When meeting Dieter at The Beer Nest, at first I didn’t recognise him. The person that sat before me was calm and businesslike – pretty different from the energetic life of the party the Chengdu expat community has grown to know and love over the years. It wasn’t until we sat down and he offered me the choice between speciality beer from Belgium or a craft beer from Chengdu that I saw the familiar sparkle in his eyes.
Dieter, from Belgium, came to Chengdu over 6 years ago after living in South America. He gained a Masters degree in Sinology then rapidly became involved in many projects in Chengdu; he served as a board member of the European Chamber of Commerce for several years, he is the developmental manager of More Magazine, opened a craft beer bar and restaurant (Beer Nest I & Beer Nest II), and is now working on his latest project: Chengdu-Expat, a new platform for the international community in Chengdu.
… The remarkable thing about Dieter, isn’t just the extreme energy he throws at everything and broad range of things he becomes involved in – it’s the way he nurtures the community in Chengdu. He holds a number of monthly professional networking mixers and events to encourage local entrepreneurship like his monthly Entrepreneur Meet Ups and annual Start-Up Weekends – hoping to build a new generation of ‘do-ers’ and innovative thinkers.
Dieter has definitely become synonymous with entrepreneurship in Chengdu – a model of how an expat can make a business work in China. Many put this down to the fact he is a workaholic or as his friends put it an “Energiser bunny”. He has the rare skill of being able to multitask on a number of different projects in one day, managing a bar, a magazine, several websites and social media platforms.
Dieter traces this entrepreneurial streak back to his childhood in Belgium with his twin brother: “Once when we were little, we made two sand castles at our grandfather’s house that you could slide down. Other kids came to play and we charged them for it”. Later, in 2009 whilst studying Chinese language at Sichuan University, in between classes he would bake and sell Belgian waffles – which is why his WeChat ID now reads waffleman, a homage to one of his earliest venture in Chengdu.
This Belgian born entrepreneur also attributes a lot of his current drive, communication, and creative abilities to his experience in the Belgian boy scouts. However it wasn’t until spending an exchange year in Ecuador, did he develop a great interest in languages and cultures – moving away from what until then (strangely!) had been a lifelong ambition to be a dentist. Dieter’s desire to become a translator focused on languages like Spanish and English, soon changed to focus on Sinology, the study of China in its totality as China began in his eyes to emerge as “the new super power”.
It is clear why Dieter wanted to focus on China, but many people ask him why of all places Chengdu? For him, it was a number of reasons. Firstly after coming across it whilst hitchhiking across China one summer he was struck with the beautiful environment and friendly people. Another reason for this smart move, was that the city was taking the lead in China’s ‘Develop the West’ campaign and “Chengdu was becoming the spearhead of development in inner-China” Dieter explained.
He went on further to explain that Chengdu has put a lot of effort into attracting and then keeping foreigners. With all the government policies geared towards promoting entrepreneurship it wasn’t going to be long until someone like Dieter came and took advantage of it. It was when Deiter was amidst a two year stint as board member of the EU Chamber of Commerce he found out that when interacting with the Chengdu government, they had enormous plans for accelerating the development of the local economy and dealing with international entities. This really excited Dieter from a business standpoint.
It must be mentioned that despite the business foresight, Dieter’s greatest strength is the fact he’s down-to-earth, reachable, and straightforward. He places a lot of importance on understanding the lifestyle of the people of Chengdu, actively trying out anything new. “A lot of people say I understand more about Chinese culture than most Chinese people. One funny example happened when I started using WeChat before most of my Chinese friends and even recommended it to them. They were all shocked that a foreigner caught on to WeChat before most Chinese people even did.” Because of this, he even conducts Cultural Awareness Courses for MBA students coming from America. “The students all wear suits and I just wear shorts. I help them understand the real culture and social norms here. It’s a really great experience.”
In recent years, several foreigners have followed Dieter’s example and started their own businesses in Chengdu, despite the associated hardships. This young Belgian however acknowledges that that you can’t do this by yourself, and so must spend lots of time to find suitable new projects, new business partners, new staff, and helping other people connect. Both The Beer Nest and Chengdu-Expat hold monthly business networking events, inviting Chinese and foreign guests from a variety of different industries to meet, share experiences and co-operate.
When leaving The Beer Nest on the day of the interview, despite Dieter’s unusually calm façade, it became very clear to me that he isn’t just an entrepreneur that works tirelessly on his own projects with an incredible energy. What I hadn’t accounted for was how hard he works to build communities in Chengdu and develop links between emerging entrepreneurs, helping them to access information and connect with partners. Dieter’s motto is: Dream, Hope, Live, Inspire. How fitting.Tags: beer nest Chengdu Dieter Vanonckelen entrepreneur. Entrepreneurship