Cultivating Connections: Ladon Ghalili’s Impactful Leadership at AmCham China’s Northeast Chapter
By Norris Tangen
In the bustling city of Dalian, China, Ladon Ghalili has left an indelible mark during her tenure as the Chair of AmCham China’s Northeast Chapter. Over the past four years, she has navigated the Chapter through a transformative period, tackling challenges head-on. Simultaneously, Ghalili has been instrumental in fostering relationships, championing cultural exchange, and contributing significantly to the flourishing local business landscape. In an exclusive interview with the AmCham China Quarterly, the outgoing Chair reflects on her Chamber journey, the dynamic evolution of Dalian, and the profound significance of fostering meaningful connections.
Photo courtesy of AmCham China
In 1988, Ladon Ghalili embarked on a life-changing adventure, landing in Dalian, accompanied by her husband and six-week-old infant son. Reflecting on their initial plan for a brief stay, she notes, “Both my husband and I were brought up with the idea that we are one family, the whole world.” The planned short stay, however, transformed into a long-term commitment, defying the family’s pattern of adventurous travel to different countries.
Ghalili’s personal journey, from a newcomer navigating unfamiliar markets, to a key influencer in the local business landscape, mirrors the transformation she has witnessed in Dalian and China itself. She witnessed China’s rapid development, she recalls the shift the country made from burgeoning economy to a technologically advanced and globally connected powerhouse. As an entrepreneur, she overcame language barriers and deftly navigated an ever-evolving business landscape.
Ghalili shares an anecdote from her early days in Dalian, a story that illustrates both the challenges and humor when adapting to a new environment and language. “I would try to ask for frozen chicken or 冰鸡 ‘bīng jī’, but it would sound like I was asking for sick chicken or 病鸡 ‘bìng jī’.” The attempt to communicate her preference for frozen chicken in a local market took an amusing turn due to the nuances of the dialects. In Chinese, the word “bing” can mean both “sick” and “frozen” based on the pronunciation of the tones, leading to a lighthearted misunderstanding.
Fostering Community, Building Business
In 1993, Ladon and her husband Foad began their entrepreneurial journey in China with the founding of their company, Epoch International. When establishing their company, Ghalili and Foad believed the company’s culture would be the bedrock of a strong business model. The couple worked collaboratively to create an organization based on spiritual values such as compassion, generosity, and justice. Since then, Epoch has grown into an international business, most recently expanding its manufacturing operations in the US, and adding a newly established facility in India. Today Epoch stands at the forefront of technology and innovation, holding over 30 patents and manufacturing complex circuit boards for some of the world’s largest corporations. Even the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent travel restrictions did not hamper its growth. Despite the Ghalilis being caught outside of China for seven months, Epoch not only maintained its productivity, it also had one of its most successful years on record.
Ghalili attributes much of the firm’s success to the culture they built and maintained at Epoch. At the 30-year anniversary celebration of the organization, Foad expressed pride that Epoch’s employees regard themselves as an extension of the company. He noted that the next challenge on the horizon will be to create an environment where global staff see each other as one family working together to grow and improve. Indeed, even past employees still see themselves as part of the Epoch family. Amy Yao, who was with the company 27 years ago, said she felt lucky to witness the Ghalili’s vision for the company become a reality. Chico Huang, who joined the company as a translator in 1999, called his time with Epoch, “the most valuable two and half years of my life.” “The company activated a “learning mode” in my brain that he has since never turned off,” he said.
While Ghalili’s leadership at AmCham China is notable, her impact extends beyond the corporate landscape. Even before her involvement with AmCham China, she engaged with the local community, immersing herself in the intricacies of Dalian’s vibrant culture. Her dedication to building bridges was not confined to boardrooms but transcended into the everyday lives of those around her.
Ghalili actively engaged in her children’s school activities, cultivating connections with local families and forging lifelong friendships. Her commitment to understanding and appreciating diverse cultures became evident as she navigated the intricacies of the local education system. Outside of her professional responsibilities, Ghalili dedicated time to her children’s schools, particularly by providing training for English teachers and facilitating connections among community members when newcomers joined.
Later, based on her own struggles as a new expat in China, Ghalili identified a need to provide resources and information to new businesses and community members. The result was the “Welcome Wagon.” This initiative brought together local government, businesses, and chambers to provide a platform for new community members to meet and make connections, and even went as far to publish an annual booklet with information and resources in the community. Through these endeavors, Ghalili formed bonds that transcended business interests, laying the groundwork for a profound understanding of the community she now proudly calls home.
