Representing the ‘real’ China: Oxford grads on starting their own social enterprise

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Danny Parrott and Richard Lloyd are two Oxford graduates who first met on their Chinese Studies course at the university. In 2011, they established a social enterprise called Gotoco with their Chinese partner, Lisha Tang, which allows university students from various parts of the world to travel to travel to China on summer teaching and cultural exchange programmes.

I took part in one of their programmes last summer, at a school on the Vietnamese border. The programme was a form of edutourism, wherein participants had the opportunity not only to see the fantastic sights that China has to offer, but also to immerse themselves in its culture, get great work experience, and engage in meaningful people-to-people exchange with local people, breaking down prejudices and national barriers.

Danny and Richard have lived and worked together on the Gotoco projects since their Oxford days, meeting Lisha on their year abroad in Beijing in 2012. When they aren’t over in the UK and North America meeting applicants, they are travelling all over China meeting and managing host partnerships.

 

From left to right: Danny Parrott, Lisha Tang, and Richard Lloyd

 

Tell us about yourselves.

Danny: I studied Chinese with Richard at Oxford between 2011 and 2015. Prior to that, I did two gap years. I was keen to spend as much time as possible overseas before going to university. To maximise time overseas, I chose to get jobs abroad instead of saving up money in the UK to then go travelling.

I spent a lot of time teaching English – with one year in Madrid, and the rest of the time in China doing homestays and France, working in backpacker hostels. In the summer of my first year, a day after my last exam, I flew out to Beijing to teach again on the Tsinghua University summer camp, an English teaching programme.

This was a wonderful camp and operated in a very similar manner to Gotoco programmes. After Oxford, I won a scholarship to do a part-time fully-funded MBA at Tsinghua, whilst also running Gotoco part-time, and gradually building up the project from there.

Richard: I did a gap year as well before university. I worked in a seafood restaurant in Paris for five months, saved up some euros and then went out to Uganda for six or seven months of volunteering in education. Then I came to Oxford to read Chinese and Tibetan and met Danny there.

At the end of the degree I also went to Beijing because I didn’t really want to get sucked into a city-job – I found it a bit of a brain drain and saw that seeking a job overseas would give me the chance to do really interesting things while still earning and learning new skills in the process.

In my first two years or so after Oxford, I worked in a policy advisory in Beijing and eventually became a manager there, I learnt a lot about Chinese government and society and had time to push Gotoco from a small student club into the large social enterprise that it has become. Now, thanks to the scale we have built up over the years, we can both work on Gotoco full time.

 

I didn’t really want to get sucked into a city-job – I found it a bit of a brain drain and saw that seeking a job overseas would give me the chance to do really interesting things

 

What is Gotoco?

Richard: Gotoco runs a cultural exchange education programme, which provides opportunities for students from UK, Europe and North America to go to China in their summer holidays, teach English, lead activities in summer camps, and immerse themselves in Chinese culture.

It’s partly about work experience, you spend most of the weekdays teaching or leading activities, but for us it is also important that it be about travelling, gaining knowledge about the local area you are in, engaging in cultural exchange activities and learning Mandarin.

I always recommend travellers to do these sorts of programme: its better to get to a know a small part of a big country really well than to just go on a whistle-stop tour of tourist sites. On our programme, participants can make lasting friends and impressions instead, and work towards the TEFL certificate, which can be used all around the world to get jobs in language schools or earn money teaching online. Tourism shouldn’t just be about ticking boxes on a bucket-list, but rather going to experience a place and getting under the skin of it.

Danny:

We run a couple of other programmes too, including one providing opportunities for Chinese school-children to come to the UK. Rather than just being thrown into a language school in England with other Chinese children, our programme is focussed more on real cultural exchange, mixing Chinese kids with British kids 50-50 and having them do activities together on an ecology focussed off-grid camp.

We are also planning to establish a backpacker hostel down the line, and right now help some of the leading hostels around Europe to market and cater better to the growing segment of Chinese independent travellers. We are passionate about cultural exchange, travel and education so hope to keep working together in these spaces in the future.

 

What made you want to start the company?

