China is fast becoming an international business empire to deal with. And many African-Americans are finding opportunities in Asia. African-American businesswoman Malla Haridat is one.
Haridat is founder and CEO of New Designs for Life, an organization that teaches children about entrepreneurship. “I had the opportunity to partner with a university client to travel to China and support them on internship outreach for their students. While I have always been interested in international business, I am aware that doing business in Asia is very different than most Western countries and found it very helpful to have the right “name” of the university to help open doors,” she explains.
Dr. Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr., former NAACP executive director, recently recommended that African-Americans seek out business with China, especially given China´s dominant role in African business. He recently wrote, “In particular, the Black American business community should always be seeking new opportunities to expand and grow…The truth is, Chinese business leaders are eager and interested in developing joint business ventures with African-American business leaders…Today, China is also the leading trading partner for all of Africa. African business owners are finding profitable success through numerous joint ventures with their Chinese counterparts.”
Because of the growing interest in China, last year the National Urban League’s 40-plus member delegation arrived to the bustling, vibrant and modern city of Beijing, China.
During her trip, Haridat hobnobbed with various Chinese business executives. “We were able to meet with 20-plus companies within a three-week visit,” she says. “The visits were all scheduled in the U.S. based on internal contacts and some “guerrilla outreach” including LinkedIn/Google searches. Most of the firms we met with were suitable matches for the type of internship opportunities that we were seeking – companies where students would have a project-based or influential role within the firm.”
Haridat says it was a major learning experience. “We had learning curves in scheduling the visits including balancing the different time zones when communicating (I worked as hard at 9-10pm as I did at 9-10am EST via email); conflicts in scheduling around Asian holidays (I can now tell you not to schedule meetings in the beginning of February around the Chinese New Year), and there were conflicts in gathering confirmations about locations (i.e getting directions in both English and Chinese where happily my iPhone is extremely useful with translations),” she recalls. “As I had traveled to Hong Kong several times prior to my visit to mainland China with the same client, I was familiar with some of the customs. However, there were many that were very new to me.”
Obviously, before doing business with China, it is important to understand just how it conducts business.
–Get accustomed to the culture through travels before your actual business trip. “I would recommend starting off by visiting Hong Kong first. As it’s a mix of both Western (English) and Eastern culture, it’s a great way to get exposed to Asian culture and learn some of the nuances. While there will be a big difference once you are in mainland China, it offers a gradual transition – instead of the immediate culture shock,” Haridat points out.
–Research online. “Most importantly, Americans don’t take into account that the Chinese use their own sites, social media or online searching. It took some time to locate but by asking questions from our meeting hosts and making friends with people in the hotel, I was able to learn a few Chinese-only sites. Most of them had English translations,” shares Haridat. There are other sites for Americans and African-Americans interested in doing business in China. Check out: www.afroshanghai.com, TeachAbroadChina.com, Chinese-Forum.com, TheBeijinger.com and Shanghaiist.com.
–Have a translator and travel guide. “Hire a cab service or limo – You will save hours of time trying to find locations as well as learning how to navigate. In the past, I always saw car services as an extra or luxury – but in China it can be a lifesaver. The street address for a building may actually be the back door. Someone who is a native will know this immediately rather than walking aimlessly around buildings locating the entrance. Traveling in areas without English signage is difficult. While an English/Chinese dictionary is important, I would recommend getting directions from your hotel or host on how to travel from one location to the next,” says Haridat. “You will be stuck on many occasions in areas where you literally can’t read the signs and may or may not have someone who is familiar with English. While I’ve experienced this in Europe or parts of Africa – I’ve found that I was always able to infer meanings. However, when relying on Chinese characters, you can’t always infer meanings.”
–Pack those business cards–and get them written in English/Chinese. Exchanging business cards is part of Asian business etiquette.
–Dress for success. “European and American designers are prized. While I pride myself on setting a positive impression, I’m not always obsessed with labels with my clothing or accessories. It’s definitely a different environment in China as your dress will be positively regarded,” says Haridat. “I wouldn’t go overboard but don’t hesitate to bring out your Gucci, Armani, Coach and other labels. The Chinese are very superstitious – Red is a powerful and positive color. As well, eight is a lucky number.”
–Build a relationship with your potential clients and partners. Chinese business people believe in doing business based on trust. So it is important to get to know your contacts there before taking on business. “Many meetings (especially when someone is trying to impress you) will be held over a full course meal. While this may seem like a wonderful treat, it can become overwhelming when you are having your third meal of the day at 2pm and you are not able to say “no” for fear of being disrespectful,” Haridat advises. “It is also challenging because meetings can often take hours as the aspect of building the relationship is just as important as doing business. The business matters may only take 20-30 minutes but you’ll need to adjust to spending time with them for them to get to know you and your company.”
–Do not use hard sales tactics. Generally, Chinese business people do not like to be pressured. The decision process is a slow one, so be patient.
–Never assume. Do not assume “yes” means “yes.” They may just be saying it to be polite. It is only yes, when the contracts are actually signed. “I learned from my travels in Hong Kong to use a third party to find out additional information and to repeat things several times using several different references,” notes Haridat. “You can’t assume that a “yes” is a “yes”. For example, we had several companies that shared that they wanted to work with us to host interns – yet they didn’t have a budget to pay the students and didn’t share it on the initial meetings. It took many rounds of questions and meetings to get to this answer. Someone who didn’t know this possibility would have left the first meeting thinking everything was confirmed. I learned to not take it personal and assume you have to continue to build the relationship and ask questions. One of the big differences in Chinese culture is the importance of “saving face”. It is rude to tell someone “no” directly to his or her face. It actually goes into direct conflict with many African-American cultural sensibilities, which promote honesty, telling it “like it is” or “keeping it real”. To say one thing and then do another would be the biggest sign of disrespect to many Black people. However, it is a common occurrence in China where you avoid direct confrontation or conflict at all costs.”
–Respect face. Arguing is a no-no, as is saying “no” directly, which is considered rude. When negotiating in China, being tactful and diplomatic is key.
–About to ink a deal? Have a lawyer proficient in Chinese business law to check all your legal documents.