Interview: Kristi Heim on transitioning from leading China Council to leading a China company expansion into Washington
By Wen Liu Nov. 1, 2016
After two and a half years, we really got used to having Kristi Heim at the Washington State China Relations Council serving as the president, perhaps for a long time to come. Now we need to move on with Kristi in her new position as the Senior Director of Business Development and Communications at BGI: the Shenzhen-based world's largest genomics organization, with branches in the U.S. and Europe as well as a MOU with UW to advance precision medicine. While Kristi is still working with the Council on its transitioning to a new leader, she shares with us here about her own transition, including her decision on this move, her accomplishment at the Council, her new role at the Chinese company as well as in Seattle-Shenzhen relations that she helped to establish. Here in the interview we have been waiting for since August:
WCWD: First of all, as everyone has been dying to know, why did you decide to leave the Council after two and a half years, leaving the job you described last February in these pages as “probably the most challenging and rewarding job” you had had, and with which you set out to better promote our region in China, help members succeed in China, and encourage Chinese companies to invest in Washington state, etc.?
Kristi Heim: The years I spent leading the Council were extremely gratifying. We worked hard to build strong relationships, promote the region in China and attract great companies to invest in Washington. I wasn’t looking to leave but when the chance to help BGI in Seattle arose, I realized it was exactly the right opportunity for me and I could not pass it up. At the Council I had talked about health as an area where partnerships between the U.S. and China could benefit the whole world, and now I could help make those partnerships a reality. I have been interested in global health for many years. I decided to remain active on the Council as a board member but move to BGI and work to further the company’s global mission. BGI has a social mission to use genomics to improve human health and biodiversity, and that resonated with my own values.
WCWD: As you know, your predecessor Joe Borich served for 16 years, and Bob Kapp, the founding executive director, served 10 years, and his successor Bill Abnett served 5 years. Eden Woon, Joe Borich’s predecessor, also served two and a half years. Each of these executive directors left their own mark on the Council. What would you say is yours?
Kristi Heim: The Council has had many distinguished leaders over the years. I would like to think that I helped to define a new vision and path forward for the Council at a turning point in its history. Traditionally the Council helped U.S. companies go to China, but that was only part of the picture. As a center of innovation, Washington state could also be a leader in innovative partnerships with China. The Council could help foster new subnational relationships such as the thriving partnership we have between Seattle and Shenzhen. As a hub for China-related activity and expertise, the Council has become a community for Washington companies and organizations engaging with China and also some the best Chinese companies doing business in Washington. With strong support from our board, I doubled membership and tripled our revenues. I reached out to a more diverse membership to help the organization reflect the bilingual, bicultural talent in our region, and welcomed many young people to get involved to cultivate the next generation of China experts.
WCWD: In your different capacities over the years, from a journalist to a non-profit leader, you wrote about Chinese companies and worked with Chinese companies. Now you are working for a Chinese company, BGI. How would you describe this transition, not only from one profession to another, but also from an American organization to a Chinese one?
Kristi Heim: Yes, I’ve had many views from the outside but now I’m experiencing life on the inside of a China-based company. I think that BGI is somewhat atypical because its leadership has a very global outlook. It is headquartered in Shenzhen but has offices in the United States, Japan, Denmark and Australia and dozens of partnerships all over the world. Its culture is open and collaborative. I do need to use Mandarin much more for daily communication, so I am glad that my years of studying the language can be put to good use. On top of that is a new layer of Chinese vocabulary related to biotechnology, so most weekends include study and my tables are stacked with literature about subjects like the history of genomics, the microbiome, gene editing technologies, and biographies of influential people like Dr. Lee Hood. As you might imagine, my WeChat use has skyrocketed.
WCWD: You said a number of times that developing relations with China should no longer be about making friends as in early years or making money as in later years, but about making a difference. As the new Senior Director for Business Development and Communications at BGI, you will surely make a difference. But would it be the same difference or a different one?
Kristi Heim: Yes, such goals are more important than ever and helped the U.S. and China reach agreement on climate change, for example. I really believe that to be sustainable, encourage innovation and motivate employees, every company or organization should include making a positive difference in its culture and mission. The job of leading a non-profit organization engaged in international affairs may be different than developing business partnerships for a private company, but my motivation is similar. I think it’s an incredible privilege to have a job doing something I love and working with people who strive to have a positive impact on the world.
WCWD: BGI is a company based in Shenzhen, with which Seattle signed a MOU on Friendly Exchange and Cooperation in June, 2015, and where Mayor Murray along with a Seattle business delegation visited last spring, a visit you and the Council were a big part of. How would you see yourself in your new role in that exchange and cooperation between our two cities in the future?
Kristi Heim: I think uniting the best capabilities of Seattle and Shenzhen, in science, for example, can help further the goals of the two cities and give meaning to the agreements they have signed to encourage cooperation. I see myself supporting partnerships such as the agreement between BGI and the University of Washington to collaborate on developing precision medicine, and building new partnerships with other leading institutions. Seattle is a place with cutting-edge medical research. Shenzhen produces advanced but cost-effective technology that can lower the cost of new medical solutions and bring them to more people. It’s a great match.
(For more information about the Washington State China Relations Council, go to WA China Nonprofits. For more information on major events in Washington state-China relations, go to WA China Chronicle.)