Richard: One of the main reasons we started Gotoco is because people don’t really have many opportunities to learn about China themselves when they’re not travelling there. There’s a lot of information now about China, but mainly focussed on politics and economics. When we were at university, many of the articles that did actually discuss Chinese culture or society would have a random negative paragraph at the end about politics. The comments aren’t necessarily untrue, but they are unnecessary, causing people to have misconceptions about what China’s actually like for Chinese people. We encourage people to travel to China to learn about it for themselves and challenge some of the pre-conceived prejudices that they might have.

Danny: When I was doing my gap year I was super keen to go all over the world exploring, I had done lots of research and luckily for me my school used to host the biggest gap year fair in the UK, so I was familiar with the many types of programmes. I looked into tens and tens of organisations and was excited that there were so many things to do, but it annoyed me that you had to pay significant sums to take part in any of the programmes.

When I was travelling in China for the first time, I was couch-surfing a lot, just meeting people who would be happy to host me for a period of time and I didn’t have to go through an agency and pay fees to do so, sparking the idea for Gotoco. It’s nice to give people a chance to explore another country with a professional organisation supporting it, but being able to make that experience funded and free.

 

Tourism shouldn’t just be about ticking boxes on a bucket-list, but rather going to experience a place and getting under the skin of it.

 

What kinds of projects does Gotoco offer?

Richard: There’s quite a big variety but generally they split into three project types: those hosted by language schools, international schools or ‘North American style’ summer camps – ‘Camp America’ but in China. On the classic classroom English teaching placements, you’re teaching indoors and doing TEFL training based on a set curriculum.

The first two types involve classroom-based learning with a range of outoor activities and excursions thrown in, the third type is more experiential learning. This is quite new in China – only in the last five years or so have people started running these camps, and parents have started to understand the value of the skills, especially soft skills, you can learn through taking part in them. You often learn more English this way than in a classroom.

Danny: Yeah, Camp America style programmes are becoming very popular in China now. This coming year, probably about half of our programmes will be oriented towards Camp America style camps, and the others will be more traditional. All of these programmes are great though, they are all residential camps, so in all cases you take kids out of their context and they can reassert, redefine, reinvent their way of doing things and have an amazing educational experience.

 

How did you actually set up Gotoco? What kind of challenges did you face? 

Danny: It was a steady process. I had a contact from my gap year who I was keen to return to teach with. I talked with him in the summer of 2010 and noticed they had a serious shortage of English teachers. In 2012, the summer of my first Oxford year, I brought friends and friends of friends out to China (around 10 people) and it went really well.

I realised people were excited to do this kind of project, so the next year myself and some friends worked with the Chinese host I had met out there. I opened it up to 30 placements following year, with that rising to 70 by 2014. The aim has been to double every year. Last year was around 350 and next year we aim to have enough places for 600 people from all over the world to take part.

Finding hosts who are very keen to support the cultural exchange aspect of our programme is probably the main work we’re doing in our Beijing office – checking out schools, going to conferences, endlessly travelling all over China meeting people.

Richard: It can be a challenge finding people who agree to uphold our requirements as we want all our participants to have fun, engaging experiences in China. Lots of people need English teachers, but if they are too focussed on rote-learning or other traditional education camps then we’re not so keen on that. Likewise, if they’re not committed to the idea of showing people around and running a cultural exchange programme for the Gotoco-ers then we don’t work together.

However, lots of schools and education organisations are extremely excited by and committed to cultural exchange and are more than happy to meet our requirements to give both the Chinese students and Gotoco-ers a meaningful learning experience. One problem we do face is in finding someone at a particular school who speaks good enough English to make the projects work logistically, but we usually find ways to support schools in this. People are usually very welcoming and keen to make sure Gotoco-ers have a great experience in China.

 

What are you focussing on improving this year? 

Danny: One of our big priorities this year and every year is to improve our cultural exchange offerings: more Chinese lessons, more visits, a longer holiday in Yangshuo (our summer base in the mountains, a stunning backpacker town, not far from Vietnam) with tour guides to take people around.

Our focus is not necessarily to grow this year, but that everyone is learning as much as they can about China so that each participant has a very meaningful trip. Our visits to Yangshuo only started two years ago, as we found people were just flying out for a programme and going home again. We wanted to encourage people to think about having a period of their time in China to do some travelling around.

