Trailblazers: Julien Leyre on the Marco Polo Project

Kate Inglis
Article by: Kate Inglis
Trailblazers: Julien Leyre on the Marco Polo Project

In our ‘Trailblazers’ series, we bring you perspectives on creative leadership, social innovation, and positive change from THNK’s worldwide participant community. Today, Kate Inglis interviews Australia-based social impact entrepreneur Julien Leyre, Class 7 participant at THNK Amsterdam. The Marco Polo Project — Leyre’s discovery platform that overcomes language barriers to make China more accessible to the west — is a pretty big idea. Curiosity breeds more curiosity, says Leyre, and does something much more powerful than all the borders we can manufacture: it evaporates fear and feeds growth.


You’re one of those people for whom the question ‘Where did you come from?’ isn’t a straightforward answer. In the midst of an already diverse life, how did China get under your skin?

I was born in Strasbourg, on the French border with Germany. It’s a city that has changed nations many times. My father is from the south, and my mother was from another region with an Italian background. So I grew up in the margins of a very centralized country, with layers of cultural different-ness within myself. When I was 18 I moved to Paris to study linguistics and translation, and of course was surrounded by friends who came from all over the world. This was the beginning of a diverse mindset, but it was a European diverse mindset.

I didn’t move into truly foreign territory until I fell in love with an Australian — he spoke of a continental neighborhood that includes Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Hong Kong… Asia is such a hallmark of Australian wanderlust. It was a whole new world to me. My partner had once lived in Bangladesh, and hearing his stories was travel-by-imagination.

When we left Paris to move to Melbourne, we travelled overland from Paris to Singapore by train and bus. It was a huge part of the world I realized I knew nothing about. I wanted it to be less alien to me.


For Julien, the question of “where’s home?” is not a straightforward one. As a French-Australian, Julien fell in love with Asia when he migrated to Melbourne via a three-month journey that took him through Paris and Singapore.

Tell me about a moment during your travels that felt aesthetically foreign, but also familiar.

Our first landing in China was in Dongbei, or Manchuria, in the city of Harbin. We came out of the train station into a square, and the chaos reminded me of the streets of Naples. People talked loudly with their hands — either laughing or arguing, it was hard to tell — and old women sold eggplant in little carts in the middle of this massive crowd. I thought, This is just like home! But I was in northeastern China. It was incredible.

Would you say that this kind of simultaneous shock and recognition is the magic of cross-cultural travel?

For individuals, yes. But in a larger way, cross-cultural relatability is a direct counter to the fear that causes so much harm in the world. When I hear people speak about China, for instance, I hear untrue things rooted in ignorance. Fear is one of the most avoidable evils. I want to fight that, and to nurture the positive side — to share the warmth and excitement that comes from integrating new places into oneself.

Cross-cultural travel is a direct counter to the fear that causes so much harm in the world. Click To Tweet

You seek to make China more easily relatable. Has a changed world made this new understanding necessary — or, do you hope that a new understanding will generate change?

In a practical context, our understanding is important in Australia because of patterns of regional trade and business. The US used to be our biggest trading partner, followed by a top ten of all-European nations. Now, a full third of Australia’s foreign exports go to China, and six of our top ten trading partners are Asian. Chinese tourists and immigrants love this country. In order to move forward not only with hospitality but with vitality and opportunity, we need to understand China and its systems, values, and trajectory.

In a broader context, the rise of China is a change that’s shaping the whole world. We can handle it well, or we can handle it badly. If we can foster relatability, we’ll foster fantastic innovation, stimulation, and curiosity.

Julien Leyre
Julien Leyre
Founder & CEO
Marco Polo Project, Various Organisations
"The short answer is that the world changed first. The opportunity now is to set the tone for how we operate within that change."

What’s one of the most interesting Chinese conversations right now that Marco Polo invites us to witness?

Aside from seeing person-to-person parallels and recognizing ourselves in ‘the other’, it’s an exciting time to access China’s moral and ethical interrogation of itself and the world. There’s a considerable discourse right now exploring the implications of technological and social change. I want to listen to those conversations. I love to see how they’re framed in relation to our own uncertainties. In China, they’re grappling with these contemporary questions with Confucian frameworks in the background — it’s philosophically fascinating.

There’s no lack of information in the modern age. Why is there still so much power in the concept of ‘us’ and ‘them’?

A foreign population such as ‘The Chinese’ can seem abstracted and disembodied, like a shapeless mass. The same would be true of ‘The Palestinians’ or ‘Native Americans’. But when we can access each others’ stories without language barriers, we become embodied to one another. We become real and sensorial.

When we can access each other's stories without language barriers, we become embodied to one another. Click To Tweet

What does a fear-based mindset do to the western collective?

Geopolitical fear-mongering puts a terrible pressure on our collective state of mind. It creates anxiety, stifles boldness, and makes us feel powerless. I think in days past, we used to feel compromised somehow by the growth of foreign nations because we refused to comprehend their people. It’s a defensive mechanism that ultimately damages ‘us’ more than ‘them’. If we build dialogue across cultures — and build understanding not from government to government but from person to person — then our anxiety will decrease. With less anxiety comes more resilience and more imagination.

Tell me about a Chinese cultural value that endeared itself to you on that first trip.

The literal translation for the Chinese word ‘tonxgue’ is ‘classmate’. In western tradition, as far as I know, ‘classmate’ has no emotional component. It’s a purely administrative word. But in China, a tonxgue is one of the highest forms of friendship. People speak of their classmates with great attachment, as they’d speak of family. They see it as an incredibly sacred bond to witness another person’s growth, and to share in that growth. Their reverence for learning is such a wonderful thing.

We need to build dialogue across cultures and build understanding from person to person. Click To Tweet

What do you imagine for Marco Polo in the coming years? 

I’d love to include more stories from other languages and cultures. More and more people are living in cross-linguistic, cross-cultural situations. Expats, travelling couples in love, migrant families with children born in new places, business people in the midst of mergers and acquisitions. By learning more about each other, they learn more about themselves. 

I want to make interaction tools to help people reach mutual understanding more readily. That’s the big mission, and it could manifest in many exciting ways over the coming years. Workshops, festivals, partnerships with universities, even apps and games. There are plenty of ways to facilitate diversity — not just to address situational diversity, but to satisfy curiosity and wanderlust.

You joined THNK’s creative leadership program for class seven in Amsterdam. At that point, the Marco Polo Project was well underway. What led you to seek out a fresh mindset?

When you’re doing something big, you’re bound to feel stuck sometimes. Perhaps that’s the truest definition of creativity — finding ways to keep momentum through the stalls. It was during one of those moments that I sensed that I needed a new approach. I didn’t just want to be a content generator or facilitator — I wanted us to relate better to one another across cultural lines. We stand to gain so much.

Julien Leyre is a French-Australian writer, educator and social entrepreneur. He currently runs the Marco Polo Project, a Melbourne-based non-profit organization that explores innovative open models to bridge the China knowledge-gap by celebrating literature, language and ideas. He is working towards a PhD at Monash University on the digital ecosystem of Chinese language learning, and supports the China Australia Millennial Project, an international summit and innovation incubator.

To discover how the THNK Executive Leadership Program can help you find new approaches to persistent challenges, visit the program page.