Broad horizons

By Huang Lanlan Source:Global Times Published: 2017/12/19 18:58:39

Chinese-American starts sorority for professional women in Shanghai

Michelle Li Photo: Courtesy of Michelle Li


Michelle Li with her team. Photo: Courtesy of Michelle Li


Editor's Note:

Decades ago, many Chinese people spared no efforts and expense to immigrate to developed countries in order to pursue a better life and more job opportunities. Their offspring, however, are now attracted by China's rapid development and surging economy in order to realize the Chinese Dream their parents never had. The Global Times recently interviewed several "third-culture" Chinese who have recently returned to China for work. Michelle Li is our seventh interviewee.

When her mother went to the US alone for her postgraduate studies in the late 1980s, 4-year-old Michelle Li stayed in Beijing with her father, who ran his own business in China's budding fashion industry.

Growing up in an elite Chinese family in the 1990s, Li enjoyed opportunities that most of her peers were unable to have, such as receiving an education in developed Western countries. In 1992, the 7-year-old was sent to the US to reunite with her mother and attend school.

"In those years I had to fly between China and the US on my own, as my parents were too busy to travel with me," Li recalled.

It was not easy for a little girl to commute between two countries alone, but she never complained. "On the contrary, I appreciated my parents," she said. "They tried their best to offer me a better education and broader horizons."

Li spent most of her teenage life in a small town in northwestern Oregon state. The quick learner grasped English within three months, though she found it difficult to adapt to the American style of education.

"What surprised me most was that, during summer vacations, I had no homework at all," Li told the Global Times. "That's hard to imagine for any Chinese student."

Li lived with her mother, who had received her CPA and was working in finance. Unlike most overseas Chinese immigrants who choose to speak their native dialects at home, the mother and daughter spoke mostly English to each other.

"I still text or call my mother in English," she said.

In Li's eyes, her mother is one of the most hardworking persons she knows. During her first two years in the US as a grad student, her mother worked part-time jobs to cover her expenses instead of asking for money from family. One of her jobs was baby-sitting.

"At that time I was still in China, 4 or 5 years old," Li recalled. "She helped look after other kids, but her own little girl was thousands of miles away. For a mother that's never an easy thing."

Great expectations

One day in 2007, after Li herself graduated from the University of Washington with a degree in business, she received a call from her father in China, who only said three words to her: "Come back now."

Without any hesitation, Li obeyed. "I had two main reasons for coming back," she explained. "The first being that I could spend more time with my family."

However, the then-emerging Chinese market was also quite appealing to Li. At that time, China maintained robust development throughout the global financial crisis. Beijing would also be hosting the 2008 Olympic Games in the coming year.

"China was drawing attention from all over the world," she recalled.

After returning to her motherland, Li started her first job working for Mercedes-Benz in Beijing. Two years later she joined a UK-based CEO leadership consulting company. There, she helped build the Chinese market working with leading CEOs to develop their skills.

During those four years, Li worked with over 150 Chinese CEOs, co-authored a book on their stories and learned a lot about China's growing market.

"I found that everyone was watching the country with great expectations," she said. "The Chinese economy was thriving."

Sisterhood ambitions

Though Chinese entrepreneurs were a fast-growing group along with the country's economy, Li realized that it was still a predominantly male community.

Only a small percentage of entrepreneurs that she personally knew were women. "That meant women were underrepresented," she said. "Over 78 percent of Chinese women participate in the workforce."

A single woman from a single-child family, Li decided to do something for her female peers. In 2015, she started her own business, 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.

"Many professional Chinese women are from single-child families, and they remain single in their late 20s or older," Li told the Global Times. "Apart from work, they also face pressure from their families and society."

Five months ago, Sorority China opened its first offline branch in Shanghai. There, the sisterhood organizes gatherings, discussions and outdoor activities for like-minded professional women.

Li is planning to build more Sorority China branches in other Chinese cities. "The next will open in Beijing in early 2018," she said. "By providing warm, home-like shared spaces, I hope I can make more professional Chinese women feel less alone."



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