Jared Thompson was, is, and will ever be a student of the arts. Growing up in a family that loved to debate, he decided to study religion. He finished an honours degree in Chinese philosophy and East Asian studies with a second major in English language and literature. Recognizing that “all the world’s a stage,” he opted to explore business after graduating from Memorial. Now, along with two partners, he owns and operates Dragonwell Creative, a cross-cultural creative marketing agency in Hangzhou, China.
Dragonwell Creative has won international marketing contracts for Chinese cities that are 18 times the size of the population of Newfoundland and delivering award winning results on those contracts as well.
Feel free to drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org
How and why did you decide to attend Memorial for your degree?
It took me a while longer than most to get around to studying seriously at university. I had studied for about six weeks when I was only 18 at university in Ontario, and after procrastinating a bit too much I found out I had missed a major term paper and the best grade I could get was now a 75 per cent in English, a subject I knew I always wanted a degree in. Realizing that was a terrible way to start my studies, I dropped out and shortly after moved to Germany to teach English as a second language.
I taught there for about a year, before my father got sick and I came back to help him recover. While back in Grand Falls there weren’t many options, so I started the first year of university in a transfer program at the College of the North Atlantic and shortly after made my way to Memorial. I was delighted with the university and programs offered there and excited to try my hand at arts courses that I hadn’t had the opportunity to study before.
What drew you to do a degree in religious studies?
I was raised in a Christian home and always had a curiosity about the larger questions in life. This led me to investigate various spiritual faiths, and I also practiced various East Asian martial arts, which were all steeped in Eastern philosophy. Upon entering Memorial, I was eager to take some courses in Eastern religions and philosophy. My first class was one of Dr. Lee Rainey’s courses on the development of early Chinese philosophy, and after about five minutes into the class I was pretty much convinced that this was exactly what I wanted to study. After finding out more about the major influence China has played and will continue to play in global economics, I saw lots of opportunity in becoming more informed about this enigmatic country that we in the West rarely have a clear understanding of.
Do any particular memories stand out from your time here as an undergraduate/graduate student?
I specifically remember the heatedness of our class discussions and passionate exchanges that would continue long after classes ended. The topics of what we all should do to make the world a better place, how to be real contributors in society and how to guide it towards a more equal and open world were grappled with daily. There was always a strong sense of duty to one’s fellow man and society in our lectures. That passion seemed to be rather unique to arts programs, and it has been even rarer to find it in the wider world after finishing my degree. (And the religious society mixers were epic… So much booze it was sinful!)
If you could do any course over again, what would it be?
I would gladly do my honours thesis over again. I spent far too long adding more and more information than I needed but not enough time trimming it all down to make it easier for readers to digest (or for my poor supervisor to hack through, red pen in hand). Now that I have been forced to learn to edit myself in my business career, I think I could make my point in a more powerful fashion and with far fewer words along the way. I plan at some point to do my masters, and look forward seeing how my practical experience shapes my academic style.
How did you go from graduating with a BA in religious studies to becoming an entrepreneur and co-founding Dragonwell Creative (in China!)?
I won a scholarship to study Chinese language in Zhejiang University in the beautiful city of Hangzhou. I was planning on teaching English in China but it was Dr. Rainey, my dear friend and mentor, who told me to simply take the plunge, keep an open mind, be my normal outgoing self and let opportunities beyond teaching find me. It wasn’t long before I was making friends with other students and some Chinese locals as well. One of my Chinese friends proposed creating a business that would help foreigners make friends with Chinese people more easily and could also work as a one-to-one English teacher referral service. A Lithuanian sinologist, a Chinese friend formerly in the military, then a restaurateur, and a religious studies major from Newfoundland, decided to create a tech company.
After a series of starts and stops, we caught the attention of a larger marketing firm in Hong Kong who wanted to partner on a major pitch to handle all the international marketing and PR for the city of Hangzhou, following the G20 Summit held in September 2017.
We won the contract.
I believe it was the refusal to quit in the face of failure after failure that got us to that point, and it is that same startup determination that has kept us going and built our momentum.
What was your biggest challenge in getting your business up and running?
Well there was an incredible amount to learn about business in general, and none of us had any experience in doing business in this field. More than anything, the Chinese and Western business cultures and thinking are very different. Our meetings were fraught with miscommunications and assumptions that ended up costing us time and frustrating the hell out of everyone involved.
Questions like, “is this really worth all the trouble?” and “what do we do if we fail?” were constant distractions, but we put them aside and believed what we were doing had value and would be appreciated and awarded eventually. None of us has made millions of dollars (…yet), but the path to really succeeding becomes clearer each day we work together. It’s great that a lot of other companies and institutions are taking an interest in what we are doing and approaching us for work, so I guess all the hard work is starting to pay off.
What’s a typical day like for you?
Well, we are in marketing and we are a start-up as well, so that basically translates into more than 80 hours of work per week, and at times over 100 hours if deadlines are tight. I get up at 7 am and get on a subway before 8. I have an hour commute then I usually have emails to send in the morning and meetings with my staff of 12 people. We discuss what tasks are the most pressing, how to best advance timelines on projects and the best approach to generating new leads. The rest of the time is spent writing proposals, making calls, sitting in on brainstorming meetings and putting out a lot of metaphorical fires.
It’s the creative nature of our work really keeps things interesting. Getting to work as a producer on video commercials, writing copy for ad campaigns, and coming up with off-the-wall publicity stunts and events are the most interesting parts of the job. There is always a good bit of networking to do in the evenings as well.
