MBA In China: Meet The Man Promoting Multibillion Dollar EdTech Startup VIPKID In The US
The latest in our series of China MBA stories from the book—Changing Careers, Changing Lives—written by BusinessBecause editor Marco De Novellis
This story was originally published in a book written by BusinessBecause editor Marco De Novellis, in collaboration with Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business (CKGSB).
The Union Jack was lowered over Government House. Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong, comforted his teary-eyed daughters as the Rolls-Royce motorcade stuttered its way to the seafront.
That night, the royal yacht—the Britannia—sailed across Hong Kong harbor for the last time. Fireworks lit up the sky; locals danced in the streets. It was July 1st 1997, just after the handover of Hong Kong. Prince Charles and Tony Blair were there; so too was Adam Steinberg.
Adam was there for Bill Clinton’s first visit to China in June 1998—the first incumbent US president to visit China since 1989 and Tiananmen Square. He watched as President Clinton and Chinese President Jiang Zemin shook hands outside the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.
He was there for Beijing’s 2008 Summer Olympics—he helped drive the public relations (PR) effort for China's Olympics bid, and for the upcoming Winter Olympics in 2022.
Adam’s watched the story of modern-day China unfold. His China-obsession has shaped his own unique story too.
Made in China
In his own words, Adam’s the kind of guy that likes to “go into a room and shake everyone’s hand.” His passion for politics started early. Growing up in San Francisco in the 1980s, Adam’s mother was involved in fundraising for political campaigns—Adam was taken to his first Democratic National Convention in 1984 aged six. Years later, through family contacts, he was involved with the White House motorcade advance team; planning the ground transport for several trips made by President Clinton and his team.
Adam’s father ran his own successful toy company, which held the exclusive rights to produce and sell toys based on characters from the American comic strip Peanuts, including Snoopy and Charlie Brown.
Those products were made in China. Throughout Adam’s childhood, his father would travel countless times across southern China, bringing Chinese antiques, artworks, and business associates, back to the family home.
He even partnered with a friend to open a Chinese restaurant in San Francisco—“I grew up eating Chinese food two or three times a week!” Adam laughs.
“My father went to mainland China for the first time in 1973 during the Cultural Revolution,” he continues. “He went to the second-ever Canton trade fair—now world-famous. He saw things in China that I wish I could have seen myself.”
Inspired, Adam joined his father for his first trip to China at age 17. He saw Shanghai in 1995 where, instead of skyscrapers, there were huge tower cranes— “Crane after crane after crane, as far as the eye could see. I fell in love with China from that first moment,” he smiles.
After his travels, Adam went “all in on China.” He took up East Asian Studies at the University of California, Davis. He found a Chinese tutor—Professor Ye Baomin, one of the leading experts on early Chinese writing—and started learning Mandarin. He’s now fluent.
Adam launched a PR career in the US after university. He spent a summer in Hong Kong in 1997 and he enjoyed a stint as a radio DJ in Beijing, but it wasn’t long before he was back in China.
From 2006, Adam started an 11-year stretch based in Beijing. He was happy working as the director of communications at ASC Fine Wines, China’s leading importer and distributor of premium wine.
He even hosted a black tie dinner on the Great Wall of China with the world’s foremost wine critic, Robert Parker. Then, three words: Global financial crisis.
“At that time, things changed; people weren’t spending money on wine anymore,” Adam recalls. “I had to re-evaluate my career in China.
“I wanted to know about more than just PR. I wanted to know how PR fits into overall business strategy and how it contributes to business outcomes,” he continues. “Today, there are a lot of foreigners in China. Those foreigners who have been successful have differentiated and shown a unique value to the marketplace—that’s one of the reasons I chose to do an MBA.”
For Adam, CKGSB stood out for its stellar faculty, coming from top-tier institutions from all over the world. “You don’t need to go to Stanford because they bring the professors to you,” he explains. “CKGSB was a young, entrepreneurial business school with an emphasis on networking—everything about the school spoke to me.”
Adam was one of only two Americans in the English-language MBA class. Unlike many of his peers in PR at the time, he had the holistic knowledge of business to boot. That reignited his career post-MBA, and he took up a host of leadership roles at PR companies in Beijing.
“CKGSB’s careers service was very helpful—I even got a job offer with LVMH out of one of their on- campus sessions,” he says. “As a PR professional with an MBA, I never had to look too long for a job.
“Still, the most important thing I got from the CKGSB MBA is the relationship I have with my classmates.”
Adam met Cindy Mi on the first day of his MBA. Cindy would go on to found VIPKID, one of the fastest-growing online English tutoring companies in China. VIPKID recently raised over $200 million in funding—from the likes of Tencent Holdings—at a valuation of $1.5 billion.
From the first moment, Adam knew that Cindy was different. When Cindy served as class president, Adam worked with her as part of the student council. After the MBA, they kept in touch. Adam followed the development of VIPKID closely until, in late 2016 after over a decade in China, he decided it was time to move back to the US.
Now, he’s the PR director at VIPKID’s new US office in San Francisco’s Silicon Valley. He was there when it started and he’s building it up, leading the growth of a Chinese company which, he says, was global from “day one.”
Adam has stayed global too. He travels frequently to China; he speaks Chinese every day; he uses WeChat for most of his communications. He works on China hours, often starting work at 6pm San Francisco-time; 9am in Beijing. “My evenings are action-packed!” he laughs.
“Although I’m ‘home’, I still have one foot in China.”