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I graduated from McMaster University with a BA in Humanities, a concentration that no longer exists. It was basically a general arts degree. I knew I wanted to get into business, but without a degree in Commerce or industry connections, who would take a chance on me? I knew job hunting was going to be hopeless.

My grades were also very sub par. School never came easily to me. If it were not for my friends I probably would have quit. To this day, I still have nightmares where I never graduated and I am forced to go back to school. I actually had this dream so much in my first few years after graduating that my mom put my degree beside my bed.

So, I decided to do a post-graduate diploma in German Studies. I was always fascinated with other cultures and wanted to work overseas. I thought a year was enough time to delay life and the promise of co-op work sounded great.

On my first day at Humber College, I arrived excited for the program and ready with my German book in tow. But, upon arrival, I learned that the German class was full and I would be in the Mandarin class. I was completely clueless and was even too embarrassed to ask what country Mandarin was spoken in. The first day was only a meet and greet, so I could not just figure it out from the material or syllabus. As soon as I got home and asked my dad. We pulled out the encyclopedia, which my dad loved any excuse to use, and discovered Mandarin was a language spoken in China. This was an intensive program. So in a few months, I would become nearly fluent in a language I had just learned existed.

The Stephens (and the Bulmans, my mother’s maiden name) always seemed to struggle with simply speaking our own native language of English. I spent many years with a speech therapist trying to even say my name, Karla Stephens, correctly. How the heck was I going to learn this entirely new language that didn’t even use the same alphabet?

I did end up graduating. My Mandarin was passable, though my progression was so slow. Any level of success I had was thanks to my teacher Rose, who said she never had a student work so hard.

Fast forward four years and I was living in the Hunan Province of  China working for a Canadian company called TIW. I was 25 years old and excited to work in business and the fast moving telecom industry.

Typically, when a country is expanding their telecom market, the local government holds a public lottery for companies to bid for cellular service licenses. Usually there are 2-3 licenses awarded based on detailed applications, financials, and a myriad of other considerations. In essence, it’s a beauty contest and the judges have their favorites for their own reasons. A prerequisite is to have local in-country bid partners with a solid reputation or, failing that, good liaisons with the government officials.

I was part of a team of twelve expats, covering all the disciplines from engineering to customer service, who would relocate to Changsha to commence operations. It was November of 1995 when we boarded a plane connecting through Hong Kong. As we landed in Changsha, I think that our team nearly tripled the expat population in the province of 62 million people at that time. As far as we knew, there were five other expats there. Four were Swedes working from Electrolux and one was a Canadian/American who operated an ice cream parlor.

This was beyond just starting over somewhere new. The city structure, government, cultural norms, and language were completely new to me. We didn’t even have housing set up before our arrival, as at the time this was not an easy thing to do from the other side of the world. So, our first task became securing hotel rooms and then later finding somewhere more permanent.

I forget how we ended up at one of the few hotels that would accommodate us in the area we needed to be, but I clearly recall the negotiations. The general manager of the hotel was a young and very confident man who first pretended that he spoke no English. After a few minutes of getting nowhere, Al turned to him and said, “I know you understand and speak English, so let’s cut a deal. We will need twelve rooms and a conference facility to use as a business centre, and we will likely be here for many weeks.”

In retrospect, Al was a bit bold. This GM turned out to be a senior official in the Red Army, which owned the hotel and had spy/surveillance equipment on the top floor. We soon learned never to go up there and that we needed to adjust how we interacted with anyone we met.

Now we had our temporary accommodations and could start the process of hiring and selecting equipment suppliers. We actually ended up spending seven months in that hotel, never finding more permanent lodgings.

Now, looking back at the twelve of us getting off that plane in Hong Kong and heading to Changsha, none of us had any idea what we were in for. While Al and many other members of the team had decades of experience in setting up operations in countries throughout the world, China was different. And we would soon learn the many blockades that would stand in our way.

Part 2 coming next week!

~ Karla xoxo

Karla Stephens-Tolstoy has stage 4 chronic cancer, diagnosed in 2018. She is Her2 negative, IDC.  She takes 50 pills daily, including Ibrance and letrozole, her cancer fighting pills.  Karla is the co-owner of the online store StandUpSpeakUp.ca with her son, Zach.  Through this venture, they are proud donors to various charities. All proceeds of their limited edition Healing and Empowerment Scarves are donated to Wellspring Cancer Support Centre. 

Check out her blog,  and her podcast Stand Up Speak Up which ranks in the top 10% for most listened to podcast.

You can find her at @standupspeakup, LinkedInKarla’s Korner Facebook group.

The Empowerment Scarf
You are most powerful when you believe in yourself, let this scarf give you an extra boost of confidence and comfort.

The Healing Scarf  this talisman was inspired by our founder, Karla’s own path to healing. Let it be a shield to protect you and an emblem to empower you.

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