In Shanghaiist’s Philanthropist feature, we highlight individuals and groups doing interesting things to make the world a little bit of a better place. This week we talk to the president of BEAN, a professional organization which combines networking and community service
Let’s face it: most of us expats encounter at least some combination of social or professional isolation during our tenure here, despite the millions of people and plethora of activities swarming around us at all times. It’s a real paradox—and thankfully someone named Aimee Haynes thought up a solution for it back in September 2008.
BEAN—which originally stood for “Business and Engineers Altriusm Network” —was first launched in Seattle in 2005. Haynes had been a member of the original BEAN chapter, and when she arrived in Shanghai, she felt something was missing, that a void needed to be filled. She wanted an arena for professionals to network and socialize, without the sleaze factor–and with an opportunity to give back.
Cause: Providing Shanghai-area professionals an arena to give back while networking and socializing.
Helped: Thousands of children, animals and Shanghai citizens.
Judging by the number of young professionals who have joined in the past fourteen months—BEAN is now Shanghai’s top networking and social group—it seems that there was indeed a void. BEAN’s “runaway success,” as described by its current president, Sheila Seiler, has been born of the same energy and spirit with which the organization was brought to China’s shores. Seiler herself is a fine illustration of this: she joined in January 2009 to fulfill her New Year’s resolution to “be more social”—and one year later, she’s the captain of the ship. “[When] Aimee [left] in May 2009, she turned over the role of President to Jingjing Li. At that time, I became VP Service, which means that I was responsible for organizing events, maintaining relationships with charities and staffing volunteers. Since service is 80% of BEAN, it was a natural progression with me moving into the role of President [when Jingling left].”
From Aimee to Jingling and now to Sheila, there is a contagious electricity that flows through BEAN — which is not to say there is a typical member “profile”—there isn’t. Still, BEAN tends to attract people with a common interest in mind: “The volunteer factor is a huge draw—it’s what really sets us apart,” says Seilers. A teacher by day, her voice teems with an enthusiasm and urgency one might not expect when discussing a sort of “extracurricular activity”. But for her, BEAN is anything but a side project. She reflects, “I’ve always been a very successful, capable person, but prior to working with BEAN, I’ve never had any direct leadership roles—I did my own thing”.
She pauses. “I’ve been pleasantly shocked by how much more thoughtful I’ve become. We work with people with different personalities and from different backgrounds, and I find myself more inclined to pause and think ‘what do they need from me?’ rather than necessarily what I can get out of the experience—and I find it’s affected me on a holistic level that extends beyond my current role”.
“I became almost addicted,” she notes, recalling her earliest visits to the Shanghai’s Huixin Orphanage, with which BEAN is highly involved. “Initially, I wasn’t sure what to expect—I mean the Ayis do a great job, the director of the orphanage is fantastic. But it was really confronting to realize reality—these kids don’t have parents and they never will—and I became really hooked on wanting to do some good. I realized that everything I did for these kids might have a huge impact on their lives, even just playing with them”. BEAN plays a more behind-the-scenes role in the orphanage as well, Seiler explains. “We’ve basically adopted it. We’re helping them renovate the lower floor so that they can accept some more orphans–the director would like to take in 20 more children because there’s such a need for it. We’re donating money and supervising all the construction work for this project.”
BEAN’s events are frequent and varied, helping out high-profile organizations such as Habitat for Humanity and the SCCA in addition to the aforementioned orphanage and the Shanghai Area Food Bank. The best part? There is no minimum commitment, no expectation and no requirement. “We have one member who’s in Shanghai once every six months for business,” she continues. “And he volunteers with us, whatever we’re doing, when he’s here. We have about 100-200 members who come each month, and about 300 who attend events on a quarterly basis.”
While there is no doubt a highly social component to BEAN’s service-related events, it operates dedicated networking events. “Some people just come to the networking events, which are cool because there’s no ‘keynote speaker,’ no ticket, no contrivance. It’s not fancy. People tend to gel pretty naturally given the number of people who usually show up. We just find a place with a good drink special and a good vibe and the ‘numbers game’ tends to work out in everyone’s favor”.
Tomorrow night, the social and charity arms of BEAN will link together in a special “Drink Up for Haiti” at Cotton’s on Xinhua Lu. Attendees are encouraged to make a minimum 50 RMB donation, which will earn them a ticket for a drink at the bar. Raffles tickets can be purchased for 10 RMB each—or 12 for 100—and 100% of proceeds will be donated to the Red Cross. For an updated list of raffle prizes, check out this article.
When asked if she had any last words of advice, Seilers noted that while events—both networking and volunteer—are open, it’s important to email BEAN in advance to ensure there’s space available. “Some of the places we volunteer only legally allow so many volunteers, so it’s important to get an accurate head count before we head out”.
So, before you head out alone to drink away the “friends went back home” blues or pay to network at breakneck speed to the cool sounds of “Tonight’s Keynote Speaker,” take a moment to look into BEAN. Its singularity as an organization transcends its unique name—it’s changing the way Shanghai professionals associate with one another and, indeed, with Shanghai.
Photo: [Sheila Seilers/BEAN Shanghai]