Aspiring women entrepreneurs flock from all over to find success in China’s prosperous capital

By Katie Capstick Source:Global Times Published: 2018/3/7 21:03:40

Michelle Gropp, co-founder of Lead with Words, facilitates the Global Leadership Summit held in Beijing in 2017, where over 1,300 leaders came to improve their leadership skills. Gropp is among the many global businesswomen interviewed by the Global Times who are running successful companies in China's bustling capital city. Photo: Courtesy of Lead with Words

From Latin America to Africa, from Canada to Thailand, from Shanghai to London, women are flocking from all over to China's prosperous capital in pursuit of a career in the men-dominated business world. On the occasion of International Women's Day, the Global Times spoke with a diverse pool of businesswomen and "one-woman show" start-ups who call Beijing their home and workplace to gauge the city's climate for female entrepreneurs. The women noted a number of reasons for their Beijing business adventures, with many citing market gaps, family heritage and a passion to introduce their culture to China. Thanks to the country's continuous opening-up policy and encouragement of foreign investment, Beijing is increasingly providing capital access to the world's up-and-coming businesswomen, which experts say is not only the "right thing to do," but also the "smart thing to do."

On the bustling streets of Beijing, through its winding, labyrinthine hutong alleyways, and up to the top floors of its towering skyscrapers, ambitious businesswomen from a cocktail of countries and regions and a mixture of industries are chasing their dreams and smashing through the glass ceiling.

China's opening-up and economic reform policy that started exactly 40 years ago in 1978 have enabled its capital city to become a flourishing international hub boasting a colorful show of talent and immense economic vitality, with the Beijing municipal government setting its GDP growth target at around 6.5 percent for 2018.

And as the cherry on the cake, Beijing's business ecosystem is in particular cultivating some rather life-changing opportunities for the world's aspiring women entrepreneurs. "China's economic growth creates greater opportunities for women," said Elaine Zhou, co-founder of the Women Equipping Center, an organization promoting gender equality and women's economic development in China. 

In fact, according to a survey conducted by US tech giant Dell in collaboration with UK-based research firm IHS Markit and the Technology and Entrepreneurship Center at Harvard University, as of 2016, Beijing was the 13th best city in the world for women to start a high-growth business with the potential to generate $1 million or more in annual revenue.

Ranking alongside other major financial cities such as London, Toronto, the San Francisco Bay Area, Paris and Sydney, Beijing was analyzed for its factors most conducive for high-potential women entrepreneurs.

By now, Beijing - the host of the historical 1995 4th World Conference on Women - has likely climbed the ladder, with more and more women moving from other listed cities to the Chinese capital to embrace their leadership skills and establish their own businesses.

Thai entrepreneur Ally Chonlakarn Sirikolkarn is an exemplar. While living and working in Silicon Valley, it was during her US green card application process when she realized that better opportunities lay elsewhere.

Asked why she chose Beijing to establish her restaurant Sa Thi Thai Food (Beijing) Co, which provides the city with a taste of the delicious cuisines of her hometown Bangkok, the self-made "restauranteur" said, "I am passionate for and fascinated by the Chinese market…Beijing is very attractive for start-ups from all over the world."

Similarly, Zhu Ying, founder and CEO of B&E China Group, which specializes in brand marketing of entertainment content, decided to abandon a comfortable life in Los Angeles and return to her homeland - a growing trend among Chinese expats in the US.

But Zhu added that compared to her hometown of Shanghai, Beijing's pull factor was stronger due to its "national culture center" status, community of angel investors and other unique characteristics that better support her company.

"In Beijing in 2017, there were over 400 transactions in the culture and entertainment sector with a total investment amount of over 42 billion yuan [$6.65 billion]," she said.

Those numbers compare with just 160 transactions amounting to 9.1 billion yuan in Shanghai, and in Guangzhou, capital of South China's Guangdong Province, those numbers are even less, she added. "So it has been proven that my judgment [to choose Beijing] was correct." 

Canadian Michelle Gropp, co-founder of Lead with Words, a presentation training firm, also feels that Beijing's robust business landscape is especially advantageous to her company. "The Chinese economy is booming…and there's a large presence of international companies here, and these are the companies that really value training," she said.

For American Leslie Dong, founder and CEO of Pursuit International, a recruitment agency connecting promising youth to the global job market in China, it was her Chinese roots that brought her to Beijing. "My parents chased the American Dream, whereas I'm chasing the Chinese Dream," she said. 

Finding a niche

Other women's stories are a little different. Many interviewed initially started their Chinese journeys as English teachers, but soon realized that market gaps existed in Beijing, prompting them to alter their career paths. 

Londoner Nicole Bonnah, founder of HaloHummus, was preparing dipping dishes for dinner parties alongside her teaching when an innovative business idea sparked in her mind. Since hummus is so rare in Beijing, Bonnah decided to start selling the popular snack.

