The past year has been one of great changes for AmCham. Not only did the Chamber weather the outbreak and spread of COVID-19 and the residual effects of the pandemic on its member companies, but it also underwent a complete renovation of its office and began the long and laborious process of changing its name and identity from “AmCham Taipei” to “AmCham Taiwan.”
Significantly, the Chamber also experienced a change in leadership when the previous President, William Foreman, resigned last September to pursue personal goals. Former Chairman Leo Seewald stepped in to lead the organization through the subsequent six months, while the AmCham Board of Governors began an exhaustive search for a suitable replacement.
Finally, this February, the Board’s search committee found the candidate they had been looking for: Andrew Wylegala, a 29-year veteran of the U.S. Foreign Commercial Service and avid booster for Taiwan. Currently in Japan, he will take up his post with AmCham as soon as he can complete the necessary paperwork and two-week quarantine requirement.
Andrew, who grew up in a family that placed great importance on civic involvement and education, has long had an affinity for Asia. His interest in the region started with an exchange year in Japan during his junior year of high school. Living with several host families, attending a local all-boys school, and immersing himself in the Japanese language, the young Andrew developed a lasting fascination with and respect for foreign cultures.
Aside from being the place where he met his future wife, Yoko, Japan was incidentally also where Andrew first became familiar with Taiwan, joining a nationwide tour with a visiting group of Taiwanese Rotarians.
“It was 1979, a really important year for U.S.-Taiwan relations with the passing of the Taiwan Relations Act,” Andrew says, referring to the U.S. legislation that created the framework for unofficial ties with Taiwan after America switched official recognition to China. “I remember thinking, in addition to this love for Japan I’ve started, Northeast Asia in general is really interesting, and I want to learn more about Taiwan.”
After receiving a B.A. in history from Cornell and a master’s degree in international economics from Johns Hopkins, Andrew worked for a while as a trade law analyst and Congressional staff member. He then embarked on a two-year civil service training scheme called the Presidential Management Fellows Program, which allowed him to rotate through several government agencies. Although he was set to go into the civil service when he completed the program, an offer to become a U.S. diplomat irreversibly changed his career trajectory.
Upon joining the foreign service, candidates are given a choice of preferred career track, including consular, economic, political, and public diplomacy – a popular choice at the time. However, says Andrew, “my interest was international business-related. I liked the idea of assisting individual American firms by leveraging the broad architecture of regulations governing trade and international relations, operating at the intersection of public and private sectors.
But, he says, “I was even more energized to see how companies went abroad and expanded – how they solved concrete problems – and I thought this would be a more practical, action-oriented career for me.”
Thus began a dynamic and fruitful career in the international arm of the U.S. Commercial Service, one which spanned three decades and four continents. “There was an opportunity to see a tremendous breadth of geographies and the whole spectrum of economic development,” Andrew says. “But the key takeaway was how productive, powerful, and global U.S. business was and continues to be.”
Working as a commercial officer in markets as diverse as Berlin, Lima, Tokyo, and Baghdad, Andrew gradually broadened his horizons as each post presented new life-changing and career-building opportunities. One particularly memorable experience for him happened during his two-year tour in wartime Iraq, where, despite the odds, he helped coordinate and carry out a successful trade show for Iraqi businesses in a Green Zone hotel.
“One of my proudest accomplishments in this process was convincing then Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez to take the tortuous flight to get to Baghdad,” says Andrew. “He spoke with the brave Iraqi entrepreneurs at our trade show and it was marvelously hopeful and successful.”
In his subsequent role as Minister-Counselor of Economic Affairs in Hong Kong, Andrew worked with the special administrative region’s trade council in 2009 to launch the Pacific Bridge Initiative, a program that facilitated use of Hong Kong as a springboard for the explosion of outbound Chinese investment that was then taking place, in the process directing a larger share to the U.S.
“This was a joint program that was partly funded by our Hong Kong partners, which nobody thought could happen,” he says. “How could you actually have foreign-government-sponsorship of a USG initiative? But it worked – to the degree that other posts in Asia looked to emulate what we did.”
