[Herald Interview] Grasping Chinese market with educator’s insight

By Joel Lee

“In today’s China, more than in Korea, students are more willing to take risks with their education, because they don’t fully understand the risks around their choices.”

  • Published : Jun 18, 2018 - 17:20
  • Updated : Jun 18, 2018 - 17:21

For comprehensive educational firm Due West’s co-founders, Andrew Sohn and Michael J. Novielli, China has been a thrilling place to do business.

The Columbia University graduates founded the company in 2009, and have made inroads into the Chinese market offering consulting and guidance for students wanting to study in the United States.

In an interview at The Korea Herald headquarters in Seoul on Friday, the duo said there was a “real hunger” and drive for learning and entrepreneurship in China, both on the part of the government as well as students.

“Korea developed quickly, and now has reached a level where people feel comfortable. Children are raised in a cocoon of parental care,” said Sohn. “But in today’s China, more than in Korea, students are more willing to take risks with their education, because they don’t fully understand the risks around their choices.”

Due West co-founders Michael J. Novielli (right) and Andrew Sohn pose after an interview at The Korea Herald headquarters in Seoul on Friday. (Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald)

Unlike many Korean students with privileged backgrounds, who understand long-term risks of their educational choices and ultimately choose a safer path, Chinese students don’t receive as much parental and educational support, he noted, adding the lack of knowledge allows them to leap into the unknown, take risks and become entrepreneurial.

“For Chinese students, everything is new to them. And that’s what makes it very interesting to work with them. The passion for the exploration of the new world is very high,” explained the CEO. “Whereas Korean parents set a very clear path for their children, Chinese parents don’t know the path. So students are bound to make mistakes, but it’s tolerated more than in Korea, because they don’t fully understand the risks.”

Due West, based in Beijing with operations in Singapore, provides “principled, transparent and innovative” services for students eyeing American boarding schools, universities and graduate schools. Its team of bilingual educators and former admissions officers provide expert knowledge and insights into the world of Ivy League and other prestigious schools, tailoring services for each individual applicant.

“We both studied in China when we were undergraduate students at Columbia University, and that had a huge impact on us. On the flipside, we recognized that there was a lot of misunderstanding about US and Chinese schools and the process of applying for them,” said Novielli.

“Admissions in the US are much more holistic than simple grades. We wanted to be a company that provides support and resources and make an impact beyond getting students into good schools.”

Highlighting that Due West prioritizes nurturing students’ developmental capacities, Novielli said the firm would not only help a student get into Harvard, but offer training allowing the student to feel confident at debating issues with the best and brightest. The company also actively promotes international exchange between US and Chinese schools.

“The Chinese economy now is largely driven by growth, everything is about growth, growth, growth,” stressed Sohn, adding that people idolize entrepreneurs like Jack Ma and Robin Li and successful enterprises like Baidu, Alibaba, Tencent and Jingdong.

“There is so much momentum and energy around entrepreneurship. Students eagerly absorb new information and exploit opportunities. We have students that double major in philosophy and computer science, a combination usually shunned by Korean students.”

Government support for entrepreneurship is significant, he pointed out, noting, “Beijing is not only the administrative and political capital, but very much leading the way in entrepreneurship and technology with large-scale private investments and state support.”

Novielli chimed in, saying that the Chinese government is intent on leading the world’s artificial intelligence, block chain, cryptocurrency and other high-tech industries. “Chinese students are very comfortable with the idea of the ‘fourth industrial revolution.’ Our students are advised and trained to develop the necessary skills and familiarity with these new technologies.”

Sohn explained the fervor behind China’s obsession with the fourth industrial revolution.

“It seeps down to the parental level. Chinese parents are very eager about it and try to understand how the future of their children will be related to this new technological shift at some abstract level,” he explicated. “Artificial intelligence is very much at the forefront of government policies and initiatives. China regrets that it let the US lead the internet revolution.”

Turning to China’s growing services market, Novielli and Sohn offered a few pieces of advice.

“The Chinese market, by virtue of its sheer size and complexity, is truly unique. You really have to understand it before entering it. Without a shrewd understanding, the penetration level will be low. You are wise to have strong local partnership in many sectors as required by the government,” Novielli pointed out.

Sohn urged potential investors and businesspeople not to underestimate Chinese consumers.

“They have very sophisticated understanding of products and services. Their tastes change very quickly and they know what they like, what they don’t like. What worked very well in other countries may not work in China. Something with a zero value can fetch high prices overnight,” he said.

Reflecting on the last 10 years in China, Sohn said, “What we have seen over the last decade working in and around China is how much the whole region, including Northeast Asia and Southeast Asia, is becoming centered on China. For the neighboring countries and their citizens, managing their relationships with China will be more and more important than with the US.”

Acknowledging the demographic shifts in China, as the country’s birthrate will increasingly fall despite the lifting of the one-child policy, Sohn said the next 10 years are not likely to be negatively impacted, as consumer spending and purchasing power will rise on the back of a growing economy.

“We are very optimistic about China’s economy and particularly the educational sector. Technology, health care and education will continue to be the top three sectors with the highest investments,” he said.

By Joel Lee (