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GMBA Student/Alumni Interview Series: Dan Cowen
Jul 13, 2020

Tim Hesler, GMBA Class of 2017

We recently had the opportunity to dialogue with Daniel Cowen, a member of the Tsinghua Global MBA Class of 2017. Dan originally hails from the UK – London and Devon, to be specific – where he received his master of aeronautical engineering from Imperial College London. Dan came to B-School fresh off of an early-career stint on the London Fixed Income team of Jefferies International Limited, an American investment bank. Though he’s been refining his Mandarin skills for nearly five years now, we were fortunate to catch him in an English-speaking mood.

TH: So maybe for starters: Could you share a little bit about what initially drew you here? What was your journey like in deciding on an MBA in China, and specifically one at Tsinghua?

DC: I think most of us in the West have heard “China, China, China!” quite a lot in recent years, and the huge growth (in every sense of the word) is really something that made me want to take my career to China or to have increasing contact with this huge market. With beginner's Mandarin and the idea of re-positioning myself as someone who knows and understands the Chinese and the Chinese market, the idea of studying further in China, including language study, seemed fairly natural to me. With my previous education and work background, an MBA seemed like a logical step, and in pursuit of academic excellence, one look at the global university rankings was all I needed to know that Tsinghua was the place to be. Further research into Beijing, the school, and its achievements only strengthened this belief.

TH: Had you been to China prior to applying?

DC: I had been for a family holiday before university, and then a short Chinese language program after graduation, but my total time in China was less than two months before I made my application.

TH: What were some of your initial impressions when you arrived for the MBA? Any special memories from your early days in the program or moments of cultural acclimation in China that stand out in your mind?

DC: I had visited Tsinghua in the February before joining, just to have a look (already accepted the offer so it was a bit late by that point). To arrive in glorious August sunshine and see the campus all green and lively was a sight to behold. Certainly I had feelings of apprehension emigrating for the first time and moving to a city where I didn't know anyone, but these doubts were soon put to rest after a busy first day moving in and having Peking duck on campus with 10 of my new classmates.

As for cultural acclimation, it's hard to pick one moment, but I think in our very first case seminar delivered by an excellent professor from MIT Sloan, I remember being taken off guard by how many of my classmates pinned the failure of a U.S. business venture in Taiwan on a U.S. sales employee’s failure to observe the gift-giving expectations of her potential suppliers. At this moment, I think it struck me very clearly just quite how Western-centric my thinking was and how far I would have to come in order to better understand the minds of my classmates and business leaders in China and around Asia.

TH: So it sounds like there was a pretty crucial cultural component to the academic and professional adjustment. For you, what did the balance look like between academic, social, and professional investments? How much did you focus on career development during the first year?

DC: An MBA program will make you feel busy at first – I think students from programs all over the world would agree on that. The huge influx of new people into your lives, combined with a new living environment, classes, and group projects, can mean that you find time conflicts and difficulty in giving your full attention to any one thing. But it is part of the skill set required to succeed in a top program, and it really feels like you're going somewhere and progressing in life with each passing week. I managed to secure an internship at the end of the first semester, and that took up one day per week of the second semester, which was a great introduction to the Chinese working environment.

TH: What type of an internship experience did you have? How did you position yourself in applying for it? Did you sense a distinction between yourself as an international and Chinese applicants in how you needed to navigate the job hunt?

DC: I felt that it was a strange experience but definitely a useful one. I met the HNA [Hainan Airlines] recruiters at the MBA career fair organized by our Career Development Center and was invited to an interview. At this interview in Chinese, there were four other Chinese candidates, all of different disciplines, applying for different roles from full-time accountancy to “some kind of internship” (me). This was very daunting, not to mention being the only one giving unsophisticated answers to questions. What saved my bacon was the last question, discussing hobbies and extracurricular activities IN ENGLISH! Gladly I was able to offer a lot more detail than, say, “I like basketball.” Following a second interview where some more senior members of the company helped place me in the procurement team, I had myself a flexible internship in a Chinese company – mission achieved after just three months in China!

As a more general piece of advice, I think rather than a Chinese/international student split, the key is to figure what industry or role you are chasing, and then see where the need is in that industry for your skill set or experience, and from that juncture work out an action plan to get in where you want to, rather than looking at all jobs on a message board for “native English speaker” or similar.

TH: Okay, so take a more focused precision approach. What did that look like professionally after the internship – summer and second year?

DC: I was lucky enough to find a job at a Tsinghua-affiliated investment firm late in first year. After something of a trial period, I was offered full-time work and started that from July of first-year MBA. I'm still taking optional classes on evenings and some weekends, but getting my credits out of the way in the first year has given me a lot more time to focus on work this year. I made the transition to a working visa and not looking back! Having work connections also helped me find a suitable company to analyze for my IPP [Integrated Practical Project], which has been a really rewarding process so far.

TH: So it sounds like the academic and professional development components have really complemented each other nicely. You and your classmates are coming up on graduation here in a few months. Do you have a sense of what comes next and how this two-year chapter fits into the longer journey?

DC: For me, I plan to continue in my role at Tsinghua Holdings Capital. I’ve recently been promoted, and I see my three-year contract as the ideal way to test whether I’m in Beijing for the long haul or if pastures new will be the thing for me. I think the Global MBA program has set me up with THE China experience I was looking for, a valuable career path, and a group of great friends from all over the world and all walks of life, who I hope to keep close with as we graduate and move on to the next chapter.

TH: And coincidentally, that brings a fitting close to this chapter of our new GMBA Student/Alumni Interview series. Thanks so much for sharing your story, Dan. We here at Gateway wish you the best for the coming months and life milestones, and we look forward to hearing of your ongoing successes beyond.


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