Interview with Drew Mason '89

Drew Mason '89 spoke to Jocelyn Richards '12 about his experience at Brown and the path that led him to his current work in China.

Q:        I saw that you majored in history at Brown, but not necessarily East Asian history. So, I’m curious how you became involved in China or when you first traveled there. 

DM:     Well, my interest in history was pretty broad, so I probably took a bit of everything.  My involvement with China was first really with Asia. During my sophomore year, I was able to win a scholarship from the former chairman of the US Foreign Affairs Committee and traveled to Korea. When I came back to Brown, because of the curiosity that was engendered from that experience, I then did take a course in Chinese history and later a seminar on Korean history. I think those classes planted some seeds, though I wouldn’t say they germinated while I was at Brown.

            My involvement with China really started to accelerate after my naval service, when I went straight from an aircraft carrier to Harvard Business School—that was the first year Harvard wanted to have an Asia business conference. What happened during the conference—and this is where it all started to come together—was a very young Chinese PhD student from MIT, who somehow snuck in, shared his business plan with me and asked for help. What fascinated me then was the human capital arbitrage of China. You had these incredibly talented, sophisticated, and very well educated people, who may not have had access to the same opportunities that we did. If I look over the last fifteen years, I find that’s what’s really bound me to China—the human capital element. The conference led to a whole series of what you could call creative or fortuitous “accidents,” where I then helped him get his first job, write his first business plan, and find his first money.

            It goes back to Brown now; I think learning independent thinking really helped me. There was a long time period where people said to me, “You want to do what, where? Help an entrepreneur develop an Internet company in China?” In the early ‘90s, people thought it was insane.

Q:        That was Sohu, then?

DM:     That’s right, Sohu. Along the way, people would question why I wanted to spend time on this, but I just continued to help him (founder of Sohu) because I found it interesting; eventually, if you really are on to something, markets catch up with you. Over time, what I developed is an information asymmetry. Brown is an example of an information asymmetry—it’s a series of people who know more about something than others in the world—professors, for example, are effectively walking information asymmetries.

            What fascinates me about China today is that it’s one of the largest information asymmetries that I can think of—on multiple levels. They know a lot more about us than we know about them because so many of their best and brightest have come over here—including the future president—and have been educated or spent time here. There’s a lot of complexity and a lot of dynamism and a lot of change in China, and unless you’re going there constantly and interacting with it, it’s very difficult to stay up to speed. There’s no one book you can read; there’s no one newspaper you can open, no comprehensive study that’s going to give you the answer.

            People are constantly confused about the dualism of China: urban and rural; central government and local government; rich and poor; agriculture and manufacturing. This dualism constantly creates confusion and the media and market sentiment reflect this.   The good news is that this confusion also creates significant opportunities.

Q:        Are most of your relationships in China people you met through personal connections or did some first stumble across your website and then contact you?

DM:     I think you always have to personally know those you work with. Some think of business as purely transactional, but that’s not sufficient—the best business relationships work a bit deeper than that. In China, if people have just heard of you or your business, it probably will not suffice—you need to get to know them for a while, watch them for a while, and gather a lot of information, both in and around them.

            Building a network takes time and patience. A lot of people want to skip that step, or they’ll go to Hong Kong or Shanghai and say, “Oh, looks like New York”, but it’s not. So you can get a false sense of confidence, but it’s actually more complicated.

Q:        Long-term, do you see yourself continuing on this career path?

DM:     Yes—China is certainly something that has fascinated me for the last fifteen years and it’s something that I can see myself doing for another fifteen years. It’s partly because of what I talked about at the beginning— the human capital arbitrage fascinates me along with the talent, quality, work ethic, and character of some of the people that I’ve had a chance to work with. I find it incredibly attractive—that’s also part of what I loved about being at Brown.

            On this point, I think President Obama has a great initiative called the “one hundred thousand strong program”—to try to get more students from the US to study in China. At Brown, I’ve done a bit as well by offering internships and bringing some interns over to China. It’s a drop in the bucket, but it’s something to get people to experience it first-hand, because I don’t really think you can develop the local network, understanding or appreciation without being directly involved. The Year of China has been crucial in getting people to think about it, because in my case, it was the seeds that were planted very gently through a couple classes I took at Brown that later came to fruition. If you don’t plant those seeds then there’s nothing to harvest later.

Q:        What do you think are the primary challenges—perhaps economic—facing future relations between the US and China?

DM:     I’d say the number one challenge is continuing to increase the level of mutual understanding and trust with each generation. The good news is that each successive wave of Chinese leadership has had more exposure than the previous leadership to the West. But on the US side, we need to do our bit as well. I think education plays an important role because you have to take a generational strategy to increase understanding of China and the region, and you can’t do that overnight.

            They’ll be a number of challenges. China is moving aggressively but it will take time to move from an investment-led to more of a consumption-led development model. I don’t think these trade imbalances and frictions that occur will disappear short term. But if we gain a mutual understanding of culture—by forming relationships and building local partnerships— we’ll have the tools to work through these problems.