Welcome to the Get World Savvy Podcast. We talk about business and tech ecosystems and how international founders are building products, understanding markets, and optimizing business models to scale their businesses around the world. Listen in and maybe you can take a piece of their lesser-known startup playbook.
We recently had the opportunity to chat with Joyce Zhang. Joyce has worked extensively in the growing tech sectors of emerging markets, in countries including China, Singapore, Kenya, and Bhutan. She is currently the CEO of a Global Talent Marketplace, Alariss, which promotes international skills and knowledge exchange by matching talent in developed countries with emerging market opportunities for which they can have the greatest impact.
Joyce gave us an exclusive in-depth look into her thoughts around how to find the best ways to maximize your value as a person, what globalization really means from a human capital perspective, and the value professionals educated in developed markets can contribute to emerging markets.
This content is an abbreviated version of my interview with Joyce Zhang on Episode 2 of the Get World Savvy Podcast. Check out the podcast for the full episode.
When I was in college, I studied international relations and economics. I was always interested in this concept of the globalizing world of labor economics, different job markets, and different ways in which people, who are the most valuable assets, can have impact in many different markets.
After school, I worked for the Federal Reserve Bank of New York on financial regulatory reform policy.
I was always interested in having operational experience abroad so right before graduate school, I went and worked for Groupon. Groupon is based in Chicago but was expanding into China so I joined that team. It was my first foray in actually working both operationally for a startup, but also in emerging markets. Part of that experience, many years later, led to Alariss.
In between Alariss and Groupon, I went to graduate school, worked in East Africa, South East Asia, and traveled to about 90 or so countries at this point.
Along the way, I always thought about how privileged I was to be able to do these things, but how difficult it was, especially the onset. It’s hard to find a job in a country in which I had no network, even though I spoke the language. I spoke Mandarin and thought that with the background that I had, maybe, I would be of good value to a company. But because I had never lived in China, I was born in the US, I actually found it really difficult to find a job.
That’s partially what we do at Alariss. We’re a global talent marketplace that connects western educated and experienced talent with emerging market roles where they can have a greater impact and where emerging market companies, who in some ways have been bottle-necked in their growth, can leverage the talent of people who have experience in markets like Silicon Valley or other developed economies.
I gained an incredible amount! Not even working abroad, just traveling abroad is so eye-opening.
You gain more empathy, understanding of how different markets work, realize a lot of things you took for granted are not the norm in other countries, and most of all you become more adaptable. There’s no value you can put on that experience.
You also meet a lot of incredible people who open up your way of thinking.
We work with first or second-generation immigrants, returnees or repats, and people who are interested in those markets but have no heritage or previous experience in them.
Each of these three distinct categories brings different opportunities, experiences, and skills.
For Returnees, it is the most natural and many of them have been looking for opportunities to come home. These are people born in let’s say, China or India or Indonesia, Tunisia, Senegal, etc and went to school in the US, Canada, or the UK.
For returnees, it’s a matter of timing and the right opportunity. They worked so hard to get a great education or a great job in a very competitive job market. They don’t want to give that up without having a really good opportunity. But at the same time, they recognize that if they worked at a Fortune 100 company in the US, then that gives them unique capabilities to build up that ecosystem in their home country.
Depending on when they go back, they can even be the market leader or they can localize a lot of the business models that they have seen work in the US that didn’t exist in their home countries.
Immigrants perhaps immigrated with their parents when they are very young or were born overseas. For them, they still undeniably have a heritage pull back to their home countries.
But they’ve never lived there. Perhaps, they speak the language but slang and other common colloquialism changes. So when they go back, sometimes people tell them, “You sound like my grandma.” They’ve never talked to peers their age.
The heritage and the culture that they’ve experienced through their parents or grandparents don’t fully capture what’s happening in a modern context. So for them, I think a lot of it is a bit of root seeking. They want to better understand themselves. They want to better understand their families and where they come from.
They also see unique opportunities that they can bring as a bridge or someone who understands all sides.
Finally, there’s the third category, people who are just curious or interested. Maybe they took a couple of years of Japanese or Chinese when they were in school. They’re interested in foreign languages and traveling but never worked overseas.
They also have really unique experiences that they can bring but for them, it’s even harder to find that right fit where they’re relevant enough in terms of their linguistic abilities but also the skills that they have to offer are uniquely valuable. It’s just about finding the right fit.
I have heard from peers who moved back to China that it’s the opportunity of our generation to help Chinese companies expand overseas. Aside from that, what other roles do you see us playing?
Helping companies globalize is a really big opportunity. What's even more important is to think about what does globalization mean?
Globalization does mean having a presence in other markets but more importantly, it means having the trust and the relationships in other markets.
Many immigrants have a really unique opportunity to improve international relations, trust, and transparency, and perhaps, even helping a lot of these companies adopt global or international business standards. One of the things you might find is that Chinese companies are very good at operating in China and they’re very effective. There are many examples of foreign companies that have tried to enter China unsuccessfully.
