Marlene Maria Schimak


 

My name is Marlene. I'm an Austrian living in Hangzhou. Actually, just very recently, I moved from Beijing, which was my China base since 2015, to Hangzhou, where I started working for StarRides, a Daimler and Geely joint venture. I guess most people know Daimler and Geely but probably have not heard of StarRides yet. Therefore I would like to briefly introduce StarRides to give you some context for the interview. So, we offer Premium Chauffeur Service both through a Chinese app and English websites. StarRides exclusively consists of Mercedes Benz vehicles. The service is available in major Chinese cities. So when we introduce our business, we are often compared to DiDi, which is obvious because DiDi is by far the biggest player in China's ride-hailing market. However, DiDi focuses on the masses. They have the deluxe line, but it's not the main strategy to serve the needs of premium clients. 

This is where StarRides saw great potential. So StarRides offers premium mobility, and premium can be a misleading term sometimes because many people tend to think of luxury. Premium is not luxury. In premium mobility, we define it as safety and reliability. Our cars are all new Mercedes Benz vehicles. Our drivers undergo a strict selection process, they have background checks, health checks, regular training, defensive and safe driving checks. And in addition to these services, we also offer one-way bookings, by the hour bookings, cross-city trips, airport pickups, etc. Also, customized B2B solutions for enterprises. As mentioned before, we have bookings through an app and website, but at the moment, our app is only available in Chinese, so we are working on the English version of our app. 

And this is where I come into the picture because I'm working in the international business development team. By international, I mean working with the international community in China, not abroad. And yeah, together with my colleagues, we are working on the marketing campaign for this app launch, which will probably happen by the end of November. In addition, I am supporting our Business Development team in building up the market for StarRides with a focus on Beijing, Shanghai, and Hangzhou. That involves a wide range of activities, starting from research, strategic planning, and social media marketing going to IT and networking, and so on. Yet, today I'm looking forward to talk about how I landed this job, what skills were required, and I hope by sharing this experience, I can help other young people or students to land their dream job in China.
 

How did you land your current job?

 

I sought my job pretty quickly, and I got it through my personal network. I guess it's a typical China story. A friend heard of the job opportunity at StarRides, and he kindly forwarded my CV to my now boss. We had a WeChat call and apparently it was a match from both sides. I decided to move to Hangzhou. To be honest, I even discussed with my boss in advance if I can tell you that it was basically “guanxi” that got me a job. As a concept of “guanxi,” to have a network of influential relationships is not always appreciated in western culture. However, in China, this is how it works. I would even go so far as to say that in China, your network determines your success, and from my experience, this is not just true for the Chinese community but also for the foreign community, because we kind of adapt to this Chinese system and landing a job in China can sometimes be a very quick and informal process.

 

What kind of skills were absolutely required for your current job?

 

In my case, one of the most important skills was networking skill, so my job interview was centered around questioning how I can help StarRides develop the business in China and how I can connect them to international enterprises. Secondly, language skills. Most importantly, Chinese skills, although we are a 50/50 German/Chinese joint venture, most of our colleagues are Chinese. Among almost 200 people working for StarRIdes, we are now just four foreigners. We have 1 Canadian, 2 Germans, and one Austrian. So daily office life is so much easier. Chinese is the most spoken language in our offices, then English and lastly German. And yeah! A whole system works in Chinese. The app is available in Chinese as well as a back-end system. Therefore my Chinese skills were one of the main reasons why my boss actually decided to hire me. 

 

How did you learn those skills?

 

Networking is something you can only learn by doing. I used to work in retail consulting before, and there was a lot of networking involved because as a consultant, you're always on the hunt for new clients. I remember what my former boss taught me, she said to really build a strong business connection (1) they need to like you (2) they need to like your company, and (3) they need to like your product. I have kept that in mind ever since so when I do networking I really put a strong emphasis on building that personal connection with people and over the years I have learned that networking is most effective when following a few simple steps. For example, it really helps to prepare an event calendar. In first-tier cities like Beijing and Shanghai, there are loads of events, and it's impossible to attend all of them, so grouping them and prioritize them can be very helpful. It really depends also what you're looking for because Startup Grind is a perfect platform to meet inspiring and like-minded people. But there are also other platforms like Internations, where you can make social contacts. But I have also made great business contacts there. However, if you really want to build a connection with the decision-makers of international enterprises, I would recommend to go to Chamber of Commerce events and Embassy events. I know, for students, sometimes it's not so easy to get into these events because access might be limited or the entry cost several hundred RMB, but mostly it is really worth spending the energy and money.

Secondly, define your networking goals in advance. Of course, you go there to have fun and to get inspired but also think about it in advance. Who do you want to meet, who do you want to talk to? Do you want to talk to HR people? Do you want to talk to marketing people? Do you want to make contacts with general managers? Quantifying these goals can also be very useful sometimes. Say, okay, today I really intend to make 3 deep business connections. When you do that, it also helps to do a bit of research in advance because it's a lot easier to have a good conversation with somebody when you have background information. And for the actual networking part, it's learning by doing and it's really individual. It always depends whom you're talking to, but at the end of the day it's not enough to just get the business card into your wallet it's really important to have a follow-up, connect with them on WeChat, stay in touch on LinkedIn and have this omni communication approach. 

