In addition to traditional boutique or corporate jobs, there exist many positions available in emerging market startups. Today Career Hack will feature Jonathan Chao Burnston, who ran into an extraordinary startup opportunity in Beijing. Let’s take a look at his story and see if we can’t get some insights for our own emerging market success stories.
1. Please give us a rundown of your bio and background. How did you end up in China, and later back in New York, and what brought you to the energy/environment field?
As my name suggests, my background is mixed, specifically between a Jewish father and Chinese mother. During my junior year at Tufts, I studied abroad in Beijing and traveled all around China. That eye-opening experience, combined with a questionably employable set of college majors, pointed me straight back to Beijing after graduation.
In the buildup to graduation, I reached out through my family network for leads on potential jobs in China. By chance, I came upon a Beijing-based Chinese entrepreneur who owned two consulting companies and was looking for a foreigner to help scale up his internationally facing businesses. I sent him my resume, interviewed over Skype, emailed back and forth for at least a month, and finally landed a modestly paid internship with his firms, Beijing Topview Consulting and Trading Ltd., and Beijing Software Enterprise Advisory Center.
Within a few months of interning at Topview and BSEAC, my boss offered me a generous raise and a full-time position. I took them, and in a very short amount of time I was not only helping to manage the firm’s existing practices, but growing new practices, particularly in the areas of sustainability, energy, and environment. This was fueled mostly by my own interest in sustainable development, but also by a very clear profit line around renewable energy and environmental protection in China. My boss and I took this line and ran with it, co-founding a carbon venture called Asia Carbon Investment Ltd. We grew ACI until the financial crisis threw the brakes on international carbon, at which point I withdrew and returned to NYC to study for my Master’s at Columbia.
2. What’s life like in Beijing? Any unique aspects that set it apart from other Chinese/Asian cities?
Beijing is massive, and could only work in China. This sprawling city of concentric circles is simultaneously a political, cultural, and academic hub for all of China, and a commercial hub for at least the Northern half of the country. This crazy combination is what set it apart for me. From a US perspective, it’d be something like squeezing all of the context, content, and people (x2) of DC, Boston and Los Angeles into one place, which unfortunately also includes LA air quality.
Another thing I’d note is how “Chinese” the city is. Many expats living in China compare Beijing with Shanghai, and some favor the more cosmopolitan and sophisticated nature of its southern counterpart. By now Beijing has definitely cultivated its own pockets of urbanity, but I’d agree that it does have more of the “backward” feeling that goes along with old-world China.
Added to this is the fact that Beijing has an undeniable mission to maintain as much connection as possible to what is culturally and specifically “Chinese”, given its political seating. On a good day, this gives an expat Sinophile a much richer traditional heritage to dig into; on a bad day, it puts less comfort at your disposal and might even throw you some dirty looks as you wander through a local alley neighborhood.
All in all, my impression is that Beijing is more for those who love China as China, while Shanghai is a more comfortable home for those looking for a lifestyle that readily lives up to (or exceeds) Western standards.
3. Getting used to a foreign culture is an important challenge for any expat, but especially important when you’re trying to succeed in the workplace. What can you tell us about Chinese culture and how it has impacted the work you’ve done in China?
There are two sides to the cultural coin in China, particularly as it affects the workplace and doing business. I think of these as the “sincere” and “sinister” sides of China.
The sincere side is largely found within the office, but at times comes out “in the field” as well. Locals are genuinely fascinated by people from other countries, openly curious about their background and way of doing things, and fairly vocal about the questions that might normally stay in the back of their minds. Over time, this grows into an earnest desire for mutual understanding and agreement, which at times might come across as blunt or naïve, but more often struck me as warm and endearing.
Depending on the situation, this may also coincide with an implied degree of seniority and authority, particularly on subject matters that are still considered “more advanced” outside of China. The nice part about this last bit is that it can seriously accelerate your local career trajectory if you leverage it in the right way.
The sinister side of working in China usually appears outside of the office, but unfortunately also within those walls, especially in larger, less personal office environments. Some of the darker parts of this picture are well-known, and it’s important to understand that they are a reality—bribery, embezzlement, and fraud all take place in China, and in some ways are key instruments for achieving local results.
A more subtle reality is the “outsider” complex. It’s something of a hallmark of Chinese culture to isolate what is inherently “Chinese”, or part of the Chinese condition, and deem it “unknowable” to an outsider. This tendency is exacerbated by the past few decades of phenomenal economic development in China, which most recently have been juxtaposed against failing Western economies. The result of these forces is that, quite often, foreigners are assumed to be unable to understand the intricacies of China and why things work the way they do there.
From a businessperson’s perspective, it’s important to remember that the combination of corruption and being an “outsider” leads to a serious threat of the foreigner getting screwed. This too is a reality, and one that must be protected against if you are to succeed in doing business or advancing your career on the ground.
4. Some expats might be specifically interested in China. Others could be choosing from a number of countries. What do you think are the key attractions of living and working in mainland China?
In terms of work, China has better and more affordable infrastructure, human resources, access to capital, and government support than most other developing countries. That’s essentially the equation for Chinese economic success since 1980. At the same time, it still has enough holes in the economic landscape that you can find good opportunities to leverage, as well as higher growth and wider margins to capture than in a more mature economy.
In terms of lifestyle, China has it all, and at a price and degree of access that you are more likely to be able to afford. It’s still a developing country, so there are incredible cost-savings to be had. At the same time, China has been doing well enough for long enough, and has had enough exposure to international standards of living, that you can find as much luxury as you can stomach.
The food’s also great.
5. How important is foreign language competency (in this case Mandarin Chinese) in the workplace, and in daily life? Can an expat get by on just English in the beginning?
