David Wertime graduated from Yale University in 2001 with a B.A. in English Language and Literature. He went into the Peace Corps for two years, during which he formed a lot of his interest in public policy and China. He graduated from Harvard Law School in 2007, but after four years in law, decided to co-found Tea Leaf Nation, a company intended to decode Chinese media and feature Chinese voices that was acquired as the China section of Foreign Policy in 2013. David is currently a Senior Editor at Foreign Policy, Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a mentor at 1776, a startup incubator in DC, and a Research Scholar at the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for the Study of Contemporary China.
Joining Peace Corps
Could you talk about your time in the Peace Corps, and what led you to first join the Peace Corps?
Coming out of college, you're trying to find your way and the Peace Corps offered a combination between something deeply adventurous and a structured environment. I remember talking to a career advisor at Yale. He said basically life happens. You might think that the Peace Corps is something you can do at any time and certainly anyone over eighteen can join. However, life's going to happen, you’re going to have obligations, you’ll have mortgage payments and you might not be able to step away for two years. You've got a chance now so take it.
How did the Peace Corps influence your later work and change your perspective or mindset?
It absolutely reframed the way I saw things. I was surprised that it showed me my distinctive American-ness. I never felt more American than when I was in China. I realized how many things I took for granted, how many assumptions I carried with me about how the world works that are not necessarily shared elsewhere. But at the same time, the Peace Corps made everything feel closer. To go to a place that was so unknown to me and learn enough language to have meaningful conversations, to develop meaningful relationships, and to be able to learn from people while teaching them a little bit about myself really shows you something optimistic about the world. It really shrunk my sense of how big the globe was. You realize that despite some very deep cultural differences, you also uncover this great vein of shared humanity and shared priorities. Frankly, you see the vast reach of American culture and I came back feeling that China had never been nearly as far away as I had thought.
I think being in the Peace Corps developed that instinct to reach beyond my immediate comfort zone and showed me that doing so is not only not scary, but rewarding and actually really fun.
It certainly informed the startup work that I did in media: Tea Leaf Nation, which essentially formed a cultural bridge between Western readers and China, and the work I'm doing now at The Lenfest Institute, bringing underrepresented voices into the media conversation.
Tea Leaf Nation and Journalism
With Tea Leaf Nation, what were you trying to accomplish, and what did you see as the most important part of the culture bridging work that you were doing?
We were taking on a task that was fast, ambitious, and that no single website could ever possibly accomplish, which was to provide a bridge of understanding between East and West. I learned that when you do service work your goal should not be to solve problems — it should be to address problems that are meaningful to you. I learned this in the Peace Corps. My mom always told me this. She had been a social worker for decades and learned the hard way that if you try to fix things by yourself you're probably in for a rude surprise. If you focus not on the output but on the input, if you are doing everything to work on a problem that is of value to you, you're going to be a lot more satisfied.
With Tea Leaf Nation, we were addressing a problem that was important to my founders and I, which was this general need for better information that showed some of the strains of thought and discussion going on inside China. A lot of the reporting about China focuses on the Chinese government, which is increasingly illiberal, but that doesn't show you everything about the country. That doesn't show the human beings in that country, what they’re struggling with on a daily basis, and what they are thinking about. By focusing on social media, which at the time was far less censored, we were able to unlock some of that. I think we helped tilt ever-so-slightly the way mainstream media approached reporting on China, specifically these social media discussions within China.
I hadn't anticipated it, but we brought a lot of really talented young people in to journalism. In some way, I think that was every bit as rewarding because it had an immediate, tangible and individual impact. We ended up getting about a hundred volunteer contributors. When somebody comes to you with this outstanding talent, there's a chance to be the first outlet to publish them, to give them a platform and a voice, and hopefully help to kick-start their career in a tough field to break in to. Tea Leaf Nation was a way to lend a voice to individual people. Through being a teacher in the Peace Corps, I worked with college-age students, a lot of them from farming families, studying to become teachers in their own country; what I was doing at Tea Leaf Nation was a bit of an extension of that.
How did you grow into your role as a research scholar at Penn and Entrepreneur-in-Residence at the Lenfest Institute of Journalism now?
Through my involvement with the magazine Foreign Policy, I had a platform to speak about the international issues that were important to me. I had this luxury within this sort of well-respected publication which lead to connections with colleagues in the foreign policy space. This ended up leading to special opportunities like the one at the University of Pennsylvania's Center for the Study of Contemporary China.
The Lenfest Institute is intended to provide a network of new contributors and voices to other legacy media outlets with a focus on local respected publications. We’ve been talking to some really sterling media outlets in this area. It’s an exciting project because I think the instincts that I developed in my earlier media work are utilized. Talking about something that's more authentic grassroots that speaks to people from different walks of life is exciting even though it hasn't been China-focused.
Looking back on your past experiences, where do you see yourself making the biggest impact and what do you remember most and carry with you?
Some really special moments were when you see all of the effort that you put in turn into something real in the universe that exists, that people are talking about, that they can react to when you move from idea to execution to impact. At Foreign Policy, we had a really small team of journalists, some of whom were in Washington and Hong Kong, covering pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong in October 2014. Yet, we were able to put out several articles a day about what was happening in Hong Kong on the ground. I remember when I was able to sit down with my team and say look at what we've done: look at this world-beating coverage that we're putting out with just a few of us on the ground in Hong Kong and a few of us here in this room.
Another special moment is about a year into Tea Leaf Nation's existence, when we were still sort of a fledgling volunteer project that was just getting traction, my wife held a surprise birthday party for my startup. She invited some of the writers working with me and solicited some of our volunteer writers’ thoughts on what it meant to them to be involved in this. The writers said the sweetest things, I'm choking up speaking about it right now. One writer said thank you for seeing China through my eyes.
When you see the cumulative impact that your sometimes thankless day-to-day work can have on individual people, that stays with you for years and can keep you motivated even through the tough times that any startup is going to encounter.
Advice for Penn Students
Do you have any advice for Penn students or young people looking to start their own companies?
It's a question that is really specific to each person, and I can only talk about my experience. Being an entrepreneur doesn't have to mean that you risk absolutely everything. The truth is that being an entrepreneur involves knowing that you could bear the risk. You need the ability to lose or not make money for a little while before you can start to see something. A lot of successful entrepreneurs have started with some structure around them, whether it’s being a student at a university or having a day job and pursuing your passions on the side. Those are really viable ways to try out entrepreneurship to see if it’s something that can get momentum before taking the plunge.
Finally, I had an image before I became an entrepreneur that an entrepreneur was someone who had one idea that was going to change the world and they’d pursue it no matter what.
What I learned about being an entrepreneur was that you have to be a lot more flexible, that you have to be willing to try something new and see how the universe reacts and adjust, that you have to be willing to be wrong, to be humbled, to be willing to say I don’t know.
I think the best entrepreneurs are the ones who say, “Look I have this theory, but I don’t know if I’m right, let’s think about some structured ways through which we can learn whether or not I’m right. And if I’m not, what do we do then?” I think what motivates you is that you’re doing something you love. There’s some animating principle behind it which is unshakeable, which is different from an idea. My principle was that everybody has something interesting to say. That truly is an unshakeable belief of mine, but exactly how I was going to turn that into a media outlet that was a viable business, I had no idea.
Editor's Note: David Wertime declared his candidacy for election on February 21st to represent Pennsylvania's fifth Congressional district in the House of Representatives. He has a crowd-funding campaign here.
Disclaimers: The views presented here are solely those of the interviewee. They do not represent the Signal or any of the other individuals or institutions named above.