International workers gain skills and experience through unique initiative
With its diverse culture and delicious food, China has long captured the imagination of Zahra Roji Baitie, a British Ghanaian whose father traveled frequently to the country for business during her childhood.
But what propelled the 28-year-old to spend several years here was the myths and miracles China has created in the digital realm, which represents a fertile ground for some of the world's most innovative businesses and inspirational stories.
A development studies graduate from Yale University, Baitie has always trained her sights on inclusive growth models, working on several field projects in Africa for a London-based consultancy. A master's program at Tsinghua University took her on a weeklong dive into Alibaba, the internet emporium that has pioneered a multitude of things in China from mobile payments to rural e-commerce. From there she sensed immense opportunities.
"Learning the role of digitalization and the idea of smart governance presented by Alibaba executives, I was blown away by the various opportunities for Alibaba's globalization journey and the impact Alibaba has in China," said Baitie, who works at AliExpress, a business-to-customer site serving overseas markets of Alibaba.
"There were a lot of opportunities for people who were interested in bridging China with the rest of the world and supporting this expansion of Chinese companies like Alibaba to engage with the rest of the world in a sustainable and impactful way."
Alibaba sees its go-global strategy as one of its three growth pillars, and has vowed to serve 2 billion customers globally by 2036. International talents are crucial to realizing that goal.
Baitie was recruited under the Alibaba Global Talent Development initiative, which is a two-year program putting high-caliber, international workers on its international facing business units. The program includes on-the-job training, workshops and a buddy and mentor program.
"AGTD members will gain in-depth business knowledge and cultural experience at Alibaba," said Alfred Yao, senior talent development manager at Alibaba. "We expect graduates to take critical roles in key global businesses."
AGTD was borne out of a previous initiative called the Alibaba Global Leadership Academy, which debuted in 2016 and recruited two batches of candidates who were put on rotation arrangement. Now it has evolved into an umbrella organization responsible for developing various training programs like AGTD.
"We adjusted the rotation arrangement because we would prefer candidates to command an in-depth understanding of a certain business, which has grown quickly in scale and complexity just over the past two years," Yao said.
For Baitie, though, she got the opportunity to zoom in on multiple business segments a little further through special projects－such as the African Netrepreneur Prize Initiative that digitally empowers young local business owners and the eFounders training program which aims to transit the current resource-intensive approach to an ecosystem-driven approach backed by technologies and ideations.
"The positive social impact is obvious and China experience adds a lot of value here," she said. "We provide business knowledge and implement in a way that takes into account different cultural nuances."
Understanding cultural differences is a pivotal but often-neglected element as companies branch out to other markets. For 29-year-old associate Shin Jang-hwan, his South Korean affiliation has given him an edge, enabling him to outperform his peers, and it proved a blessing for Alibaba's overseas expansion.
Joining the company's smart logistics arm Cainiao Network, Shin said he and other international colleagues naturally hold an insider's view on local knowledge and are more apt at interpreting policy guidance and its implications for businesses.
"For instance, as top leadership changes in South Korea, I tend to keep an eye on the impacts on labor policies. Because overseas warehouse deployment is a labor-intensive industry, any policy change could exert an impact on our business," he said.
While the work has put newly recruited associates into uncharted water, Gary Toppe, Baitie's line manager who also graduated from the sister AGLA program, has much experience to share. He is now the lead for AliExpress' Central and Eastern Europe business, overseeing a team of seven from business strategy to execution.
"The first thing (about the program) is to help understand Alibaba as a company. It is quite complicated, especially for foreigners, so it's meaningful to deepen understanding of Chinese culture and language and help put things in a bigger context," Toppe said.
He said the AGLA legacy is conducive to his coaching of subordinates like Baitie, who have strong capabilities but need guidance to understand the challenges not just about the work, but also life at Alibaba and in China.
He has seen first hand how Chinese technologies and business models can be of relevance to other markets. For instance, popular functions like image search and influencer endorsement via livestreaming are quickly gaining traction in Poland, a market where Alibaba is experiencing exponential growth.
"It's quite exciting to live here because a lot of the innovation is coming from China," he said. "The speed of changes here is fascinating and I would see myself making a bigger contribution by staying here rather than outside (of China)."
Yao agreed. He said a majority of AGLA/AGTD graduates have risen quickly up the career ladder to become the backbone of respective international businesses.
"Their winning recipe is a combination of strengths in knowing the Alibaba culture, the business itself and the local market. They are quickly gaining skills and experience and at the same time bolstering the growth of our diverse and complicated businesses," he said.