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Justin Knapp: REMBA in the Spotlight

Welcome to REMBA in the Spotlight, a semi-regular feature on this website to introduce you to fascinating people in our worldwide network. Is there someone you would like to see in the spotlight? If so, please email Suzanne Bujara (Newark 2010) at sbujara at gmail dot com.

Justin Knapp, Beijing 2010

Justin Knapp, Beijing 2010

Data File:
Justin Knapp, Beijing 2010
Director, China Outbound Practice
Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide
Beijing, China
Hometown: Ames, Iowa

Q: As director for Ogilvy’s outbound practice, what do your responsibilities include?

A: We’re helping Chinese companies tell their story as they “go global.” Broadly speaking, my responsibilities usually include anything relating to marketing strategy or communications. It’s quite a challenge, which is what I enjoy about it. It’s also interesting because it’s issues-rich. I hope to influence the relationship in a positive way – by forging a deeper understanding between the two countries, to make America more competitive and to share my viewpoint with the Chinese nationals with whom I work every day.


Q: How did you get started in your career?

A: I started in investor relations and business development roles for a hedge fund in Chicago. When we opened up offices around the globe, a position was offered to me in Hong Kong. I really wanted to live abroad, so I jumped at the opportunity. I moved to Hong Kong during the summer of 2005 and became more and more interested in China and the Asia-Pacific region. Specifically, three things intrigued me:

–          Chinese culture was different than anything I had ever experienced;

–          I really wanted to study Mandarin Chinese; and,

–          The speed at which growth was taking place was mind boggling.


There have certainly been a lot of ups and downs. In fact, my first year in Beijing was one of the hardest of my life. At one point, I almost ran out of money. I also worked for a company for four months and wasn’t paid a dime. That was quite the learning experience.


Q: You appear to be a prolific writer. How did you break into your stints as a guest columnist?

A: There’s a saying around our office, “there’s no such thing as great writers, only great editors.” We have a number of talented people who have helped me crystallize and synthesize ideas into opinion pieces.


The truth be told, my wife is also an incredible sounding board. She’s embraced this hobby that I’ve developed, and has been a tremendous source of encouragement. What’s the saying – behind every good man, there’s a great woman? This is certainly the case for me.


These pieces force me to articulate my thoughts on paper. I always learn something in the process. It’s essential to have a point of view in PR. You can’t be an expert on everything, but have to know where you stand. This is particularly important for companies. Jim Collins calls it a Big Hairy Audacious Goal, or BHAG, in his best-selling book, Good to Great.  At Ogilvy, we have the big ideaL, which is a methodology we have created to help give brands a purpose. Companies (and people too) have to have a viewpoint if they want to influence and inspire.


Q: When you were an undergrad at Wheaton, did you imagine you would be doing what you are right now?

A: During college, I really just wanted to be the best football player I could be. In my senior year we were undisputed conference champions and I was blessed to leave as an All-American and have the opportunity to play in the USA Division 3 All-Star game in Mexico. I’ve taken a small detour, but the love I have for the game will eventually bring me back to coaching.


To be married with a son and working in China for a great company is a tremendous blessing. I know that “everything is possible for him who believes” as it says in Mark 9:23. God wants us to have the desires of our hearts and then give Him the glory. I’ve been really fortunate and have had some amazing people point me in the right direction when I veered off course.


Q: What made you want to work in Hong Kong and then in mainland China?

A: I moved to Hong Kong because I thought I was a finance guy. I ran around with a bunch of guys that lived and breathed the capital markets. I was in a bit over my head to be honest. I moved to the mainland to study Mandarin Chinese and to really experience living in China instead of visiting it on the weekends and talking about it like I knew what was going on.


Q: What has been the most surprising aspect of your experience as an expat in China?

A: Probably how difficult it is to find a good job here. People assume that because there is a ton of growth, work will be easy to find. It’s not. There are an increasing number of Chinese nationals who have studied in the US who are returning to China. It’s a lot more competitive than it used to be. I should also note the flip side – I’ve seen a lot of people struggle when they repatriate to the US.


