharton and INSEAD faculty for planning such a memorable trip. I am thankful to our wonderful hosts – Min, Manping, Yongbo and Yulan for showing us a China we would have never seen without you and to David Raske for all the clicks that enable us to cherish and relive these moments for years to come!
It’s not over just yet!
This trip is over but neither is the story of innovation nor of friendships. I look forward to creating many more memories and fostering inventions with my new friends from the west, the east and the global INSEAD in years to come.
This post was initially published in the Wharton Blog in November 2015 (http://beacon.wharton.upenn.edu/entrepreneurship/2015/11/the-wharton-warriors-intrepid-insead-in-china/)