China Influencers Rona van der Zander| 11 min read

Welcome to our China Influencers series where we interview foreigners who have a passion for China and gain insight into their innovative and impactful work. Today we meet up with Rona van der Zander, a keynote speaker and founder of GrowBeyound and SiCross.

Individual Questions

What do you wish you had known when you started out in your industry?

I think especially by being self-employed (now since almost 2 years) I learnt a lot – from tax & legal stuff to what it takes to be an entrepreneur. It’s always between hell and heaven 😉 So rewarding but often also tiring.

What led you to pursue GrowbeYOUnd?

I wanted to implement change in the education industry and higher education was the most interesting sector to me. www.growbeyound.com

What led you to start si:cross?

With si:cross we want to bring podcasting into enterprise – lifelong learning and new approaches to communication are so important in the new world of work. We believe that we can make a difference with our tool and enable to human side of enterprise in these times of rapid change. www.sicross.com

What do you think your unique skill(s) are that have helped you become successful?

I believe I am a ‘DOer’ – I don’t contemplate for too long, I jump straight in and do things. This can sometimes also be a disadvantage (haha) but generally this has opened many doors and opportunities – and you have to deal with the challenges anyway, once you start projects/businesses etc.

Where can our audience connect with you online?

Best is LinkedIn – just look for Rona van der Zander

Are there any resources that have really helped you on your journey?

I generally read a lot – magazines, books, I follow interesting people on LinkedIn and read their posts/articles/blogs. I try to keep half a day per week free to read and develop new ideas.

What is your biggest failure, and what did you learn from it?

Hmm.. I always find the word failure a bit difficult. What is a failure? Something didn’t work out? I often say “Sometimes you win, sometimes you learn”. Certainly there were things that did not work out immediately as I envisioned … But I guess I learned even more from them and new things developed out of them, so that it is hard to label it as ‘a failure’ now.

Who are the three people who have been the most influential to you?

There were certainly a lot of people on the way that influenced me one way or another – here are the three that first pop to my mind now:

Holly Ransom from Australia (a young entrepreneur, I met her in NYC and was very inspired by her story.. I believe she was one of the reasons as well why I started my own business), Ursula Wynhoven (she was leading the department I worked for at the UN in NYC and a very inspiring female leader), Dr. Anja C. Wagner (she is also working the education sector and continuously influences my ideas and my outlook on the industry).

Your TedX Talk

What were the preparations like for your TedX talk?

Intense! I prepare a few weeks with the support of a great speaker coach. You can also read about my preparations and learnings here: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/what-i-learnt-through-my-tedx-talk-rona-van-der-zander-%E8%A9%B9%E4%BD%91%E5%A8%9C/ or here https://www.growbeyound.com/single-post/2019/07/01/What-I-learnt-through-my-TEDx-talk

 What were your main visions and ideas for this particular talk?

My main idea was to give people tangible ideas and ‘To dos’ that they can implement immediately. TED talks are often very inspiring but they sometimes also leave me with the feeling “OK, I what can I really do now?” So I wanted people to take away some immediate action points.

Check it out here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SfnM1B77t7I

 What was the main message you wanted your audience to take from it?

The world is currently changing very rapidly. But we can shape the future – we just need to take action! Becoming a lifelong learner is not a buzz word, but very important … so what can I do myself to prepare for the future?

China Questions

Share with us your China story: When did you come to China, how long did you stay for, purpose, etc.

You can learn quite a bit about my China story and the associated struggles in my TEDx talk 😉  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SfnM1B77t7I

I came to China first in 2009 and stayed for around 6 months, teaching English in Xingtai, a ‘small town’ in Hebei province. I returned in 2013 after I finished my Bachelor degree and worked for immerqi in Beijing. Both were amazing experiences that formed me and my professional career tremendously.

Do you have a Chinese name? If so, what is the story behind your name?

Yes -詹佑娜 – it was given to me by my Chinese co-workers when I was in China for the first time.

What is the scene like in China in your field? And, how is it different from your home country?

Hard to say. I would think that China is generally moving much faster now (especially in the startup sector). Concerning the education sector I am not sure that China is much more innovative than we are here in Germany/Europe – very happy to discuss and exchange further about it with your readers.

What do you think of China’s transformation over the past few decades?

Interesting! I am amazed by the speed/transformation and innovation. I don’t think everything is just great and I often critically reflect on some of the changes with my Chinese colleagues.. I am curious to see where China is heading but I can imagine it will become a role model, especially when it comes to implementing new technology and developing innovation.

Can you share with us 3 reasons to why foreigners should experience China? What are some ways they can get the most out of a China experience?

I think it is a fascinating culture and of course such a huge country – from the big cities, over the nature to the very different people and food.. there is so much to discover (and I still have to discover much more too!). As always I think it is great if you have to chance to engage and interact with locals .. until Chinese language skills permit intense discussions it often takes a while, so it’s great to travel with someone who speaks Chinese to be able to really meet some people!

What has the best thing about China been?

For me personally it was the challenge in itself and the people I met. I was 19 years old when I moved to China first and had just graduated from high school… It was such a different environment and culture … I couldn’t speak/write/read. I met so many wonderful people (especially my Chinese colleagues and neighbors) that helped me settle in. There were times when I was so homesick, I wanted to go back home  – but they helped me learn the language and made China ‘home’.

What has been the most shocking/surprising moment in China been?

At first probably the open ‘toilets’ in the school I was teaching 😀

I prepared myself pretty well when going to China, so there were not so many very surprising/shocking moments.. I loved the night trains, busy Beijing and my small town “Xingtai” (1.4 million people). The reverse culture shock (when returning to Germany) was actually worse. I wasn’t prepared to see my home country with so different eyes.

What has the most challenging thing about China been?

I think that everything was of course very different to me and despite the preparation, that was difficult. In the beginning not really being able to communicate was a huge challenge!

(I was also there the first time before the smart phone … so I always had a paper with me written with the address where I wanted to go to, I needed to be able to communicate at a minimum to even get back home :D).

If you had a time machine, what’s one mistake or regret you made that you wish you could reverse?

Hm… there are some situations where I am in ‘retro perspective’ thinking I should have gotten out faster (e.g. some jobs)… But since regretting does not change anything I don’t really look like that at my past. I try to learn lessons from it and do it differently next time. Also, certain situations always led to other things .. so I would not really want to reverse anything.

What does the future look like for you? Is China in the equation?

Yes, I think the current changes and developments in China are super interesting and I am looking forward to visiting soon again.

Currently my home base is Berlin and I think it will be for a little longer. However, I am working all over Europe and I am open to explore new destinations for working/living in the next years.


What’s your favourite place in China you have visited and why?

I really love Beijing, because I had such a great time there with amazing people. I also really enjoyed riding horses in Inner Mongolia.

What’s your favourite Chinese dish you’ve tried?

I love dumplings – and what I like most is to prepare them together with the whole family or friends.

What’s the most “China” moment you’ve had?  

Hmm.. difficult question J I think squeezed with many people and bags in a train on a National Holiday.. I always loved the train rides, met so many people and tried so much new food!

ImmerQi Signature Question

If you were a Chinese dish, what would you be and why?

Haha.. probably a Dumpling because I like to be squeezed.

Julia Yan

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