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Lives Forever Changed - Kevin Chen: Seeds of Success

Volume 4, 2015

By Janine Coughlin

During his childhood in Jianyang, a small town near Chengdu whose name translates into ‘simplicity of the sun’, Kevin Chen (MBA 2009) dreamed about space. He did his undergraduate studies at Northwestern Polytechnical University in Xi’an, where he majored in aerodynamics and flight control, aiming to become an aerospace engineer. He went on to study commercial aviation and earned a Masters and PhD in Air Traffic Control from Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics.

Today, however, Chen’s career has taken him, literally, down to earth. He is Senior Strategic Account Manager at Pioneer China in Beijing, a division of DuPont that focuses on the agriculture sector. A part of his job is developing the company’s seed business in China.

“Agriculture is important. Both the government and commercial entities do everything possible to make sure no issues arise. Most people just take it for granted, but when you are in the industry you realise that to feed such a big population and address all the food security and food safety issues, you have to work hard behind the scenes. You have to make sure that your product is commercially viable for the company, and also meets nutrition and safety standards,” he explains.

It’s a job that he finds immensely satisfying. “You feel that you are doing something. It’s not like launching a rocket or satellite or sending people into space. This is something very important every day,” he adds.

When Chen decided he wanted to make a career switch, he applied to the CEIBS MBA programme. Once accepted, he applied for – and received – an EU Scholarship, which covered his tuition.  “I consider it recognition of my capabilities, my integrity and my potential,” he says of the scholarship.

He had considered other top MBA programmes around the world, but decided on CEIBS because he wanted to build his career in China. His decision was influenced by concerns that he would have challenges blending in overseas, but more so because he saw China as the option that offered more opportunities.  “I have friends who spent some years overseas, building a network. They found that the business they were trying to do would have more growth potential in China, so they had to come back and start all over again. The network they built up in the US is of some help of course, but to a limited extent,” he explains.

The CEIBS Career Development Office helped introduce Chen to DuPont, which offered him a place in the company’s Marketing Leadership Development Programme (MLDP) when he completed his MBA. As an MLDP participant he had the opportunity to rotate through various departments at DuPont, and he eventually settled into a post at DuPont Pioneer. “After two years there the company said ‘Kevin, we need more smart farmers’,” he says, explaining how he ended up at Pioneer.

One of the things he enjoys about the job is being a part of helping China’s agriculture sector improve its practices and learn from best practices overseas. “I feel I’m like a bridge,” he says. “I understand my company’s philosophy and our best practices, and I was born here. I know the people here, I know the market, and I speak both languages.”

Chen also appreciates that his job offers many opportunities to learn about the sector that has become such an important part of his life, and the people whose lives it touches. “You need to go down to the market and see what’s going on, and talk to the dealers and the farmers,” he says of the many trips he has made across China while working at DuPont Pioneer over the years. “That’s when you realise how many different dialects are out there in China. You realise, wow, China does have diversity. I love this country!”

He particularly enjoys his trips to the countryside, which bring back childhood memories of catching frogs and being chased by hornets. 

“Farmers are just individuals trying to make a living. They might not be delicate, they’re outspoken about what they are thinking but they’re just real people. My mom and dad still have relatives in the countryside. I spent part of my childhood in the countryside. So I feel comfortable getting to interact with the real stakeholders, the farmers,” he says.

Looking ahead, Chen expects he will continue to build his career in China’s agriculture sector. “Sometimes when you are busy you don’t dream as much as you did when you were young. You use goals – five year plan, financial growth projection, and business model evolution,” he says. “I plan to stay in the agriculture business. It’s a good business. It’s a strategic focus of our company. It’s what China needs over the long run,” he says.

It also helps that he is excited about the work he is doing and his role at DuPont. “I am in a very good position, it’s a convergence of top notch business practice and technical capabilities of a prestigious company, and also I’m sitting at a venue where these things are needed, where the needs are strongest, where the market has the greatest potential,” he adds. He has his sights set on doing even more. “I consider myself very good at business development. I hope I will be a senior leader for my company’s China business and strategic operations in the future. Here in China, things happen fast. If you don’t move fast enough or you are not innovative enough, you’re probably going to be left behind. I will continue my current career path and hopefully in the long run I will be contributing both to my company and to this country.”

Though his career may be moving fast, he says he will always remember to make time to appreciate the generosity of those who have helped him along the way. “What my parents taught me about trust and generosity is that you should not forget the help you receive from friends and strangers. When you are financially capable, do the same,” he says. “I want to take this opportunity to extend my sincere gratitude to the faculty at CEIBS and the generous people from the EU who have financed people like me, and thank them for their trust and generosity. Now that I am in the agriculture business I think there will be some mutually beneficial collaboration opportunities between the European agricultural business community and the China market in the future. I will not forget who helped me, these people from Europe, the good teachers at CEIBS – my alma mater which I love a lot – and I will try to be some help to them in the future.”