How did your arts/HSS degree prepare you for life as an entrepreneur?
It taught me the value of understanding the way people think, the motivations that guide them, the things they aspire to and the things they fear. All of these are instrumental to leadership, and all of these influence the way you interact with coworkers and clients. You can use the knowledge of human thinking and relations to help people become as excited about something as you are and inspire them to work with you on it. The difference between leadership and manipulation lies in the intention and the final result. Manipulators make you do things to benefit them; leaders make you do things to benefit yourself and others. Understanding this subtle difference and the moral responsibility that comes with leadership was a big part of what I learned in my studies at Memorial.
To be honest, I actually disliked the idea of doing business when I first began my degree, because I saw so much dishonesty and profiteering inherently in the business world. However, by the end of my studies, I realized that if you want to make an impact on the world then you’ll have to get in the trenches and fight for the world you want from inside the system that already exists. My arts degree taught me the greatest people in history were not just theorists; they were very industrious people who brought their visions into reality through hard work. Those leaders before me became my inspiration to try my hand at starting a company. I realized that you cannot simply stand outside of society and throw stones and curses at the pillars that the world is founded upon and expect them to change; you have to learn the game and change it from the inside.
What in your opinion (and from your international perspective) is something the province of NL can do right now to improve the situation for young entrepreneurs?
Invest in and put more emphasis academically on the arts because it should be priority for us all that the future leaders of industries and countries have the cognitive tools necessary to lead. These include critical thinking, deductive logic, knowledge of history, and empathy. Aside from that I would suggest putting more attention on the industries of tomorrow rather than those of today.
Look for what solutions have the most benefits in the long term and implement those even if they cost more in the short term. And protect the environment because it is the one resource that is far more costly to gain back than it is to preserve—just look at the struggle China is having with this.
We should be spending our energy developing plans and goals that will outlast our generation rather than ones that barely scrap their way through a term of a politician’s tenure. That’s what China is doing, and it will make them the official world power by 2030.
Where do you see yourself in five years?
Probably still here in China, if all goes according to plan. I plan to keep living abroad for most of my life; maybe another decade here in China, maybe elsewhere in Asia. Ultimately I hope to be able to return to academic at some point and continue my investigation of the thoughts and texts and arguments that have guided the fascinating history of China and shaped the world power it is today. I hope to gain a better understand of the questions posed by ancient Chinese philosophers over 2500 years ago that have still yet to be fully answered all the way up to this day and age.
What do you say to those who question the value of an arts degree?
I’d ask them, what would you pay for the ability to see the world through the eyes of another? What value does knowing how others arrive at their decisions bring to an international business or diplomatic office? How can we learn to work together globally, if we can’t understand that cultures, like the people who make them up, all have different goals and values and different ways of measuring success? How can you say you are a good person, if you haven’t even thought about what it means to be good? How are you sure what you are doing isn’t evil if you have never bothered to try and see what evil looks like?
None of these questions are found in the sciences, and their answers may be supported by stats and numbers but they aren’t formulaic at their core. These are so rarely the concerns of commerce, and most politicians today muddy the waters of these discussions far more than they help clarify them.
The arts has and always will be about the human struggle, and how to learn from the past, from others, and even from fiction and fables.
The arts remind us that the world’s most timeless treasures often begin as seemingly frivolous endeavors.
What would people be most surprised to learn about you?
That I am incredibly self-conscious, even to a point of self-loathing. Most people who meet me and see my confident and charismatic exterior believe that is just who I am, but I feel lost and worthless far more often than I feel certain of what I am doing. I never came to China with a 10 year plan—I didn’t even know what I wanted to get out of studying Chinese—but I did doubt myself and my capabilities every step of the way
What advice would you give a student who is unsure of what to study?
Follow your interests and not the most recent job statistics and hiring projections or salary estimates. In my company, no one is really doing exactly what they studied. But they all learned something of value from their time at school and the degree they took; unfortunately for some, the thing that they really learned by the end of their degree was how little they actually wanted to work in the field they had just finished studying. The problem was they were too afraid to risk their loans or to defy their parents and follow their actual interests.
I would say there isn’t anyone who can tell you what you should do, except you. If you don’t listen carefully to where your interests are telling you early in life then it can be a lot harder (and more expensive) to change direction and follow them later on.
What’s your favourite place to visit?
Any place I haven’t been before. I just find the same feeling when I look at the world as I did when I looked at the QEII library for the first time: there is simply more there then I could ever hope to know in a million lifetimes.
So I’ll keep trying to find something new to add to my own shelf of stories, and keep adventuring to find a new personal frontier.
What are you reading and listening to these days?
I have been reading far more business themed works than I ever thought I would. I have recently finished Scientific Advertising by Claude Hopkins, one of the forefront thinkers in advertising who first established the Idea of A/B testing in advertising back in the great depression in 1923. Right now, I am reading Why Leaders Eat Last by Simon Sinek, which is an inspiring look at some of the socio-cultural and evolutionary developments that gave rise to human societal structures and how leadership relates to them. Sinek also shows how to practically integrate these findings into your own life and business—there are some really great videos of him talking about this on YouTube, as well. Purely for interest, I am slowly working my way through Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari, which is just a wonderful account of the beginnings of our ancestral and evolutionary ties to one another and how we have arrived where we are today as a species, though one often divided against itself.
What are you most looking forward to within the next year?
I am looking forward to hiring an assistant this year, one who can keep me from constantly forgetting where I last left my head!