Joel Backaler '06 brings the Far East to the west

Joel Backaler '06 was on campus recently to discuss his new book,
Joel Backaler '06 was on campus recently to discuss his new book, "China Goes West," a comprehensive guide to the expansion of Chinese business into overseas markets.

When making a big decision, Joel Backaler ’06 draws inspiration from a cephalopod.

“I call it ‘the octopus strategy,’” he says. “Come up with eight different goals or outcomes: two big goals to strive for, three or four I’d be comfortable with and the rest are a last resort.”

He learned the strategy from a mentor in China, while trying to break into the world of business consulting. With a Fulbright under his belt — he studied advanced Mandarin in Taiwan following graduation from the College — Backaler found himself in Shanghai ahead of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, seeking strangers on the street to participate in a consumer survey as part of the interview process for a consulting firm.

After enduring what he calls “a challenging experience,” Backaler opted against using anymore easy “tentacles” and decided to take a risk. Today, he is an associate vice president at Frontier Strategy Group in Washington, D.C., and the author of “China Goes West: Everything You Need to Know About Chinese Companies Going Global.”

Backaler was on campus this fall to discuss his new book and speak with College students in the East Asian studies program about his experiences in China. The event was hosted by the career office as part of Career Enhancing Life Skills (CELS), the College’s comprehensive four-year career program.

The risk Backaler took played out like a movie plot. The company he wanted to work for in China had no jobs posted, but, an undeterred Backaler marched in and arranged a meeting with a higher-up. He demonstrated that he had the skills and the drive to succeed, which impressed the firm’s managing director enough to give him an entry-level job.

With experience under his belt, Backaler then landed a job with Atos Consulting, a French multinational corporation in China, where he worked with Chinese companies ranging from giant chemical factories to noodle restaurants. It was there, Backaler said, he found his niche: blogging.

"I was surrounded by so many great stories to write about, but I never had an outlet to write about what I was learning through work. It was a passion project," he told The Wall Street Journal in 2013.

Backaler’s blog, The China Observer, cemented his status as an authority on Chinese business. His blog was regularly linked to by major business publications, and he was asked to write pieces for Forbes and BusinessWeek. In 2011, Frontier took notice and hired him to help operate their Asian-Pacific operations.

“Finding that niche helped make me more mobile. With how fast things change today, you have to be flexible,” he said. An economics major and East Asian studies minor, Backaler credits the College for teaching him how to be versatile.

Cover art for China Goes West Switching gears again, Backaler spent the last three years penning “China Goes West,” which has been praised by the global business community. The book provides first-person accounts of the expansion of Chinese companies into overseas markets in recent years.

At the campus event, Backaler advised students interested in international careers to travel to where they want to work to immerse themselves in the culture. “Don’t just study abroad — move there, learn the language, engage in face-to-face communication,” he said.

Shelby Bourgault ’15 said she plans to move to China following graduation to pursue education consulting, then earn a graduate degree in international studies. She said Backaler’s discussion was enlightening and a great opportunity to network with a College alumnus.

“He offered great advice about how to network in China and how to navigate the sometimes unpredictable world of Chinese business,” Bourgault said.

December 18, 2014