A TALK WITH EDOUARD BELLIN, FOUNDER OF CREATIVE HUMANS, ON HIS STORY TELLING PLATFORM AND EXPAT LIFE IN SHANGHAI





I stumbled upon Creative Humans when I saw their interview of mutual friend Tina Yip, a brand strategist with a podcast called 5to9, bringing people’s side projects and passions to light. When I dug further into Creative Humans, I saw a community of stories, with a mission to prove that every individual has an inspiring story tell. This idea really resembled and complemented the interviews I’ve shared on Travel Under the Radar. So, it only seemed fitting to meet Edouard Bellin, the founder and editor of Creative Humans...


To start, I’d love to know a bit about you–– where are you and where are you from?

Currently I’m in Shanghai at a coffee shop. I woke up at 4:30am today to lead a 7km run with various HIIT workouts with 25 people from FitFam, an inspiring and free community that hosts workouts across the city. I’m French, born and raised and began teaching myself English when I was 10 years old from watching ‘Friends’ (best comedy show ever).. I’ve been living in Shanghai since April 2016 and lived in New York City for two years prior while working in advertising. I first saw New York City on TV when I was 5 years old, and fell in love. I’ve been going every summer since I was 15.


And what’s your 9 to 5 and 5 to 9?
I have a kind of weird, crazy schedule, and no real 9 to 5. I teach English on the weekends and coach public speaking and storytelling to entrepreneurs as well. My weekday schedule is pretty wide open which allows me to spend a lot of time on Creative Humans. As of now my responsibilities have spanned from creating and managing the website to writing and editing life stories and managing our social platforms including WeChat here in China. This first started as a passion project but as it has gained a lot of traction over the past few months, it’s become time to take things more seriously and turn it into something legitimate. There are a lot of different ideas currently brewing in my head and a few projects that will soon be coming out of it.


How’d you end up in Shanghai?

I’d been working in NYC for award-winning digital creative agency Firstborn, and really wanted to stay but ended up not getting a visa through the lottery system despite their sponsoring everything. My experience at Firstborn was eye opening in many ways, and I will be forever grateful for the opportunity I was given to join their team with zero experience in the field after having just graduated with my MBA. I was an international candidate still living in France prior to joining Firstborn and had to work extra hard to prove I was worth taking a chance on. My life would have taken a radically different turn had it not been for my bosses Gully Flowers, Gabe Garner, Kevin Arthur and Firstborn CEO Dan LaCivita.


My contract with Firstborn ended March 2016 after which we applied for the H-1B work visa. At that time, my friend Ryan, who lived and still lives in Shanghai, encouraged me to come visit him while my visa was being processed. After three weeks back in Europe, I booked a one-way ticket to Shanghai. A couple of months after having landed here, I received the unfortunate news that my visa hadn’t made it through the lottery. I felt really lost–- NYC had been on my mind since I was 5 and the possibility of not being able to come back and live in New York never cross my mind. I eventually left Shanghai to apply for similar positions with digital shops in London while visiting my family in France, but the low salaries and opportunities didn’t really match.


There was such an awesome vibe while I was in Shanghai, and I had made a ton of good friends in a such a short amount of time that I decided to go back. Even though I didn’t have any job lined up, I had already picked up a few private teaching gigs. It wasn’t easy to get a visa here either, I started with a few 30 day tourist visas and eventually got a visa to teach English.





All smiles after a 6am FitFam workout that Edouard led at Jiao Tong University in Shanghai.



What’s it like in Shanghai? What’s the expat scene?

I think Shanghai has about 200,000-300,000 expats (which represents only 1-2% of the total population here). I live in the biggest expat area in downtown known as the Former French Concession. Shanghai is awesome and one has to come visit to really understand why. It’s much more similar to NYC than most people realize. It used to be known as the “Sleepless City” in the 90s, and from my perspective, it’s been really incredible in terms of the kinds of connections I’ve been able to make here.


There are many organizations and communities. It’s a great place to network. I’m part of FitFam, which is such an enormous source of inspiration because people from all walks of life, both Chinese and expats, come together at 6am to exercise and motivate one another. I just began writing mini stories of our active members and published our first piece on Michael Liu last week.


Once you live in Shanghai, you see how fast paced it is, how fast everything is evolving all the time–– especially in terms of technology and urban development. If you have plans and projects and you’re willing to connect with people, it’s really easy to build them out. Many of us first-timers have a preconceived idea of what life in China must be like because of the often-dark picture Western media has painted for us - it is, after all, a Communist country. But don’t let all this fool you.


Between living in NYC, Shanghai, Paris and London, can you speak to the cultural differences that you only understood and appreciated (or disliked) from living there, not just visiting?

That's a tough one! I think I can really only speak of Shanghai because of how radically different the Chinese culture is from everywhere else–– particularly from Europe and the US. Having been in love with NYC since I was 5, I practically knew everything there was to know about it before I visited for the first time in 2008.


