Stanford-Tsinghua Exchange Program: Eleven Years and Counting
Jul 13, 2020

Tim Hesler, GMBA Class of 2017

One of my favorite elements of the second year in the Global MBA program has been the flexibility of the curriculum and thus the wide-ranging experiences I and my classmates have enjoyed. Granted, we paid a bit of a price on the front end by cramming a pretty full course load into the first year, but on the back end, I can say it was well worth it.

As reflected in Issue 20 of Tsinghua Gateway, many of my classmates spent their third GMBA semester on exchange (and in some cases, dual-degree) experiences around the globe. While I also gave consideration to these options, a major factor for me in coming to Tsinghua was specifically to gain more China exposure. As I contemplated my Fall 2016 prospects, I wanted to maintain the flexibility to do just that. Still, given the strength of Tsinghua’s institutional relationships, I felt drawn to the middle ground of a short-term exchange. My hope was to gain a different perspective without sacrificing a substantial chunk of my time in China. Fortunately, I found just the right opportunity.

2016-17 marked the eleventh year of the Stanford-Tsinghua Exchange Program (“STEP”), one of Tsinghua’s most established MBA exchange options. STEP has adopted something of a sandwich model, with Stanford GSB participants visiting Beijing for around eight days in November, Tsinghua SEM participants heading to Palo Alto for about eight days in January, and students matched into five-person teams to work on group projects during and in between modules.

Tying the entire experience together was our dedicated faculty and admin team, with Professors Hao Chen and Szu-Chi Huang offering their unique cross-border faculty perspectives, complemented by Frank Hawke, Director, Greater China at Stanford GSB, providing a breadth of insights underpinned by nearly 40 years of China experience, and Program Coordinator Yidan Song tirelessly weaving together all of the logistical details. During both modules, we had a rich mix of faculty lectures, corporate visits, and social activities. 

Module I: Tsinghua Visit

Most of the GSB team filtered into Beijing on the evening of Saturday, November 19. Given that we had exchanged profile books and conducted a classroom-to-classroom video conference call beforehand, the in-person “introductions” felt something more like a reunion of old friends.

Even while warding off jet lag, the Stanford team was gracious in enthusiastically embracing an intense schedule from the get-go. We kicked off the first full day by hitting a couple of the standard tourist sites – Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City – before returning close to campus for a Chinese family-style welcome dinner to cap off the weekend.

The next four mornings were filled with lectures from four of Tsinghua SEM’s esteemed faculty – Professors Ping He, Minwen Li, Xudong Gao, and Baiyin Yang. Professor He offered his insights on the inner workings of the Chinese economy – planned resource allocation, controlled deregulation, and the role and effect of leverage throughout China’s economic system – whereas Professor Li added helpful perspectives regarding Chinese stocks and investments. Professor Gao’s Wednesday morning lecture was centered on Chinese innovation and technology, offering thought-provoking perspectives on state-owned enterprises, their strategic drivers, and the various forms of technology transfer and intellectual property rights in China. Professor Yang’s final academic session afforded a glimpse into Chinese conceptions of leadership and its relationship to what he described as an international confluence of capitalism and socialism.

Throughout the week, we had a chance to engage with a variety of local, national, and multinational companies. Among the site visits were GSR Ventures, People’s Bank of China, JD Group, Xiaomi, and China Power Conservation and Environment Protection. One of the quotes that most stood out to me was Hugo Barra’s observation during our Xiaomi visit that, “The pace of China tech is at least 50% higher than Silicon Valley.” Although I hadn’t spent a great deal of time in Silicon Valley to serve as a basis for comparison, his perspective certainly affirmed my own general impressions from the last two years of Beijing’s incredibly rapid pace of change and development.

We also welcomed a variety of startup founders in for lunch-and-learn-style presentations. One of the highlights was hearing from Terark founder Sean Fu, one of our very own STEP participants from Tsinghua’s part-time MBA program, about his unique vision to “make data smaller.” A variety of other tech startups filled out the lunch-and-learn roster, and we also fielded insights from other alumni and local stakeholders via an afternoon panel session and a hybrid presentation-and-networking Finance Museum event.

