A Cultural Smoke-jumper

14 Mar 2004|Darrel Rhea

An old friend of mine shows up every 8 years. Each time, he has transformed himself and entered into some new wacky reality. I always love seeing him – he makes me feel like such a conformist.

In his previous incarnation, he was designing fiber optic networks in Silicon Valley. One employer after the next grew quickly and was then acquired by some larger company. He was constantly changing jobs in the go-go years until the bottom dropped out of the networking business in the dot.bomb. Always the entrepreneur, he scanned the globe for opportunities and settled on China as the epicenter of the Next Big Thing.

He sold his house, packed up his family, shipped his car and moved to Beijing. This is NOT a small thing. Beijing is not prepared for foreigners to immigrate there. Sure, they can handle executives from the big multinationals who live temporarily in gated western-style enclaves. But an individual guy and his family, moving in to set up business in China (as a Chinese company)? He is one of the very first of what I call “cultural smoke jumpers” to land, and he has had to learn how to navigate in the middle of a 5000 year old culture that is experiencing a firestorm of reinvention. His aggressiveness is the essence of why the US can lead in innovation.

Everything is a negotiation there. Foreigners were not allowed to put their kids in public schools – he got the law changed. Customs had never had an individual foreigner import a car and had no forms or process for it – after $30 grand of duties, he got it in. They needed legal status – he and his wife became “registered foreign experts” in technology. While the Chinese are eager to be join the capitalistic fray, he has to teach them how to do business everyday at every step. Housing is cheap, but awful and requiring serious remodeling even to get a rudimentary kitchen or bathroom, but he is committed to keeping a low profile and living a Chinese lifestyle.

He is in the thick of the new Wild West. Laws are a moving target and depend on who you know. Huge opportunities and huge risks abound. His new company is now breaking even, and is engaged in a “Chinese menu” of activities. (“You want 1500 metric tons of organic flax seed? No problem. Oh, and these guys don’t have good rock and roll, here is some music I am writing and producing with Chinese lyrics in my recording studio. And I am working on taking over a state-owned brewery. And I’m trying to do a deal with Buzz Aldrin to set up a symposium on space exploration and space tourism.”

I admire him for his courage to jump in an unknown world with both feet. He’ll figure it out and prosper. Then I’ll see him in about 8 years, with a company in Baghdad or Bangalore, or where ever the hot cultural frontier is. And he’ll be bringing innovation in his wake.

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