But when Chinese companies or companies from a lot of emerging markets try to globalize, they will find that the same obstacles are in their way, if not even more obstacles, than when an American company or a Canadian company might want to go to China.
Part of it is because they don't understand international business as well as someone who grew up overseas. They will look to those people to speak their language, literally and figuratively to give them context for why certain things work. They can use that information to strike a better balance between localizing while still maintaining a lot of their culture and a lot of what makes them uniquely successful in their own markets.
There’s a lot of reasons including:
The decision might be based on family, perhaps they have parents or grandparents to take care of or if they would like their children to grow up speaking multiple languages or understand their heritage while they are young.
People from developing economies can actually be expats in a country as opposed to just immigrants means that they don’t have to book a one way ticket. They can book a round trip and spend time in multiple geographies because they have the means and access to jobs. They can choose in a way earlier generations couldn’t on when to go home.
They might return home wanting a more comfortable, lower cost of living.
This is a lot of what we focus on, which is the opportunity that they have to make a disproportionate impact because they are in a market that really needs their skills. They can do everything from lead a team to build out a new product to really try to revolutionize in some ways how business is done.
We work with a lot of companies that are having a good impact. They are not all rocketship startups Some of them are just traditional companies, some are non-profits, some of them are trying to bank the unbanked. A lot of the companies we work with are just having an impact.
Our criteria for measurement is not about the trajectory of revenue or headcount but more about whether or not there is a truly compelling reason why they would need global talent.
It could be that they’re growing quickly, they’re globalizing, they’re expanding to new markets. Or sometimes it’s because their business model requires something that’s cross-border. An ecstasy example might be a company that wants to help bring English education to more schools. In that case, they want people who are native English speakers so an American could be very valuable.
We also vet companies, not on growth trajectories, but more about whether they are a reputable company. We’d see whether or not we would ourselves feel comfortable working with them or having our friends work with them.
Charles Darwin had once said it’s not the strongest or the smartest who survive, but the ones who are most adaptable to change.
Regardless of the skills candidates have, the single most consistent characteristic of all our candidates is that they’re really eager to learn and really adaptable to change.
You have to be adaptable if you’re working in an emerging market context because change is the one constant.
If you're open to that, or you find this to be uniquely challenging and interesting, then you are a good fit for these roles.
That is definitely part of our hope. Many of the organizations we work with are actually started by locals.
Our hope is that when we think about economic development and capacity building, part of it is building up the local talent pool. It’s both training up local talent as well as importing talent that can train up the local talent. That’s the part of the ladder we are focusing on.
For many of our candidates, because of this concept of brain circulation which we really believe in, or reversing the brain drain, a lot of them are already coming in with experience like having led technical teams in California. Perhaps some of them studied under great advisors at these top universities and they're really excited to start their own labs or to train the next generation of young leaders.
They really see this as a way to have an impact back in their home countries or in this country where they're more needed.
If you think about how talent is distributed, a lot of it really is concentrated in pockets like Silicon Valley. But the extra engineers in Silicon Valley, if they were to be willing to go to Burundi or if they were willing to go to Thailand, they'd actually be so much more impactful and have higher leverage there.
We’re certainly not implying that people who are from the West or are Western-educated are better in any way. It's just that there is something that they can offer that is probably either missing or in shorter supply in that local market. By coming back and being willing to really invest in that local ecosystem, then they're really bringing a lot of value.
I think the more companies that actually want to tackle this space the better it will be because this is not a one size fits all solution nor is this problem going away.
We're addressing the market failure between those who have a job or even a company that's bottle-necked in growth because it doesn't have the appropriate talent. And on the other side, it's talent that's really interested in being able to contribute to an organization or to a country.
I think this market failure is even more pronounced when it comes to cross-border or international job markets. There isn't currently a really good market leader in that space so that's what we hope to be.
But even absent of that, this is a question that has been going on for centuries, if not millennia, which is how do you really find the best ways to maximize the value of a person?
We talked a little bit about a lot of these concepts around immigration, but there's also this future of work concept. As more and more software and automation can take care of a lot of things that humans were previously doing, what is the best leverage for human talent?
A lot of that would come down to things that I think humans are uniquely positioned to provide something that requires interpersonal dynamics. That involves adaptability or strategic thinking.
Certainly helping a national company or a national leader become a global leader is something that is a uniquely human problem to solve. How do you help this company become more reputable or earn more trust, especially when it's a company that's coming from, Asia or Africa, or the Middle East going into Western economies?
It's inherently going to be more difficult because they don't have as much brand equity as let's say, an American company or a Canadian company that has perhaps in the past just enjoyed the benefit of the great branding of the U.S. or of Canada.
So these are just interesting questions to ponder on.
Joyce is always looking to connect with professionals hoping to work in emerging markets or businesses operating in them. If you’re a fast-growing company based in the emerging markets or a job candidate with the desire to have a global impact, please email firstname.lastname@example.org!