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Going Out on a Whim
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Going Out on a Whim

Senior Geoff Becktell Interns with Consulting Firm in Hangzhou, China

By Christian Taske '07

On his way to Hangzhou, China, this past May, Notre Dame College senior Geoff Becktell spent an unexpected night in Tokyo. Becktell, who was flying from Minnesota to Shanghai to embark on a three-month-long internship with a Chinese consulting firm, was catching a connecting flight in Japan’s capital – or so was the plan. Instead, he walked to the wrong gate, missed his flight and spent the night in the world’s most populous metropolitan area.

The incident, however, was the only time during his adventure to the Far East that Becktell felt lost. The fact that he didn’t speak Chinese, that he wasn’t familiar with the culture and that he didn’t know anybody in China did not pose a problem for the ambitious 22-year-old. Life is about taking chances, Becktell says.

Geoff BecktellThe Elkhart, Indiana, native had arranged an internship with 5CGroup International Corporation, a consulting firm focused on renewable energies, green agriculture and eco-tourism, to fulfill one of the requirements for his degree in international business. Along the way, he fell in love with the Chinese and gained insights into the business practices of a country that is one of the biggest players in the global economy.

“China is doing really well in the world, is growing as an economy and is a completely different culture,” Becktell says. “I thought, ‘Hey, why not give it a shot?’”

What Becktell now calls a somewhat naïve approach to his internship turned out to be the best decision he made during his college career. Over his three months in Eastern China, Becktell picked up some basic Mandarin, established important business contacts and was involved in several unique projects that illustrate how interconnected the global economy is.

For one of those projects, Becktell worked with an American investor who looked for a supplier in China to produce and sell electric bikes in Nigeria. “That project came at the best time possible because Nigeria was having a gas crisis this summer,” says Becktell, who visited several factories with the investor before finding the right supplier.

Geoff BecktellBecktell also worked with an Australian businessman, who competed with an American investment group, to purchase a license from a pharmaceutical company in New Zealand to sell a drug in China. The drug helps cows produce 80 percent more female offspring for the milk industry. 5CGroup worked with the Chinese equivalent of the FDA to get the drug approved and met with large-scale dairy farmers to stir interest in the drug. Becktell meanwhile negotiated with the company from New Zealand to lower their price for the license. The deal wasn’t finalized before Becktell left, but when it is the investor will hire distributors in China to sell the drug.

“I had to learn all of this, how this whole chain works,” Becktell says. “In China, there’s a distributor for everything. Things aren’t usually directly sold.”

In addition to these major projects, Becktell learned about basic Chinese law on how to set up a company and was educated on the wind and solar industry.

“I worked a lot with suppliers, trying to build relationships between our clients and manufacturers primarily around Hangzhou,” Becktell says. But he also traveled quite a bit, visiting a wind energy fair in Beijing and a rotor blade factory in Nantong, for example.

In addition, Becktell polished contracts translated by Chinese interns. One of those contracts involved a $1 billion deal between an American investor and the Chinese government to build a theme park in Hangzhou that could compete with the Shanghai Disney Resort.

Geoff BecktellThis unique experience fulfilled a graduation requirement for Becktell, who like all students in the international business program needs to study a foreign language for three years, study abroad for a semester or intern in a foreign country.

“I decided an internship abroad was the ideal choice,” Becktell says. “I guess I was tired of being confined to classrooms and wanted to get out in the world.”

Becktell arranged the internship through JuniorExpat, an internship placement agency that specializes in China and Indonesia. He had to put up with some fees in the 12-month-long process but was determined to follow through. He was drawn to China after writing a paper comparing exchange-rate regimes in China and the U.S. for Dr. Ronald Matthews’s comparative politics class. He was offered three currency trading internships in Shanghai, but turned them down after he received the offer from 5CGroup in Hangzhou.

“In the end, I really fell in love with Hangzhou,” Becktell says. “It’s actually called ‘Heaven on Earth’ in China. It’s just a beautiful place.”

The city was listed by The New York Times as one of the top 41 places to visit in 2011. About an hour from Shanghai, the Hangzhou area of about 8.7 million people is known as one of the most prosperous tourist destinations in China. Historic pagodas, ancient temples and lush gardens surround the city’s West Lake, which is nestled between a mountain range and the city’s modern skyscrapers.

Becktell lived in Xiasha District, an industrial and educational center with 14 universities and more than 200,000 students, located about 10 miles east of Hangzhou. 

“That’s one of the reasons I chose Xiasha. Quite a few people to mingle with,” Becktell says. “Chinese people are so friendly. I never felt alone.”

He says many Americans have the wrong impression of China.

“I feel we in America are oftentimes fed parochial views about China that portray the Chinese as our enemies because of the way their government is structured. Many Chinese people actually disapprove of the government. But the reality is that there are few outlets to safely show that disapproval,” Becktell says. “You can judge other cultures and other people, but unless you speak their language it’s all irrelevant.”

Becktell has fallen in love with China and is even considering moving there after graduation next May. He hopes to possibly be hired by 5CGroup as he continues to work for the firm while finishing his degree at NDC. Becktell recently put the firm in touch with a company in California that maintains windmills. As a result, representatives of that company travelled to Beijing to meet with 5CGroup’s CEO and to attend a renewable energy fair.

Becktell is also currently working with 5CGroup and two fellow interns, one from Russia and one from the Netherlands, to establish an internship program that would make it easier for students in the U.S. and Europe to come to Hangzhou.

“We are going to cut a lot of the fees down and help them with their visas using our government leverage,” Becktell says. “We would place them in the plethora of companies in the Xiasha and Hangzhou area. It’s just such a great opportunity.”

Becktell suggests fellow students pursue such opportunities. His advice for those hesitant about interning abroad: “Get out and see the world. Don’t be afraid to go out on a whim, even if you don’t know the language, even if you don’t understand the culture. Immerse yourself!”

Christian Taske '07 is the editor and writer at Notre Dame College.