About Shanghai, I personally had a lot of misconceptions about China and life in general, especially as a communist country. With many platforms blocked like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and just recently Whatsapp, for some, it makes it a tough transition if you don't know people here. But having lived here for a year and a half, I can say that your day-to-day life is actually pretty great. Politics aren’t involved in any capacity in people's lives, the Chinese never really care for it and just go on with their own priorities. It is also the safest place I've ever lived in. Women here can walk alone at 4 a.m. without the fear of being sexually harassed. You rarely hear of pickpocketing. And you don't feel nor face the same threats you do in Europe or the US, thinking about terrorism as an example, coming from a region where it has escalated dramatically over the past few years. It's been a really great living situation for me.


One thing I do want to emphasize on is people's tendency to generalize stereotypes of a particular people and country based on a very tiny percentage of people they've actually met. I have seen it from friends–– mostly Americans–– while living in France, and in China as well: "The French are like this.." or "The Chinese are like that...". It irritates me when people base their judgments and comments about a culture on a super small number of people.

What sort of culture shock, if any, do you experience when you go from Paris to NYC or Shanghai?

Paris differs greatly from NYC and Shanghai in the sense the latter are a lot more fast paced than Paris. I’m a hyper person always jumping around looking for things to do and new projects to sink my teeth into, I generally don't enjoy my time in Paris as much as I do in NYC or Shanghai. Paris is also less culturally diverse than NYC or Shanghai. NYC, to me, isn't the United States. It truly is a country of its own, a unique pool of cultures from across the globe that have turned this once small island occupied by the Dutch in what is now FiDi into a financial and cultural hub people have come to admire and look up to.


But traveling anywhere outside of Asia after living in Shanghai is the biggest culture shock. Things I do here, like walking on the street and not really caring are just not acceptable back home! And like I said, a crazy amount of technological advancement is happening here which are missing from Europe and the US.


WeChat is an app that lets you do pretty much anything you want from your phone–– from paying bills, e-commerce, booking movie tickets, to ordering a cab. There’s Mobike and Ofo for e-sharing bikes, which have revolutionized transportation here, and are only now expanding to the UK and the US.


For a long time, China was trying to catch up to the West. Ironically it is now the West trying to catch up with China in many aspects.





Ending a 7.5km at the Bund with FitFam.



Run me through how the idea for Creative Humans came to fruition...

The origin started in December 2014. I was applying to jobs in NYC in business development and was reaching out to agencies using the word “creative” to describe myself, without really understanding what that meant. I was putting together PowerPoint presentations on “5 reasons why I want to work for XXXX”, finding email addresses, building personal websites (which, looking back, were horrible looking…).


Curious to see if others defined “creativity” the same way I did, I began asking a few friends what “being creative” meant to them. Their answers blew me away. They blew me away because those were answers from friends - some of whom I’d known for years, that showed me a side of their personality that I wasn’t aware of. They also blew me away because their answers were very different from one another.


I started asking more and more friends around the world and in 2 months I had over 100 answers from 25 countries. I made a Facebook page and called it “Creative Humans” because I believe one doesn’t need to be working in a so-called ‘creative’ field or role to truly be creative. I designed my friends’ quotes, posting a new one each day on the Facebook page. It got some traction but eventually faded. I went on to work at Firstborn a few months later and set the whole project aside.


After moving to Shanghai and connecting with new and inspiring people––it hit me––we process information on a daily basis and we’re always looking for inspiration from different sources, but we don’t take the time to acknowledge how much inspiration we already have in our own groups. There’s a lot to learn from someone else’s life story and their way of thinking - especially from your own friends. Anyone’s story has the ability to impact people around the world because we’re regular folks, We’re not necessarily extra special, and that’s what exciting about it. A lot more people can relate to one’s struggles, passions and accomplishments.

My goals with Creative Humans going forward are to one, create a platform within a platform, so people can craft a story about their friends without writing it themselves. And two, to empower people to acknowledge their own inspiring friends. It only takes a few hours to selflessly write and give a shout out to a friend.


One of the struggles in running Creative Humans, however, has been managing everything from China where all our major social platforms in the West are blocked here. It’s tough to respond in real-time while I’m off Wi-Fi and VPN, and often have to wait a few hours to get back online.


It’s so obvious, but people don’t think about it.
It’s not revolutionary, anyone could start it. The differentiating factor is that I really do get a lot of joy writing stories about my own friends, and have become fairly good at crafting someone’s story. It takes days - sometimes weeks - to write one story because of my other jobs which can be time-consuming but also because I want to make sure it is told in the most resonating and compelling way. I do what a lot of people wouldn’t even think about: take the time to write about my own inspiring friends.


The greatest moment is not only to see their own friends commenting on it, but also their parents’ enjoyment and sharing. I’ll always remember the time I published my first story about my friend Nick Pakradooni on Facebook late last year. It was 8:00 p.m. in Shanghai and I was already late for dinner, so I posted it on social, closed my laptop for a few hours and went on with my evening. I got home around 11:30 p.m., logged on and got a ton of notifications and comments from his friends. What really stuck with me, however, was when his mom shared the article. She received so much praise from her own friends, congratulating her on raising such an inspiring individual that I knew I was onto something.


