Lecture is first in new series exploring Asia
Portland State’s Institute for Asian Studies launched a new, free lecture series on Wednesday called Engaging Asia: Lessons and Perspectives.
The inaugural lecture, titled “Venturing to China—One Oregonian’s Story,” drew a sizable audience to the Native American Student and Community Center. The talk was given by Pete Nickerson, a Portland native and global entrepreneur with 35 years of U.S.-China business experience.
Nickerson, a University of Oregon graduate and chair of the PSU Foundation’s board of trustees, was visiting to share his experiences living and working in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore and elsewhere in Asia.
“My journey has been laced with Gumpian adventure,” he said, referring to the serendipitous fortune of the main character in the 1994 feature film Forrest Gump. For example, Nickerson explained that minoring in Chinese was not his first choice at UO but resulted from the Japanese program already being full upon his arrival.
After graduating from UO in 1979 with a bachelor’s degree in political science, Nickerson moved to Taiwan to improve his Chinese language skills. It was there that he began teaching English to Nike employees, and his knowledge of Chinese would later prove valuable by earning him a job with the company.
Within 10 years, Nickerson left Nike and co-founded the Hong Kong based Growth-Link Overseas Company, which today oversees 17 athletic shoe and gear manufacturing facilities in China, Vietnam, Indonesia and India. Much of their production is for companies like Nike and its subsidiaries, and Nickerson was among the first to establish overseas footwear manufacturing in the region.
“He’s a pioneer for the footwear industry,” said Gloria Jung, a 1996 PSU alumna and global packaging account manager for OIA Global, a Portland-based company that specializes in providing product packaging to manufacturers.
“Shoe manufacturing is almost always the first entrant into an emerging economy,” Nickerson said, adding that this is because of the relatively low cost of labor and the low skill level required to produce in these facilities.
“China is the standard for efficiency in this industry,” he said.
At the outset, however, cultural differences between Nickerson, his American colleagues and their counterparts in China proved to be a significant obstacle.
Nickerson attributed Nike’s initial success in China to an easing of tensions between China and Taiwan—a shift that allowed Nickerson to transfer Nike management expertise from Taiwan to China. Nickerson’s company now boasts some 1.3 million square meters of workshop space and produces 6 million pairs of shoes each month.
Near the end of his talk Nickerson changed tack to address the students in the room.
“I don’t want you to misunderstand that this story is as beautiful as it sounds,” he said. “What I didn’t tell you was that I spent a lot of days wondering ‘What the hell am I going to do? How am I going to find a job?’”
Nickerson said that each job he held, from painting houses to driving a UPS truck, offered him lessons.
“This has been a long journey,” he said, “but has paid off very well.”
Nickerson’s series-inaugurating lecture was videotaped and will soon be posted to the IAS website.
Sharon Carstens, director of the IAS and a professor of anthropology at PSU, spoke at the beginning of the lecture, saying that going forward IAS “will invite speakers who have professionally engaged with different parts of East, Southeast and South Asia to generously share their experiences.” Upcoming lectures will feature speakers from areas such as business, law, journalism and the arts.
The goal is to host two speakers per year for this series, with future lectures also being videotaped both for the IAS website and for eventual inclusion in an edited compilation that will be assembled in three years. The next lecture is slated to take place this fall.
“I’ve been struck by two things in Portland,” Nickerson said at the beginning of his talk. “The first is how many people have an interest in Asia, have been to Asia or have a deep experience in Asia and come back to Portland; there are a lot of us.
“The second thing that has struck me is that there doesn’t appear…to be a center of gravity for that knowledge here in Portland…I think the Institute [for] Asian Studies, as has been exemplified in other big, urban universities, can be the appropriate tool for that.”
Students interested in future lectures and events held by IAS can visit the institute’s website at ias.pdx.edu.