Today’s Career Hacking case study is that of Dan Sehl, who currently works as an Associate at Weber Shandwick in Beijing. Weber Shandwick is one of the world’s leading global public relations firms with offices in major media, business, and government capitals around the world. Here is a brief rundown of Dan’s career track to date:
- Attends Illinois State University, studies abroad in Brazil
- Works at Trader Joe’s while saving money
- Accepts an English teaching position in Beijing
- Transitions into an internship position with EASTWEST PR
- Becomes a full time Digital Specialist at EASTWEST PR
- Becomes a full time Associate at Weber Shandwick Beijing
Let’s analyze the more pivotal points here. It’s important to point out that Dan began as an Anthropology major. As such, one could argue that he would be less attractive in the US job market than a finance major, mechanical engineer, or computer programmer. Had he been set up with a more direct career path, he might have been recruited into a position in Chicago or Boston immediately and been less likely to have ventured abroad.
Furthermore, Dan’s early study abroad experience in Brazil instilled in him a visceral need to explore the world. He went through the process of managing visas, navigating an emerging market in a foreign language, and making a life and social network from scratch. This is immensely useful and important in the context of his future venture abroad. You’ll often see that many people who take the initial career leap abroad have already spent some amount of time in a foreign country.
Upon graduation, Dan recognized the need for a financial safety cushion for his trip abroad. While we do not have exact figures for how much he saved up prior to his departure to Beijing, we can safely assume that he accumulated at least several thousand USD before taking the leap. Dan made this money by working at a local high-end grocery store and living at home.
Dan chose English teaching in China as his initial route to get abroad. This is a very intelligent move and arguably the lowest risk of all possible options. Assuming that you are placed with a reputable company, you will often be provided with most, if not all, of the following:
- Work Visa
- Job Placement
- Assistance in getting settled
- Social Network
There exist massive Catch-22s in an international career launch. These are related to work experience, language, and the work visa. Primarily, hiring managers will want to know that you have work experience of any kind, particularly in that specific country or city. Then, they will want to know if you can speak the local language competently to fluently. Finally, they will have to be convinced that the cost and time it takes to sponsor you with a visa is worth it. That is, you have to prove your worth over a local hire at a similar age and level of experience who is undoubtedly totally fluent in the local language.
You can’t solve all of these problems by becoming an English teacher, but you can solve many of them. Primarily, 90% of your battle is won if you are just physically on the ground in your target city – in this case, Beijing. Dan secured a visa that enabled him to live long term in China, build a social network, and learn Mandarin. During the period of time that he taught English, Dan explored the city and became highly proficient in Mandarin – which proved indispensable in the next phase.
At a certain point, Dan realized that English teaching wasn’t for him. As such, he wanted to transition into something that utilized and developed a different set of skills. Dan reviewed various industries and decided that a career in PR would make the most sense for him. Since he did not have any existing connections in this industry, he utilized the high-risk-high-reward strategy of cold calling decision makers in his target companies to secure an interview. He ultimately succeeded by getting a full-time internship with boutique PR firm EASTWEST PR.
Dan was eventually given an offer after successfully surviving the trial-by-fire internship and high-octane environment at EWPR. He signed on as a Digital Specialist for a year. During this period of time he gained an impressive arsenal of PR skills specific to China and was able to leverage that later when making a transition to Weber Shandwick.
Dan has frequently raised the point of how much of a difference one year of work experience makes. One thing that we rarely discuss, but we both know to be true, is that he would not be where he is without his level of spoken and written proficiency in Mandarin. It’s simply mandatory in this day and age, particularly for more junior positions in China. Again, you have to prove your worth compared to a local of a similar age and level of experience.
The job market in China for expat Gen Yers is becoming increasingly more difficult to enter as time goes on. There are various reasons for that. The main reason, above all else, is that there are hordes of Chinese graduates that are graduating from both local universities and from US schools that speak native-level Mandarin, speak fluent English, do not require visa sponsorship, and are willing to work for significantly less than an American Gen Yer – even one who is fluent in Mandarin.
When we look at Dan Sehl’s career progression, we do not see an event – we see process. We see a long and hard slog that ultimately broke him into the enviable position of working in a top-3 global PR firm at their Beijing office. We see months upon months spent poring over Mandarin flash cards. We see a young American tolerating the pollution, grit, traffic, and other chaos that ensues from a Beijing career. We see a Gen Yer ultimately prevail and set himself up for life by being committed to his path.
At 25 years of age, Dan has done some of the following amazing things in his career:
- Supported the PR efforts for the Windows 8 China launch
- Organized and executed events for various high profile clients across China
- Created and managed the iTunes videocast series PR FAQs
- Attained professional proficiency in Mandarin Chinese
This is your wake up call, Gen Y America.
What are you doing today to craft a better tomorrow?