Rough start for Shanghai programme

It’s all about the cultural experience. Aiesec’s showpiece, a programme for helping small businesses in Shanghai, had to cope with some cultural differences itself. This year, it should live up to its prestigious reputation.

Marten van de Wier

Lendert Willemsen beams as he welcomes his audience. “We put a great deal of effort into the YES Programme and it will be very successful”, says Aiesec’s outgoing exchange coordinator. “Our partner network, Aiesec in Shanghai, sent a delegate to help us put together this programme for you. That’s quite unique.”

The Young Entrepreneurs in Shanghai programme is a real ‘paradepaardje’ (‘parade horse’) of Aiesec Tilburg, as Marlou Rijk puts it, introducing the Dutch expression for ‘showpiece’ in English. She puts on a snazzy video showing the radiant business center of Shanghai.

The information session is attended by four guys and a girl, plus a handful of Aiesec team members. About a month after this meeting some of them might be in the economic capital of China. For three months, they’ll help small and medium-sized enterprises to do market research and write strategies.

Students have to write a motivation letter, and do one interview with Aiesec Tilburg and another (via Skype) with its Shanghai counterpart. Willemsen says students value this procedure. “It makes YES prestigious and exclusive.”

In practice, things have proved difficult. Three students took part in the first exchange, last year. “The work, well…”, Lennart van Zeelst hesitates, “it wasn’t really challenging. Sometimes I had to do translations.” Van Zeelst (25), master’s student in Marketing Management, also designed a website, and made a profile of potential western customers. His marketing company had 25 employees.

“It was arranged rather last minute. I didn’t have a workplace, and was told to use the secretary’s computer whenever she was away. I ended up working at home most of the time.” Van Zeelst had a lot of spare time. He helped a non-governmental organization to give lessons on the environment at schools. “Teaching, that really was a challenge.”

The challenge shouldn’t be so much in the work, as in the cultural experience, last year’s coordinator Marjolein Jansen responds. She discovered the challenge of cultural difference for herself. It was hard making deals with Chinese companies. “For them, a signed contract is the beginning of a negotiation process”, Jansen explains. In the end, Aiesec couldn’t come to an agreement with the small companies. “We had to call people off three weeks before they were to leave”, Jansen says. “It was our biggest nightmare, as we worked very hard on this program.”

Aiesec did its best to find replacement companies. In the end, all students were able to go to China anyway. For Niels van Diepen (23, master’s in International Business), Aiesec arranged a spot at the Business School of Shanghai University. Van Diepen actually preferred working there. “I had already studied in China three years earlier, and I get along very well with Chinese students. I don’t care very much about entrepreneurship”, Van Diepen confesses. “I took part in the YES programme because it was a pilot. That’s challenging, because you have to improvise, and the rules aren’t very strict yet. You have a lot of freedom.” Van Diepen took the opportunity to travel around a lot.

Filip van den Heuvel (23, master’s in Financial Management) is more critical. “It was badly organized. The information Aiesec gave us was pretty vague.” The place he was to work at changed twice, as did his assignment. Because of the uncertainty, Van den Heuvel booked his tickets only ten days in advance. “That cost me an extra two hundred euros. Although I would recommend going to China to anyone, I would never go with Aiesec again.”

“We had to be vague, as we had to start recruiting students in November, for a trip in April”, Jansen explains. “We didn’t want to promise anything we didn’t have yet.” A difficulty was Chinese New Year in February. Jansen didn’t realize companies would be impossible to reach for about a month and a half. Another issue: Aiesec assumed the students would have English-speaking colleagues, but in China interpreters had to be arranged. Jansen has now written a manual to help her successors avoid these mistakes.

Participant Van den Heuvel raises another question. Students doing a management traineeship with Aiesec get a wage, students doing a development traineeship (usually at a non-profit organization) don’t. YES is a development traineeship, Aiesec told Van den Heuvel. They were to help young entrepreneurs in China get their businesses started. Van den Heuvel counted seventy colleagues at his company. In his view, this hardly qualifies as a starting business. YES is actually a management traineeship, and students should be paid accordingly, Van den Heuvel believes.

Aiesec now states the programme is somewhere in between a management and a development traineeship. Moreover, the YES programme no longer aims at starting businesses, but at small to medium ones. “Our plan was too idealistic”, Jansen says. “Young entrepreneurs are too hard to reach.” As opposed to a management traineeship, students have more freedom to travel, and stay at a company for a shorter period. At the same time, short-term paid traineeships are rare. YES is a cheaper option for the Chinese companies concerned, and thus a way for Aiesec to offer more places.

The association is convinced the current YES programme will be better than the previous one. There was six weeks between application and airplane, but Aiesec says this is enough. It put a lot of effort into developing better relationships with its Shanghai contacts. Next to their work, students will organize an ‘entrepreneurial forum’ together with Chinese students. This should add some challenge. Also, assignments will be broad, to avoid the need for them to be altered. Participants therefore have to be flexible. This will be tested in the interviews. This year’s coordinator, Willemsen, will do all that is possible to make sure all offered positions still exist when students arrive, but he can’t guarantee this.

Never mind the first year’s organizational difficulties: all three participants look back on their China experience with joy. They liked the traveling, their contact with the Chinese and the experience of surviving abroad. Van Zeelst: “Shanghai is very modern, and very eastern at the same time. It’s a world city that inspires you.”

YES: alternative to drowning in a database

Aiesec Tilburg strives to offer more concrete programmes, in addition to their large and diverse database of internships. “We offer a choice of about four thousand. The length of your stay? That depends on what you want. The type of internship? It depends on what you want. This causes an information overload for some students. They need something more specific to go on”, outgoing exchange coordinator Lendert Willemsen explains.

The program ‘Young Entrepreneurs in Shanghai’ fits in this strategy. “In this programme, students know when they leave, when they will be back and what will be arranged for them abroad”, says Willemsen. Participants get a city tour, and visits to various companies. Before they go, the Brabant Center of Entrepreneurship gives them a top-notch master class. The center is also a partner in the project. After two information sessions about five students applied to participate in YES.

Fifteen expressed serious interest in it. The first group will go in November, the second one in April. Aiesec hopes to send eight to thirteen students. Next year, this number should increase further. [MvdW]

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