To be successful in China, you really have to enjoy the chaos and constant change. No two days are ever the same here. It’s unpredictable. This can be frustrating, but it is why so many foreigners find the place fascinating. The longer you’re here, the more you realize how little you really know.


Q: What advice do you have for people who are considering working in China?

A: Besides studying Mandarin for as long as possible, my advice would be to move somewhere rural. Do something different and embrace the experience. It will force you to dive into the culture and the relationships you will build with locals will be much more meaningful. Plus, you’ll have a great story to tell. The deepest insights I’ve gained while being here are from Chinese friends or colleagues that highlight nuances between American and Chinese cultures.  I’ve learned that concepts like “face” and “guanxi” aren’t unique to Chinese culture. We may call them something else, but they certainly exist in America.


Q: Do you speak, read, and write Mandarin? If so, how did you learn the language?

A: My Mandarin is definitely a work-in-progress. Most of what I have learned, I learned in taxi cabs. Beijing taxi cab drivers are pretty special. Many of them are self-proclaimed economists. They always have an opinion on petrol, food, and taxi fare prices. They also ask a lot of questions: Where do you come from? Is the traffic in your home town bad? How about the pollution? Have you purchased a home in Beijing or do you rent? How much money do you make? Is your wife American or Chinese? Who’s your favorite NBA team? Do you like Obama? Why is America fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan?


Q: If you were to describe your experience in the REMBA program in one word, what would that be? What were the highlights? Why did you choose Rutgers?

A: Powerhouse. That’s what the Rutgers MBA is all about – creating powerhouse professionals and people of influence and inspiration with great drive, energy, and ability. I talked about this during my “Voice of Class” speech. It’s what makes us different.


Our class was unique. In our 18 courses, I counted that we spent approximately 762 hours together. This is almost one month straight and doesn’t include time outside of the classroom.  It’s not often that you have a group of 30 students in one room who come from 12 different countries. The perspective gained from such a diverse group is extraordinary and challenging to find in any other EMBA program in the world.


The professors were also great. I still exchange emails with a number of them. It means a lot that they are so good about staying in touch.


Q: What specifically did you get out of the program?

A: Confidence. I definitely learned a lot, but the education helped round me out as a professional. It gave me confidence to continue to chase my professional goals.


Q: How do you keep in touch with classmates?

A: We try to eat lunch together every month or so. We’re also connected on LinkedIn. Some people no longer live in Beijing or China, but I know if I sent them an email, they would respond. We built some strong relationships during those 762 hours together.


Q: Finish the sentence: “Now that I’m finished with the program, I’m glad I have time to ____.”

A: …be with my family.


My wife and I had a beautiful baby boy in the middle of the program. It was really tough. I don’t think I’ve ever slept so little in my life. I missed a few classes and had to make up tests and papers. The professors and administration were really flexible and helped me figure out how to complete the courses instead of making it up in the following year. My wife was unbelievable during this time. She never complained once. She just kept encouraging me to push through and finish strong.


Q: What’s the best career advice you have been given? As a mentor of summer interns, what advice did they appreciate from you?

A: The best advice actually came in the form of a quote from my college football coach. I was going through a rough spot in college when he told me, “Passion overcomes all obstacles.” I have never forgotten this.


I actually wrote an editorial last year to our summer interns. It’s meant to be silly, yet serious.


Q: What hidden talent do you have (preferably one your classmates don’t even know about!)?

A: I have pretty good radio announcer voice. For example, I can do a radio advertisement for a Monster Truck Rally – “G-g-g-g-grave Digger versus Bigfoot, this Saturday.  Live at Vets Auditorium. $20 for the whole seat, but you’ll only need the edge!”

Submitted by Suzanne Bujara, Newark Class of 2010

The opinions and questions in this feature are not those of Rutgers University. This is a by-the-alumni and for-the-alumni blog.

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