An open mind

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Shawn Zhao has changed the way one of the world’s biggest multinationals runs its legal department in China. He shares his strategies and philosophies with John Church

When he joined Hewlett-Packard as general counsel for Greater China in mid-2010, Shawn Zhao bought with him an impressive pedigree including four years as managing counsel Greater China for Google and six years at Cisco as corporate counsel supporting its Hong Kong and mainland China lines of business.

Shawn_Zhao_Profile_MainBut despite appearances, the focus on big business high-tech communications wasn’t entirely by design. “I didn’t design this comms path, it just happened that way. It’s all about timing and opportunity,” he says.

Born and raised in Chengdu, Zhao finished his undergraduate degree at Sichuan University, and then worked at the university for a couple of years to repay the government for paying for his tuition. Then in 1988 he went to the US to study, where we discover that accidental analogy he uses extends right to the core of his career in law, the decision for which he says came down to a chat with a stranger.

“I went to the US first to get a Masters degree in American history,” he recalls. “I remember meeting an old second-generation Chinese American … I was looking at used cars and he was giving me some tips, and we became quite acquainted, and he said ‘I think you should do law. History is about stories, but law is also about stories of cases’. I thought I’d give it a shot, and got into St Louis University Law School.”

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