Dalian’s transformation over the years has been a focal point for Ghalili. She describes the city’s journey to becoming a thriving metropolis. Dalian’s openness to adopting technologies from around the world continues to impress her and she expresses a deep admiration and appreciation for the Chinese culture’s ability to learn rapidly and elevate innovations to new levels.
Nevertheless, recent challenges, both political and economic, have cast a shadow on the business climate in the Northeast. Ghalili candidly acknowledges the hardships faced by businesses, especially smaller enterprises, grappling with the dynamic landscape shaped by the COVID-19 pandemic and the uncertainties in the US-China bilateral relationship. She underscores the need for a period of policy stability, following the recent uncertainties in China’s businesses environment.
Central to overcoming these challenges, Ghalili emphasizes, is the significance of grassroots-level relationships. “It is all about trust. If we can build that at the grassroots level, that is the strongest foundation we can build on. I appreciate that the Chamber does not focus on politics but rather utilizes collective experience to unite and support entities in understanding each other,” she shares.
“It is all about trust. If we can build that at the grassroots level, that is the strongest foundation we can build on.”
A Legacy of Inclusivity
Ghalili’s term as Chair of the Northeast Chapter coincided with the challenges brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite the difficulties, she again underscores the importance of maintaining a focus on people-to-people relationships. The Chapter, under her leadership, organized events that celebrated diversity and empowered women in the business community. Notable among them was an event supported by various consulates, featuring international speakers, and attracting a substantial online audience.
Ghalili, the first female Chair of the Northeast Chapter, has ever been an advocate for inclusivity and equality. “In the past as women we had to conform to prove ourselves. Now, it’s time to transform, we no longer need to conform. Many of the soft skills that were traditionally considered ‘feminine’ were so often overlooked, today, they are valued,” she shares. She also sees her position as an opportunity to empower others, especially acknowledging the strength of her Vice Chair Duan Yuan A in Shenyang, who has become influential in the region.
Reflecting on the most rewarding aspects of her time as Chair, Ghalili says it was the opportunity to meet so many amazing people from the business community, the embassy and consulates, and the greater AmCham China community. In particular, she considered it a privilege to collaborate with Nancy Abella, the first female to hold the position of Consul General at the US Consulate in Shenyang. At the 30-year anniversary of the company, current Consul General, Sara Yun, also a woman, praised Epoch’s impact, “Epoch demonstrates what Americans and Chinese can and have accomplished together, they have worked not only to strengthen the economy but also to strengthen bilateral understanding between nations. Entrepreneurs and companies like Foad and Ladon have managed to build both successful business and give back to their communities along the way.”
Another point of pride for Ghalili was bringing some of her New Orleans culture to the Northeast. She shares that she was thrilled to bring the vibrant spirit of a traditional New Orleans Mardi Gras to Dalian, creating an event that celebrated diversity and brought together people from various backgrounds. Such initiatives, she believes, contribute to a more open and approachable business community.
Challenges and Opportunities Ahead
Looking ahead, Ghalili acknowledges the challenges faced by foreign investors interested in the Northeast region. She notes the complexities of the current business climate and emphasizes the importance of understanding local infrastructure needs. While recognizing the challenges, she remains optimistic about the region’s prospects and its potential to attract foreign investment.
In her concluding thoughts, Ghalili underscores the significance of trust in international relations. She believes that fostering people-to-people relationships forms the foundation for advocacy, business development, and community building. Her journey as the Chair of AmCham China’s Northeast Chapter has been marked by a commitment to bridging cultural gaps and creating an environment where businesses can thrive together.
A Lasting Impact
As Ghalili steps down from her role as Chair, the legacy of her leadership will endure. Under her guidance, the Northeast Chapter has evolved into a symbol of collaboration, resilience, and inclusivity. Ghalili’s personal journey, from a newcomer navigating unfamiliar markets, to a key influencer in the local business landscape, mirrors the transformation she has witnessed in Dalian and the broader region.
Central to Ghalili’s mission is the celebration of differences. Drawing from her own experiences, she encourages people to embrace uniqueness, viewing it not as a hindrance but as a strength. Ghalili envisions a world where diverse cultures converge, creating a spectrum of light that transcends individual colors.
The story of Ladon Ghalili and her impactful contributions to the Northeast Chapter of AmCham China goes beyond being a testament to effective leadership; it is a story of bridging cultural divides, fostering collaboration, and leaving an indelible mark on the communities she has served so well.