Many of the social engagements – both structured and unstructured – formed a comfortable counterpart to the academic and corporate sessions. We were able to squeeze in the remainder of the most common tourist sites – Lama Temple, Summer Palace, and the Great Wall – and savor some of the typical cuisine musts – Haidilao hot pot and Beijing duck. Still, given that Thanksgiving fell during the GSB visit, it was also refreshing to enjoy two traditional Thanksgiving dinners together, one on Thanksgiving Day at the Stanford Center on Peking University’s campus and another on Saturday evening at the Brickyard Retreat before the GSB team’s Sunday morning departure.

Module II: Stanford Visit

The schedule for our Stanford GSB visit in January was similarly packed. After most of us arrived in Palo Alto throughout the day on Monday the 16th, we were joined for breakfast on Tuesday morning by GSB Assistant Dean Margaret Long Hayes. One of Dean Hayes’s side notes struck me, especially when I had a chance to witness it in person later: the library building at GSB actually has very few books. Like most libraries, it holds a number of computer stations with access to a wealth of e-knowledge. What has supplanted the traditional physical books, however, is an unconventionally wide range of spaces for students to work together – following through on the collaborative spirit of GSB, which has embedded in its DNA a belief that students, faculty, and administrators are “co-creators of the experience.”

Similar to the agenda for the Tsinghua visit in November, the GSB schedule offered four stimulating academic sessions with Professors Robert Burgelman, Charles Lee, Darrell Duffie, and Lindred Greer. In his session, “Becoming Hewlett Packard: Why Strategic Leadership Matters,” Professor Burgelman asserted that an important three-prong role of strategic leaders is (1) defining what the game is (“We want to be a winner in …”), (2) defining what winning means, and (3) identifying the corresponding qualitative and quantitative indicators. Professor Lee, meanwhile, explored equity investing and the value (in China, particularly) of good internal corporate governance. In giving us another American perspective regarding China’s financial system, Professor Duffie unpacked the tradeoffs invoked as China pursues a continuation of its historically unparalleled economic growth in balance with social stability. Our final academic session by Professor Greer opened with a less conversational tone, literally, as we bumbled our way (by design) through a silent card game before a group debrief on some takeaways for conflict resolution, one of which was delineating constructive and destructive conflict.

The corporate calendar held a mix of on-site visits and on-campus conversations with such companies as Tesla, AKQA, Instacart, Nerdwallet, Facebook, Uber, and Google. I was previously unfamiliar with Nerdwallet, but that visit was especially compelling, in part because of its glimpse into the company’s culture. During our Q&A session with Nerdwallet founder and CEO Tim Chen, I was struck by his authentic tone of humility and candor. As we toured the offices, one of my favorite spots was the “Fail Wall,” where employees posted (often humorous) tales of their mistakes while working at Nerdwallet.

Just as in Beijing, the social agenda in Palo Alto was full of memorable shared experiences. Many of us attended our first-ever (San Jose Sharks) hockey game on Thursday night. The weekend was packed with a variety of traditional and not-so-traditional excursions, including the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz (with its surprisingly entertaining audio-guided tour), the Haight-Ashbury district (famous for its ties to the hippie movement), the Monterey Bay Aquarium (complete with ridiculously awesome sea otters), and a variety of other spots. We also hit several local haunts for group meals, ranging from Cali staple In N Out to much more formal venues. One of my favorites, however, was our Wednesday evening dinner arrangement, when Stanford GSB students welcomed us into their homes for thoughtfully orchestrated small-group dinners.

One of the strands that ran through both STEP installments was the team project assignment. I was fortunate to be paired with a Tsinghua part-time MBA student and three GSB participants. Although our time was limited during both modules with all of the other items on the agenda, it was fun to develop a pitch with my team – Team UniBridge, as we dubbed ourselves – for a startup idea that spanned the education space in China and the U.S.

Ultimately, however, perhaps the STEP memories that will remain most firmly etched in my mind are the “non-headline” moments that in many ways defined my experience – riveting conversations on bus rides with peers both new and old, the curiosity of students and faculty alike reflected in their thought-provoking questions, and even the way in which the GSB team welcomed us into its world of quirky and ever-evolving inside jokes. As Professor Huang reminded us as we prepared to part ways in Beijing, “zai jian” (“goodbye” in Chinese) literally translated means to see or meet again, and indeed, I look forward to the continued intersection of my path with many of STEP’s people, places, and ideas for years to come.

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