Monday, December 11, 2017

HNC Alumni Profile: Sean Leow

Sean Leow is the Director of International for Kickstarter. He was a founding member of Neocha, a creative agency and bilingual magazine which celebrates and empowers creatives in China and is still an active board member. He graduated from Duke University with a Bachelor of Arts in 2003, received his HNC Certificate in 2005 and graduated with an MBA from MIT Sloan School of Management in 2012. He worked at Facebook prior to his position at Kickstarter.

What was your background before coming to study at the Hopkins-Nanjing Center?
I went to Duke University and I was interested in China because my father is Chinese, so I grew up, spent a couple years in Singapore, but really never got to know China because my dad is from Malaysia, of Hakka descent. So I applied to study abroad in Beijing while I was at Duke and had a really great time, and I met David [Davies, current American Co-Director] there where he was leading the [Duke] program. He told me as well as other classmates about the Hopkins-Nanjing Center and how he had a really positive impression of it, and really encouraged us to apply. As I was thinking about options for post-graduation, the Hopkins-Nanjing Center was the top option.

I applied for it and was lucky enough to get in. At that time in your life you don’t really know what you want to do, so going to the HNC made a lot of sense for me to kind of solidify fluency in Chinese, go deeper in terms of understanding the culture better and also really building the network of people that would help me with my future career, whether that was in business or in the public sector, since I didn’t really know before I went there.

Would you like to share any experiences from the HNC?
I still remember a lot of my classes fondly, ten years plus on, my memories are of working hard to get through a textbook or these assignments when my Chinese was still in a state of learning. All of that made me a lot stronger for everything else that I took on post-HNC.

I took one or two classes from the American professors while I was there, because when you’re taking the classes in Chinese, a lot of your focus is just trying to get through the material. It’s nice to take classes in your native language and be able to flex other muscles that you aren’t otherwise able to. I developed good relationships with those professors that I still keep in touch with.

How did your time at the Hopkins-Nanjing Center set you up for the next steps?
While I was there I had a fantastic Economics lecturer, so I was considering going back and doing a PhD in Economics. At the same time I was connecting with some of the companies that came on campus to recruit, and that’s actually where I ended up going. A small market entry consulting company named Alaris, founded by an HNC alum [Francis Bassolino, HNC Certificate '93], came to the center to recruit and I ended up taking a job with them. So it was through the program that I got my first job there.

So I finished up at the HNC, moved to Shanghai and I worked for two years at Alaris. I was able to cut my teeth in terms of doing business in China - I would be sent to these factories in the middle of China negotiating deals between US companies and their Chinese counterparts, a really intense but really great experience. Through that I was developing an entrepreneurial streak and I started this company called Neocha which has been around for ten years now.

I’d been going deep in the China direction and then for personal and professional reasons, I was interested in not being too pigeonholed into being a China expert. So I came back to the US, I used my MBA at MIT as a transition period to explore some new things, and go in the direction of technology which I was interested in. That’s how I made that pivot back to the US in some sense. But I’ve always kept that connection with China, through this company that I started named Neocha.

Tell us more about the birth of Neocha.
Neocha started as a social networking site just for Chinese artists and musicians. We built a whole social networking site in Chinese, it was me and a couple of friends in Shanghai. We’d basically been noticing a lot of interesting musicians, illustrators, street artists throughout China but none of them knew about each other. Mainstream media also wasn’t talking about that kind of stuff. So this was 2007, it was a while ago, we thought the internet is a good way to connect these people, so we built this website. A lot of people started using it, we got it up to 40,000 users all across China, they were able to share what they were up to, and so it was very focused on China at the time.

We evolved the company for a couple reasons: first, we needed to make money and we also realized that we had aggregated all the best independent creative talent in China in one place and the best way to help them was to be able to provide freelance opportunities for them to work with different brands like Nike and Coke, who wanted really interesting, edgy, creative content for their marketing campaigns in China. So that’s how we pivoted from a social networking site into a creative agency, which is the core of the business now.

We’re fighting a similar battle that we have for a long time, which is the perception of Asia and China in terms of creativity. People dismiss it. I think we still need to tell that story of creativity continually.

How has your Chinese proficiency and your background in China influenced your career in the tech industry?
I think just from a high level it gave me a new perspective to look at any challenge. After I finished my MBA I went and worked at Facebook for about four years and then have been at Kickstarter for two years, and for both companies, dealing with other countries and users in countries around the world has always been a part of my job. With China being such a massive influence and potential opportunity I’ve had to think of how China fits in. Even if we haven’t been able to go into China, it’s given me a new perspective in terms of how would a new user base look at a product like this, how do we keep international considerations in mind, how do we think about how language and culture, and not just take a purely American perspective on how we roll things out.

People respect various backgrounds even if it is not totally applicable to what they’re doing, because it’s just proven that having diverse backgrounds in the same room leads to better outcomes, so if you’re working on a problem that is not related to China, and someone brings some experience or perspective from China, that actually could be the answer to a hard challenge. I try to keep that in mind when I’m working on a problem, when I’m trying to hire somebody, and they have a totally different experience, I think keeping an open mind is the best way to proceed.

With China stating its plans to become a world leader in AI and other technology, what do you think it means for people looking to have a career in technology or related to China?
That’s a big question. When I think of the past 15 years or so that I’ve been watching or working in China, there’s constantly, every other month, someone saying that China’s going to be the future, people will say China’s going to totally dissolve and collapse, there’s always people making predictions. What I think is that betting against China is a really bad idea.

In terms of job prospects, I think that the sky’s the limit, especially for people coming out of the HNC, being able to bridge the gap specifically with Chinese companies that are looking to have a bigger mark outside of China. You see that with companies like Tencent, Wechat, they have bigger ambitions to go outside in the same way the other companies do, like Alibaba, really trying to become global powers, not only domestic ones.

Interviewed by Anna Woods, HNC Certificate/SAIS MA '18