Prosper Spotlight: Doug Smith

Doug Smith is director economic development and community affairs for Oakland County. He worked directly with Oakland Schools to help put in place County Executive L. Brooks Patterson’s program to teach Mandarin language and culture in 23 of the county’s 28 public school districts. Smith recently returned from a two week trip to China, visiting Beijing, Chongqing and Shanghai where he was seeking funding for the Chinese language program. He discussed his trip with Prosper.

Question: What was the purpose of your trip to China?
Answer: We went to elementary and secondary schools and universities to continue to foster the teacher exchange that began in 2007. We visited several schools and universities to expand the student-teacher exchange.

Q: How do the Chinese schools compare to those in the United States?
A: The classes are better behaved and they’re larger too. There were 45-50 students in high school classes. The Chinese teachers focus on skills that are more computational than what we do here. There is less emphasis on creativity and innovation that you find here. English is a required language there. We couldn’t walk down the hall without a student trying to engage us in conversation.

Q: Chongqing is heart of the Chinese auto world. One of Oakland County’s business development representatives is in China right now and you’ve just returned. Does Oakland County realistically stand any chance of getting any Chinese investment here?
A: Yes. We are looking for Chinese investors in the U.S. auto markets, getting their auto suppliers to invest here. It is those partnerships that become so critical to us. We’re looking to identify medium-sized companies — 50-150 employees — who are interested in creating partnerships in Oakland County and Michigan. These can take a while but we’re hoping for a payoff within 18 months to two years.

Q: What is the perception among Chinese businesses about the Big Three struggles?
A: They all know Detroit is the heat of automotive research and development. They view things in the long term. They are not so absorbed with the immediate crisis. They believe metropolitan Detroit is the lynchpin of the U.S. economy. It has been and will be. They believe things will get better. They have more confidence about this than we do. That’s kind of sad.