Engaged and Enlightened: MBA Experiential Learning in China and Singapore

The sights, sounds, colors, and smells form a tapestry: The hawker stalls. The culture. The ornately-manicured trees and chaotic-yet-somehow-organized subway traffic. The beauty of the Chinese and Singaporean people.

But let’s start from the beginning…
It was with eagerness and a measure of trepidation that we boarded our 14-hour flight from San Francisco to Shanghai. We’d heard the descriptions: Shanghai is like New York and Las Vegas smashed together, a city of 23 million filled with towering skyscrapers and neon lights, much of which was rice paddies 10 years ago. The hype was real: The scale is on another level. The drive from the airport was populated with high-rise apartment buildings, and the city itself was filled with the promised sparkling, whimsical and gravity-defying skyscrapers.

Our tour began at Spraying Systems Co., a world leader in automated industrial spraying technology, where fellow Oregon MBA’ers Mason Atkin, Aaron Bush, Leah Goodman, and Seth Lenaerts spend the summer as interns driving innovation and sustainable business practices. The visit highlighted some differences between US and Chinese practices, including ideas of credit and performance guarantees, as the company prepares for the changing business demands of the 21st century.

Our next stop was Silicon Valley Bank, where the Chinese branch of this bank has made inroads in the country through use of patience and partnerships. Our host for this visit was Head of Corporate Banking, and U of O alumnus, Tim Hardin. As the Chinese banking system slowly opens to Westerners, SVB has positioned itself to take advantage of this exploding market.

At China Steel, an online steel trading startup and client of SVB, we were exposed to the pace and adaptability of the Chinese startup culture. Within a few short years, the startup has grown from an idea into a multi-million-dollar company, completely changing their business model almost yearly as they adapt to this new arena. Chinaccelerator, a Shanghai-based startup accelerator, was another impressive example of the pace of the Chinese startup market. Here businesses are created, funded, and launched within a matter of months.

The next leg of our adventure took us to Beijing, the cultural center and seat of Chinese power for thousands of years. Our first visit was to AECOM, an international engineering and consulting firm that has designed and built several large-scale projects for the Chinese government. AECOM is truly synthesizing the old and the new, with aesthetics that combine traditional techniques and styles with modern materials. The company is also innovating creative solutions to public transport and urban congestion, helping China steer away from polluting combustion-engine vehicles that clog the streets towards efficient and effective public transportation.

Next was a presentation at the Silk Road Fund. This collaboration between government and private entities is funding projects that advance China’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative, which strives to reestablish and reinvigorate trade routes between China and Europe, Africa, and Asia Minor. By investing in infrastructure, energy, and transportation projects, China is reopening the historic “Silk Road” trading routes and transitioning its economy from a manufacturing power to a service, innovation, and knowledge economy.

That wrapped up our time in China, and it was truly bittersweet to leave behind our new friends and favorite foods. It’s one thing to hear the hyperbole about China: Rising superpower, a billion-and-a-half people, a culture and political system so different from ours. But it’s altogether different to see it firsthand, and I think it’s safe to say I was changed by the experience.

Next it was on to Singapore, the tropical nation-state and financial powerhouse known as the “garden city.” After meeting with some local politicians and businesspeople who delved into Singapore’s political and socioeconomic realities (Western ties, and close proximity to a rising China), we toured Sports Singapore and Singapore Airlines. Sports Singapore is a terrific example of the push to invest in its people. Through a focus on active play, healthy competition and beneficial lifestyles, the government is preparing its people for the dynamic, competitive world that lies ahead. At Singapore Airlines, we were briefed on their success from small airline to regional player with multiple subsidiaries, as well as getting an up-close look into their training program.

Last on the agenda was a special visit to the Singaporean Parliament building, where we learned of the island’s brief but storied history from British colony to independent nation-state. Such visits provide valuable insight into our own, mostly unquestioned, mores and beliefs.

Overall, my takeaways from Engaging Asia 2017 are that I grew personally and professionally in ways that I can’t quite quantify, but are tangible and real. Many of our world’s conflicts come from misunderstanding or lack of knowledge, and we reduced that in a way that could have ripple effects. Professionally, I think my basket of potential career destinations and job titles got bigger, and I also think there’s a spark to build stronger international connections and networks.

Engaging Asia changes and bolsters perspectives in an irreversible way, a way that hyperbole simply cannot. As we boarded the return flight to San Francisco, we left a piece of ourselves behind, but took a piece of China and Singapore with us. Until next time!

Written by bfordham

Fordham is a writer and journalist who believes in addressing the future with clarity and vision. He has most recently written for the Mad River Union, an award-winning Northern California newspaper, where he helped bring subjects like biogas production and bond procurement to life. Through the Oregon MBA’s Center for Sustainable Business Practices, Fordham plans to build out his overall skill-sets, taking advantage of rigorous coursework and experiential learning opportunities to gain a strong framework of business fundamentals. After graduation he plans to work toward renewable energy solutions for a changing world. Fordham will graduate in Spring '18.