TECS 2013: ZTE and a Note on My Generation

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Our last few days in Beijing have certainly kept us busy. We’ve split our time between visiting ZTE, SOHO China, and DCM. In between, there have been trips to the Great Wall, Tiananmen Square, and the Forbidden City.

On Thursday we started with ZTE, a global telecommunications hardware provider that makes a wide range of products and is currently expanding into the American market. It came as a shock to all of us that their phones are actually selling quite well in AT&T stores and they are growing at over 80% per year in the US.

The discussion with a senior executive at ZTE was very different from those at similar companies like Lenovo and Baidu. Instead of trying to incorporate new strategies into the company to make the culture more uniform across the globe, ZTE instead opts for a policy of strict decentralization. This means allowing the culture of each branch to develop on its own – to keep language and how business is conducted separate depending on the country. In the executive’s words, “ There are many worlds with lots of diversity. Cultural convergence is too far away … instead ZTE tries to implement a philosophy of coexistence.” I’m not so sure how this philosophy will pan out in the long run, and it is acutely against the ideals of Silicon Valley, which often preach cross incorporation, cultural immersion, and deep horizontal and vertical understanding throughout a company.

When asked about what ZTE was doing to diminish it’s environmental impact, ZTE’s executive mentioned that ZTE was very “environmentally friendly.”

This phrase really gets to me. To be fair ZTE wasn’t the only company that has said this on the trip, but companies have a duty to do more than install a couple of solar panels on factories and call themselves “environmentally friendly” – especially in China where population is only growing and the issues surrounding anthropogenic pollution are worsening. Throwing around keywords that encompass a wide variety of unspecified activities reflects disconnected priorities and a lack of both real environmental impact and anchoring data.  While some companies may actually be “reducing carbon and making better use of energy,” as ZTE says they are, I think they could improve their public perception by laying out their actual technical practices and fulfill their words with quantitative data.

Before closing the same executive posed an interesting question for us all: What are the biggest challenges and obstacles young Americans face when considering jobs at international companies?

Some obvious aspects came to mind immediately: language, fear of the unknown, governments, politics, privacy, security, and safety. For me, however, I thought one of the biggest drivers would be purpose.

Our generation is a civic one. We are focused on purpose, impact, and making a difference, and we measure these in terms of how much we improve the lives of others as well as how many lives we improve.  We also come from backgrounds where we were given much and we want to give back as much as we’ve received. On the side, our generation fears inflexibility, the 9-5 job, and gray drab cubicles in a prison-like office space (which we happen to have seen much of in some of our visits…)

In attracting young Americans overseas, I wonder if Chinese companies will be able to create the type of spaces my generation seeks: a place to develop, grow, learn, and understand, while fulfilling the high demands of flexibility and purpose. It is certainly not an easy task, but I think it can be done with the adoption of true innovation.

This seems to be another keyword that is thrown around with little regard to its true meaning. In one instance, a company executive (which I will leave unnamed) said innovation is all about building what customers need. This is so far from the truth!

Real innovation is not simply about fulfilling the momentary needs of customers – this is just sound business policy. Genuine innovation is about creating something that people don’t even know they need yet, but that can truly change their lives for the better.  Steve Jobs was the master of this type of innovation. To bring Americans and others overseas, China has much to change in creating business environments where real innovation happens organically. 

*TECS 2013 is short for my adventures with Stanford University's TECS two week immersive business and technology program in China. Over the next two weeks I am travelling from Beijing to Shanghai and meeting with incredible businesses along the way. All posts from the program will be tagged.