August 12th, 2011
in Op Ed
by Frank Li
There are many American dreams. Just to name a few: hitting a mega-lottery, owning a big house (the bigger, the better), having your own business, or just for freedom. Here is my American dream: to achieve modest financial independence and then do whatever I want, such as writing on politics or on the scale industry.
Today, I have realized my own American dream (on top of being a proud Tiger Dad)!
In China (1959 - 1982)
I was born in China in 1959 and grew up in the horrible days of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). I graduated from high school in 1976 without knowing what to do, as there was no college, nor jobs (much worse than an Egyptian teenager on the street today!). Then good fortune came in 1977: China re-opened its universities after closing them for 11 long years, and I made into Zhejiang University, a top university in China! Moreover, as China continued to open up, I learned a lot more about the West – I was determined to see the West, and the only way possible for me, or anybody in China then, to do it was to earn a scholarship.
I studied very hard in college. After scoring the top in a national exam for graduate studies abroad, I earned a Chinese government scholarship and was sent (about which I had no say) to the University of Tokyo, the best university in Japan, in 1982.
In Japan (1982 - 1985)
I did well in Japan. Aside from the regular work toward my M.E. degree, I studied Japan in depth. Something memorable worth mentioning: I participated in a speech competition entitled “How should we contribute to the world peace?” I won and it was in Japanese! So, my instinct for politics was there – I just never had a chance to develop it until recently … Okay, Japan was good. But it was only my first stop to see the West. In 1985, I gave up everything over there (e.g. the scholarship and Ph.D. in progress) and moved to America, as a Ph.D. student at Vanderbilt University.
Doing Ph.D. at Vanderbilt (1985 - 1988)
Upon landing in Nashville, I encountered two big problems right away: (1) my stipend of $10,000 a year was hardly enough to support the two of us (yes, I was just married), and (2) my English was gravely inadequate: I could hardly understand the people around me, let alone have any dialog! Fortunately, my job as a research assistant did not require much verbal communication up-front - just hacking out a lot of computer code with some good ideas and writing some research papers. I spent most of my time, often up to 14 hours a day, in front of a computer, while picking up English as fast as I could, with one simple goal in mind: finish here as soon as possible so as to start a “real life” anew! Guess what? I finished my Ph.D. in a (then) record time of three short years! I was not the smartest around, but I was the most focused. Most importantly, I got the job done! Additionally, in 1987, my wife gave birth to our first child, who turned out to be a future Yale material (Economics, ’09). Not bad for the 1st three years in America!
In Europe (1988 - 1991)
I started my “real life” by joining a European company and moved to Brussels in 1988. It was my third big stop to see the West. I lived in Brussels for two and half years and traveled throughout Europe for both business and pleasure. Europe was good, but America was the best, especially for raising my family (Oh, my wife gave birth, in 1989, to our second child, who turned out to be a future leader at GE). With that conclusion, I found a job at NEC America and moved to Dallas in 1991. I finally settled down in America!
Working in Corporate America (1991 - 2004)
With a complete set of global experiences under my belt, I was ready to work my way up in Corporate America. However, a big problem soon became clear: I was a foreigner with a lot of deficiencies (e.g. English and cultural holes). To climb up the corporate ladder, I must overcome these deficiencies, fast. I tried, to the best of my ability, and I did move up steadily, but not fast enough for the ambitious me. Finally, after some 16 years in Corporate America (and Europe) with many ups and downs, including being fired a few times, I came to the conclusion that the only way for me to be happy was to run my own show, for which I had to start my own business.
Starting and running my own business (2005 - present)
I founded West-East International, an import-export company, on July 1, 2005. The first line of business was to sell “Made in China” transducers (which are the key components in electronic scales) in America. What a fun run since then! I wish I could have struck out on my own a lot earlier, such as in 1996 when I had the first opportunity. But I was too obsessed with Corporate America then to realize the opportunity.
Like all self-starters, I had to decide, as a first thing, how to position myself in the marketplace: a low-key also-ran or a high-profile game changer. The latter, of course! For example, it was not a fashionable thing to openly sell the transducers “Made in China” then, but I did it anyway. On top of everything, I went out of my way in marketing. For example, I managed to appear on the cover of the WAM magazine in June 2007 (after being in that industry for barely two years) with an interview article (page 6), in which I clearly and boldly defined the industry for years to come, including the China factor. Controversial as it might have been at the time, that article remains a blueprint of the weighing industry to date - Time-tested!
Six years and counting, we have succeeded wildly in the weighing industry, because of our superior business model, a sharp vision, perfect execution, and a unique way of doing business (my way, more on this later). As a result, we have expanded into multiple lines of business in multiple industries, including helping some American companies invest and do business in China.
Writing on politics (2008 - present)
With the success in business, I ventured into a new arena: writing on politics. It all started in April 2008, after a sports writer at the Chicago Tribune wrote a nasty article about China’s preparation for the Beijing Olympics. It was so unfair and irresponsible that “he is not going to get away with it without hearing from me.” So I wrote him an email, and heated email exchanges ensued. When it was all said and done, I realized that the entire chain of emails could be a good material for customer education. So I emailed it to my customers and prospects. To my surprise, far more of them than I expected were sympathetic to my cause. More importantly, they found my writings interesting and educational. So I just followed with more writings and more emails. It is totally “out of control” now, as I publish weekly at Global Economic Intersection.
My way of doing business
One advantage of having your own business is that you can do whatever you want (and bear the consequence, of course). Here are three things I have done very differently from others in the weighing industry:
- I use email as a big marketing tool. Today, my at-least-twice-a-week email newsletters are very popular in the weighing industry.
- I found a way to fill my email newsletters with good contents. The Wednesday funnies are quality jokes contributed by the scale men (and women) all over the country. My weekly publications at Global Economic Intersection fill up the Friday serious. According to the conventional wisdom, a businessman like me is not supposed to mix politics with business openly. Talking about politics in front of customers is a big no-no. But I did it anyway, with the calculation that I would win over, in the long run, a lot more loyal and better-educated customers (i.e. the winners). This strategy has worked out remarkably well for me.
- I pay little attention to political correctness. I write uniquely not only because of my unique life experience, but also because I do not have a boss and I do not write for living!
No guts, no glory! As my business becomes bigger and more successful, I will try a lot more new and big ideas, toward achieving my full potential!
My American dream has come true. To thank America maximally in my own way possible, I want to save it (yes, America needs to be saved now) with my pen (or keyboard, to be more precise). I believe I have most accurately diagnosed the root cause of many American ills, and provided the best prescription.
My writings are now widely enjoyed by many, to the point that I have been called “a modern-day Thomas Jefferson” (page 31)! Can you believe this has actually happened, today in America, to an immigrant who grew up in China in the 1970s as a hopeless teenager?
About the Author
Frank Li is the Founder & President of W.E.I. (West-East International), a Chicago-based import & export company. Frank received his B.E. from Zhejiang University (China) in 1982, M.E. from the University of Tokyo in 1985, and Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University in 1988, all in Electrical Engineering. He worked for several companies until 2004, when he founded his own company W.E.I. Today, W.E.I. is a leader in the weighing industry not only in products & services, but also in thought and action. Dr. Li writes extensively and uniquely on politics, for which he has been called "a modern-day Thomas Jefferson" (see page 31).