Humble Roots: PDI’s Back Story, Part 1
By John D’Angola / 18 January 2019
Ten years ago I sat in my classroom-turned-bedroom inside an ESL buxiban in northern Beijing and plotted out my future.
It was that pivotal summer of junior year, where ambitious undergraduate students intern in the industry where they hope to begin their career. Most of my friends back at Georgetown were in New York building ties to Wall Street. I found myself down the street from the Great Wall, next door to a shop that sold donkey meat sandwiches. My mouth waters just thinking about those delicious donkey sandwiches. Yum.
Like so many laowai before me, I dreamt of ways I could leverage my talents and energy to establish a career bridging East and West. If I could get a solid handle on Mandarin, make some friends, identify an opportunity and then commit myself to it completely, then I would have a purposeful and rewarding path to follow. That was my thought process as I prepared my proposal for the U.S. Fulbright fellowship program.
I returned to Georgetown for my senior year as a finance major at the depth of the financial crisis. With no banking internship and no friends on Wall Street, and little hope I would get the Fulbright, I doubled down on Chinese. I must have filled a ream of A4 paper with densely packed and poorly written Chinese characters every week, figuring basic fluency in Mandarin would at least demonstrate to future interviewers that I was dedicated enough to learn something complicated. Lo and behold on April 30th (my birthday!), just a few weeks before graduation, I received a letter from the State Department stating I was selected as a 2011 Fulbright Research Scholar. Best birthday present ever.
After one final summer working the beach patrol in my home state of New Jersey, I set off for what was supposed to be just one year in Taipei to study renewable energy government policy. My research was an extremely eye-opening and fantastic experience; to everyone who pays taxes in the United States, thank you! But ultimately I declined a future in renewables in favor of something more capitalist, global trade.
I envisioned a day where the Chinese economy would mature to the point where its leaders felt comfortable opening up, reducing import tariffs and non-tariff trade barriers, and allowing exporters from around the world access to their consumer market. I did not know if it would take two years or twenty, I just wanted to be there when it happened. I couldn’t help but think of the words of Wayne Gretsky when asked about his success. “I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.”
So I picked a product with which I thought I could compete in the region, baseball caps, and managed to arrange a meeting with the world’s best manufacturer – Yupoong. In June 2012 we had our first meeting in Seoul, where I pitched them on my plan to deliver them the Greater China market, beginning with Taiwan, then Hong Kong and eventually Mainland China. They agreed to give me a couple sample caps and a few catalogs, and back I went to Taipei.
After six months of passing my business card to anyone who would take it, I landed my first account. Three months later I delivered my first order. One thousand one hundred and fifty-two hats. Before long I acquired a second account, then a third. Inertia was overcome, momentum was building. It was now time to incorporate. And so in June 2013, exactly one year after my meeting in Seoul, Premium Direct Imports was born.