Wednesday, January 14, 2009

AIESEC Mainland China in the Financial Times and the U.S. Alumni Behind the Story

It's the Chinese New Year, and the Financial Times just published an article called Interns help open China to the outside world about AIESEC Mainland China. But do you know the story of a few AIESEC U.S. alums who made AIESEC in mainland China happen?

We've interviewed Lili Hein and Joel Sanders who went to China in the mid 1990’s to convince the Chinese Ministry of Education to open its first AIESEC chapter.

Angelika Ilina: Could you start by telling me your AIESEC story and what led you to China?

Joel Sanders: I was the LCP of AIESEC Colorado in 1993. We won the most outstanding LC award that year. The year after that I went to New York to serve as the VP of Sales for AIESEC U.S. In the 2 years that I was there, we doubled the number of traineeships.

During that time, the U.S. national committee, with the Board of Directors’ guidance, decided to contribute more to AIESEC beyond our national borders. We found out that there was an effort to extend AIESEC to mainland China, but there wasn’t much progress being made. And so we asked, “How can we help?” And that’s when we hired Lili Hein, for a few graham crackers and the promise of a free beer, to be our on-the-ground person in China.

Lili Hein: I joined AIESEC Seattle in 1993 because I wanted to go on a traineeship, and I specifically wanted to do a traineeship in China, but there was no AIESEC in China. I remember going to my first National Conference in Colorado and asking Jeremy Findley, the outgoing NCP at the time, why there wasn’t AIESEC in China. He said they were working on it, but wasn’t sure what was going on. And that’s when I started my journey of figuring out what I, or AIESEC U.S., or anyone in AIESEC could do about it.

I ended up running the 1994 Fall Western Regional Conference in Seattle during which Joel interviewed me for the position. There was a lot of interest from U.S. companies in hiring trainees from China, so we decided to send me to China to try to find trainees for those companies. Later, we realized that we wanted to set up AIESEC chapters in China, so I ended up staying for 2 ½ years. I took a leave of absence from school and ended up creating my own traineeship.

Joel Sanders and Lili Hein in Tiananmen Square, China, circa 1995...

Angelika: Who were the people instrumental in the process?

Joel: John Allen, an AIESEC Harvard alumnus who was also serving on the Board of Directors for AIESEC U.S., was really pushing this mission forward. We give him a lot of credit for AIESEC being in China.

One of the most important things John did was put us in touch with Janet McElligott, a political consultant in Washington, D.C. Janet turned out to be the person who opened doors for us in China. She volunteered by taking 3 weeks off of whatever she was doing in her life to fly to China to help us. She believed in the idea.

Lili: That was the power of John Allen. People like and respect John, so Janet volunteered to do it. And John gave us tremendous moral support, in addition to financial support and contacts that we received from AIESEC alumni and the Board of Directors. This kind of project doesn’t happen without a lot of support from alumni and the Board. If the Board said, “We’re not interested,” I don’t think this initiative could have happened.

After us, many others from the U.S. including Drew Arnold, Lisa Cui, and Sarah Endline carried on the dream of bringing AIESEC to China. It never would have happened without them, either.

Joel: I think it’s important to also recognize the AIESEC members who helped with the Extension at the time. Adriana Boden of AIESEC Berkley helped raise the very first traineeships for Chinese students and create interest with the U.S. companies. The courage and boldness she had—as a volunteer student, no less!—in selling a concept that didn’t yet exist was just phenomenal. It shows the entrepreneurial skills and talents that AIESEC produces.

Lili, Janet, and Joel having dim sum in China

Angelika: What were the challenges you encountered while in China?

Joel: The biggest challenge was not knowing who really pulled the strings in China. Everyone was talking to very nice people who couldn’t really make anything happen. That’s where Janet came into play. So, together with Janet, Lili, and Sinko Choy from AIESEC Hong Kong, we were able to have meetings with the Ministry of Finance, the Ministry of Education, and key people at the top universities. We also raised the seed money we needed to get started.

China is like any other place in the world – it’s who you know and who actually has the power and authority to make things happen. Janet’s relationships opened doors for us.

Lili: The contacts in China were crucial. The other big challenge was working within AIESEC and getting AIESEC’s support – not just in the U.S., but other countries, as well – to make the extension happen. By being there in Beijing, by beating the drum to get people to work on this initiative, we ended up building a big international coalition. Hong Kong, Canada, Australia, Japan, Germany, Taiwan, New Zealand, and others – it was a challenge to get everyone on board and on the same page.

Joel: What happened as a result of that was the shift from “national committees” to “member committees”, a term you still hear being thrown around today. This was something that Lili uncovered. Because we had AIESEC in Taiwan, it was completely unacceptable to the mainland Chinese to have a “national” committee of Taiwan. From the Chinese point of view, Taiwan is part of China. And we didn’t want semantics to stop us from expanding into mainland China. So we pushed forward an initiative at the International Congress to officially change the terminology around the world from “national committee” to “member committee.” Plus, instead of saying “AIESEC United States” we started staying “AIESEC in the United States”, and as far as I know, it is still used today.

Lili: Another aspect of this was that the national flags could not be displayed at international conferences anymore. It was a big mind shift.

Joel: And there was some resistance to that. There were people who didn’t want to see that happen. But we had to say that it was important for AIESEC to be inclusive, especially to include a country as big as China, and to make some of these small modifications so that we could start doing exchanges with them.

