By Cyril Tuohy
One day last March, Aaron Goldstein stepped off an elevator on the 16th floor of the West Tower of Beijing’s World Financial Center and felt as if he was right back on the Wharton campus.
Except he wasn’t.
He was at the Penn Wharton China Center (PWCC), in a gleaming office building designed by star architect César Pelli in the heart of Beijing’s Central Business District at No. 1 East Third Ring Middle Road, nearly 7,000 miles from Philadelphia.
As he walked into the greeting area, it hit him: “I felt like I was back at Huntsman Hall,” says Goldstein, now a senior in Wharton’s Undergraduate Program.
Goldstein, who joined faculty, alumni, friends, family and senior officials from the School to attend the PWCC opening gala on March 10, 2015, says he was most impressed by the detail lavished on the 17,000-square-foot university center.
From the open spaces to the light flooding the common areas and offices, from the multipurpose functions of the rooms to an approach designed to foster “dialogue” between Penn and China, from the advanced technologies used to connect Beijing with Philadelphia to the intimacy of the study rooms, PWCC is special in every way, he says.
Goldstein’s eyes weren’t deceiving him.
“It’s amazing to experience Penn in Beijing,” says Amy Gadsden, executive director of Penn Global.
A massive video wall and a replica of Ben on the Bench greet visitors as they walk into the reception area. Images projected onto multiple TV screens highlight the specialties of individual schools.
Before PWCC, the 4,738 Penn alumni and hundreds of Wharton alumni living in China didn’t have a permanent facility, says Chi (Michael) Chen, another Wharton senior whose family lives in Beijing.
“Now it’s like a home, so even if we graduate from Wharton and end up in China, we have a home,” he says.
And what a home it is.
“The minute you step into PWCC, you know it’s very special,” says Loretta Evans ENG95, president of the Penn Alumni Club of Beijing.
“In China there are so many people, and one of the things is how valuable space is,” explains Evans, CEO of the technology company Cycletime, which serves the oil and gas industry in China. PWCC’s big, open space invites the sunlight and beckons visitors, she adds. Evans attended the March 10, 2015, opening ceremony and has been back several times since for lectures and to host Penn Alumni Club of Beijing events. For Evans, PWCC offers a place to meet informally or over coffee with fellow alumni, alumni from other global business schools and business contacts.
For Goldstein, the Penn Wharton China Center has the feel of a high-tech startup rather than a traditional Fortune 500 boardroom.
Evans prefers the description of the PWCC as an “oasis,” offering a respite from a busy life in a polluted city clogged with traffic and choked with soot. Planners could not have chosen a better location for PWCC, she says. The Beijing subway stops at the foot of the World Financial Center, itself just 20 minutes from the Forbidden City, the geographic heart of Beijing.
Penn and Wharton are using PWCC, with its understated elegance and next-generation infrastructure, as their “calling card” for an entire region.
When it comes to technology, “PWCC is best,” praises Marvin Mao WG11, president of the Wharton Alumni Club in Beijing, which counts 400 active members.
Bragging rights come courtesy of Cisco Systems’ TelePresence advanced conferencing technology. The networking giant describes TelePresence as a collaborative videoconferencing system that delivers “immersive room-based experiences.” In practice, the technology allows presenters in Beijing to stream live sessions and discussions to an audience sitting in Philadelphia 12 time zones away and vice versa. Multiple surrounding screens and speakers immerse the remote audience into the virtual environment.
“Since we want to bring China to Philly, the linkages are very important from the center to Philly, and that’s where telepresence comes in,” says John Zhang, the Murrel J. Ades Professor of Marketing and director of the Penn Wharton China Center.
For a real example of TelePresence “coming in,” take the robotics symposium that occurred on Sept. 9, 2015. Penn Engineering researchers and students from Philadelphia’s Central High School and Penn Alexander School demonstrated their robotics work with the TelePresence system, beaming from Huntsman Hall to an audience assembled at the PWCC classroom in Beijing.
Already, PWCC has made a mark as a springboard to further Wharton’s executive programs.
In October, the School announced the launch of the Citi Wharton Global Wealth Institute to provide business and executive programs to financial advisors and wealth managers operating under Citi’s global advisory network.
The December kick-off of the Global Wealth Institute took place simultaneously on the School’s Philadelphia campus and in Beijing, and over the next three years, more than 500 relationship managers and financial advisors within the Citi network are expected to enroll.
What’s more, the presentation rooms are connected to each other so one room can beam its signal to each of the other rooms.
Beyond the immersive video-conferencing technology and connectivity, PWCC is engineered to deliver any English-language program to a Chinese audience through world-class simultaneous translation booths in the rooms.
“Wharton has a sterling name in China, and the facility should reflect that,” Zhang says.
The Penn Wharton China Center, managed by Penn’sChina-based affiliate, Penn Wharton Consulting (Beijing) Co. Ltd., has been in the planning stages for more than five years, and over that time PWCC has developed more than one mission for itself.
The first is to offer a physical manifestation of Penn where Wharton and other Penn professors can deepen their understanding about China. In short, the idea is to bring the School’s expertise to China and foster collaboration between the U.S. and China.
“Once you are in China and you get out of the airport, it’s a different world out there,” Zhang says.
The School’s world-class research faculty require a top-tier facility from which professors can learn about what some experts and economists consider to be the world’s most important economy.
