The China Experience: Ten Days in Beijing with Nine Tech Students

I just spent ten days in Beijing, working with nine technology students from Chinese International School in what started out as a series of seminars on how tech and business works in China and ended with four teams of kids pitching startup ideas to members of Hillhouse Capital, one of the most well-known venture capital companies in the country.

Nine students from Chinese International School made their school and themselves very proud in Beijing, China — June 30, 2016

But before I get to that day, a little background.

The Background

About a year ago, I was asked by an alumna from Chinese International School if I would be interested in taking a look at a job description for an open position. The title of the job was “Director of Connected Learning.”

I skimmed the first paragraph and I actually thought of someone else who might be perfect for the job and gave the description to his boss, who had recently been looking for his replacement after the contract job he was in previously ended.

That person called me back and said, “Did you actually read this? Read this.”

I read it.

What I thought was an IT person’s job was actually the beginning of what has become a huge push from within the school to pair liberal arts and humanities education with a deep dive training program in coding, technology, hardware and business / design thinking. All driven by moi. And about 200 other people who I have been fortunate enough to meet along the way, from teachers and headmasters, to investors and hardware geeks.

We all share a common vision.

The Vision

We want to help highly driven and creative curious secondary school students to connect to a world — and solve problems in a world — that is increasingly defined by three things:

  1. Devices, technology, hardware, software, code and information is developing faster, more efficiently, and at a rate that is impossible for humans to manage alone, and will cause a positive domino effect of innovations, especially in China, as people unlock ways to use these things.
  2. Information networks will be fragmented by income levels, distances and conflicts, making it certain that those immediately near you — your friends, partners, classmates — might not be the only people you need to work with. People with incredibly diverse backgrounds will be essential to your work, but you will have to find them yourself, continually.
  3. For a growing majority, people will not “show up to work” each day to solve corporate problems, but tech-minded people with a humanities background will be able to search and discover problems and offer solutions to serve others on a continual basis through continual improvisations and iteration.

The mission at Chinese International School is to take something called the Connected Learning Initiative (CLI) and prepare students to work in this world by augmenting three actions under the umbrella of liberal arts and tech training:

  1. Tackle hard problems that help the communities they live in, in a collaborative and empathic manner.
  2. Find experts, colleagues, co-founders through network and tech solutions.
  3. Stay ahead of innovation, learning as much as they can to be leaders, rather than followers in STEM.

Beijing, China

Convolutional node Networks and machine learning at Horizon Robotics

So that takes us to China. Over the past ten days, I have been taking a small group of nine students to some of the most important companies in China today. Some of the companies are chip companies, robotics companies, search engine companies, companies making autonomous vehicles.

Students interview Chairman of Youku Tudou, Liu Da-Le

All of them are led by CEOs and engineering teams that saw the value in sitting down with students and teaching them how people at this level of the technology ecosystem make decisions, design products, and ship.

Testing out a Karaoke app that they don’t have access to in Hong Kong, since the mainland blocks access to app stores in China

A Typical Day Turns Into a Three Day Hackathon

About six days into the experience, and after having a few tutoring sessions in coding for AI, we announced that over the next three days all of the students would need to put together a product idea that they would have to pitch to investors.

The purpose of the pitch was not to get money for their product. The purpose was to learn how to articulate a problem, find its solution and then bring people together for a common purpose, to solve the problem for as many people as possible.

Four ideas emerged:

  1. A book selling tool to help people with used books give them to the person who needed them most for school work
  2. A platform for locating culturally-important shop owners in cities you are visiting or that you live in
  3. A platform for ensuring that really good developers get paid for really good work, by inserting an AI-driven project manager middleman in between them.
  4. An AI-fuelled storyboard creator, to help people who don’t have a lot of time learn how to create what’s in their head so other people can see it

And that’s not all

As the humanities teacher on this trip, I was blown away at how well these students took to things like Python and other code. But I was even more impressed by how well they worked with each other.

Seeing that the hotel didn’t use their canteen, the students took over the space, using it as their very own hacker space, much to the surprise and occasional annoyance of the hotel staff.

The spaces around them became learning spaces. Students, transfixed by their own ideas and their own interactions with the city and the tech companies around them, began working feverishly on ideas.

There was even a moment in the subway when one of the platform entrepreneurs whipped out his computer to finish up his pitch. True devotion!

Student works on “Locale” on his way to the pitch event.

True Entrepreneurship

I’ve lived in New York, Hong Kong, and San Francisco, and spent a lot of time working with entrepreneurs.

I think that in general, entrepreneurs are good people, because they don’t just take risks for the sake of taking risks. They take risks, because they see opportunities to solve big problems. And those solutions have the potential to help a lot of people.

Big cities are hives of opportunity and activities. Everyone has problems. Traffic is a mess. Labor is hard. Tourists get lost. Water safety is an issue in some places. Income inequality affects every major city in the world.

There are many places where technology can replace some of the human struggle and give us all a sense of achievement.

Who is going to solve for something like this? In many cases, it won’t be me and you at 40 years old already. Some of us can’t even figure out Snapchat!

It will be people who grow up with the mentality that technology is not only within reach, but that it’s second nature.

People who grow up knowing that people are not living equal lives, and that opportunity can be lopsided in favor of those who already experienced the privilege and luck of being born under the right star.

People who are, when you really boil it down, just aware that they have a role to play to make things better.

Every day we started off in Beijing asking each other to observe the world around us; to notice things that were out of place and were sticking out and weird.

Then every evening after dinner we sat around a table and asked, “What is going on? What do you notice? What is happening?”

We live in a moment that is ours to solve, in my opinion.

I was inspired by these students. From zero to 1 in ten days. They almost naturally did everything that the skilled entrepreneur does.

They listened.

Interviewing a chief engineer at Baidu

They coded.

Students look into the code at Changba, a karaoke app in China

They immersed themselves in the world.

VR machines at Light Chaser Animation Studios

They researched.

And in the end, they had fun.

When you mesh together what you love to do with what needs to be done, the world kind of rolls along with you, and what you get is a kind of happiness.

Beijing, the fantastic voyage.

For more about what we are doing with the Connected Learning Initiative, please visit us.

Thank you to Horizon Robotics, Baidu, Light Chaser Animation Studios, Changba, Hillhouse Capital, Blue Lake Capital Group, Crystal Orange Hotels, Chinese International School, WooSpace, Youku Tudou, Guotang Mobi, Renmin University, Peking University, and many duck restaurants.