Translating Trade Deals in China

Sep 16, 2014

Li Zhao Mandelbaum is owner of China Iowa Group, a trading company in West Des Moines
Credit Rob Dillard

Li Zhao Mandelbaum comes from a nation of more than one-point-three-billion people. So the concept of small is relative.

“I often introduce myself, I’m from Nanning, a small city in China, and people will say OK tell me the population, and I will say well, we have about six million population,” she said.

Her hometown is about an hour’s flight west of Hong Kong near China’s border with Vietnam. It’s known for its lush greenery and hilly terrain. But despite its beauty, it wasn’t enough for the adventurous, young Li Zhao.

“I always wanted to explore the unknown," she said. "I wanted to go abroad, because I was too familiar with China, and I wanted to use my English skills and learn something.”

So after earning a degree in international trade and economics, she left China – signing on with a Dutch bank that took her first to the Netherlands then to England and finally to Des Moines.  But banking wasn’t entirely for her. In a quiet conference room in a West Des Moines office building, she sayid she inherited entrepreneurial genes from her parents.

“They ran different businesses from a grocery store to distributors of Coca Cola and they opened an entertainment center with pool tables," she said. "I was always immersed in that environment.”

She settled in Central Iowa, met her future business partner and husband, Justin Mandelbaum, and launched the China Iowa Group in 2010. Framed newspaper articles about the company decorate the conference room walls. It seeks to connect Iowa businesses to trading partners in China. It’s the Mandelbaums’ job to escort Iowans through the radically different business culture in Asia. This includes explaining different interpretations of what a signed contract means.

“You have a dinner, you drink, everyone is calling each other brothers, and then you sign and you think you have a deal," she said. "But then after you sign you find your nightmare just started.”

She said for the Chinese, a sealed deal is just the start of negotiations.  She said it’s also tricky sorting through who the decision-makers are in China. All in all, she said, working with people on the opposite side of the world makes for some long days.

“Because China is 13 hours ahead of us, which means I spend a lot of time at night, sometimes a stay up until 3 or 4 a.m., so I can work with China, so I can get the things done,” she said.

And then there are the translation problems in a country where the language can shift from province to province. She has mastered several of the dialects thanks to growing up in one province, going to school in another and having a mother speaking a third at home.  She sees her role as more than a businesswoman. She considers herself an ambassador.

“I’m a firm believer, the more we talk to each other, the more we visit each other, the more we do business with each other, the better friendship we’ll have, and the less misunderstanding we’ll have,” she said.

Li Zhao Mandelbaum’s efforts to improve dialog between the U.S. Midwest and the vast nation of China will be recognized at the Passport for Prosperity banquet September 27th.

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