University offers a new entrepreneurial immersion program in Shanghai

  • PSIP-Shanghai students join China-based Princeton alumni on a dinner cruise on Shanghai’s iconic Huangpu River.

  • Participants hear from James Jianzhang Liang, co-founder of Ctrip, a Chinese provider of travel services.

Since 2016, the Princeton Startup Immersion Program (PSIP), part of the Keller Center for Innovation in Engineering Education, has offered undergraduate and graduate students the opportunity to gain experience working with startups in New York City and Tel Aviv. The recently launched Shanghai program, which placed 22 students with 10 companies in the summer of 2019, built on PSIP’s success in the United States and Israel.

“There is so much vibrancy in the entrepreneurial culture in China’s big cities,” said Lilian Tsang, the Keller Center’s associate director and manager of the immersion program, of the decision to expand PSIP to Shanghai. “We wanted students to experience this.”

Students in the immersion program are placed with a company for the summer to learn the ropes. But unlike many conventional internships, PSIP students work in small, early-stage businesses and nonprofits and live together in housing arranged by the Keller Center.

Yuzhou Bai, a fifth-year doctoral student in East Asian studies and a Beijing native, served as PSIP-Shanghai’s on-site program coordinator. Not only was he responsible for orienting the students to daily life in the city, but he also helped design and execute evening and weekend activities and organized speakers on topics related to entrepreneurship throughout the 10-week program.

Students in the first cohort took weekly Mandarin lessons, participated in a dumpling-making session and camped overnight on a section of the Great Wall near Beijing. “The cultural immersion is as essential to the program as the actual internship,” said Bai. “It helps students really understand the business culture of another country.”

Joe Zhang ’20 spent his summer on the data growth team at Xiaohongshu, also known as RED, a social media and e-commerce platform. Zhang, an electrical engineering major who is also earning a certificate in applications of computing, was born in China, but immigrated to the United States as a young child. He applied to the PSIP-Shanghai program partly to augment his language fluency. “I learned Mandarin terms for mathematical concepts and coding terms,” he said. “It was almost like learning another language.” His time working in the startup industry in China also reinforced his desire to pursue an academic career post-graduation. “I realized how rich and resourceful the Chinese entrepreneurial ecosystem is,” he said. “I saw that [academic] research can be applied in so many different ways in industry.”

His cohort mate, Josh Melnyk ’21, an operations research and financial engineering major earning certificates in applications of computing and entrepreneurship, had a longstanding interest in entrepreneurship: he was the founding editor of “Profiles in Entrepreneurship,” an online article series that highlights Princeton students and alumni contributions to the field. In Shanghai, he worked on business development for LaiYe, a startup that builds digital assistance bots for enterprise clients and professionals in China using artificial intelligence. LaiYe was founded by Arvid Wang, who earned his Ph.D. from Princeton in electrical engineering in 2011.

Melnyk appreciated the networking opportunities availed to him, including with China-based Princeton alumni on a lively dinner cruise on Shanghai’s iconic Huangpu River organized by James Mi *91, founding partner of Lightspeed China Partners. “I had been hesitant about being an entrepreneur,” said Melnyk. “But my conversations with founders and CEOs made me realize you can’t control your path, and that I should just go and do the thing I love.”

“We had tremendous alumni support,” added Tsang. “Our students know that, no matter how far they are from Princeton, they can always count on close connections wherever they are.” – P.M.