The University of Iowa

A Hawkeye in Wuhan

March 3rd, 2020

Since the COVID-19 lockdown in Wuhan, China, Can Zhang (BBA economics ’14, BBA management ’14), the owner of a local driver training business that he took over from his family in late 2017, has been conducting online meetings with his management team on a regular basis. During a recent online meeting, he decided the company would benefit from implementing a conservative strategy to reduce costs and build a cash surplus in 2020. “The COVID-19 outbreak is really hurting small and medium-sized enterprises. During this crisis, some companies went bankrupt because they didn’t have enough cash flow. My company is facing a similar problem. I am not going to start any new projects or make any aggressive investments this year. The impact of COVID-19 is likely to be repercussive, and a long-term conservative strategy might be needed for my business,” Zhang said. 

With the idea of eventually taking control of his family business in mind, Zhang headed to the University of Iowa Tippie College of Business for its nationally ranked academic programs and resources. With a double major in economics and entrepreneurial management, Zhang acquired practical knowledge in human resource management, accounting, and finance, which has been crucial to daily business operations. At the same time, he developed a business mindset that helped him see the big picture and generate big ideas. Zhang said Tippie prepared him well to fulfill his career goals. 

Can Zhang and Rich McCarty, adjunct lecturer, University of iowa John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center

Can Zhang and Rich McCarty, adjunct lecturer, John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center

“While succeeding in economics and other quantitative areas, I was struggling with Entrepreneurial Strategy, the first elective for my entrepreneurial management major, and considered withdrawing from the course and quitting the major. It was Rich McCarty, the instructor of the course, who talked me out of it. He told me the real business world was not only about quantitative skills, but also about soft skills. In order to be a good business leader, I would need leadership, communication skills, and strategic thinking. He encouraged me to step out of my comfort zone to overcome difficulties in reading, writing, and public speaking. His words still inspire me today. I know I can only achieve self-growth through challenging myself.” 

In addition to learning how to be a leader in the classroom, Zhang was widely involved on campus and served as the vice president of the Chinese Student and Scholar Association (CSSA) from 2013 to 2014. Zhang and the leadership team at CSSA organized a variety of events and extracurricular activities to enrich Chinese students’ lives at Iowa. To support building a multicultural community, Zhang, on behalf of the Chinese student population, actively communicated with the university, the local government, and other community organizations. One of his fondest memories was leading a group of 12 Chinese student volunteers in a community-wide cleanup project around Ralston Creek. “I felt happy when contributing to the Iowa City community. Now, I contribute a lot to my local community in Wuhan through my current business.”

University of Iowa alumni get-together in Wuhan, China

University of Iowa alumni get-together in Wuhan, China

After earning his dual bachelor’s degrees and a certificate in global leadership from Iowa in 2014, Zhang briefly worked for a consulting firm in Beijing, and then launched a start-up in Hangzhou, which was awarded funding from the local government’s venture funds and other sources. “These were valuable experiences for me before leading my family business, which was losing money when I took over at the end of 2017. In order to reduce overall costs, I changed the management team, sold idle assets, got rid of unprofitable departments, optimized the number of employees from 200 to 60, and subleased extra space. At the same time, I established a focused strategy to increase revenue at an annual rate of 40%. The company reached the break-even point after one year and made a sizable profit in 2019. I am so pleased with the top-notch business education I received at Tippie.” 

 “Of course, my business has been heavily impacted by COVID-19. We can’t operate as usual, and I have been staying at home every day. Fortunately, I am able to further appreciate little things in my life. For example, I feel more connected to my alma mater through WeChat. Right after the city lockdown started, I saw the annual Chinese New Year greeting message from International Programs, which was such an uplifting moment during that depressing time. I immediately shared it on my personal WeChat account. As the situation evolves in China and globally, I have been receiving updates from the university on WeChat. I am glad to learn the university is devoted to providing resources and support to students with ties to China, and there are no cases in Iowa. A few days ago, Professor Ken Brown sent a personal message to a Tippie alumni WeChat group, saying he was thinking of the Tippie family in China. All of these are so heartwarming, and exactly reflect the Hawkeye values that I am proud to share.”

Can Zhang and his fiancée

Can Zhang and his fiancée

Although Zhang is still struggling with the impact of COVID-19, he has already made exciting plans for his future. He recently became engaged to his girlfriend, a graduate of the University of British Columbia in Canada, with whom he has a lot in common due to similar Western college backgrounds. He looks forward to getting married and expanding their family together. Zhang also wants to deepen his relationships with other Hawkeyes in Wuhan, especially two American couples he initially met at an English learning club in Iowa City. “It was amazing to learn that they moved to Wuhan. I was one of many Chinese students that they helped at the English club, and I hope to return the favor while they continue to adapt to having a life in my hometown.”