Wolff is the Director of China Programs for Sage Corps, a global entrepreneurship program that sends top university students and post-graduates to intern with startups around the world. He spoke with us about launching a China-centric career, the changes he has seen over the years and the need for students and young professionals to engage deeply with their surroundings to get the most out of their experience.
Read all the way to the end for a special offer for Pengyous!!
What drew you to China in the beginning? What made you stay so long?
I first learned about China and Chinese culture through my Dad, who spent much of his career working internationally (he actually began learning Chinese language as a student at Johns Hopkins SAIS in the late 1970s). I would sometimes join him and his clients for dinners and they would often bring me small gifts. I keenly remember receiving my first pair of binoculars from one of my dad’s close associates, when I was about 7 or 8 years old.
It was not until my junior year of college at Miami (OH) University until I began taking Chinese courses to satisfy the language requirement for my Political Science degree. Soon thereafter, I learned that my university offered a semester abroad program in Shanghai – I committed then and there to go.
The memories of my first few weeks of my study abroad experience are still incredibly vivid to me all these years later. I remember the first meals I ate, the streets I walked and sitting in a cab listening to the radio and realizing I would have a long way to go before I could consider myself fluent in Chinese! My semester abroad was a pivotal time for me as an introduction to the place I would eventually call home, and I committed to returning to China after graduation to learn and launch my career.
How did you transition from being a student to a working professional in China?
After completing my semester abroad, I still had to graduate back home, but my heart (and mind) was back in China. I hopped on the first flight back to China after graduation and began a year dedicated to intensive language studies, exploring China and accumulating professional experiences.
My first big break came when I had the opportunity to assist with the daily operations for the ATP Shanghai Rolex Masters tennis tournament in October 2009. The Tournament Director invited me for an interview in response to my e-mail requesting to get involved with the event. My role was to serve as concierge/gopher for the 100+ players as well as dozens of other odd tasks. I took many lessons from that experience, but perhaps the most enduring has been to be ready when your name is called.
That opened my door to the market and over the following years, I worked for several different Chinese sports marketing companies, which mostly involved communicating with non-Chinese stakeholders and translating those directives into action with the help of my local colleagues. For example, I worked for a private golf club in Suzhou which hosted a professional tournament for the Ladies European Tour (LET). I was interfacing with non-Chinese tour officials, sponsors, media, golfers and caddies and then working with club operations to ensure a functional week-long professional event. My last gig before moving back to the U.S. was staging an exhibition match between golf legends Tiger Woods and Rory Mcilroy, which was also an incredible experience.
How did it feel to move back to the US?
After four years of living and working in China, I wondered what it would be like to live in a big U.S. city as a young professional and so I moved back to Chicago, my hometown. It was not as easy as I thought it would be.
Aside from dealing with reverse culture shock, I found it quite difficult, at first, to find work with an employer that valued my experiences abroad. After some months I found the “right” fit with a membership-based association that worked to facilitate cross-border investment and immigration, which at the time relied heavily on Chinese investors.
How did you work to maintain your connections to China?
While I was able to return to China 1-2 times per year for trade shows and other meetings, I found it challenging to maintain my language skills and long-distance relationships from halfway around the world. I developed a new circle of friends and colleagues who similarly studied and/or worked in China, which really helped.
From a language-upkeep perspective, I relied heavily upon chinesepod.com for self study, took language courses through the George Washington University’s Confucius Institute, and engaged a tutor for lessons as frequently as I could. I was fortunate that my language skills had not atrophied too much when I later moved back to China, and I was able to pick up where I left off several years before.
How have things changed since you first came to China in 2008?
Long-time China watchers have all observed how the first-tier cities of Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou and Shenzhen have matured into some of Asia’s most developed and world-class cities, each with an impressive array of skyscrapers, LEED-certified office buildings, Michelin-starred restaurants and modern public transportation systems that make doing business in China so convenient. But the development of second-tier cities (think Wuhan, Nanjing, Hangzhou, Dalian, Chongqing, etc) have been even more impressive, as the influx of investment into new highway and rail systems and a relatively low cost of labor have enabled industry to flourish.
