UPS CEO David Abney posted this photo to his LinkedIn profile after speaking on expanding access to the Chinese market at Alibaba's Gateway 17 conference.

When David Abney was in high school, he took two years of Latin. Now, the United Parcel Service Inc. CEO and chairman is advising all six of his grandchildren to study Mandarin Chinese. 

“There is so much that is going to happen in the next 50 years in China and between China and the U.S., I just believe that’s the language of choice at this particular time.” 

During a freewheeling video interview conducted by Georgia State University President Mark Becker, Mr. Abney strongly emphasized the need for American students to gain cross-cultural experience, whether that takes them across the world or just outside their comfort zones. 

Mr. Abney, who started with UPS loading trucks part-time, recalled moving from his native Mississippi to a new role in New Jersey — all part of a plan by his superiors to see how he dealt with new situations. 

“For the first few weeks you might as well have had me in some part of Asia it was so different for me,” Mr. Abney said in the interview, which is part of a series of high-level chats between 10 prominent leaders of business and government and leaders of universities that host Confucius Institutes.  The series is being broadcast on television this month by the Confucius Institute U.S. Center, as well as on its YouTube page

Georgia State is one of at least four Georgia universities hosting Confucius Institutes, Chinese-government funded centers that promote the study of Chinese language and culture. Dr. Becker was integral to attracting it. 

Watch the full interview below: 

In a hyperconnected, fast-paced world, there’s little room for students who rest on their laurels, both Dr. Becker and Mr. Abney said. Instead of focusing on ingesting information, educators must now teach students how to learn, encouraging curiosity while giving them the “soft skills” they need to succeed in personal interactions. 

Certainly, there’s no sign of America’s main competitor on the global stage slowing down, said Mr. Abney. A recent focus group he held with Chinese millennials revealed among them a newly confident, increasingly entrepreneurial mindset. 

“Their polite message was, ‘This next 50 years — this is going to be our generation,’” Mr. Abney said. 

For UPS, that means opportunity, given the emergence of a massive middle class and the breakneck pace with which China has adopted e-commerce, especially led by mobile devices. 

Gone is the tentative Chinese economy that relies on making things for foreign companies. Young people no longer just want to work for Western multinationals; they want to follow in the footsteps of Chinese entrepreneurs like Jack Ma, founder of e-commerce giant Alibaba, Mr. Abney said. 

“Now their goal is to run things throughout the world, and they feel like they can do that,” Mr. Abney said. 

Mr. Becker pointed out that before he first went to China, his daughter told him that “one in a million” in China means that “there are a thousand other people like you.” That means more innovators like Mr. Ma are already on the horizon. Indeed, Chinese tech companies like Tencent, Xiaomi, Lenovo, Huawei, Ovo and others are already taking on the world, and the country is aiming to lead the way in areas like connected manufacturing, robotics and artificial intelligence. 

For UPS, succeeding in this environment means realizing the “status quo is your enemy” and that adaptation is key. 

“Eliminate the phrase, if it’ll work in New York, it’ll work in Beijing. There is just nothing that ties that together at all,” he said. 

UPS learned some cultural lessons the hard way around the world, Mr. Abney admitted, and in China, it has been a long road. The company entered the country in 1988 through a joint venture with Sino Trans which it later bought out. As China opened slowly to outside “integrators” — logistics and delivery firms — UPS was waiting to gain a piece of the market.

Becoming the logistics sponsor of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing helped build momentum; now UPS operates two massive hubs in Shanghai and Shenzhen for China and Asia, respectively, along with a network of warehousing facilities. 

A joint venture with SF Express, a large Chinese delivery firm, helps UPS deepen its penetration in the country. 

“We tie in their expertise with our global network, and it’s going to make us even stronger, so we’re absolutely excited about China,” Mr. Abney said. 

He noted that UPS develops Chinese leaders in part by bringing them to the U.S. to learn about the corporate culture, then sending them back to thrive as leaders in their home environment. That sort of exchange happens all throughout the UPS system.

During a discussion that touched on the need for a multicultural workforce and the importance of foreign language abilities, Dr. Becker and Mr. Abney drilled home the value of overseas travel in shaking students from the view that the American way is the only way. 

“The simple act of getting a passport is life-changing,” Dr. Becker said. 

Read more: With Alibaba, UPS Deepening American Sellers’ Reach Into China

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As managing editor of Global Atlanta, Trevor has spent 15+ years reporting on Atlanta’s ties with the world. An avid traveler, he has undertaken trips to 30+ countries to uncover stories on the perils...