China business schools on the rise
Devon Nixon, great nephew of Richard Nixon, the former president, studied for an MBA at the China Europe International Business School in Shanghai. He reflects on his time there and on the rise of China's entrepreneurial economy in conversation with the FT's Jonathan Moules. Music by David Sappa
Presented by Jonathan Moules and produced by Fiona Symon
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From the Financial Times in London, I'm Jonathan Moules, and this is FT News.
China's business schools have been climbing up the global MBA rankings. The first to gain international accreditation was China Europe International Business School, or CEIBS, whose campus was opened in Shanghai in 1994. On the line with me now from Shanghai is Devon Nixon, great nephew of President Nixon, who moved from the US to China to study at the school and has remained to pursue a career as an entrepreneur, founding environmentally friendly farming products business SoilTap.
Devon, can you explain a bit about how you made what, to a lot of people, would be quite an incredible journey?
I had actually-- I've been linked with China since my earliest memories, literally, which were when I was a young man or a young boy in a suit and tie representing my family at Chinese consulate parties, when foreign Chinese dignitaries would come to Los Angeles. But in more recent years, it really came down to seeing the trends and where China was going during my generation. And I knew it would be very prudent to come learn the language, the culture, and especially the business mentality.
And I thought that I wouldn't be able to garner all of that truly through textbooks or sit-in in a classroom in the US or Europe or anywhere else. It really had to take me immersing myself in the country both during school and afterwards, and that's what really led me to take that big step to come out this direction.
What preparation had you done beforehand? It must be incredibly difficult to master such a different language to English.
[CHUCKLES] I'm sure-- those who are much wiser and with maybe more foresight than myself studied Chinese early on. I'm fluent in Spanish, but when I landed in Shanghai and in China for my first time, the only words I knew were ni hao and xie xie-- which is hello and thank you-- and advanced quite a bit since then.
I imagine. What about studying at a Chinese business school? Was that very different to what you'd experienced in the US?
Actually, one of the unique factors of CEIBS, where I did my MBA here in Shanghai, it's China Europe International Business School. The administration, you have half Chinese, half from Europe all the way throughout the school until you-- essentially a joint venture between the European Union and China.
I also did my undergraduate in business, so I'm actually well-prepared to answer your question, because I did undergraduate at Emory University in Atlanta, Goizueta Business School. So it's very similar in nature. Both use the Socratic method of teaching styles. The school classroom is set up very similar. There's a wonderful classroom setting, extremely intelligent classmates, and I'm sure any student you speak with-- or faculty for that matter-- will let you know that you learn the same as if not more, from your classmates than your faculty themselves. It was one of the important points of why I came here, knowing that fact.
How many of the students were Chinese, how many were Western, and what other countries were there in the classroom with you?
Actually, I'd been in China not nine years. I moved out here August 5th, 2008. And I actually remember some of the statistics you're asking about because I was president of my MBA class. I believe we had 188 students. 60% of them were from mainland China. 40% from abroad, but that's also including Taiwan and Hong Kong and what we call out here ABC's, or American-born Chinese.
How many other Americans were there?
I think in my class we had about nine Americans.
What are the benefits of studying in that environment for you?
I think there's two examples I can give. One being the study group where you are thrown together with other classmates, say, maybe a team of six roughly for whatever project you might be working on. In that environment and where it can become stressful, you learn how to not only interact, but interact under many different settings and find the means by which to resolve issues, resolve situations, overcome communication barriers. That was a very important lesson learned by being out here.
From my experience, I was president of my MBA class, I had an amazing team. I believe it was about seven or nine people from my student committee and they were awesome. One of the experiences I learned there was dealing with the administration of CEIBS and having to get approvals not only from the bottom-up, but I worked also from the top-down, and learned how to balance both the China and European sides of the administration to overcome barriers that previous student committees had faced. So I had a lot of very interesting lessons learned by being in this environment.
Learning about the way people interact is useful-- building a business in China.
Yeah. And relationships in China, I'm sure you might be familiar with the Chinese work Guangxi, which loosely translated is relationship, and it's definitely one word any listener should put in the back of their mind for future use. Relationships are important everywhere around the world. Very much so, even more so here in China. It's the backbone by which you do business, and having that close comfort with individuals I think really is a first step in allowing business to be conducted on any front.
Our alumni base from CEIBS-- actually, I think it's one of the largest, if not the largest EMBA/MBA alumni network in China. Very helpful. And Shanghai itself is an amazing city. You run into and meet extraordinary people from all over the world doing amazing different things. And simply being out with them, doing dinner, or going to a jazz bar or a cocktail lounge, being friendly with people, and just hearing their experiences, their stories, hearing what they're up to opens the doors for a host of opportunities.
Can you tell us a bit about what SoilTap does and how that idea came about?
What SoilTap does-- and here, it's SoilTap China-- we utilise an organic liquid solution to essentially give life back to the soil and increasing the fertility of the soil. We're re-initiating the symbiotic relationship between the soil and the plants once again.
Over the last 30, 40 years, the farmers here in China have used quite a bit more chemical fertilisers than they should have been using. And long ago, that used to work. You'd have more yields and it was great. But over the years, the soil has become more and more degraded, which has led to lower yield outputs, lower quality food being grown, a lot of issues with pests and weather. And so we bring the solutions by which to increase that fertility, and the result of that is a sustainable means to increase the yields year after year; the quality of the food being grown, so people are healthier when they're eating it; the speed of growth; and also protecting the plants. It's doing many benefits across the board.
My great uncle, who I lovingly call Uncle Dick, was US President Richard Nixon. And that's actually one of the reasons why I got into this business. Most people, even those from the United States, don't necessarily know he created the EPA, the Environmental Protection Agency. And it was through that my father garnered a true love for improving health, the environment, green energy, green technology, and he passed that down to me.
And Uncle Dick was also someone who built links between the US and China.
Yeah, most definitely. And he is the only man that could have built those links back then. It was a very different world, where there used to be saying, if you're red, you're dead. And it was because of President Nixon's history as a staunch anti-communist at the time that was one of the core reasons that allowed him to open the doors, because if anyone else tried, they would have pointed fingers and there would have been a lot of issues.
Business schools in China, maybe it's a reflection of this story of China's reemergence as a leading economy. What do you think is the future?
You have more billionaires now in China than you have in the US. And entrepreneurship is very strong here in China. And you see companies really growing fast, a lot of startups. One of the very unique factors of China and the ability to teach business, I think, will come from the sheer number of people and the data collection that's available here. So I believe in the future, you'll see a lot of very interesting case studies appearing-- already CEIBS has been writing many.
And China is the backbone, and will be, I think, a very large backbone for AI, for many other different industries because of the data that's able to be used. And the business schools that are teaching these students are really having a guiding hand and already it's been seen as very successful. It's a lot of growth. You know, there's obviously a strong wave that people have been able to ride on, but beyond that, I think it's just the beginning.
Thank you, Devon. And if you would like to read more on Chinese business schools, you can go to our special report on educating the next Chinese business leaders at FT.com/chinese-mba.