China’s incredible boom over the past 40 years is an economic miracle that is constantly evolving. China is no longer merely “the factory of the world” but a country and a people with an eye towards developing world-class products and services. The spirit of entrepreneurship and innovation that drives business these days is really impressive to witness, and something that was not readily apparent a decade ago.
Can you tell us about your work at Sage Corps? How did you get started there?
I first learned about Sage Corps in 2014 when I met up for a coffee in Chicago with its founder Matt Meltzer. It had been quite a while since I last saw Matt, who was my counselor at an all-boys sleep-away camp when I was 13 years old. Although we were just catching up, I was really impressed with Sage Corps’ founding story and how the program helps students to launch globally-oriented careers.
At the end of 2017, I reached back out to Matt after reading about the success of the first cohorts to travel Hong Kong and Singapore and inquired about Sage Corps’ plans for developing programs in Mainland China. After a series of phone calls and planning sessions with Matt and his team, it became apparent that not only should Sage Corps run programs in Mainland China (which are kicking off this summer in Shanghai) but it could also begin attracting top Chinese university students to its global programs in the United States and around the world, and I might just be the right person to make that happen!
I embraced the challenge of moving back to China, after a four year hiatus, to launch this project. Over the past 12 months, I have been working behind the scenes to set up the foundation for Sage Corps’ success in the market. This has ranged from developing relationships with some of China’s top startup incubator/accelerators to identifying and consummating partnerships with universities and other channels that could help introduce Sage Corps to students. We are truly excited for what the future holds in this regard.
How can Pengyous participate in your programs in China?
Exclusive to Project Pengyou Leadership Fellows and Chapter Builders, Sage Corps is excited to extend scholarships to the first ten applicants who are accepted to the following Shanghai summer programs:
8-week Internship Program ($500 scholarships): Students can apply to participate in Sage Corps’ signature 8-week program from June 18-August 14, in which they’ll work full-time alongside CEOs, CMOs, and CTOs in some of Shanghai’s hottest startups to build real solutions to real problems. Sage Corps matches the student with a company that has emerged from one of Shanghai’s leading incubator/accelerators where they’ll take on roles ranging from product design and development to data analytics and marketing to sales, business development and content marketing strategy, and everything in between. Sage Corps curates select community, networking and cultural events to allow students to take full advantage of everything Shanghai has to offer.
2-Week Start! Micro-internship Program ($300 scholarships): Sage Corps also offers students the opportunity to join its Start! Micro-internship Program from August 3-17, in which they can expect to work on a small team of Sage Corps Fellows to complete a consulting project for a global startup. Past projects include auditing a global data platform’s website and creating a comprehensive social media strategy for a travel tech startup. This option is ideal for students who want international experience without sacrificing coursework or other summer opportunities.
When you fill out the application, select Project Pengyou in the section “How did you hear about us?”. After submitting your application, we will follow up with further instructions on how you can advance your candidacy to join this summer’s programming.
What piece of advice would you give to Pengyous?
For students who have yet to travel to China, I urge you to seek out the next best opportunity to process your visa, get on a plane and go. There are several intern/study abroad grants that you can take advantage of to make your dream a reality.
I would also advise students to be cautious of placing unintended barriers in the way of your Chinese language and culture learning. For instance, when you’re abroad it can be tempting to shut your mind off after class, stay glued to your pre-existing virtual social networks or seek out friendships with only other international students. But it will be much more rewarding to engage deeply and thoughtfully with your surroundings. The most learning you will do are in the first weeks and months in China, so pay attention and don’t be afraid to ask questions!
The Project Pengyou team would like to extend a big thank you to Allen for his time catching up with us. We really enjoyed hearing his story and learning more about Sage Corps!
About Sage Corps
Sage Corps began as an idea on a legal pad to send an army (a “corps”) of college students abroad to get impactful professional experience. Starting with five students in Buenos Aires in 2013, today, programs are run on five continents for hundreds of students. Sage Corps looks for top college students to intern abroad with global startups and learn from a robust network of “Sages” (career mentors and alumni).
With a mission to train the next generation global workforce as well as making global experience accessible and affordable to as many college students as possible, regardless of race, gender, culture, background, or identity – Sage Corps helps students gain the real-world experience, skills, and network they need to succeed in today’s fast-paced job market.