Gary Izunwa on China, Employability and Widening Participation

Gary Izunwa, founder of the Climbing the Rungs social mobility podcast and Outward Mobility Manager for the British Council, joined us via Zoom on 6 July to talk about the benefits he gained from doing a five-month study placement in China after graduating.  

Gary credits the skills, experience and confidence he developed with helping him to kick-start his career at leading companies including LinkedIn. Being born to Nigerian parents who migrated to the UK and growing up in a single-parent low-income household, he is also keenly aware of the factors that make this kind of opportunity less accessible to some. 

University of Leeds students, staff, and external guests attended the talk to hear Gary’s personal story and reflections on the kind of support that can make the life-changing experience of working or studying in China more widely accessible. 

In this post we cover the key takeaways from the event, including: 

  • Professional benefits of having China experience 
  • Challenges – race and access 
  • Overcoming barriers – individuals and institutions 

Professional benefits of having China experience

Soft skills

Gary noted that it’s challenging to go to China – “but in the best possible way, in the way that allows you to grow and develop.”  

The skills he highlights; adaptability, confidence, resilience, perseverance and cultural awareness, “are all core skills that can directly translate into the workplace.”  

For example, Gary carried the confidence he gained in China into his role at LinkedIn and vividly described how he felt at the time: 

There’s nothing that can stop me because I’ve had this experience in China, a country so different to where I’m from – I know that I can thrive in any environment.

This meant he felt able to put himself forward for things, speak up in meetings and make his mark.  

Language skills

Gary observed that in this globalised world we need to develop our young talent to match the skills and demands of the future.  

There’s a growing body of research that highlights that employers in the UK are actually quite dissatisfied with the level of cultural awareness and cultural agility that the graduates of today have.

He said, “there’s a certain complexity to the way you have to think to understand Mandarin” which helps you develop your critical thinking and awareness. This kind of dynamic thought and critical thinking is also something that employers are looking for.  

Impressing employers

Before he even went to China, Gary found that the experience worked to his advantage during the many rounds of interviews for a graduate programme at LinkedIn.  

When he mentioned his plans to one interviewer she was really interested to know more.  

It wasn’t necessarily the fact that I was going, but it was all the things that it suggested about me.

The interviewer’s impression was that he was courageous and about to embark on a journey of growth and change, which really piqued her interest and helped Gary to stand out among the many interviewees she spoke to that day.  

Gary continued to notice positive reactions to his China experience after he entered the world of work. 

He notes that employers see you as “inquisitive, adventurous, open to being challenged” and like to know that you can put yourself out of your comfort zone. 

Building relationships

The Chinese characters after his name on LinkedIn would spark questions and help him to build rapport with others in the organisation who had been to China – often those in senior leadership roles.  

It really served as an interesting platform to build relationships with people that I probably wouldn’t have had the opportunity to meet had I not had that China experience.

As someone from a lower socioeconomic background this lived experience helped him to “turbocharge” developing his network and “was a really strong and impactful asset.” 

Challenges

Race

Gary didn’t gloss over the difficulties of being a Black man in China. It was common to be pointed at or photographed, and in one instance of open discrimination he was made to pay for entry to a club that his other Western friends could enter for free.  

While he shares these stories to help others be aware and be prepared, Gary urges people of colour not to be put off. These incidences are “surrounded by so many more positive experiences and benefits.” 

“If you’re going to China there’s a reason – there’s something that’s driving you there.” Gary found that tapping into this motivation and his purpose helped him to maintain a broader perspective and manage his emotions if he had any difficulties in his daily life.  

Access

The cost of going to China is the most obvious barrier. Gary pointed out that if the only people who can go to China are those with the means to afford the flights, visa and other costs, then they will also be the only ones who can reap the rewards he discussed before; “to develop those skills, to pick up those cultural components that help you form and develop relationships at work, that will help you progress in your career.” 

It is also important to reconsider culture shock through the lens of social mobility. What if someone has never even been on a plane to go abroad on holiday before? “How are we preparing them for the completely different lifestyle that’s out there?” 

If you’re not prepared for culture shock because of a lack of access, a lack of ability to be internationally mobile, how can we prepare people to be aware of that? 

Gary also reflected on an episode of his podcast, Social codes and unwritten rules at work, which featured a lawyer discussing the decisions he made when selecting training contracts. He had disregarded an international secondment opportunity, considering it a waste of time and something that would not advance his career goals and earning potential.  

According to Gary, this short-termism is something that many people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds have – a drive to start earning straight away. “They don’t necessarily have an understanding of the value, long-term, of an international experience like going to China.” 

Besides the ability to pay, even being able to consider international opportunities is a privilege. 

Overcoming barriers

Individuals

Gary highlighted a couple of opportunities that individuals can take advantage of to help with funding and other support for a trip to China. 

Generation UK, which facilitated Gary’s own China experience and is now in his remit at the British Council, “provides low-income students and recent graduates with funded opportunities in China” and have been doing this for seven years.  

Gary also mentioned Huawei Seeds for the Future as an example of a programme that provides valuable experiences for young people while helping to attract top talent for the company. 

Institutions

Gary noted that “UUKI (Universities UK International) have found that people of colour and people from less privileged backgrounds have the most to gain from international experiences but they’re also the least likely groups to participate in them”. 

In order to provide more opportunities, universities can take advantage of the Turing Scheme or consider partnerships with Generation UK to help provide more opportunities to people from less privileged backgrounds.  

Companies could even set up programmes themselves. Gary argues that overseas internship programmes like Huawei Seeds for the Future are a win-win for the company, because “not only are they providing this great experience for these young people but they’re building out this amazing employer brand.” The excellent students they attract go to them because they realise they will get “not only work experience, but also lived experience, and that will help them stand out a bit more.” 

Education about the benefits of China experience can go a long way towards counteracting the short-termism and urgency to earn money that Gary has observed. Emphasising that this decision can be a strategic investment in your career and leading with the career benefits can be particularly appealing for people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds.  

In terms of procedures, “pre-departure briefings are so key.” These events or materials helps participants to prepare. Gary pointed out that information highlighting the issue of race in China, for example, shouldn’t be given only to the people of colour in the group but used to raise awareness for everyone. 

Raising awareness about China can happen at universities in the UK by connecting UK students with Chinese students on campus to break down barriers and “demystify” China. 

Explore further