For my second skill that I mentioned - Chinese. I studied full time in Beijing. Well, how I learned Chinese is actually a painful story. I did HSK5 quite fast, somewhat after a year. And then I was so confident that I thought “okay, this is enough so that I can study in the local master's program entirely taught in Mandarin”. I studied Guoji Guanxi, International Relations, with local Chinese students, not foreigners. But HSK5 was by far not enough to do that, so I was under enormous pressure. Sure, I had to compete with Chinese students, and I had to put in so many night shifts actually to make it work for me. I hardly ever slept before an exam, because I was so terrified. We had to handwrite the exams. I mean, it was political science, but still, I had to answer the questions in Chinese, and that was physically and mentally painful. But in the end, it really paid off, because now I have established great passive Chinese skills, so I can read very fast. And that is also something that I can benefit me now in my current workplace.

 

What were your very first steps in China and how can other people possibly do the same?

 

I came to China as a student in 2015 and I was supposed to be there for one semester. But on my last weekend in Beijing I had 2 options: I was invited to a goodbye party of my university and the other option was to attend an event of the Austrian business community. Very spontaneously I decided to attend the Austria event just because I was curious to meet some Austrians in Beijing. And well, I actually landed an internship that evening. It was just a few days before I was supposed to leave Beijing for good. So yeah, after I landed this internship I had to come back, of course. And I liked China, even more, the second time, but I still had to go back to Austria to graduate. And after my graduation in 2017, I came back to work for the company that I was interning with and, simultaneously, I started learning Mandarin. So, actually, one could say that attending one networking event on my final week in Beijing totally changed my whole China story and I would even go so far as to this evening leads to me being here in Hangzhou today.

 

After all these years in China, what are your do's and don'ts in the country?

 

 I think a major do is to learn Chinese and not just for your career but for yourself because it's not just about making life easier but better. My quality of living in China has gradually improved with my ability to communicate with the local community. As mentioned before, I moved to Hangzhou less than 2 months ago. I have never been here before and did not know anyone living here. I was highly dependent on my Chinese skills for survival and also making myself feel at home. I found a super cute apartment in a hutong community, but I am the only foreigner there. So we are in the midst of this pandemic, and, of course, people were curious where the hell is she coming from suddenly. And, I have had so many heartwarming conversations with the local community because they wanted to know who I am, where I'm from, why am here, what I'm doing and now they all know me. I really feel like being at home during this time in Hangzhou.

 

The second major do is, as I mentioned before, is to invest time and energy to build a network. Don't be afraid to use that network because, from my experience, people are really open and welcoming when it comes to referring you for a job or connecting to other people because, at the end of the day, they all see themselves. Mow I'm here in China for 5 years, so when I see new students coming, I always like to offer my help to them because I know how hard it is. Now when I go to a networking event and I talk to other people, maybe general managers who have been living in China for 15 years, they somehow see themselves in me and this personal connection is just great. I would absolutely recommend anyone not being afraid to ask for help because people like to support.

 

Another thing I have learned is don't come to China with a detailed career plan. Life in China is unpredictable, and I think that is because it is probably the most dynamic country to live in right now. In China, you're always one decision away from a different life. My story is moving from Beijing to Hangzhou within a matter of minutes. I mean, the decision was a very fast/quick process, and it is proof that your life can change so fast here, and if you're too focused on one particular career path or job position or even focus on a city, then you might miss out on opportunities. This also brings you to the next point - don't feel entitled to these opportunities. I know we work so hard here, we have foreigners, we're away from our families. For example, I've missed so many Christmases, I've missed all my grandmother's birthday, and sometimes I feel like China owes me because I put in so much work. But that is not really true, we are guests here in this country, and I think we have to be grateful for the opportunities that we get here and we should not feel entitled to live and work here.

 

I am emphasizing this because this can lead to frustration because it's also one of the most widely spread misconceptions that people think every door will open if you're a foreigner who speaks Chinese, and that's just not the case. Because Chinese people, young Chinese people, are incredibly talented, have international education, they learn English, and they have this strong work ethic. I really think foreign students have to step up the game in order to compete with Chinese talents.

 

Is there anything that you would do differently today if you had the chance to come to China and start over?

 

Yes, absolutely! I would start building my network earlier and try to leave the student’s bubble as soon as possible. Many students spend years studying in China and only start building their professional network shortly before they graduate because they need to find a job. But by then, it's already too late, or maybe so many years have passed, and you could have already built this great network. So I strongly recommend students to try it from time to time, to go to some high profile events. And secondly, I would invest in my Chinese skills right from the start. I didn't do that in my first 1 to 2 years. I was just using the regular phrases that every foreign can basically say, but I did not put in the work to really learn business Chinese, and I would do that differently now definitely. Because it is so hard to put into work later and I've been there. Having certain fluency in Chinese already and then going back to the basics is hard.