Advice for building your career and network as an expat in China

Leeds alumna Nandini Venkata was joined by a panel of women living and working in Beijing at an online event at the Business Confucius Institute on 23 February 2022. 

Watch the full event recording on Facebook 

Nandini Venkata, Yasmin Cilt, Helena Javitte, and Ella Kidron have all built successful careers in Beijing working in a range of industries including media, communications, startups, and innovation.

The BCI was delighted to spotlight these dynamic women as they spoke about their experiences building a network and a career in China, inspiring others interested in pursuing opportunities there. 

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

  • Career development
  • The benefits of learning Mandarin
  • Networking with purpose
  • Overcoming barriers

No right way of progressing 

There is something to learn from each panellist’s unique career journey, with each emphasising how quickly people’s careers can change in China, given that they often start in quite different places than where they are now. 

Nandini, an alumna of the University of Leeds, first came to China to work at a kindergarten, and then caught the China bug. She now produces podcasts for economic, business, and financial news media company Caixin Global and is also heavily involved in the Beijing Women’s Network, a volunteer-led community that strives to support the professional and personal development of women. 

The impact that living in China has had on non-natives is immediately apparent in the stories of Nandini and Yasemin, both of whom developed a genuine passion for the country and decided to extend what perhaps initially had intended to be a short-term visit. Yasemin, for example, only came to China as an exchange student but now works in an incubator in Beijing, helping to connect local and international entrepreneurs with the right resources.

In Ella’s case, it was athletics that introduced her to China. As a college swimmer, she spent time training in Beijing. Her effort to use the Chinese she had learnt back home to communicate and form relationships led to her being invited to spend the summer swimming in Bejiing. Ella now works in technology after previously working in communications for multinational corporations.

Helena, on the other hand, decided she wanted to work in China from an early age. She came to Shanghai as a student for a year, taking on various volunteering projects alongside her role at a French consultancy firm. As the China Innovation Manager at Accuracy, Helena is committed to helping international corporates better understand Chinese innovation and create business opportunities. Helena has also built her passion project called BARE, a community for people to be their true selves and relate to each other to find the support they need to cope with the challenges of the modern world.

The benefits of learning Mandarin

While the panellists have varying levels of Mandarin ability, they all discussed the use of Mandarin skills in advancing your career and improving your quality of life in China.

In Helena’s case, she does not use Chinese at work, usually speaking English or French. However, in her previous job, where she managed a team of nine Chinese people, being able to speak Chinese enabled her to participate fully in strategic meetings whilst also extending her fluency which she found made a huge difference. Even if you think that your job does not require you to speak Chinese, being able to converse confidently will open doors to more interesting jobs and greater responsibilities.

Outside of work, Ella considers that many people who come as an expat restrict themselves to mixing primarily in expat circles. Instead, Ella found that she ended up taking a very unconventional path where the more she learned Chinese the more she wanted to be in the community, resulting in her integrating and living in the depths of Beijing. In her unconventional learning journey, she considers that this “trial by fire” is what really drove her to continue in her studies.

Ella recalls sitting in a meeting in which she did not understand a thing and felt almost child-like, having to learn how to operate in that fully immersive environment. This was, at first, quite frustrating, but became motivating. 

I think at the end of the day, language is a tool and it’s a tool for communication. And as a communicator, it’s something that’s just been helpful and neat just getting to know people that are I’m around a bit better and deeper. And that’s been the motivator… really just to connect more people.

Similarly, Yasemin enjoys working in an environment with Chinese colleagues and is happy to speak Chinese at work. Outside of work, she stresses that learning the language is important for daily life, travel, communicating with locals, establishing relationships, and understanding where others are coming from.

Helena agrees that you must put yourself out there, finding those people who are happy to chat with you and are typically supportive.

Nandini suggests that looking into a Language Scholarship would be a brilliant way for prospective movers to kick-start their adventure in China.

The takeaway is that whilst it is possible to have a career in China without necessarily learning the language, your ability to really explore China, to make the most of all available opportunities, and enjoy your experience, are all things that would be deeply enhanced by making the effort to learn Mandarin.

Networking with purpose 

There was a unanimous feeling amongst the panel that the standard model of networking should be reframed, and that there are better ways of doing so than simply going to events and shaking hands!

For Yasemin, networking meant getting her first job through meeting people at a networking event at a Startup Grind event by becoming a volunteer. Part of networking is being there, getting involved with a team and then expanding your network through the opportunities that volunteering programmes present. People naturally recognise a person that wants to learn and is eager to continue to contribute to the community.

For those people who might not really be comfortable networking, Helena recommends you replace the word ‘networking’ with ‘making friends’. When you approach any sort of networking situation in that mindset, it can open the doors and people are genuinely interested in the person that you are, rather than somebody who is merely engaging to progress their career. So then move from ‘networking’ to going straight into building closer and more meaningful connections. For Ella, the thing she loves most about being in China is that everyone has really fascinating stories as to how they got there.

