8 Questions for Alicia Noel, Business Maven

Alicia Noel is a business professor at China Agricultural University and an alumna of the Rutgers Executive MBA program in Beijing. She is also the vice president of the Hunter College alumni association. She spoke with us about what she’s learned from China and what knowledge she passes on to her students.

When and why did you first come to China?

I first visited China in 2005. I was on my way to Bangkok for a conference and had a two day layover in Shanghai. The energy and the pace of change made it obvious that there was so much more going on here than I knew. I wanted to experience the changes taking place first hand.

I’d just started a new job and couldn’t move immediately, so I took night classes in Mandarin at NYU for a year and learned a bit more about the country and the culture before I finally moved over in February of 2008. When I arrived I didn’t know anyone.

What projects have you worked on in China?

I’ve done a couple of different things in my time here so far. From 2008 to 2009 I did the Rutgers Executive MBA program in Beijing. It wasn’t part of my original plan but as I was job hunting it quickly became obvious that the market here is different from that in the U.S. and most employers didn’t recognize any of my business or finance experience because my undergraduate degree was not in business. The Rutgers program is 14 months long and brings professors from the U.S. for each course. My classmates were from all over the world and a variety of industries, so everyone brought a different perspective to the table and we learned a lot from each other.

While I was doing the Rutgers program I started to work with the United Nations Industrial Development Organization Industrial Technology and Promotion Office (UNIDO-ITPO) here in Beijing. We partnered with different cities around China to promote sustainable development and renewable energy projects. I spoke with businesses in different areas about how to work with foreign companies, helped organize several events focusing on the development of renewable energy, and organized two delegations of Chinese officials and business leaders to go overseas to learn more about development. It was a great opportunity to learn about how regional governments work to support their local economies. After my contract with UNIDO ended I took some time to work on my language skills. I still have a long way to go but I can understand and speak much more now than I could several years ago.

What projects are you working on now?

I currently teach business at China Agricultural University. My students study in English in Beijing for one or two years, depending on their program, then go to the UK to finish their degree. My favorite courses to teach are about culture, communication, and corporate governance. Some of the students get really excited as well. Recently my corporate governance class learned about Clara Shih, a young Chinese-American woman who last year was named to the Starbucks board of directors. She’s a Stanford grad who has worked at Google, founded a company that enables businesses to better connect with people using social media, founded an education and technology not-for-profit and has written a book about social media which is now used as a textbook at Harvard. They were amazed that someone so young could have already accomplished so much.

In addition to teaching at the university I do some consulting and training on professional skills, such as intercultural communications and negotiation. More and more companies are recognizing how important it is for their employees at different levels to be able to work effectively with people from around the world, so there is a demand for good consultants. I’ve also worked with Chinese executives preparing to go abroad, helping them to prepare for the differences they’ll experience overseas.

If you were to consult an American company, what would you tell them to look out for in China?

When speaking to American businesspeople who aren’t operating in China but want to enter the market, one of the first things I’ll tell them is to leave their assumptions behind—things have changed drastically over the last couple of decades and things are continuing to change rapidly. Don’t expect results overnight, or even within a single year, but be ready to move fast to take advantage of opportunities when they arise.

What changes have you noticed in your time here?

I’ve been impressed by how much easier it is to travel internationally now than it was 20 years ago. E-mail, VOIP technologies such as Google Hangouts and Skype, and the Internet have made it simple to stay in touch with family and friends in other places. There are also more flights and rail lines, so it’s easier to visit places that would have been difficult to reach years ago.

Based on your own experiences, what do you think is the biggest misunderstanding about China?

Most people who have never been to China don’t recognize how much change has taken place, is taking place, and how complex the society is. I hear criticism about the government, or that people everyone here is poor. There is a rapidly growing middle class, as well as an elite, and people are working hard to take advantage of opportunities.

What is one of your favorite or most memorable China experiences?

Competing in dragon boat competitions around China has been a great way to visit other parts of the country as a participant in the culture, not only as a tourist. I am part of a dragon boat team made up of both Chinese and foreigners from around the world—America, Australia, Canada, Turkey, England, Denmark and other countries. We practice on Houhai, a lake in the middle of Beijing. During the summer we have the opportunity to compete in competitions around the country. I’ve been to races in Xiamen in Fujian Province, Wuxi in Jiangsu, Shanghai and Miluo in Hunan Province, which is the birthplace of dragonboat racing.

What is your favorite hangout spot in China?

There are a lot of amazing places—it’s hard to choose just one! I love the parks, food and teahouses in Chengdu. The annual snow and ice festival in Harbin is a lot of fun. Gulangyu Island in Xiamen is a scenic spot to explore. Cars are not permitted on the island so pedestrians can explore the colonial architecture and gardens as they stroll around the island, and there’s a giant aviary.

In Beijing, I love walking around Houhai or sitting at the boathouse with my dragon boat teammates, watching the ducks and the boats. Beijing has some beautiful parks as well—Beihai and Yuanmingyuan are both favorites.

Photograph courtesy of Alicia Noel.