reWorking Michigan: Chinese students embrace spirit of entrepreneurship

East Lansing, MI – ReWorking Michigan examines our evolving economy, as the people of the Great Lakes State explore new ways to make a living and build a future.

Six years ago, there were less than 50 Chinese undergraduates at Michigan State University. Now, there are more than 2,000. The increase is dramatic, and it's happening not just at MSU, but at universities all over the country. Today, our reWorking Michigan Monday report looks at Chinese students who are not only getting their degree here, but also want to start their own businesses here.

As the economy in China continues to grow, more people have the money to send their children to this country for college. Peter Briggs is director of MSU's Office for International Students and Scholars. He says US visa policies have really loosened up in the last couple of years.

"Where it used to be very hard and stressful to get a U.S. visa, now I think a very high percentage of Chinese are getting visas," says Briggs. "But really the biggest story line is the wealth of China. They can afford to pay non-resident tuition for four years."

Briggs says many Chinese students in East Lansing and at other Michigan colleges have money to spend. They're buying cars and computers, renting apartments, going out for dinner and generally supporting the local economy. Some are even launching their own business ventures, with varying degrees of success.

Heart Beats is a new club in East Lansing named after a popular Chinese song. It's run by Chinese students for Chinese students. Teng Cao is a marketing major. He goes by the name Chester.

"We started this originally with just an idea, that people are lacking a lot of entertainment that we are used to back in China," says Cao. "All the entertainment here is everything we do back home."

The entertainment includes mahjong, which is similar to poker, billiards and several private rooms for small groups to sing karaoke in Chinese. Chester says he and his partners would like to expand Heart Beats to other Michigan colleges, including the University of Michigan and Wayne State, which have very robust Chinese student communities. And after graduation, they'd like to stay in the U.S. and run a business.

"All the members of the group, we all have our own focus in the business field," says Cao. "I do marketing and have a passion for marketing. We have a general manager who just loves to do all the managing, and we have a human resources manager who's taking charge of that, and also someone doing finance. So, the five of us are a complete group for any form of business."

Jerry Richards is Township Manager in nearby Meridian Township. He says residents and businesses in the township have always had a close and positive relationship with the MSU community.

"So, with the influx of international students coming to the Michigan State University, it's something that we've become more and more aware of, and we're looking for ways to make Meridian Township more inviting," says Richards.

That includes making it more inviting to Chinese students.

"We do have resources that are coordinated through the Economic Development Corporation," says Richards. "We'd be very interested in sharing that information and those resources with anybody who's starting a business, including our MSU Chinese students."

The world is changing, and the growing number of wealthy Chinese students at MSU is a reflection of that change. Peter Briggs of the Office for International Students and Scholars at MSU says what we're seeing is globalization being played out in our community.

"It really goes both ways, because we're also interested, in this time of economic struggles in the state of Michigan, in attracting foreign investment," says Briggs. "There are structures in place to tell Chinese students who are getting to know our community that if you're comfortable here, why not makes this relationship longer than four years of an undergraduate program?"

For Chinese students who are interested in starting a business and who have the capital to do it, there are people here who see them not just as students, but as potential long-term business partners.