Expanding the Focus on Chinese Entrepreneurship

New curriculum aimed at strengthening WPI’s China offerings in language, business, and international studies
November 02, 2016

As someone who’s spent 30 years studying China, Professor Jennifer Rudolph sees plenty of practical reasons for expanding the university’s focus on Chinese entrepreneurship through a new federal grant.

“China is the elephant in the room in terms of international relations and the global economy,” says Rudolph, who directs WPI’s China Hub and is a co-director of WPI’s project center in Hangzhou.

Or as the application she submitted for the $92,000 grant puts it: In terms of power and trade, the US-China relationship is arguably the most important bilateral relationship in the world. Propelled by innovation and entrepreneurship in a global economy, the relationship is central to economic health and global understanding. As a result, many opportunities await American graduates trained in Chinese culture and Chinese business practice.

But Rudolph sees an even deeper purpose in further enriching student access to China—its language, culture, history, business, and people.

“It allows them the benefit of comparative perspective,” says Rudolph. “It helps them develop as global citizens and see the world more broadly. Having a citizenry more versed in global issues and diversity also contributes to a healthier civil society in the United States.”

Jennifer Rudolph

The U.S. Department of Education grant, which will be matched by WPI, follows similar grants received in 2009 and 2012, all aimed at strengthening WPI’s China offerings in language, business, and international studies.

Rudolph has partnered on all three grants with Professor Amy Zeng, assistant dean of WPI’s Foisie School of Business. They have been joined on this as well as the previous grant by Professor Jennifer deWinter, who will help students develop an educational computer game to prepare them for China project work.

Rudolph and Zeng will leave in a few weeks to travel to Hangzhou on China’s southeast coast to join 24 students who are currently working on projects there. Hangzhou has long been recognized as China’s leader in entrepreneurship, making it an excellent location for the grant’s student projects.

Rudolph points out that Jack Ma, the billionaire founder of Chinese Internet giant Alibaba, is from Hangzhou and once taught English at Hangzhou Dianzi University, WPI’s partner in the project center.

The Hangzhou Project Center is one of more than 40 centers in 25 countries where WPI students work with local companies, agencies, and other groups on issues affecting local people.

The current grant and the ones before it have aimed to build a China program for WPI’s students, who major in STEM and business fields.

“Who hasn’t realized that China is an increasingly important player?” Rudolph asks. “It’s just good to have firsthand knowledge of and experience in China.”

The results of the new grant are already being felt this fall, with the first offering of two terms of advanced Mandarin. Another course in business Chinese will be added next year. Rudolph says that enhanced language training will heighten the China project experience.

The current grant will underwrite a new track in the International Studies program focusing on international entrepreneurship and a new minor in business on international entrepreneurship.

It will allow for the development of China-related case studies in business courses, for the integration of China content into two undergraduate entrepreneurship courses, and for the development of a new course on Chinese business history, highlighting innovation and entrepreneurship.

The grant funding will also be used to investigate the feasibility of establishing a Humanities & Arts project center in China so students can fulfill HUA requirements there. The grant also calls for identifying junior and senior year opportunities in China for projects focusing on entrepreneurship.

There will be campus seminars planned on China and entrepreneurship, travel grants for student projects, program development, faculty training, research and conferences, and the publishing of a special issue of a journal comparing entrepreneurial practices in the U.S. and China.

Rudolph sees the present as a particularly auspicious time to be expanding the university’s offerings on China and entrepreneurialism.

“There are a lot of changes going on in China, and Chinese business models are being increasingly recognized as innovative,” she says.

Expanding wealth has lifted millions of people out of poverty, but it has also created some tensions between rural and urban residents.

“China is a fascinating place; the pace and scale of change there over the past 30 years is nothing like the world has seen before,” Rudolph says. And, she added, the value of experiencing life and culture outside the United States is invaluable.

“It enriches everyone’s life to have an international experience,” she says. “Not only does it expose you to different ways of thinking and different cultural norms, it often makes you a more accepting and understanding person.”

- By Thomas Coakley