“We are a research university, and Penn and Wharton are as strong as they are today because professors are on the cutting edge of new ideas in management, social studies and the humanities,” Zhang says. In part, PWCC’s mission is to maintain that edge razor sharp.
More specific to Wharton students and alumni who manage companies that operate in every corner of the world, what more tangible sign do Chinese business leaders need to convince them that Wharton is serious about engaging with the world’s latest arrival on the superpower stage?
Whether School-trained business leaders work for Chinese companies looking to expand abroad or foreign companies seeking to crack the Chinese market, one made up of 1.4 billion consumers and a middle class with serious—and growing—spending clout, China research is becoming very, very important, Zhang stresses. Schools committed to engaging globally must engage with China, he says.
Zhang also says he wants to use PWCC to stream China knowledge—delivered by Chinese academics, subject-matter experts and on-the-go executives—into Penn and Wharton classrooms to educate and train students and leaders about China.
Given China’s role in the world, Wharton can settle for nothing less than a “premium facility” for global leaders, Zhang says.
Besides, many of the 1,500 Chinese students who come to Penn every year will eventually return to China and PWCC will serve as a meeting point for a formal or more relaxed rendezvous.
Mao, founder and CEO of Sharewithu.com and Leleketang.com, appreciates not just that PWCC serves as a base from which faculty members can conduct research, but it’s potential as a facility for Wharton students and Asia-based executives.
A premier facility attracts attention, and Wharton will be able to host marketing and media events to strengthen its brand among Chinese leaders and consumers, not to mention cohosting panels with alumni clubs from competing business schools.
PWCC’s success in furthering the reach of the School abroad would validate President Amy Gutmann’s Penn Compact
2020 initiative to, in part, pursue its traditional “broad, deep engagement with China.”
“The center represents another major milestone in the Penn Compact 2020’s vision of bringing Penn to the world and the world to Penn,” Gutmann said in comments in March for the PWCC launch.
With its broad two-part mission, the Penn Wharton China Center represents a major milestone for how well Penn organizations are working together to meet this vision.
Penn Global’s Gadsden says that the PWCC represents an “unprecedented venture” among the 12 schools operating under the University of Pennsylvania umbrella and among the School’s various administrative constituencies. Eight deans (including Geoffrey Garrett) and Penn Provost Vincent Pricewere onhand for the March ceremonies and 10 deans, the vice provost and the university president returned for more ceremonies in September.
“Having a center in China speaks volumes to how we exist now as a research university in the 21st century,” Gadsden says.
PWCC will help each of the schools forge a closer relationship with China, deepen the respective schools’ China research and spark more dialogue. Grants from the Penn China Research & Engagement Fund have already been awarded to 10 of 12 schools to conduct research through PWCC, including the Penn School of Design and the Center for East Asian Studies.
Already, a Silfen Forum on the PWCC stage has hosted former U.S. Secretary of State Gen. Colin Powell; Ambassador Li Zhaoxing, former minister of foreign affairs for the People’s Republic of China; Zhang Xin of SOHO China; and Howard S. Marks W67, co-chairman of Oaktree Capital Management.
Chen sees PWCC playing an important role in promoting business education in China as more Chinese executives and business leaders look for global exposure and overseas educational opportunities. Via PWCC, aspiring executives will be able to connect more easily with professors and senior managers in the U.S. to share their business experiences. “I truly believe that PWCC can help Chinese students better pursue their educational and social dreams in the U.S. and abroad,” he says. “They can not only participate in the visual class and engage in the lively discussion within PWCC, but also connect with the awesome knowledge and talent pool in the U.S. through PWCC.”
Meanwhile, students from China and its burgeoning middle class continue to pour into the School—indeed, into all U.S. schools.
The Institute of International Education reports that during the 2013-2014 academic year, a record 274,000 international students in the U.S. came from China, more than from any other country and a 17 percent increase over the previous year.
Zhang has no doubt that the PWCC will return its investment many times over.
Preliminary estimates indicate that more than 2,000 people have visited the PWCC since it opened in March—a promising start, Zhang says—especially considering many of them have been alumni.
The PWCC is a concrete sign of Penn’s long-term commitment to China and PWCC is to the School community what a research outpost is to a leading research institution: a platform from which alumni can network, gather, keep in touch, prospect and recharge.
Wharton alumni traveling or working in Beijing need no longer worry about “slumming” in the cramped city quarters of fellow alumni. Nor will alumni remain captive to last-minute scrambles in search of a restaurant table for a meeting. Gone is the embarrassment of being unable to meet corporate executives in an appropriate venue.
And what about those awkward moments in which Wharton professors had to borrow space from other universities to present their latest research to students at other institutions? Those, too, are consigned to history.
Wharton grads in the region should be abuzz with anticipation. They’ll be able to drop by for coffee, attend a presentation on the latest research by Wharton professors or even host an event for colleagues or business leaders. For Wharton alumni, there’s no more important post-graduation activity than to network in the fast-moving world of business, and Beijing alumni say they are looking forward to using PWCC as a base from which to do exactly that.
Remember, says Mao, PWCC is less about the money than it is about a commitment to China and Asia, and the higher the traction, the more support PWCC attracts, and the stronger the support, the greater the likelihood of long-term success.