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“I Want To Promote The Movement To Give Voice To Those With Special Needs” With Ryan McMunn CEO of BRIC Language

“I personally spent an afternoon helping move orphans to a new home. Their parents had abandoned them because they had cleft lip/palate, a…


“I personally spent an afternoon helping move orphans to a new home. Their parents had abandoned them because they had cleft lip/palate, a surgically correctable deformation. It was a strange mix of emotions. In the same moment it was both heart wrenching and heartwarming. To know that these children’s parents had abandoned them because of this and total strangers were caring for them was a “surrealization.” It was literally the best and worst of human nature manifesting itself in front of me. The problem is that the worst of human nature is far more common in this situation than the best. Being abandoned for either mental or physical abnormalities is far more common than any of us would like to admit. Even when children are well cared for at home, at school they are often bullied, teased, and left behind. Our vision  is that “people will feel this injustice and thus support inclusion and love for those who are seen as different”. They are also hoping for global change such as things like the peace corps adding to their curriculum, and cultural sensitivity towards the disability community when they go into different parts of the world, particularly those in the developing world.”


I had the pleasure to interview Ryan McMunn. Ryan is the CEO and Founder of BRIC Language, an interactive, online language learning program that reduces the time it takes to learn Mandarin by 50 percent. Ryan is fluent in Mandarin and holds a B.S. in Marketing from the University of Colorado Boulder. Ryan began his career at Tricam Industries as President of China Operations, where he was instrumental in growing it into one of the largest manufacturers of ladders in the United States. Ryan currently remains as the CEO of Tricam and is involved in expanding the company into new international markets. An advocate for bridging the cultural divide between China and the U.S., Ryan travels the world speaking to young business graduates preparing to enter today’s workforce. In 2012, he established the Ryan McMunn International Business Scholarship to give undergraduates an opportunity to learn about diverse cultures and business practices. Ryan has provided commentary to Fox Business, CCTV- America and Entrepreneur as well as spoken at numerous conferences in Europe and across the U.S. on global entrepreneurship and international business.

Thank you so much for joining us! Can you share an interesting story about a challenge that you faced, and how you overcame it?

In my job as a SEE auditor I had to go to factories to make sure that workers were being paid fairly, conditions were safe, and that Chinese labor laws and US customer requirements were being met. I spoke no Mandarin at that point, so I had to rely on a colleague for translation. It didn’t take long to see that numbers and dates in the paperwork were flawed. It took a bit longer to see that it wasn’t simple human error but fraud. Every factory that we went into had 2 sets of books. One for the auditor that showed everything was compliant with Chinese Labor Law. The other that showed the actual situation. There weren’t any issues that were black list types of situations (i.e. child labor, abuse, safety, trafficking) but the workers’ pay was substantially lower than it should have been according to the law. What made it even more difficult was the fact that the workers weren’t demanding higher pay. They were making way more than they would have been making back home, so in their minds they were getting rich. Because of the significant volume of business we could bring the factories, and once we gained their trust, they showed us both the real AND the fake books. One factory actually had three sets of books, one to trick auditors like me, one real, and one to cheat the owners! We never did business with them, it would have been too much work. A lot of people that I tell this to say that we should have blacklisted every factory on the spot. The reality is that if our policy was to blacklist every factory that had fake books we wouldn’t have been able to do business in China. What we did instead was give the factories a timeline for full compliance. Then we worked with them to improve efficiency, reduce waste, and lower employee headcount so that the costs of compliance were offset by efficiency. Accountants are more expensive than assembly line workers and it takes twice as many accountants to make two sets of books so we started there. We gave the factories one year to fully comply. If they cooperated and met the goals that we had agreed upon, they became a supplier for us. If not, we walked away. Almost every factory was willing to work with us and ultimately became better for it. As you can imagine, the workers were very happy to get the wage increases and improved working conditions that came with these new changes.

Are you working on any new or exciting projects now?

We have two very exciting new projects. The first is a semester-long study abroad program we have built in partnership with the Shanghai University of Finance and Economics (SUFE). It is a Chinese Business Certification course that includes a language component, business course, guest lectures from both expat and local business people, visits to partner corporations, and a full 3-month long internship. It is extremely exciting to be partnered with a top Chinese university. The course is open to anyone, not just finance majors, and anyone that has an interest in doing business in China.