Nandini and Ella spoke of moving away from more transactional connotations to networking, in which you bring the expectation that you are meeting people because they might have something that is useful to you, which can feel disingenuous. Ella recommends building a network by being in the mindset of connecting and helping out. Instead of worrying “how many people have I met that are going to help me,” focus more on the people you know who can help others. She calls this A to C. “I am person A, and I know person B and person C, then I am going to connect B and C together.” It is natural to broaden the circle in that way.

In terms of staying in contact with your networks and navigating your career, Helena advises you leverage LinkedIn: update your LinkedIn about yourself on a regular basis, and share the content that matters to you and that you find interesting. This informs your contacts about what you have been up to, keeps you in touch, and enables you to continue building a global network of contacts.

All the panel, for whom time is a precious resource, stress the importance of explaining to people why they are reaching out, and encourage leaving notes on WeChat or LinkedIn such as “Hey, I saw that this is what you were doing,” “I would like to be connected for x reason,” or “I need help with y.” The panel value directedness and openness, but recommend that your approach be culturally sensitive, taking into account high context cultures where certain pleasantries might be exchanged. 

Empowering to overcome barriers

In this segment of the discussion, the panel expressed their perspectives on operating within the traditionally male-dominated industries of startups, tech, and innovation. 

Encouragingly, the panel recognised the work done so far in terms of bringing more women into STEM and equalising or making the industry more diverse. Progress is also being made by putting more women onto panels and promoting diversity and inclusivity in these industries.

There was also a shared recognition that it takes time for those big efforts to trickle down to the day-to-day. Much of the panel spoke of their experiences of implicit bias, and how they have dealt with such challenges.

Ella found that being in the tech industry means she is often the only woman in a room of all men, or other times when the men in the room are used to being the dominant voice, she does not feel like she is fully being listened to. She has noticed feeling “like I’m on a treadmill, where the minute I pause someone might finish my sentence for me.”

Ella suggests during or after the meeting taking the person aside to say, “I’d like to finish my point that I prepared.” Ella finds that most people are taken aback but respectful because it is usually unconscious, and men may not be aware of how it makes us feel.

One of the best things we can do is try and own that space and to be upfront with the guys in the room and use them as our allies as much as possible.

The panel have developed self-confidence in the power to speak out in these moments, owning their time to talk, and the silence. Building on this, Nandini says that ensuring your contribution is heard means you care and want to bring value; “You are actually being very helpful and people will be grateful to let you finish.”

Ultimately, Ella finds that:

If a day doesn’t go well or if something meeting doesn’t go as well as I expected, it doesn’t mean that my confidence starts from zero again. It’s slowly this process of building up and coming into my own. I don’t think that process ever ends and there’s something that’s really encouraging about that. Every day is a new day where we can learn more about ourselves and be more comfortable with ourselves.

Find mentors

Helena spoke of her passion for coaching, mentoring, and developing her teams. She recommends we all find a mentor – someone you look up to, who has a little bit more experience, and can reassure you that everything is going to be all right.  

As founder of the community BARE, Helena runs a series of popular events called Drinks with Losers to create a space to celebrate that “Hey, I don’t have it figured out. You don’t have it figured out. Let’s just support each other through it and stop glossing over everything, pretending everything’s perfect.” 

Otherwise, says Helena, it can be scary because when we are comparing ourselves to others, we compare something that we know, which is our reality, with a distorted image that is projected by other people, which is that they have success and have it all figured out.

When you can rely on warm, meaningful, and authentic conversations or the experience of mentors that remind you that it would be much healthier to compare your reality with their reality, you leverage the experience of others to notice what is it that is in your power. And then things that seem so scary or impossible become possible.

Be open

Helena suggests that moving to another country is an exciting opportunity which allows people to almost start from scratch and reinvent themselves with endless possibilities.

Now you get to choose to think what kind of person do you want to be? And then asking yourself, what is it that I can do in order to be that person that I want to be?

However, Helena also stresses how important it is to be careful about the people you want to surround yourself with. Those people are going to be the ones lifting you, a source of inspiration, and will have a huge influence on you, down to your habits, activities, and outlook.

Ella has found that when she is in a new place, or a new career, and finds that she feels herself not as open, that it is a sign that it is time to move on. 

That’s been a good indicator kind of a gut feeling of when it’s time to kind of shift gears is that I feel myself not as open and ready for the adventure as I wasn’t necessarily and I think that’s something I’ve kind of used as one of my barometers for, hey, maybe it’s time to try something new.

Explore further

  • Watch the full event recording on Facebook
  • Nandini is heavily involved with The Beijing Women’s Network (BWN), a volunteer-run community that is dedicated to connecting women in Beijing to resources that can help them grow personally and professionally. Find out more
  • Startup Grind is the world’s largest community of startups, founders, innovators, and creators. They bring like-minded yet diverse individuals together to connect, learn, teach, help, build, and belong. Visit the Startup Grind Beijing website to learn about Yasemin’s work.
  • Helena’s community BARE provides a safe space for people to be their true self and relate to each other in order to find the support they need to cope with the challenges of the modern world. BARE’s core mission is to foster a broader culture of strength through vulnerability. Follow BARE on LinkedIn