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Working Abroad: Law Alum Mark Whittenburg’s Shanghai Experience


Mark Whittenburg ’92 has had an impressive career since graduating Cincinnati Law. Though he now works for Core & Main in St. Louis, Missouri, he spent the several preceding years in Shanghai, China.

Mark WhittenburgIt all started while he was working for General Electric here in the states. After moving back to Cincinnati for several months, he was contacted by a recruiter from Autoliv, a Fortune 500 company. Autliv is the world’s largest automotive safety supplier with sales to all the leading car manufacturers in the world. They develop, manufacture and market protective systems such as airbags, seatbelts, steering wheels, passive safety electronics and active safety systems including brake control systems, radar, night vision and camera vision systems. They also produce pedestrian protection systems.

He successfully navigated the interview process and was hired for the Vice President of Legal position. Whittenburg jumped at the opportunity, moving from Cincinnati to Shanghai, where he worked from 2011 to 2013.

When asked about the professional and cultural challenges of working abroad, Whittenburg makes it clear that those challenges are inseparable. “I had to do some cultural learning [because] what motivates people is a little bit different, so trying to lead a team in China isn’t the same as leading a team in Charlottesville, Virginia,” he said. While a handful of his coworkers were fellow foreigners, the overwhelming majority were Chinese natives.

Whittenburg also shared that “cultural awareness was my greatest learning curve—even more than, well . . . the law.”

Chinese law and the Chinese legal system differ radically from their American counterparts. In Whittenburg’s case, he had to learn them on the job and without mastery of Mandarin.

His studies at the law school proved helpful, however. He emphasizes that Cincinnati Law taught him that “it’s not really knowing all the answers but knowing how to find the answers and how to think through problems.”

Autliv’s Shanghai branch covers all Asian markets. Whittenburg’s work there gave him opportunities to travel to Japan, Korea, India, and Thailand.

What’s it Like Living in Shanghai?
His personal life in Shanghai was interesting. He lived in a rented house in a compound that was home to as many fellow expats as it was to native Shanghainese.Whittenburg recalls that seeing a man riding a bicycle with a tower of Styrofoam above and behind him was “one of [his] very first shocks.” Even with such surprises, his transition was smooth, and his memories of coworkers and neighbors are fond.

He experienced the local culinary culture in full. What did he eat? “I ate incredibly strange stuff . . . snake, turtle, intestines, and blood, and all kinds of stuff,” he chuckled. “I definitely prefer it to the China Kitchen.” [The China Kitchen is a United States Chinese restaurant.]

While Whittenburg warns against eating sautéed snakeskin (he likens it to “chewing on a tire”), he does strongly encourages lawyers take up opportunities to live and work abroad. “Do it in a heart beat,” he says. “It will change [you and your practice] in ways that nobody could ever explain.”