Not only did Andrew focus his life’s work on facilitating U.S. trade, investment, and business development abroad, he also took two years beginning in 2017 to fill a non-traditional role as a visiting professor at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C. Andrew taught economics and industry analysis to a diverse cohort of high-level U.S. and foreign uniformed and civilian military personnel and private sector professionals.
Rather than take a traditional theoretical approach to teaching his courses, Andrew adopted a practical, case-study method, which he found to be well-received by the students. “This was a program to give future leaders and policy shapers enough economics to make informed decisions,” he says. “You weren’t looking to get graduate economists out of this program.”
His teaching position was also what brought him back to Taiwan. While co-leading a national security and competitiveness study of the U.S. semiconductor industry, Andrew brought a group of students on a field study to Hsinchu, which helped him establish new contacts in the island’s ICT sector.
After retiring from the U.S. foreign service in 2019, Andrew took a short sabbatical before signing on with the UK Department for International Trade as the Life Sciences and Healthcare Lead for the Asia Pacific Region in August 2020. The job was significant for Andrew in that it was his first regional role, coordinating the trade and investment functions of 10 offices across Asia, in contrast to the mostly bilateral work he did with the U.S. government. Also, during that period Britain concluded an economic partnership compact with Japan, its first major trade deal as an autonomous trading nation.
Andrew sees some parallels between the UK’s recent circumstances exiting the EU and the position Taiwan now finds itself in, something that greatly attracted him to the role at AmCham in the first place.
“While certainly not being the same situation, there are similar dynamics at play,” he says. “Taiwan is on the verge of breaking out and expanding its connectivity and relations regionally and globally. This is our chance to contribute to that effort.”
As for the future of AmCham Taiwan, Andrew’s vision is, in his words, to “take an already high-powered, highly effective, very well-respected, and influential Chamber in Asia and elevate it yet further.” He looks to achieve this through the fulfillment of three broad objectives. First is to tap into the innumerable connections he made as a career foreign service officer to help further cement Taiwan’s trade and economic relations with the U.S.
“We want to make AmCham part of the coalition that steers Taiwan toward ever more high-level agreements with the U.S. and to raise its profile and effectiveness in Washington,” he says.
Secondly, Andrew seeks to use AmCham as a vehicle to help integrate Taiwan into more regional multilateral agreements such as the CPTPP, ASEAN+ initiatives, or even a functional agreement on digital trade. This endeavor includes “intensifying our connections with Japan, Korea, and even Europe. We can be a part of this integration effort that creates more international space for Taiwan and AmCham Taiwan’s members.”
And lastly, while the Chamber’s membership roster is already very impressive, boasting about 1,000 members from around 500 member companies, Andrew sees room to expand it even further. Doing so calls for a dual-track process, he says, looking at how to improve and enhance the mix and quality of membership services, while simultaneously pushing to expand the size, composition, and diversity of the membership base. Part of this expansion will involve comprehensive work with the AmChams of Asia Pacific (AAP), benefiting from the information sharing and development capacity that organization offers.
As he begins moving into a new role in a new (but not unfamiliar) land, Andrew is excited to go out and explore Taiwan’s wonderful natural habitats via some of his favorite outdoor activities: hiking, cycling, running, and kayaking. One of his major personal goals is to complete an around-the-island bike tour.
Most of all, he looks forward to returning to his Mandarin studies. Although he began learning the language during an intensive program at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California prior to his post in Hong Kong, he had few opportunities to practice it afterward and eventually, let it fall by the wayside. Being a language aficionado – he speaks fluent Spanish and passable German in addition to Japanese – Andrew already has a well fleshed-out study plan that he says will help him get back up to a level that will make him effective on the job.
While his vision for AmCham Taiwan is ambitious and forward-looking, Andrew admits he’s humbled by the comprehensive, quality work the Chamber’s relatively small staff is able to accomplish.
“It’s sobering knowing that people are working that hard and getting that kind of output,” he says. “It’s a taste of what’s to come, and the President’s going to have to keep up. But I’m ready to lend a hand.”