During her career in China, Elizabeth Knup has led some of the most influential nonprofit organizations in U.S.-China relations as well as successful multinational companies. In addition to her many professional accomplishments, Elizabeth is a renowned community leader and mentor. Read on for her reflections on China career development and her advice to young professionals getting started today:
Ever since I was the American co-director [at the Hopkins-Nanjing Center] in the late 1990s, there has been a question asked of me which is, “Are we on the brink of the end of China career for foreign expats?” and that’s not a new question – and my answer has always been that I didn’t think it was.
We’re not on the brink of that moment although the environment is changing and the opportunities are different and the skills that people need might be different as well. I’m still not going to concede that it’s doomsday for expats coming to try to work in China.
Why did you decide to come out to China in the first place and how did you find China as an expat when you arrived?
I studied Chinese at college and worked in the United States in a China-related field for probably 12 to 14 years before I actually lived in China. I had studied in Taiwan and I did a lot of traveling back and forth between China and the United States but I didn’t ever live here permanently until I was pretty far into my career.
When I came, I was very intentionally wanting to live and work in China because I hadn’t ever done that before and I felt that if I was going to develop a career that was related to China, there came a point in time in the ‘90s when you pretty much had to live in China and experience it on a daily basis to really be able to understand the dynamism of what was going on.
I would say that obviously China in the late ‘90s was a lot less developed. All the obvious things, buildings, cars, the way people dress, all were much different than they are now. I think also probably attitudes were different about how China viewed itself because it was prior to the WTO entry, so the way China told the story about itself and how it understood itself as a country and therefore as people has changed.
I think China has grown up a lot. I mean it has become a much more developed, mature, independent country and so that manifests itself in how people behave and how they think about themselves and how they think about their country.
Based on what you’ve seen in your experience, how have the opportunities available to expats changed?
Over the last 15 years, certainly the competition for entry-level jobs with very well educated English speaking Chinese counterparts has definitely increased. So I think it’s not quite as easy as it once was to just walk into a job somewhere without really, really having to work at it a little bit to find the job.
I would say that in the late ‘90s, I only knew one student from the Hopkins-Nanjing Center who went to work in a Chinese company and it was a really, really big deal. It was amazing that he was able to get that job. It was an amazing opportunity to be able to be inside a Chinese company at that time. I think that the opportunities for young expats in Chinese enterprises have probably gotten better.
I also think that China continues to be a place where you can be entrepreneurial, where the risk of being an entrepreneur is not as great as it is probably in a place like New York City or Boston or Washington and you can, with a lot of blood, sweat and tears, really try to start something innovative here and I do think that that opportunity is better here still than it is in more developed economies.
How replicable would your own career track be today?
I think probably not very replicable mostly because I’m what you would call jack of all trades and a master of none. By virtue of being in the right place at the right time and being open-minded, I’ve been able to build a career around being a generalist about China and have been able to do a lot of different things. I’ve been very, very fortunate. I do think that I’m at the end of the wave of people who can be truly generalists about China and still have a fun and interesting career.
I don’t think that means that there are fewer opportunities but I do think that it means that a certain amount of specialization and focus is probably something that needs to be part of your thinking now, as you’re trying to build a career that’s related to China.
What about this new generation of China professionals surprises you and how do you think they differ characteristically from people who first started looking at China in the ‘80s or the ‘90s?
Well, I think people now who are building careers in China are probably more intentional about it and not just sort of coming to China because they could speak some Chinese and seeing what happens, but are much more thoughtful and intentional about the career that they want to build and specialize earlier rather than later.
That is a big difference between people who came out a lot earlier and people who are coming out now. But you don’t want to generalize too much because there are a whole lot of different reasons why people come to China. And they come with a lot of different backgrounds and a lot of different sort of relationships to language and culture that are not all the same.
So how would you advise young professionals who are intentionally starting their careers in China but might not know how to go about doing that?
At an early stage in your career, people don’t tend to have a lot of work experience and therefore don’t necessarily know exactly what it is that they want to do. There is some benefit to taking a general approach in the beginning – and what I mean by that is to be very open-minded about what it is that you would be willing to do for your first couple of years in your first job. If something comes up that might not fit exactly in your idea of what you wanted to do, don’t reject it out of hand; give it a chance, get some experience, and see that one pathway leads to another pathway.
Even though my story is not necessarily replicable, I do think that the key factor that helped me was a willingness to try something that I had never thought of trying before and being very open-minded when opportunities came my way.
China is big now. There are lots of places that are vibrant economically and there’s lots of opportunity outside of what we think of as top-tier cities and so it’s really about looking for the opportunity.
What do you think are the most important things that a young professional who wants to develop their career in China should learn from their early experience?
I think that number one is just an experience working in an organization. So that means having a boss. That means having colleagues. That might mean having subordinates so that you learn how to be effective in an environment where there are a lot of other people who are bumping into you along the way. Number one is just to kind of build up that ability to work with a lot of different people.
I’ve worked in not-for-profit and for-profit and back in not-for-profit and lots of people ask me what’s the difference, and what I say is that there are some differences, but 85 percent of what you do in your work is relating to other human beings whether you’re in a foundation or an NGO or government or business.
So learning how to do that effectively, how to communicate with people, how to get people onboard with your ideas, how to disagree in a way that doesn’t cause rifts, is one thing that would be really important to take away from your early working experience.
Especially out here in China where in addition to just human interaction, there’s the cross-cultural overlay on that that makes it a little bit more complex.
Would you recommend that people try and come out to China either immediately or soon after graduation? Do you think they’re actually better off getting a few years work experience in the States first and then come to China?
That’s a good question. I still think you should come as soon as you can and the reason I think that is even in the big cities, it’s not always the easiest place to live. You’re living in a country that’s not your own and a language that’s not your own and I would wonder if you got employed in your home country and got comfortable – would you really leave that to come and experience China here?
I think also that it’s probably the case that most employers would rather hire you here for here rather than hire you in the US and send you here because just from an economic perspective for companies, it’s no longer really the modus operandi.
So I think it’s probably better to be here to get hired for here and then it’s better to come as soon as you can and just jump right in.
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