Lili: This helped AIESEC change from an “international” to a “global” mindset. It’s a subtle difference.

Angelika: By that, do you mean moving from “my country” vs. “your country” to a “global village” mindset?

Lili: Exactly. Instead of thinking in terms of our individual nations, we had to start thinking of ourselves as part of one world.

Joel: Changing the terminology from “AIESEC United States” to “AIESEC in the United States” reminds people that we are all part of AIESEC, irrespective of borders. National borders happen to be a reality that we have to deal with, but AIESEC had always transcended these borders to find its commonality and purpose by exchanging people and ideas.

Janet, Lili, and Joel with a Hong Kong contact

Angelika: Could you describe the most memorable moment you had while working on the China Extension?

Joel: I remember one day Lili called from Beijing and asked, “Could you send me some dental floss? I just realized I’ve run out.” Dental floss was nowhere to be found in China at the time, at least where she was, and it just shows how far we’ve come in a short period of time.

Lili: Having different AIESECers come to visit me, including Joel and John Allen, and others that came later stands out in my memory. Having people come to China because they bought into the cause. Having them come over and feel that they are making a difference by bringing AIESEC to China.

Another memory that I am lucky to have is that 5 years after I left China, I was invited to go back to attend their first official National Conference. That’s when AIESEC Mainland China was finally a member of AIESEC International. It was pretty amazing.

Joel: It all became real to me when we were sitting in a meeting with someone who held the highest post in the Ministry of Education in that region. We were sitting in a traditional Chinese room with everyone sitting on their own wall, really far away from one another. That’s how the negotiation happened. There was a formal and proper way in which everyone had to sit, depending on their status.

I remember thinking, “I’m just a 22-year old, right out of college, dealing with all of these important people. This thing is for real.” And they were totally taking us seriously. And I think they were commending us for the boldness of our initiative.

Lili: Another memorable moment was when an AIESECer from Australia and I took a picture with Hu Jintao who is now the president of China.

Angelika: How does it feel to read an article in a major newspaper that talks about how Chinese companies are able to bring a more open, global mindset to their staff and know that you were a major part of it?

Joel: I’m really proud of Lili and all of us who participated in it. That’s what AIESEC is all about. Besides changing people’s lives forever by raising traineeships—which is huge in and of itself—we took on the initiative to start the China Extension. Undoubtedly, there are thousands of people by now whose lives have been completely transformed as a result of AIESEC Mainland China’s existence. They’ll never know who Lili is, or who I am, and it doesn’t matter. But for me, it’s another experience in my book where I know I made a difference in a lot of lives because of the work that I did.

Lili: It’s proof that through AIESEC we’re able to share dreams from generation to generation. We did something, and now we see the next generation take the torch and continue running with it – it’s neat to see our dreams being shared.

Lili, Janet, and Joel with a Chinese contact

Angelika: You both made significant contributions to AIESEC Life. What do you see as the future of AIESEC Life as it helps AIESEC U.S. in continuing the tradition of spreading a global mindset?

Joel: John Allen helped us because of his affiliation with the Board of Directors. But there are only so many people that can be on the Board. AIESEC Life gives alumni the opportunity to have an institution that they can connect with. It forms the foundation for their relationship to AIESEC.

I think Frank Foti, Vice-Chairman of the Board of Directors of AIESEC Life, said it best - “For us, this is AIESEC now.” In other words, AIESEC Life is AIESEC for alumni. So, having a strong institution like AIESEC Life that can provide ideas, contacts, and mentorship to students is a huge resource. I wish it existed when we were in AIESEC! Hopefully, this concept will catch on and spread around the world.

Lili: I think back to alumni serving as mentors. I think of John Allen and how he was such a great mentor to me, and how alumni today can do the same thing by helping current members with their projects. I see many similarities between AIESEC Life and AIESEC's extension to China: a dream to be realized with big opportunities and also some challenges.

Despite occasional skepticism and doubt, success comes by sharing the dream widely among generations. Most of all, the potential is thrilling! How can you ignore a billion Chinese or a half century of AIESEC alumni and growing?

Donna Wang, the first Chinese student trainee to the U.S., and Lili in Beijing


  • Lili

    We met a couple of times since you have been back to Beijing; and the photo of you with Hu Jintao is still in the 'history of AIESEC MoC' powerpoint that gets shown at almost every conference.

    So no-one will forget you, at least, although there is no mention of Joel or many of the others, unfortunately.


    By Blogger Adam, At April 14, 2009 at 12:36 AM  

  • Lili,

    I am touched with the story that the US AIESEC members came to China , and set up the expansion. i had heard once Adam share this story in Natco.Glad to meet up with you anytime if you are going to visit China.AIESEC spirit rocks the world.

    Sze Yan

    By Blogger Cyan, At April 15, 2009 at 1:59 AM  

  • HI Lili, You may remember me..Stuart Spiteri, the DAI, who made the first trips to China with Sinko in 1992 and 1993, before the US and Canada got involved. I loved reading your material here.

    We should add the deyails of how we got to the All China Youth Federation, and the very first exchange to Toronto and Melbourne in 1994.

    By Blogger Stuart Spiteri, At July 11, 2014 at 3:01 AM  

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