Alex Cowen: China
Alex Cowen is a master’s student at the Hopkins-Nanjing Center (HNC) in Nanjing, concentrating in International Economics. Before coming to the HNC, he wanted to spend his summer working in China, so he cast a wide net looking for different options. In his search, he found an opportunity to internwith JD.com (JD), the second-largest e-commerce company in China.
Tell me about your experience at JD.
I was part of JD Run, an eight-week internship with JD. There were a total of 65 interns, both Chinese and international, in the program. We were all assigned positions in different departments: I worked in marketing. As part of the Run program, we also had a special project, where a team of interns supervised by a full-time JD employee could choose one of seven different projects. I worked on a project with JD Fresh, a consumer goods service similar to the Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s model that emphasizes freshness and quality goods. It’s a fast-growing market in China: People are more interested in higher quality food. They’re also working with the “workerless supermarket” concept where you scan your face to open the door, you collect your items, and then you scan your face again to exit.
What were your day-to-day responsibilities at JD?
My regular function in the marketing department was to work primarily on international intellectual property and branding, as well as sports sponsorships. I attended meetings with my mentor and contributed to various promotional projects such as, for example, working with artists designing bags for JD or on sponsorships from professional soccer teams in China and Europe. I also did research on “fresh” brands like Trader Joe’s to determine what Chinese brands can learn from them.
What were the most challenging and the most rewarding parts of your internship?
Those two kind of go hand-in-hand. The most challenging was working in Chinese. I knew I wanted that experience before coming to the HNC, but there were growing pains. Often colleagues would not assign me work because they weren’t sure if I would understand what they were saying. I had to figure out how to communicate in their language and meet them in the middle.
The most rewarding thing was the feeling that I made a genuine connection with my Chinese colleagues. Finally, I was assigned meaningful work; it turned out that breaking the ice was all that really needed to happen. By the end of the summer, it was still hard, but I felt like part of the team, and it was really rewarding seeing how much people really appreciated me being there.
What perspectives on China and the world did this experience provide you?
I saw how Chinese businesses and commerce are globalizing. The United States has an existing business model, and Chinese companies like Alibaba and JD are trying to move into that space and learn from them. There’s a lot for both Chinese and foreign firms to learn. In particular, foreign companies often think that they can waltz into China and do business with companies like JD, Alibaba or Tencent, but that’s not necessarily the case, especially in 2018. Moments come and go really quickly in China when it comes to what’s most popular and lucrative. Once upon a time, being a foreign brand in China meant that you would automatically succeed, but now Chinese consumers are more informed. Companies have to understand the nuances of the Chinese consumer and how they differ from region to region.
How has this experience either reinforced or changed your goals?
I don’t know if e-commerce is where I want to work forever, but this internship opened my eyes to the breadth of opportunities available. Companies like Alibaba, Tencent and JD are moving into foreign spaces as global companies, so they have a demand for people with global skills. If you can move around within the company, it’s a good way to get exposure to a lot of different skills and industries. When I first came to the HNC, I was set on studying economics with the intention to work in finance or consulting. This experience helped me realize there’s way more out there. It made me more acutely interested in foreign trade, international business, the international economic system and how firms make the whole system work.
Any advice for students who are seeking internships?
In general, just don’t be afraid to ask — either for help or for what you want. People who are older than you or in higher positions will tell you certain things based on their experience, but it might be different for you. Until you find out what the real situation is, don’t be discouraged. People often get discouraged when people say “no,” but if you ask enough times, someone will say “yes.”