Our other project is a teach English in China program. This is one that I’m extremely proud of because it really opens the doors to anyone that wants to go to China. There are no fees and the only real requirement is that the applicant is a native English speaker. The jobs are all very well paid and upon completion of the 1-year contract, flights to and from China are reimbursed.

What advice would you give to other business owners to help their employees to thrive?

Enlist a local partner with a deep understanding of the culture and business experience in your industry. It can be as simple as hiring a consultant to act as an extension of your business, but it will prove invaluable to you to have someone there when you can’t be.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

Kassey Wong, my business partner. The day that I met her in Shanghai changed my life. I had been trying to learn Mandarin for years but was learning about subjects that had no real application in my life. I had given up and restarted several times. When I finally met Kassey she asked me “what do you need to learn about and what do you want to learn about?” After I answered, she replied “well, that’s what you’re going to learn about.” Twelve months later, I was doing multi-million-dollar negotiations in Mandarin and my life changed. Her help in learning Mandarin afforded me the opportunities I needed to succeed in China. Without her help, I don’t know that I would have stayed in Shanghai as long as I did or ever moved to Manhattan. I know for a fact that if I had not met Kassey, BRIC Language would not exist. I have nothing but gratitude and admiration for Kassey.

What do you think are the new untapped markets in China that may become the next “big thing”?

Craft Brewing and Distilling. I’m an investor in both Heritage Distilling Company out of Washington and Lost Rhino Brewery in Virginia. Kassey’s brother also founded Blue Whale, one of the first Chinese owned and operated craft breweries in China. It has absolutely taken off. The craft beer and spirit markets are in their infancy in China and they are going to blow up. The flavors will be groundbreaking. One of my first nights out in Shanghai people were taking high end red wine and mixing in Coca Cola while their friends mixed Macallan and green tea (which was actually quite good). While these flavors may not yet be suited to a Western palate, all that matters in the craft alcohol world is local taste. As China’s alcohol market opens and matures I think that not only China, but the world is in for a flavorful treat.

We keep hearing about the “Trade War”. What are your thoughts about it? Given the unknowns, how do you plan to pivot?

Aside from a potential increase of interest in learning Mandarin (which can help business owners steer through the choppy waters of a trade war), it won’t dramatically affect BRIC Language Learning. And until July 17th, when the administration released a 205-page list of products, there was no indication who would be affected. As it turns out, it will affect manufacturers of almost every product imaginable and, in the end, the American consumer.

Manufacturers already run on razor thin margins. They cannot possibly absorb the tariffs, nor can the retailers. So, unfortunately this cost increase will most likely be passed on to the American public. In the meantime, smart manufacturers large and small are hiring trade lawyers to lobby their congressmen and senators to stop the tariffs from actually going into effect. The same is being done by the much larger and more powerful retailers.

For manufacturers and farmers, there really isn’t a pivot unless it’s a move to another country. That country won’t be the U.S., so no jobs will be created by the tariffs. In fact, jobs will be lost, as soybeans, meat, and garbage pile up at US ports. Garbage is one our biggest exports to China and they are currently not importing it for recycling purposes as part of this trade war.

What are your “5 Things You Need To Know To Successfully Do Business In China.” (Please share a story or example for each).

1. Find people you can trust. As a foreigner, you have a small target on your back. That said, not everyone is out to cheat you. It’s human nature to be distrustful in an environment and culture that is foreign to you. When I first went to China I was literally told by my American mentor at the time “don’t trust anyone.” Unfortunately, I trusted him, and that proved to be an almost fatal mistake. It was a terrible feeling to have no one to confide in and to constantly feel that my colleagues were conspiring behind my back. They were not, but I certainly treated them as if they were. It was only after spending several 24-hour shifts working on a project (and a few shouting matches) that I realized that I could trust them. That changed everything. After a lot of apologies by me, and a lot of forgiveness by them life and work both became not only easier, but more rewarding. All those people are still working with me today, and I am even godfather to one of their daughters. The percentage of people you can and can’t trust in China is the same as anywhere else, you just must understand the people and the culture.

2. Learn the language and the culture. This really helps with the first “Thing You Need To Know To Successfully Do Business In China.” It also helps with the next, which is relationship building. Learning the language and understanding the culture allow you to better understand your business partners and colleagues. Relationship building is a huge part of doing business in China and the personal side can often be the game-changer you need to significantly grow your business. Without cultural and linguistic knowledge those relationships are almost impossible to build.

