Young overseas Chinese share experiences starting up businesses in Shanghai
As China becomes more open and develops in a rapid way thanks to its reform and opening-up policy implemented in 1978, more and more overseas Chinese are riding in a different direction than their parents by coming back to China, a country where they already have blood ties, to seek better opportunities and realize their dreams.
Despite the cultural differences, these promising talents have been making great efforts to become entwined in local life, starting up their own businesses here and standing strong in China’s increasingly competitive market. After several years of hard work, how do they feel about starting business in China and what have they learned from their experiences?
At a recent sharing seminar titled “Finding Roots Chasing Dreams” hosted by the Global Times Shanghai Newsroom, three young overseas Chinese entrepreneurs – Billy Chan, Michelle Li and Steven Oo – discussed their entrepreneurial experiences in China. Each of the three young entrepreneurs also shared their feelings and opinions about doing business with Chinese mainlanders.
Billy Chan, a third-generation Chinese-Canadian, moved to Shanghai four years ago and built up his own business, DropChain, a platform focusing on supply-chain ecosystems. He used exhilaration, frustration and satisfaction as adjectives to express his feelings about the process.
Amazed by China’s rapid development, Chan said that doing business here has been an exciting experience. Satisfaction arrives when he finally achieves something. “When you actually get there, you feel that you’re at the top of the hill,” he said.
Chinese-American Michelle Li immigrated to the US in 1992 when she was only seven, then came back to China in 2007. About three years ago she founded Sorority China, a sisterhood community aiming to provide safe and affordable co-living housing and co-working spaces for the growing number of young professional women here.
Li used the words “product,” “market” and “fit” to describe the start-up process. In her mind, having your own product, knowing what it is and understanding the market it is targeted at are important for start-ups like hers. She explained that fit refers to questions like “why am I the right person to do what I do?,”and she believes that through those three words others will have a good business model.
Born and raised in Myanmar, Steven Oo immigrated to the US with his family and when he was 15 years old and received an education there. He used to work for some American companies before finally coming to China to start-up his own fashion brand.
Oo is impressed by people’s efficiency in China, which is what makes him enjoy working here. He explained that, when doing business, once in touch with the right person who can make decision, things move super-fast and with amazing quality. “It’s the efficiency that’s making my business really competitive with other companies around the world,” he said.
Starting up a new business is never an easy task. For the three who were born Chinese but raised and educated outside of the Chinese mainland, it is even more challenging to lure business in China.
Oo said he is not used to working with big bosses from big companies, as Chinese business culture requires people to talk in a tactful way. “You have to be super respectful and my Chinese is not that amazing, so when I talk to them, sometimes I come up really rude and super direct,” he explained at the seminar.
He added that being direct sometimes ends up offending people, so he has to let somebody else in his team deal with the bosses of bigger companies. Chan likewise found that interpersonal relationships are quite central to business in China.
According to Chan, working in a multinational company requires people to tell each other what they can offer, why they need it and how much it costs, then execute the deal efficiently. But here in China he realized that, before all that happens, there are layers upon layers of social buildup (guanxi in Chinese) which is one of the biggest challenges he personally faces in China.
“Years later I’ve built up relationships involving partners and customers and distributors, and things get done very quickly now. But before we get that fast, it starts very slow,” he said.
Because of the type of business she is involved in, Li’s biggest challenge is women. She said that her business is trying to make women mutually respect each other and come together in a community to support each other’s growth, which takes time and requires many changes to the old mindset.
Moreover, to understand how China works, who she is and what her values are necessitate a personal balance. “Sometimes it is never going to be even, and you just have to make a tough call based on that situation,” Li said.
Benefits and gains
Our three guests also spoke about the benefits and personal gains they have made along the way. Chan thinks that being in China can literally change someone’s DNA. He grew up in a small town in Canada where there are only 5,000 people and the main industries are fishing, logging and mining.
“The pace of life [in my hometown] is maybe onetenth of how people live here [in Shanghai],” he said, adding that whenever he goes back to Canada or Singapore, he realizes that people in Shanghai move two steps faster than everyone else in the world. “I have adopted this lifestyle,” he said.
Oo shared similar opinions toward the speedy Shanghai lifestyle. “I spent 15 years in Myanmar and 15 years in the US, but I have only been here for six years. Yet I feel that what I have done in the past six years in Shanghai is more than I have done in the past 30 years [overseas],” he said.
“When I go back home to Myanmar, I feel like everybody is wasting time because they’re not doing anything.”
Oo holds a positive attitude toward the speedy Shanghai atmosphere, believing that doing things quickly will get him closer to retirement, which is when he will set up a charitable foundation or do something else for the greater good of society.
But the best thing about being in China, he said, has been learning how to stay ahead of everyone. “You must always keep up, because things are always changing here,” he said, adding that this is especially true in his industry, which is fashion.
Li has benefited from her past failures, including all the things she has done wrong and things that did not work out or go as planned. She thinks that failure is the only way to learn and the only way to grow, both personally and as a business.
“I constantly have to readjust based on what I don’t know, and I think China is the best place in the world to do that,” she said.
Sink or swim
Running a new business requires entrepreneurs to sink or swim. Many set their minds to succeed from the get-go, while others are more interested in the process or journey rather than the end results.
Li said that her team has been expanding since it was established three years ago, from four employees to 30. She thinks the result is important to her shareholders, staff and customers, but what she personally values more is the process of how they obtained that success.
Chan agrees that the process is central to success, as it serves as a sort of road map to help people get the results they want. “I think they go hand in hand. I don’t think I would prefer one over the other,” he said.
“There’s a heavy amount of luck involved, but in order for you to get that lucky, you need to have a plan; you need to have a road map,” he said.
Oo said that when it came to building his team, each member had to take specific steps in order to make sure that the end product was of superior quality. China has been making improvements in this respect. Oo said that brands that never before manufactured in China are now willing to because they know good quality is integral to that process.
As more overseas Chinese are coming to China, Oo, Li and Chan offered some suggestions and advice to the younger generations of entrepreneurs.
Oo believes that it is important to work in other companies first to learn and gain experience. “They [big companies] are big for a reason. They’ve gone through the things that you will be going through,” he said. “So if you go through a big company, you can learn from your mistakes.”
Li thinks it is important that young people have opinions and ideas which are unique.
She encourages youngsters to establish a professional career to follow the path that they are supposed to, to think more about who they are, what they stand for as individuals and how that message is something that matters.
Chan believes people should not forget about helping others around them, even when they are busy making money or dedicated to their own careers. He thinks some people can be riding high while many others are riding low, so don’t forget to give back. “Because you will never know when you will need their help [later],” he said.
Speaking of support, Oo found the local government to be very supportive. He said that, recently, a domestic group is helping build a fashion center along Suzhou Creek by offering favorable rent, which for small local start-ups is very helpful.
Chan agrees that government support is very important. “If you have government support, you have a much higher chance of survival,” he said, adding that the Shanghai municipal government is now focusing on start-ups more than before.
Clockwise from top left: Chinese-American Michelle Li; The host Chen Shasha; Third-generation ChineseCanadian Billy Chan; The designer Steven Oo; Main: A picture of all speakers in a panel discussion