"Because the demand was so high and because people were enjoying it so much, I decided to try selling my hummus…I put a little shout-out on WeChat…and before I knew it, I had five people contact me…then 20…then I had over 200 people in one WeChat group," she said. "It soon spiraled out of control, and so I decided to turn it into a business."

Bonnah wasn't the only woman interviewed whose business has been kick-started by Tencent Holdings' hugely popular multipurpose app WeChat. New Yorker Anya Raynae, also working as an English teacher, noticed a demand for buying cheap but quality clothes online. She says her WeChat shop HotSpot now allows women in Beijing to "look like a million dollars for just a few dollars," and hopes to continue expanding the business in the future.

According to data Tencent sent to the Global Times on February 27, there are 980 million monthly active WeChat users and 3.5 million monthly active WeChat-based start-ups.

English teacher Boithabiso Mokoena from South Africa's Free State also noticed a market gap in Beijing. "When I first came to China, I met a lot of people from other countries who knew about South Africa, but mainly knew about the political or sporting parts of the country," she said.

"So I figured, because there are other aspects, let me introduce those to Beijing to show we have a very vibrant social scene." As such, Mokoena founded 011 Brunch, an event company showcasing a flavor of South African social culture to the city.

Chilean Francesca Hanshing also felt the need to introduce her country to China. Seven years ago, she moved to Beijing and founded Hanshing Agency, a consultancy advising Chilean companies in China.

"I've always had a skill for selling…In the 80s in Chile, there was a free trade zone in my hometown of Iquique…I used to buy products in the zone and sell them in Santiago where I studied. There were lots of products from China in Iquique," she said, highlighting the reality that greater trade openness can benefit women.

In fact, China is now Chile's top trading partner, with a bilateral trade volume of around $35.4 billion in 2017, according to the General Administration of Customs.

But for Californian Rhianna Aaron, founder of Opopo magazine, she noticed a need to empower one particular community living in China.

"When I first came to Beijing, among the black community… we all had similar complaints or issues such as discrimination… So I took it upon myself to motivate, uplift and inspire the black community in Beijing [with Opopo]." 

Half the sky

According to a 2015 report by the New York-headquartered McKinsey Global Institute, when women are not able to achieve their fullest economic potential due to social, cultural and political barriers, the global economy as a consequence suffers, calculating that if all countries advanced gender equality by matching "the rate of improvement of the fastest-improving country in their region," as much as $12 trillion could be added to global annual GDP by 2025.

Furthermore, the research arm said that "in a 'full potential' scenario in which women play an identical role in labor markets to that of men, as much as $28 trillion could be added to global annual GDP" by that same year.

Despite this evidence, "there is a gender gap in the business world," said Gao Xin, deputy secretary-general of the Asia-Pacific Youth Foundation for Communication and Development. In fact, according to the Asian Development Bank, women across developing Asia occupy only 6 percent of seats on corporate boards.

Hannah Ryder, founder and CEO of the first Kenyan wholly foreign-owned enterprise in China, noted that, although she is ''constantly working with women,'' she notices a prevalence of ''manels'' at higher management levels in multinationals, what she describes as ''panels made up solely of men.''

But Tina Tendai Makuku, founder and CEO of Chariots Handmaydz, an accessories business whose profits help orphanages and disadvantaged women in her home country of Zimbabwe, says such gender gap stems from stereotyping and problematic organizational structures worldwide, adding we need to start by tackling disparities at the grass-roots level, then the corporate level. 

Gao opined, however, that "the women's entrepreneurship environment is getting better and better…In the past, women mainly supported the family…few chose to start their own businesses…they're more independent now."

Qi Feng, CEO of FM Aviation Technology and a native of Xi'an, capital of Northwest China's Shaanxi Province, is one of the many women challenged by working in a men-dominated business field, but she says, "With the deepening of communication, [men] respect women's opinions more. So I think this is the best era for women to work, and we can work together to make this world a better place."

Ryder also mentioned positive maternity leave policies as a factor helping to close the business gender gap, with China offering better policies than some more developed countries.

"Though data varies, statistics suggest that China has more businesswomen representation than many other countries, including the US…women know China…they're focused on China's international footprint," added the British-Kenyan of Development Reimagined, a consultancy firm delivering solutions to worldwide poverty and environmental challenges by enhancing China's global impact.

Indeed, and in 2017, Forbes described China as "the de facto capital of the self-made female billionaires' club."

Undoubtedly, the dialogue with Beijing's female entrepreneurs further demonstrates how women are playing a more prominent role in catalyzing the business workforce of Asia's economic powerhouse, progress that is guaranteed to benefit all.

"The promotion of gender equality and overall development of women is not only of great significance for China's development, it also has a special influence on the efforts for the advancement of the whole world," said Elaine Zhou, of the Women Equipping Center.

Newspaper headline: Beijing’s thriving businesswomen


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