By Leina & Zhang Yueting
Vivian Jiang seems to be one of those people with a knack for knowing, before everyone else, where the wind is blowing in the world of business. One of the earliest online shop owners, she began selling jewellery on the Internet when eBay had just entered China and Alibaba was no more than a business plan. Back then, she was not yet a student of CEIBS.
Though a fan of jewellery, she didn’t major in design, and after graduating from Southeast University she went to Shanghai and worked for a foreign company there. Four years later in 2010, determined to make a career leap, she began her MBA studies at CEIBS. She left her mark at the school by starting a Fashion Industry Club which brought together like-minded students for networking and events, including visits to companies such as LVMH, ELLE, and CEIBS alumnus company Mbaobao.com. “The luxury industry was doing well in China at that time, and we had more than two dozen people joining in whenever we had an event. It’s a rather big industry club,” Jiang says.
She never imagined that a volunteer job at the 2011 CEIBS Luxury Forum would bring her an internship opportunity in Hong Kong. As an event volunteer she was assigned to meet the CEO of Cartier’s Asia Pacific Branch, Francis Gouten, at the airport. While on the way to the Shanghai Campus she found herself in a lively discussion with him, and he offered her the internship. However working in the luxury industry made her realise that her career lay elsewhere. “I’d be happier if my products are affordable to more people,” she says.
This feeling became even stronger during her time as an exchange student at HEC in Paris. “People in Europe are pursuing uniqueness and quality; they were long past luxury purchasing. They want the jewellery they buy to be unique… and it won’t be long before the Chinese do as well,” she says.
It was thanks to a BMT Exchange Scholarship that Jiang was able to do her semester abroad. More than a dozen had applied for the opportunity to do an exchange at HEC, and though her GPA was not the best, Jiang was one of only three in her cohort who were accepted. “What set me apart was probably that I had a clear plan for my future, and I had experience in running an online shop and organising a club,” she says. Her determination and her dreams for the future persuaded the professors and interviewers to believe that she would benefit from the experience in France.
Jiang rented an apartment in the heart of Paris, where she could observe its luxury lifestyle up close. This also meant she had to get up at 5 or 6am for the two-hour commute by metro to classes at HEC, which was especially hard to bear in the chilly months from October to December. She persevered, and enjoyed classes on topics such as Luxury Management and Marketing. Some of the professors had been senior executives of companies such as Louis Vuitton, Hermès or L’Oréal.
Though she didn’t have any invitations, she managed to get in to see several shows during Paris Fashion Week. She also attended a Brands Exhibition of Designers for industry insiders. The ticket cost €30 – nearly a day’s living costs for her, but it enabled her to make her first contacts with European designers. “The jewellery was well made, well designed and fairly priced,” she says. “The styles were new to a Chinese eye and I thought girls would be eager to wear them as soon as they saw them. I hoped to bring them back to China.” In talking with some of the designers there, she found most had interest in doing business in China though they had never done so before. She was excited about the possibilities.
But she also has a few bitter memories of this time. Once, as she was about to take a close look at some jewellery on display in a Paris shop, the owner said an unfriendly tone, “We never cooperate with the Chinese, because all they know how to do is copy.” Feeling ashamed, she asked herself: why not trying something of my own? She made up her mind to be an original designer, no matter what hardships she might meet.
Her stay in France was a series of firsts: it was her first time living abroad, she went backpacking there for the first time, and took budget flights for the first time. She and her roommate even redecorated their apartment and rented it on Airbnb, enabling them to earn US$3,000 while they were travelling. “It was like a dream,” she says. “Women dream of being in Paris, backpacking around Europe, visiting places like Prague and Norway. My dream came true; everything I had imagined about Europe came true.”
Jiang didn’t send a résumé out after graduation. Returning from France, she was steadfast in her decision to start her own business. When she opened HeyJewel in 2012 it was the first global jewellery brand shop in China, and it featured original jewellery pieces from more than 50 designers, including many from Europe. Headquartered in a Spanish-style villa on Hua Ting Road in Shanghai with a newly opened shop on Alibaba’s Tmall, HeyJewel does both online and offline retail sales.
Her studies at CEIBS helped give her the confidence that she could chart her own course. “There weren’t many start-ups among my classmates,” she says. “Some started a business after working for a few years, but most found jobs in foreign companies, finance companies and investment banks. I was in the retail industry, and I paid attention to lessons on retailing I had in class. Combining this with my practical experience, I think the traditional service businesses, such as restaurants and department stores, need CEIBS graduates. They can make a difference.” The time she spent in Europe has had a lasting influence on her business. “The European culture, the European people and their lifestyle as well as the stories about the brands and designs have always had a strong pull on us,” she says. “We like to share the beauty of Europe with our Chinese customers.”
Europe will also have a special place in her heart because it is where she met her husband. “He once studied in The Netherlands, and he stayed there for five years before coming back to China to join HeyJewel. We had our wedding ceremony in The Netherlands and spent our honeymoon there months ago. We feel that we are linked to Europe somehow, in our emotions, and career.”