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A Chat with FLAS Alumnus Michael Kerper

January 13, 2020

Michael Kerper received a FLAS fellowship for the 2018–19 academic year. After graduating in June, Michael took a position at Starbucks Corporation as part of their international business development team. We recently caught up with Michael to discuss what he’s been up to, how FLAS impacted his career prospects, and his future plans.

Thanks for the opportunity to chat, Michael.

Not at all. Thanks for having me.

Could you tell us about your experience learning Mandarin as an East Asia Center FLAS fellow?

I was a FLAS fellow during the 2018–2019 academic year, studying 400-level Chinese with Professor Chan Lü. At the time I was in my second and final year of the full-time MBA program at the Foster School of Business. I have taken many Mandarin classes since I first started learning Chinese as an undergraduate ten years ago. The instruction at UW was by far the best that I ever experienced across a number of U.S. and Asian universities.

Tell us a little more about your current position at Starbucks Corporation.

After graduating from UW in June 2019, I joined the Starbucks finance organization on the international business development team, helping to deliver on the company’s strategy abroad. Overseas, Starbucks decides whether to operate in each country or to partner with a local retail operator in a joint venture or licensing agreement. My team helps to make sure that we are operating in the right countries and that we have the right strategy for ownership structure. We are also the lead program managers whenever we have a large transformational project overseas, such as an acquisition, divestiture, or change in ownership structure.

Can you elaborate on what sort of business you conduct within your area of study (China) at Starbucks?

My first opportunity to work with China was to assist in the program management of our East China integration. Previously, Starbucks had a joint venture in place to operate stores in Shanghai, Zhejiang, and Jiangsu provinces, but decided in 2017 to buy back the equity from our partner company and directly operate all Starbucks stores in the country. Although you might think that all Starbucks stores are the same, it was actually a nearly two-year project to change the operations and IT structure of these stores so that they ran the same as the stores elsewhere in China. This included everything from changing the software that manages our inventory, the cash registers, updating employee policies, and even building a new data center.

How do the skills learned during your FLAS fellowship translate to this role?

In my job, I’m often asked to analyze our company situation across several different countries and propose solutions that can be applied worldwide. My team is always striving to find the right balance between proposing solutions that provide both global consistency and local flexibility. To do this, I lean a lot upon the different research skills that I exercised as a FLAS fellow. In both the area studies classes and language classes that I took at UW, my classmates and I were routinely challenged to analyze what driving factors in Chinese society were unique to China, and which were universal. At Starbucks, I find myself asking similar questions on a weekly basis as we analyze the business across different regions of the world.

Did FLAS provide experiences during your time as a student that you would otherwise not have had?

FLAS was actually a really great way to enhance my business education in ways that I didn’t really expect. I never thought I would get the chance to use data analysis skills that I learned in the MBA program to analyze the effectiveness of environmental litigation cases in a Chinese law class. Likewise, I spent a lot of time in business school learning how to present a start-up pitch deck for investors, but never imagined I would get the chance to deliver a 10-minute pitch deck for a start-up idea in Mandarin.

Have those experiences translated to your professional career? How so?

I’ve gotten the chance to present to some pretty large and senior audiences at Starbucks, which can be a little intimidating. But whenever I start to get nervous before presenting, I just remind myself that at least I don’t have to do it in Mandarin and that usually takes care of the nerves!

What’s next for you, and do you see your language study providing continued benefit in the future?

One of my goals at Starbucks is to take an assignment working at either our Shanghai or Hong Kong offices. The company is growing incredibly fast across Asia, and I would love to put my language skills to the test directly in a business environment.

Hopefully that will come to pass! Thanks for the updates, Michael.

Of course!