Chinese students must take English classes from 1st grade all the way through high school. This means that, at least in major cities, you can get around OK with just English and a pen and paper for a while.
Nevertheless, if you are actually going to give it a shot, you need to speak Chinese in China. The connections you make and the success you achieve will be much more constrained and much less meaningful otherwise.
6. Please let aspiring China job seekers know what they can do, and avoid doing, to get to where you were as an expat China professional.
There are a few pieces of advice that I usually give to jobseekers and entrepreneurs in China, which I think apply to jobseekers anywhere.
For those entering a company or trying to climb up the company ladder, don’t be afraid to do grunt work. This especially applies to things that may seem lowly and tedious to you, but that are infinitely beyond the reach of your local counterparts—for example, anything that involves editing English.
On one hand, while it seems trivial and circumstantial, your ability to improve anything containing company-produced English is a foundation upon which to build all the other value-added contributions you will one day make. On the other hand, a sense of entitlement, i.e. “I didn’t come here to edit a website”, won’t get you anywhere in any country.
On a related note, as much as you should be honest and genuine in your approach to company life or doing business, try to be subtle and focus on relationship-building. Sensitive topics like salary or contract value should never be discussed up front, and in fact should not be brought up by you unless they are being hopelessly delayed by your employer or client. These discussions should be brought up in private, ideally initiated by the other side, and even more ideally over drinks or at a dinner table. As overplayed as it is in the media hype, China is definitely a relationship-driven business environment, and a hasty rush toward the money topic can ruin a good relationship.
Ultimately, at least for me, you should always be working toward a long-term strategy, which sometimes means sacrificing on short-term gains. What’s your priority in China? Are you trying to propel your career? Get rich? Get famous? Do something meaningful? All of the above? When I first went to China I accepted a starting internship salary of less than 700 USD a month. I did it because I knew that coming to China would launch my career and lead to much greater benefits down the road. In order to get my foot in that door, I was willing to take the short-term hit to my paycheck.
7. Shifting gears toward your work in New York, how have you found the transition from Chinese start-up to US start-up?
The comparison between entrepreneurship in China and the US is fascinating. In so many ways, these two countries are polar reflections of one another, and the same is true on the startup venture level. If I had to highlight one major aspect of this polarity, at the entrepreneurship level and speaking in very general terms, it would center on spirit versus creativity. It is almost unbelievable how much entrepreneurial spirit there is in modern China. Some of this is circumstantial—where there are more things missing in an economic landscape, there will be more people looking to fill those gaps. Whatever the case, I found it inspiring how many people were interested and willing to take the economic plunge into opening their own small businesses, versus the predominantly corporate culture I’ve seen in the US economy.
There’s a different between Chinese startups and US startups, however, and this difference revolves around creativity. The traditional startup in the US is driven by creativity and innovation; some new technology, process, or strategy will drive an entrepreneur to give their idea a shot in the form of a startup venture. In China, I saw a lot of spirit, but fewer new ideas. Chinese entrepreneurs were often high-spirited individuals who channeled their drive into opening a grocery market or liquor store. Even more frequently, they were well-connected people who were able to leverage some sort of market-shaping power to create an artificial margin, or who could tap into some pool of capital, either local or foreign, to capitalize on an impermanent arbitrage opportunity. Rarely did I come across a local venture with real innovation at its foundation.
8. Can you highlight any differing pros/cons facing a China-based startup vs. a US-based startup?
I’d underline some of the points I brought up above. Starting a business in China allows you to capture wider margins, higher growth, and more opportunity for arbitrage. What you don’t have there, which you do have in the US, is political surety and absolute protection of your intellectual and physical property rights.
Having worked in startup ventures on both sides of the Pacific, I can say without a doubt that the necessary talent and capital for starting and growing a business is present in both China and the US. In my experience, talent and capital are easier and cheaper to get in China; however, with the higher price tag in the US, you get much greater access to innovation and creativity within the available talent pool.
9. More generally, what’s your outlook on energy and environmental markets going forward? What about specific to China?
I’m very optimistic in general. I think we’re in the middle of a major world-wide paradigm shift in which the meaning of “sustainability” is really starting to sink in. Public goods like the global climate and local ecology are now being given a value in economic terms, and social impact gains are beginning to lead to actual profit margins. A part of this shift toward the sustainable is a shift away from the short-term toward longer term gains. In the financial sector, this calls for a change in the way investors think about returns. The days of tech-boom venture capital and housing-bubble derivatives are (hopefully) over. In their place are slower, steadier returns to private equity and project finance. From my seat in renewable energy and environmental markets at Karbone, we are definitely seeing this shift take place as we speak.
Specific to China, I’m bullish on renewable energy, and bearish on environmental markets, at least in the short-term. Renewable energy projects, i.e. big, capital-intensive infrastructure projects, fit the Chinese way of doing things very well. At the same time, energy security and environmental necessity are guiding the hybrid public-private Chinese development machine in that direction. Environmental markets are more difficult to design. While carbon and ecological taxes might work, I don’t see functional market-based mechanisms for protecting the environment reentering China any time soon.
Jonathan Chao Burnston is an Environmental Markets Manager at Karbone Inc., a rapidly growing renewable energy and environmental markets firm based in NYC. At Karbone, he helps manage the firm’s coverage of carbon, renewable energy credit, renewable power, and biofuels markets around North America.
Prior to joining Karbone, he co-founded and spent over three years managing a project origination firm in the Chinese Clean Development Mechanism carbon market. He has held consulting engagements for major power industry and capital markets players in locations ranging from the US to Kazakhstan. He holds a BA in Philosophy and Chinese from Tufts University, and a Master of International Affairs from Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, where he focused on sustainable economic development.