I’m actually now in the process of rethinking our strategy and building a more sustainable model to really take Creative Humans to the next level. As “obvious” as this initiative is, I also want to make sure no one else can take that away from us. I am building a small team of friends and consultants from NYC, California and Shanghai to help us do just that. Stay tuned!


You have some incredible stories, from Tina in Brooklyn, to Zakea in Shanghai, to Ciru in Kenya. How and where did you meet all these people?

These are all connections I have accumulated practically throughout my whole life. I first connected with Tina at a networking event organized by FindSpark in New York in October 2014. I met Zakea through a mutual friend whom we’d briefly featured on Creative Humans earlier this year. And Ciru and I became friends while we were both studying abroad at Rutgers University in September 2011.


That’s what so beautiful about life. We connect with people from all over the world and all walks of life at any given time, and sadly the majority of us really take that for granted.


In a cheesy way, I believe there’s no such thing as a boring person. A boring personality is different than a boring story. One’s judgement on someone’s personality is subjective - because you find him or her ‘boring’ doesn’t mean everyone else does. But everyone has at least one great story to tell - the majority of us just don’t know how to tell it. That’s why I rarely say no to meeting with people.


In interviewing your friends, what have been surprising things that you've learned about their lives. For instance, you mentioned friends you've had for years but only now know their inspiring story, what do you think we as friends take for granted in knowing about but don't actually know?

I think people's struggles in life, mostly personal, are recurring stories I hear and am surprised to learn about. Not necessarily because our friends keep it from us, but just because we're often not curious enough to ask.


I didn't know my good friend Momo grew up in a poor environment in Ecuador and was often the only one with food on the table while his parents were working hard to sell their handmade products on the street. I didn't know my friend Rita had been going back to the same Vodafone store for 6 months to try and get her dream job while she was living in Australia.





An entrance to Yuyuan Garden in Shanghai, a view from a city stroll.



Are you the only person working on Creative Humans?

After having started the concept I brainstormed a lot with my close friend Trevor Buswell who’s based in San Francisco but really worked on it by myself until October 2016. At the time I was crashing at a friend's place in Shanghai and befriended our new neighbors, one of whom is an Italian expat named Valentina. I told her about Creative Humans and she immediately loved the idea and wanted to help. She began by seeking out inspiring people to write about here in Shanghai (she found our third story roofercyril, the three Graffiti artists in Shanghai as well as connected with Rainbow Gao and her own friend Monica Costa). Now she works more on finding events I can speak at and helps to develop the China side to grow. We are currently looking for an intern to help with translation and social media in China. (PSA: If this could be you, contact Valentina Mango at hello@wearech.com or on WeChat: valemango)


Trevor and I still Skype and chat on a regular basis to bounce ideas off each other and he’s really been a great addition, helping me get my thoughts together and suggesting new potential directions we can take. He and Valentina are great people to have around; their support and strong belief in the platform help keep me going.


I've also added a few contributing authors to our list, and am beginning to collaborate with more people on various projects including Tina for our potential Kickstarter campaign. But otherwise I am working on everything else alone: website design and management, writing and editing, social media, etc. For now!


If this was a Creative Humans interview, what's something about your life that a lot of people don't know, that has shaped you today, and could inspire others?

My teen years were very hard. The more I began to teach myself American English and immerse myself into the culture from afar, the more isolated I felt. I was very socially awkward, and didn't really have friends. I was bullied a bit from time to time, kids saying I was showing off whenever I'd speak English because I was actually trying hard to have a good accent while everyone else showed zero care for it. I really felt like I no longer belonged in France. But I never lost sight of my goal to go to New York and eventually study and work there.

Studying abroad at Rutgers for a year changed my life. It made me realize I was actually very good at making friends and connecting with people from all over, but in English. I was very lucky to have met so many incredible people over those few months, including my best friend Ryan Kretch who is the reason I am in Shanghai today.


This opened up a whole new world to me. I went from avoiding contact with people to seeking it out whenever and wherever I can. I was born and raised in France yet speak much better English than French now.


For other people with passion projects, do you have any advice on how to turn them into more than that?

Having a clear idea of what you want people to get out of it is to me a very important aspect of starting a passion project. One of the questions I always ask myself is: What do I want readers to think when they're done reading an article about the life story of someone they've never met?


When it comes to planning things out long term, patience is key. I often refer to the story behind Humans of New York and how the founder struggled for the longest time to make money while living in NYC purely from taking photos of people on the street. But he never gave up, and eventually started generating hundreds of thousands of followers from all over the world.


Any last remarks before you continue with your day and I head to sleep?

I really want to emphasize how crucial it is for people to keep an open mind when it comes to meeting new individuals. I often see my friends on Facebook posting updates on how they've just finished spring cleaning their friends list, which I find very sad. Because you haven't talked to someone in months or years does not mean they should be removed from your life entirely. Take a few seconds to say hello and ask for an update on what they've been up to.


You never know where your next big source of inspiration is going to come from - and it might be a lot closer than you think.





Edouard Bellin, Founder and Editor of Creative Humans.