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Ex-US President's 'Grand Nephew' talks of his MBA experience at CEIBS

Here in China (the fact that I am a Nixon) is definitely, at all times, at the back of people’s minds...

By  Roy Chason

Mon Mar 12 2012

“One of the things I will come out of CEIBS with, hopefully – my fingers are crossed right now – is the ability to balance my time efficiently,” says MBA 2008 Class President Devon Nixon. In late November, towards the end of his first semester, he was still trying to master that art. On his very full plate: the MBA course-work; leading the school’s 10-member Student Committee (SC); studying two levels of Mandarin classes simultaneously; and running his second start-up company, via Skype and emails, with his partners in Chile. For Nixon, a typical day begins at 7:20am and ends at 2:30 the next morning. But he is enjoying every minute of it.

At 26 years old, Nixon has already gotten his feet wet in the business world. In 2004, directly after receiving a Finance degree at Emory University, he set up his first company. In keeping with his goal of ensuring that all his business ventures have a positive health or environmental impact, his company focused on using technology to improve air quality for the poultry industry. After a year though, faced with “technical difficulties”, he went to work at America’s leading healthcare company. At United Health Group, he spent three years as a Project Manager overseeing marketing, product development, and competitive intelligence. But by 2006, he was bitten by the entrepreneurial bug again and used expertise from his first company to launch a new venture in Chile.

Two years later, why CEIBS? Explains Nixon: “I know how to start up a business; now I wish to learn how to grow a successful business.” He was also eager to learn about Chinese business culture, and to master Mandarin. “I figured that pulling these things together in China would give me a holistic package, and I would come out a much stronger businessman than if I had just stayed home, where I was comfortable,” he added. Nixon has a history of pushing himself outside his comfort zone. During a six-month study abroad programme at Chile’s Adolfo Ibanez University in 2003, he studied two graduate level courses and two undergraduate classes, all in Spanish – which forced him to become fluent in the language. At CEIBS, he spends six hours a week learning Chinese, tackling two semesters of language classes at once.

The drive to succeed is also visible in his role as SC President. “I made certain commitments to the student body when they elected me president. I want to make sure I don’t leave my position without fulfilling as much as humanly possible,” he says, explaining that the student committee for MBA 2008 is undertaking a raft of initiatives. After one semester at CEIBS, the level of commitment displayed by CEIBS executives and faculty has impressed Nixon. “They’re not just here for a paycheck, they’re here to really make a difference in students’ lives, in the campus community – and it’s a warm feeling,” he says, “People here have a passion for what they do. That’s something I’m very proud of at CEIBS.”


MBA Class President Devon Nixon's granduncle, US President Richard Nixon, played a key role in strengthening US China relations in 1972. Devon hopes to continue in that effort in the future, saying "Especially in the future...I hope that I can be of assistance in fostering understanding between the two nations"

Nixon’s short time in China is already giving him a clearer understanding of how much his great uncle is revered in this country. Richard Nixon’s February 21, 1972 visit was the first trip by a US president to the new China, and was the culmination of a long and difficult journey toward rapprochement. China’s fond-ness for the Nixon family has lasted through the 37 years since. Although Devon was not received with parades (as his father Donald Nixon was during his trip to China 25 years ago), the younger Nixon has definitely been warmly welcomed. In fact, Devon plans to use the skills he is learning at CEIBS to help foster Sino-US relations. “Especially in the future, as I get more into business on an international scale, I hope that I can be of assistance in fostering understanding between the two nations,” he says. “My great uncle started that out on a very large scale with ‘ping pong diplomacy.’ In whatever way possible, I definitely wish to help the two superpowers of the future strengthen relations and improve the world together.”

This desire to make a difference is buttressed by Nixon’s ability to mobilize others into action, a skill that he demonstrated in September 2007 after doctors told the family that his mother Helene – who had battled cancer for 23 years – had no more than three months to live. Confronted with this shock, Nixon transformed his anger, grief and fear into mobilizing 25 friends and family members to complete a project of his mother’s: remodeling the first floor of the family home. The job, which would have normally taken six weeks, was completed in eight days – ahead of her hospital release.

The surprise cheered her greatly despite the severity of her illness. Nixon spent the next three months, until the time of her death, by her side. Although he has done so all his life, the mission of representing his family well is all the more important in China, Nixon says. “Here in China (the fact that I am a Nixon) is definitely, at all times, at the back of people’s minds; so I have to be very, very careful of opinions that are voiced or opinions that are raised. I’m very cognizant of that at all times,” he says. “I keep in the back of my mind how I present myself and represent the family and, now, also how I represent CEIBS as SC President.”

After five months in Shanghai, Nixon seems to have caught the China bug. He is determined to be fluent in Chinese because he plans to stay in China for a time after graduation. For now, he is looking forward to his second semester when, in addition to class work, he will work closely with his assigned mentor, a local businesswoman who has launched a start-up company.

In addition, Nixon is eyeing CEIBS’ network of impressive classmates as potential business partners in the future. The CEIBS MBA Class of 2008 easily represents 1,000 years of experience between them, Nixon says. Commenting on the diversity in the MBA 2008 class, which consists of about 37 percent international students, plus 60 exchange students from the globe’s top b-schools, Nixon says: “I’ve learned such an incredible amount from them, not only in understanding their various industries, but also the cultural nuances from all around the world.”

And now for the big question: Is Nixon ultimately headed for a career in politics? For now, Nixon says he is too busy being a businessman to think of entering the political arena. “I’m an entrepreneur at heart; and all the companies I wish to create should have a beneficial impact on people’s lives. That will allow me to sleep better at night,” he says. “I want to do something that, when I’m dead and gone, leaves a positive mark on everyone it has touched. First and foremost is business; as for my political ambitions: we will see.”