EHP: I was doing a masters in international management for China with Daniel Nivern and we got talking and he said do you fancy setting something up. Our first business was much more consultancy focused, giving market-entry consultancy services for UK SMEs going into China.
During that process we got a few clients and took them to China, and we had a lot of fun. We realised it could be difficult to scale and we wanted more of a social impact.
We were talking to one university that was a client and they wanted us to set up an internship program for them in China and we realised that was a real demand for this. It was back before anyone was really doing cross-border internships, particularly to China.
The PIE: What year was this?
EHP: We started the company in 2006 and ran the first program around the Beijing Olympics in 2008. Since, there’s really been no looking back.
For the first few years we were actually doubling numbers, 250, 500, 1,000. We are now more stable at around 1,200 per year to China, and exciting plans for expansion to new locations.
I think the most interesting thing that we have noticed in the last few years is the transition from individual applicants who are self-funded to universities and governments seeing the value in the internships and helping to fund and subsidise students wanting to go on the program. We are an official partner of the British Council’s Generation UK Program.
The PIE: How did you start? The hardest bit with any business is about getting it off the ground.
EHP: We were lucky having done some of the consultancy business. We had good corporations in China, who would take on interns, although it did take time to build up a larger network.
“Everyone was raving about someone who did a Games of Thrones related internship recently in Shenzhen”
In general, the companies were smaller and more entrepreneurial in nature. In recent years, we have managed to add some bigger names to our portfolio, including The American Chamber of Commerce, Virgin and Rolls Royce.
The PIE: Are many of the businesses Chinese-owned companies?
It’s a mixture. About 50-50. There are a lot of expats doing business in China now and they can tend to be a bit more experienced about managing interns, giving a slightly better job description etc.
On the other hand, the interns that go into Chinese company can get a really authentic Chinese experience and more exposure to the unique Chinese business culture.
The PIE: Why do Chinese businesses agree to take western interns?
EHP: A lot of it depends on their individual business situation. They like the idea that a young hungry westerner would come and work for them and it can be a real morale booster to their employees.
Most of the businesses tend to have some kind of international element of their operations so they are either looking for partners abroad or they want to do some research for some products that they might be able to send abroad.
The PIE: What has been one of the best internships, in terms of testimonial from students?
EHP: I know everyone was raving about someone who did a Games of Thrones related internship recently in Shenzhen. It got a huge amount of coverage on our social media.
“We have to manage expectations of the students, some of whom might be experiencing China for the first time”
The other ones that I like hearing about are some of the NGOs and governmental placements, where interns get to grow their network, gain corporate experience, and have a social impact.
The PIE: What’s the hardest thing about doing business in China?
EHP: It can be the unknowns, for example with constant development of the rule of law. On the positive side, everything happens very fast and there’s a really good ‘can-do’ attitude in the country.
The downside of the fast pace can mean that in the month of confirming an intern’s company and giving them the company information with their job description, the company could have moved office, doubled its account, added some different departments and changed boss.
We have to manage expectations of the students, some of whom might be experiencing China for the first time.
The PIE: And where do your interns come from?
EHP: Broadly speaking, 40% from the US and 40% UK split and the other 20% from Australia. But we get handfuls of students from everywhere. We’ve had interns from about 120 different countries around the world.
The PIE: Do interns have similar reasons for going to Asia?
EHP: I’d say people come at it from two angles. One is either a fascination with Asia and wanting to get under the skin of the culture and learn more. The other is that they are aware of the dynamic economic growth in Asia and they want professional excellence to add to their resume and make them stand out from the crowd.
“An engineering student, who might not know that Shenzen is the ‘Silicon Valley’ of China”
In many cases, our Admissions Advisers will help to guide the student, for example recommending a placement in Shenzhen to an Engineering student, who might not know that its the “Silicon Valley of China”. Others may want to go to Beijing for the history and culture. That’s great as well, as they also have a passion.
The PIE: How have you overcome any challenges when taking a western-owned company to China?
EHP: We have been lucky to have amazing colleagues. Dan was based in China for a few years, early on before moving to the US. Having one of us in England and one in China, ensured that we had good managerial oversight from both sides.
We’ve also had really good internal mobility where we’ve had people who do a couple of years in London, then go to China, such as our current General Manager in China. We also like hiring our own alumni so there are at least four or five people who have been through the program and are passionate about what we do, and currently work for us in the UK, USA, Australia and China.