3. Have a go-to karaoke song. In China, relationship building is paramount, and one of the best ways to build those relationships is KTV. When I first moved to China the only English songs were by the Eagles, the Beatles, and the Beach Boys. My voice, rhythm, and dance moves are all terrible, but I own that. It’s a fun way to get to know people and build relationships. Have a song in your back pocket. Even if your performance is a trainwreck, you’ll get props for participating.

The relationships that you build with your Chinese business partners can mean all the difference in the world. Those relationships include the people that work for you as well as your Chinese business partners. There is a reason I’ve had people working with me for 15+ years and why my business partners stick by me. I take the time that most foreign business people don’t; to build both the personal relationship AND the business relationship. I do the long dinners, I eat the strange food, and I sing at karaoke. It might sound like it’s not that important, but whether you’re trying to grow your business from $30mm to $90mm in one year or need help averting total disaster, the relationships you have built will trump a contract every single time and are the “make or break” advantage you need to succeed.

4. Dig in to the details. “Opaque” is a word that China business newbies often use to describe their non-transparent workplaces, but things are only “opaque” if you let them be. One of my first jobs in Shanghai was as a Social and Environmental Ethics (SEE) auditor at factories throughout China. I learned quickly that if you only check the time cards to see if people are working excessive overtime, or not getting paid the basic minimum wage, you’ll never find the truth. If you perform employee interviews, cross check time cards with QC records, pay stubs, leave reports and accounting documentation you’ll find out who’s working too much and who’s not getting paid enough. If you apply the same due diligence to almost anything you will eventually get to the truth. Doing business in China requires an attention to detail and a willingness to “dig in” that most people don’t have, which is why they fail.

5. Competition is the spice of life. It’s very hard to get to the bottom line price-wise with any potential supplier of goods or services in China. It’s very “opaque”, see #4, but doesn’t have to be. Always find a minimum of 3 suppliers and pit them off against each other. That is the only way to get to the true bottom line price. This could be said of business anywhere, but when you’re working in a country that is so vastly different than the US it is especially important. As simple as it seems, a lot of people forget to do it.

Please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”. Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

My grandfather said something that may not sound very inspiring, but it’s helped shape my career and my life: “Discipline yourself, or life will discipline you.” Self-discipline is underrated as far as leadership qualities go in this day and age. It is exactly what we need more of. As an entrepreneur you need to be bold, take risks, and stretch the limits. You also need to know when to reign yourself in, focus, and work hard. The reality of starting your own business is not glamorous; it’s not a party. It’s a lot of hard work and stress. If things blow up in a good way, enjoy the ride. But to get to the next level, keep yourself in line or life will. Elizabeth Holmes is the quintessential example of this.

If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

I would love to inspire people to support a movement started by my cousin, Molly Korte, called “Project: Just Like You” or PJLY. I’m very proud to sit on the board of PJLY. It is a non-profit organization dedicated to giving voice to those with special needs. It was setup to help end the stigma associated with disabilities and show that we while we all have different abilities, we have so much in common. We’re all people with shared hopes and dreams. PJLY is currently working on a short documentary highlighting the daily experiences of children with disabilities worldwide. Her hope is that “someone who watches it will want to start a movement/nonprofit that helps children in developing countries.” I personally spent an afternoon helping move orphans in Shanghai to a new home. Their parents had abandoned them because they had cleft lip/palate, a surgically correctable deformation. It was a strange mix of emotions. In the same moment it was both heart wrenching and heartwarming. To know that these children’s parents had abandoned them because of this and total strangers were caring for them was a “surrealization.” It was literally the best and worst of human nature manifesting itself in front of me. The problem is that the worst of human nature is far more common in this situation than the best. Being abandoned for either mental or physical abnormalities is far more common than any of us would like to admit. Even when children are well cared for at home, at school they are often bullied, teased, and left behind.

The vision of PJLY is that “people will feel this injustice and thus support inclusion and love for those who are seen as different”. They are also hoping for global change such as things like the peace corps adding to their curriculum, and cultural sensitivity towards the disability community when they go into different parts of the world, particularly those in the developing world.

Originally published at medium.com

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