We also want to add modules onto the programmes. We’ve been talking about  adding to our TEFL training, by also giving everyone pre-prepared lesson plans that can mean they can focus on, for example, ecological education – teaching English, but getting kids to start thinking about other interesting things.

 

Tell us more about Yangshuo.

Danny: Most of our programmes started in Yangshuo.  As we’ve expanded, we’ve tried to keep it so that people come back there at the end of their programmes just because it’s an incredibly beautiful place. People do a month in Beijing and think China is just cities, and they come there and it’s very healthy to see another side of it.

Richard: It’s also a great place to travel onwards from. There are great rail links across south China, and you can even get the bus to Vietnam, and the train to Hong Kong from there.

 

People do a month in Beijing and think China is just cities, and they come there [Yangshuo] and it’s very healthy to see another side of it.

 

Do you have any plans to expand the company to include destinations other than  China?

Danny: That’s a big question. We’re still looking into it and surveying all of our applicants to find out where they would most like to go. We’re very keen to get something set up in Cuba, Vietnam or Russia because both places are both quite misunderstood in Western imaginations. We’re not yet launching that as it’s incredibly politically and bureaucratically complicated in Cuba but we may launch soon in Russia and Vietnam. Hopefully within a few months we’ll be closer to choosing a second destination, but one of the major reasons that we haven’t yet is because the projects in China are particularly rewarding, given that the place is so misunderstood and is so diverse to explore.

 

We’re very keen to get something set up in Cuba, Vietnam or Russia because both places are both quite misunderstood in Western imaginations.

 

Have you got any advice for students who want to set up their own social enterprises, particularly overseas?

Richard: One initial thing is always just to go for it, if you want to do something big then start small now. A lot of people worry and think they have to work in something like consultancy for a few years to build up the skills needed to start something, but 9 out of 10 of those people don’t actually end up starting anything as they get used to the lifestyle they have and the income that a job in London can offer.

People don’t realise how much time you have  ahead of you after leaving university – if you have an idea of something you want to do, it’s better to start it early. If you’ve been somewhere like Oxford, it’s not going to hurt your chances that much to go and do something interesting and gain life experience. It’s not as difficult as you’re led to believe; it’s much more about having the right mentality and throwing yourself into something.

Danny: I’d agree. For example, with Gotoco, it only began because I started it as a very small hobby. Things start small – so start small, and start now. Over time it avalanches and gets bigger and bigger, and eventually you have something that is a founded social enterprise.

Practically, to get Gotoco started my plan was to go out to China to teach English, because I knew if I did that I’d be getting a salary and lots of time to think and grow my own things. I’d be immediately removing the financial pressures that people feel when they graduate from university in the UK.

 

People don’t realise how much time you have  ahead of you after leaving university – if you have an idea of something you want to do, it’s better to start it early.

 

Richard: Working on something other than just your main project also gives you different perspectives, which are vital in developing your ideas. The policy research I was doing is another option – it doesn’t have to be teaching – there are lots of great jobs available out in Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu, or around the world.

Whilst I say dive into it, it doesn’t necessarily mean putting your whole life into it straight away; things are always slow to start and it can be demoralising. It is good to keep different fires burning. Before you leave Oxford, also take advantage of the many travel grants on offer to go and try new things in your summers.

I benefitted from travel grants from my college, Pembroke, for most of my summers at university, and this allowed me to travel to China, re-visit Uganda and meet lots of interesting people around the world.

Danny: In terms of students at Oxford – if you don’t have an idea for what social enterprise you want to do, just expose yourself to varied experiences. Oxford has an incredible array of extra-curricular things to do. You can pick up ideas from this; don’t just focus on your degree.

The Careers Service in particular is excellent. They have incredible opportunities all over, they have a particularly strong focus on international internships so do get involved with those. When I graduated, thanks to the Careers Service’s Internship Scheme I was choosing between an internship in climate change consultancy in Delhi, and an internship working in an incubator for young entrepreneurs in Peru.

Try to get broad exposure and do varied things, and have the right attitude, and you’ll find something.

Applications are now open to join Gotoco’s summer projects – visit www.go-to.co for more.