By Tala Strauss

Author’s note: I sat down for lunch with Edwin Keh, formerly COO for Global Procurement at Wal-Mart and now CEO of the Hong Kong Research Institute of Textile and Apparel and a lecturer at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, on one sweltering Friday afternoon in Hong Kong this past summer. Our conversation ranged from his experience working in refugee camps to his survival tactics for sustaining a spiritual life as a globe-trotting executive. As we sipped cups of tea after lunch, I asked him about where global business is going and what obstacles and opportunities that presents emerging leaders.

Edwin in his office at Hong Kong Polytechnic University. Photo courtesy of Tala Strauss.

Edwin Keh in his office at Hong Kong Polytechnic University. Photo courtesy of Tala Strauss.

Tala: What obstacles and opportunities do you see for emerging leaders doing business globally?

Edwin: Peter Drucker said, ‘management is about doing things right and leadership is about doing the right things.’ Leadership is about setting clear goals and agendas, articulating vision so people can invest their youth, their time, their resources properly. How do we communicate a different, more optimistic vision for the world, a world that is much beloved by God, that has a loving Father who wants to take people out of the despair that they’re in?

The opportunity for business as the world becomes smaller, the opportunity for impacting lives, nations, and cultures is that much more powerful. We are given opportunities to practice what we preach, to demonstrate what we believe. The line between what is a missionary, what is a businessman, what is a student, what is an educator, all blur these days, and I think very, very healthily. We don’t paint ourselves in these boxes, so now it’s all of a sudden a much more holistic view. Now what I do nine to five is as important as what I do Sundays. I impact life and I am an ambassador for Christ in every aspect of what I do, by these commercial decisions, political decisions, by these things that I do, I demonstrate Christ to the world. That thoughtfulness is wonderful, it’s much healthier, than how we looked at our faith and work a generation ago.

The casual observer looks at the world and almost believes we are getting more and more homogenized, that there is this sameness in the veneer of what we see. I think we should be a lot more careful in our observation of the world. The caution is if you look at most of the world outside the Westernized Judeo-Christian countries—and let me apologize for the generalization—what you see in most of the world is a managed economy, managed economies.

This is especially true in China. They have centralized planning, Five-Year Plans. They’re on the twelfth Five-Year Plan. They determine what are the strategic industries, where the government is going to invest, where money is going to go. All of that sort of dictates how economies are going to progress, whereas in the West the market sort of decides all of those things. First of all, we have to understand where these managed economies are going to go, are going, and whether that makes sense, whether we either support, encourage, or redirect the efforts and resources of these economies.

So depending on where we serve, our role becomes different. If we’re in an environment where we have fundamental issues with where the economy is going, we need to work on a policy or government level to make sure we redirect the entire direction of the economy. If there are economies in which we see there are micro-opportunities within segments that are being encouraged by the government, let’s say green industries, clean industries, are a big focus in China right now, then how do we go in there, go alongside the government, help the government make the right decisions? Understanding a macro-view of where the economy is going, I think we can be more effective.

I think for churches and non-profits in the US, the line gets blurred. What is a non-profit and what is a for-profit? Really it’s about intention, not what the tax code says. So for-profits have as much legitimacy as traditional non-profit, preaching organizations. I don’t know if I am making myself clear, but we go as whole persons, either as missionaries, teachers, preachers, bankers, or whatever, we go in the name of Christ. As such, some of these traditional distinctions that we make in the church may no longer be that useful. We may need to rethink how we encourage and support each other. Should we encourage young people to go to Russia as bankers because that may be more useful than if they go to somewhere else as a missionary? And if that’s the case, how does the church get involved in the life of one of their people in the congregation that goes in that capacity? We pray for missionaries, but how do we support bankers and teachers and somebody else in a different role? So anyway, you get my point.

Tala Strauss recently graduated from Gordon College and now teaches high school students in Los Angeles. She spent this past summer in China.

Fieldnotes Magazine is a publication of the Max De Pree Center for Leadership at Fuller Theological Seminary. We would love to hear from you about people, businesses, or other organizations we can interview or feature. Please email the editor at Fieldnotes Magazine.


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