Thomas Pan is currently studying for his MBA at China’s Tsinghua University. We asked him about the program and what it’s like living in China.
Where are you from originally?
I was born in Hong Kong but I have paternal roots in Suzhou, just outside of Shanghai. At the age of one, I moved to the United Kingdom, where I spent most of my formative years. I also spent some time living in London, Hong Kong and Singapore before heading over to California for my undergrad degree.
Why did you choose Tsinghua University?
After graduating, I worked in London and Hong Kong before settling in New York City. I actually started my US applications in 2007 but was concerned about my future in the US as a non-American, not to mention it was still a good time to keep working back then. When the time came for me to reevaluate an MBA in 2008, I realized two things: firstly, that I needed to differentiate myself from the growing number of MBA graduates in the US and secondly, that anyone willing to do an MBA in the US is probably in a prime position to take a little risk in life. With this epiphany, I hopped on a plane to China and took a look around Beijing and Shanghai, then settled on investing my future with Tsinghua University.
It’s true that CEIBS is sitting pretty with its respectable FT ranking and Peking University arguably has a more established international name than Tsinghua. However, the experience that impresses me the most about Tsinghua is the power of its brand name within China. Upon hearing the words Tsinghua University, local Chinese almost invariably confer upon you a degree of admiration and respect I’ve seldom observed anywhere else in the world. This attitude is likely driven by Tsinghua’s mainstream representation in China’s economic development and political leadership. Next, take a look at Tsinghua’s advisory board and you’ll find a list of business leaders that’ll make your jaw drop. To me, this is allure. This is what tells me I’m looking at the right place. If you’re going to throw yourself voluntarily into the dragon’s den, you’d better take the sharpest blades in there with you.
Gary Biddle, dean of the Faculty of Business and Economics at Hong Kong University (HKU), discusses his school’s MBA and EMBA partnerships with London Business School and Columbia Business School, and the enduring importance of “Ny-Lon Kong.”
Is Hong Kong still a good gateway into Asia for executives?
Hong Kong has long been a bridge between East and West. Hong Kong knows the West, and it knows the East. For people coming out of China into the world or going into China from the rest of the world…when these people cross, sparks fly, because in our classes, people say, “let me tell you how things are done in Shanghai,” and another might chime in “let me tell you how things are done in Berlin or London or New York or New Delhi.” The instructors understand both, and we facilitate this exchange of insights.
Is fluency in Chinese essential for executives in Hong Kong and China? Are they coming to your program with these skills?
There’s no question that if one wants to pursue a career connected to China, you’d want to know the local language there. This is true in Germany and everywhere.
In our regular MBA program, we have a “China Track” designed specifically for people from outside of China to launch their careers in China. If they don’t know Mandarin, there’s an option that takes them to Beijing for an intensive language immursion experience. This is for someone from Europe, South Asia, or the Americas who doesn’t know Mandarin, but knows China is a big thing, and wants to have some conversational fluency in Mandarin. And then they continue during their MBA studies. There’s of course a natural limit to how much you can learn in a year and a half, but still, with this kind of structure, you can learn quite a bit.
Is an MBA a good stepping stone into Asia? The founding director of the Kellogg–HKUST EMBA program shares some thoughts.
What should prospective MBA or EMBA students look for in an Asia-focused program?
There are definitely not enough Asia-related components in most US MBA programs. The need for that depends on an individual student’s career plan. My advice to prospective students is to be very open to global opportunity which will almost certainly require some time in Asia. Asia is such an important business destination for big and growing companies. An Asian component will be critical now more than ten years ago. Having an Asian base is also very important. This is where the growth is.
Prospective students need to make an assessment in terms of their skill path, career level and opportunity. This requires some research, from the websites, rankings, and publications. I encourage a candidate to find their match, not to “blanket” apply to ten schools. Students should look to find their dream school, 2-3 maximum, make sure that they are qualified and pursue that school. MBA forums can also be helpful. I recently attended forums in Hong Kong, London, and Dubai, and can report that the numbers are up and interest in Asia is also up.
A caution: Language skill is very critical especially in China, and without those language skills opportunities will be far less.