Discovery Expedition Part 2 – China

After a 14 Hour hop over the Pacific the class touched down in Hong Kong, en route to Shenzhen, for the second and much anticipated part of the MBA Discovery Expedition 2019!

For many of the class this was our first visit to China and came against the backdrop of increasing trade tensions between the US and our new hosts… An interesting moment to discuss and learn more about the rapid rise of the private sector here in China!

First and foremost, the efforts made by the Chinese members of the 2019 class cannot go without mention. Whether it was organising evenings out in great local restaurants, helping with on-the-fly translations or organising Karaoke for the entire class, their contributions made our experience of Shenzhen an incredible one. They were always extremely generous with their time and as a class we are extremely grateful to all of them for the welcome we received and the experiences we shared as a result of their help and organisation! It was a great example of the value such a diverse group brings to this year and they should be extremely proud!

Of course, there was also the small matter of our intensive 5-day back-to-back schedule. Professors Bill Fisher and Mark Greeven had clearly invested months of work into this trip and it showed. The class was also very grateful to the Haier Group and James Wang for their insight into the local market and start-up community.

During our first day we were sent out into the sprawling metropolis of Shenzhen to complete a number of day-to-day tasks ranging from ordering a DiDi taxi purchasing something at Hema Supermarket or enjoying some daytime Mini-Karaoke TV, naturally… Needless to say, if you don’t have WeChat or AliPay or your Mandarin is rusty, these tasks can prove far more challenging than you could imagine… but in the oppressive 35°C heat we managed it, eventually, and the trip was off to a great start!

The next few days went by in a matter of seconds. Company visits to Tencent, Huawei, Ping An, UBTECH and others demonstrated more than could be satisfactorily recorded here. These companies are operating at a scale only possible in China and they are unafraid of the risks and scepticism surrounding new applications of AI, Machine Learning and Facial Recognition. They scale fast or they fail fast.

On top of this, a few common themes prevailed throughout our visits to local companies – a 6-day work week for many start-ups pursuing market domination, a government willing to go to great lengths to support technological development locally and a national obsession to educate the next generation in STEM & Computer Programming subjects.

Last but not least an unexpected detour! After meeting a French E-Bike start-up at one of the sessions, 10 members of the class took a spontaneous trip out to Huizou 惠州. We wanted to understand what it was really like to setup and scale a manufacturing operation in China, away from the bright lights and skyscrapers of the city. After a supposedly short ride, that turned into a 3 hour marathon of traffic and rain, we made it to the Carbo Factory. There we saw first-hand the challenges of going local here – finding a partner, setting up a JV, raising funds, getting the right shipping in place, protecting your IP from the competition – and it was truly impressive to see how founders Lynne and Lauryn have managed to overcome these. One of the many highlights of the trip.

As we headed to Hong Kong Airport the following day it was clear that even though we had experienced so much, this was only just a tiny perspective of this complex and vibrant market. But, most importantly, it had given many of us a unique perspective to build on for the future…

Alex Berry