Shanghai. The very name conjures up a sense of mystery and danger. Before the communists took over, sailors were often "shanghaied," and then put aboard a ship bound for China and other parts East. If the victim actually got to the city on the southeast China coast, he found a bustling port, a center of trade and commerce, crowded with ships and ringing with a dozen languages. After the 1940s, however, Shanghai was neglected by the communist government and went badly to seed. Its beautiful colonial-era and art deco architecture became rundown, and its prosperity seemed a thing of the past.
Now all that is changing. Shanghai is once again a boom town and making a strong bid to regain its old preeminence as the nation's commercial and financial center. Business opportunities abound, and Westerners don't have to be shanghaied into coming here.
Given this, it's not a surprise that in the middle of all the action, and thriving on it, is a group of Penn alumni. About half are '90s grads, all did liberal arts, and all have careers in business. They were all drawn here by the excitement and challenges of living and working in Shanghai and they vividly illustrate the international dimension of today's career possibilities.
Ira Bloom (C'90) and Brendan Lawry (C'94) work for China Link, a business development consulting firm that Ira started in 1994. China Link specializes in establishing, monitoring and developing product distribution systems in the China market. In two short years the company has grown to 14 persons and now has an office in New York. Also in the business development area, Brett Tucker (C'94) works in the Shanghai office of Pacific Rim Resources, a San Francisco-based consulting firm that helps multinational companies gain market entry in China or expand existing China operations. Melissa McFerrin (C'92) came to China on a Penn-in-China teaching program and stayed. She began working in Shanghai TV and currently is an account executive for Edelman, a multinational public relations firm.
William Marshak (C'75), a commercial officer at the U.S. Consulate General in Shanghai, is the group's "old timer" with six years in China. Bill is a specialist in trade facilitation in a district that has a population of 180 million people and which sees an annual percentage growth of double digits in industrial output. Facilitation is also the specialty of Catherine Cole (C'92) who has been in Shanghai for two years as a manager for Evergreen Airlines. Her job focuses on plotting a way through the long list of restrictions that govern cargo shipping between the States and China. Tom Frater (C'87) moved to Shanghai last year and recently obtained government permission to start a packaging printing company. The company should soon break ground for its factory.
We found the group through Patti Dame (C'87) who sent us an e-mail about their intent to form a Shanghai Penn Club. Patti took her B.A. in East Asian Studies while picking up additional studies and internships in China and Taiwan. In 1994, she graduated from the Wharton MBA and Lauder M.A. program with an East Asian concentration. Patti came to Shanghai a year ago as a project manager for Eli Lilly Asia.
In addition to their link to Penn, the alums also share a very strong pioneering spirit. Tom Frater likens contemporary life in Shanghai to "what New York was 100 years ago. It is not for everyone but for those people who want a bit more out of life...I can think of few places in the world more exciting." His time at Penn gave him the entrepreneurial spirit that pushed him to Shanghai and gave him the pragmatic education to support it. He doesn't regret his liberal arts program even though his career is in business. In fact, he remembers a German professor at Penn who said that "learning a foreign language is like acquiring a new key to life." Tom, now adding Mandarin to the German and Hungarian he already speaks, feels this sentiment is "right on target."
Brett Tucker absorbed "the ability and confidence to constantly push the edge of the envelope, which is crucial to success here when things are changing so fast...." Cathy Cole describes Shanghai as a "very dynamic but volatile place to be. At the same time it is scary, because of the political situation, things can change at any time." Still, no one has plans to leave.
A common sub-theme for each of these entrepreneurs is the frustrations that accompany life in Shanghai. Even the young could have cardiac arrest over the price of real estate. In Shanghai, four million people are working in construction 24 hours a day. Buildings, subways, and freeways are being completed at a phenomenal rate, and a Westerner can expect to pay - for a two-bedroom apartment in a rundown building - $5,000 per month. For a three-bedroom in a fairly nice building, try $15,000 per month. While the growth is frantic and the prices exorbitant, daily life offers other frustrations as well. "Telephone calls do not always go through easily and you often get cut off suddenly, especially with tappers on the line," reports Patti Dame. "Power may go out for a while each day. Business discussions are not usually as direct as in Western business, so meetings can be much more time-consuming. Business relationships are very important and must be well- nurtured through banquets and other activities."
While the physical changes proceed at breakneck pace (Bill Marshak says that one in five of all construction cranes in the world are in Shanghai), the cultural changes are much slower. China is an incredibly difficult place to get answers and, as Tom Frater points out, is "tricky" from a legal perspective because the "legislative environment is merely in its infancy." "In many cases," as Melissa McFerrin explains, "there are no rules at all and we fly by the seat of our pants." They also agree, however, that the frustrations are just the flip side of the excitement found in a country that is making massive and critical transitions - from a planned to a market economy, from a closed to a more open society.
Survival is helped by a sense of humor. Asked what working in Shanghai is like, Brendan Lawry replied, "like trying to get out of a four-foot wide room while tied by a three-foot long rope. You can see your goal and how you want to achieve it...but it sometimes feels so out of reach." Ira and Brendan get the benefits of regular exercise, organizing and playing in weekly basketball and football games (when they are not keeping up with U.S. sports and politics via the Internet). Brett moonlights as an egg roll chef and cultivates serenity by studying Tibetan Buddhism and Tai'chi. And Tom sent this blurb for class notes: "When not teaching the Chinese National Fencing team how the Quakers play the sport, Tom enjoys hanging out at the Australian Consulate convincing fellow Shanghailanders that his girlfriend is actually an heir to the Hapsburg throne." To each his own....
As for the Penn Club of Shanghai, the fledgling
group is just forming and actively contacting other
alums in the area. Anyone wishing information on
meetings and programs should contact...
c.o. Eli Lilly Asia, Inc., 4th Floor
Man Po International Business Center
660 Xm Hua Road
Shanghai, 200052 P.R. China
Telephone: 86-21-6282-6008 x 207 (direct line with voicemail)
Bill Marshak also encourages any Penn alumni
passing through to contact him...
c/o American Consulate General
1469 Huai Hai Middle Rd.
Shanghai, 200031, China