By James Kent
Over the years we’ve brought you success stories about female alumni who have launched their own start-ups. Now we bring you four more. These outstanding women are making a difference in the fashion, education and lifestyle industries here in China. Read on to learn more about what inspired their entrepreneurial journey and how they’re overcoming the many challenges faced along the way.
Sue Li, MBA2012
Having to wear multiple hats is the biggest challenge that Sue Li finds with being an entrepreneur. Running her own business providing visual and fashion design services for women, she’s in charge of brand promotion and customer communication, as well as photography and image retouching. At the same time she also has to think about big picture strategy. Her work has been featured in publications such as Brides, Cosmopolitan and ELLEChina.com. This year she plans to launch a bridal and fashion clothing brand and she wants to expand to larger studio space to improve on the services offered to clients. Yet she worries about growing too fast, which might compromise quality.
The popular saying, “Do what you love and success will follow” perfectly sums up Sue’s entrepreneurial journey. She began her career working at one of the Big Four accounting firms, but always enjoyed capturing friends, family and colleagues on camera. Her enthusiasm for visual art led to her decision to reinvent herself through the CEIBS MBA Programme. While she was still in school a friend asked her to photograph her wedding. After posting the images on social media Sue received more requests for her photography skills, and she began balancing her hectic MBA study workload with a part-time wedding and portrait photography business.
After her MBA, Sue joined fashion media giant Hearst as Director of Strategy and Marketing but continued her photography business on the weekends. In November 2015, after four years of this double identity, she decided to follow her heart and open her own studio.
“I met many outstanding students while studying at CEIBS. Their stories inspired me to realise that “self” is the most important word and represents something different for each individual,” says Sue. “Listen to yourself, be confident and strive for a strong, independent personality and the ability to manage your own life. This will motivate you to face and overcome frustrations and obstacles.”
She adds, “To do something you love, something that also brings joy to others, is indeed an extremely meaningful thing anyone would be lucky to experience.” Her advice for other women thinking of taking the plunge into the tough world of entrepreneurship: begin with an idea that you’re really passionate about. “Only if you love the venture from the bottom of your heart will you be able to bear the pressures of entrepreneurship. If you dedicate your heart to doing a good job, then profit will follow,” she says.
Sue's photographic work
Denise Pu & Gong Xuan, MBA2012
The community of women entrepreneurs in China is quite strong, with some incubators and investors specifically geared towards assisting the fairer sex, says Denise Pu. She should know; she’s Co-founder of YOLOBOO, an invitation-only social media APP focused on food, travel and other lifestyle experiences. It’s only for women. Denise’s company is based in Shanghai where she’s found a close-knit group of professional women who provide support for new entrepreneurs who are often facing similar challenges.
Her business partner Gong Xuan has also noticed some of the differences between China’s male and female entrepreneurs, and how these impact their companies. Women, she explains, tend to focus on operations and may therefore find it challenging to build a technical team when they’re just starting out. On the other hand, male entrepreneurs are usually more technical, so they may have problems on the operational side of things.
For Gong, YOLOBOO has been challenging in every aspect. “Everything was new to me, from writing recruitment ads to giving employee performance reviews,” she says. “I remember recruiting our first employee, my heart was pounding! I didn’t know if she would want to join a team that only had two members – just us founders; or mind that she would be working in a living room that was serving as our office. I was very happy she understood our philosophy and decided to join us. Over the past seven months, I’ve seen her grow and everyone is growing together as a team. It makes me really happy.”
A 12-day road trip together across Iceland sparked the idea for YOLOBOO. Denise and Gong were moved by the beauty of the country and wanted to share the magnificent sights so they could be appreciated by others. After all, they thought, ‘You Only Live Once, BOO!’ which became the name for their APP – YOLOBOO. The timing of their trip coincided with some entrepreneurial stirrings. “I’d been traveling quite often over the past five years both for business and leisure,” recalls Denise. “I noticed that almost every woman I know was traveling much more frequently and their travel was evolving from hopping on tour buses to independent travel and exclusive experiences. I also saw the rising trend of ‘womenomics’ in China.” Gong had also noticed the increasing numbers of economically and psychologically independent Chinese women, and saw YOLOBOO as a platform that could shine a light on quality of life for a community of like-minded women.
At the time, she was working at Microsoft having joined the company’s MACH Programme after her MBA. Denise was working in banking in Hong Kong. After their Iceland trip, Denise remembered a bit of advice that Professor of Marketing Lydia Price had shared with her MBA class: “You’re bound to make tough decisions. You will only find out later whether some decisions were wrong or right. But you just have to make a decision. The worst is being indecisive.”
Now that she has her own business, Denise has a few words of advice herself for women interested in entrepreneurship. She suggests that they get as much practical experience as possible. “If you work in a large organisation, try to gain exposure to a start-up atmosphere to see if it suits your personality,” she says.
It also helps to have strong support, and Denise is grateful to friends and family as well as their early clients. “They have endured many testing bugs and have not given up on us,” she says of YOLOBOO’s initial users. “This gives me confidence that the community we are building and the content we are creating is worth the time and effort we’re putting in. We just need to make it the best it can be!
The YOLOBOO APP became available through iTunes App Store in the first week of April.
Lily Li, MBA2015
Lily Li was in the second year of her CEIBS MBA when she became pregnant. Like most expectant mothers she began reading up on child development and baby care. An article about education in Shanghai made her suddenly realise that her child’s career path would actually begin at kindergarten. Talking to other new parents she found they shared many of the same worries about their children’s education. Finding a way to alleviate these anxieties led Lily to start her own business, GAP Education, which provides consultancy services for Chinese families exploring international education options for their children.
“Every day our company answers questions from households such as, should my child study abroad? Should he/she go abroad for his/her bachelor’s degree, or go for high school? Is it really the right thing to do for my child? How do you select the best school for further studies abroad?” Lily explains.
Originally she had planned to use her MBA studies to engineer a career shift that would leverage a decade of work experience in market research towards a new career in charity or public welfare. “At CEIBS my knowledge of public welfare was brought to a new level. There are many opportunities to improve society’s problems; charities are only one option,” she says. As President of the MBA CSR Club, she led efforts to host the 8th annual Being Globally Responsible Conference, where the topic was sustainable education. “Looking back, it was the perfect opportunity to gain experience and the contacts I made have helped steer me along my entrepreneurial path,” she says.
To provide the very best service to her clients, Lily dedicates a tremendous amount of time to researching international education policies and communicating with numerous stakeholders. But she knows the value of having a life outside the office. That’s why the most valued object on her desk is not her laptop or her phone but a Frisbee. Running a business requires putting in long hours at work, leaving her with little time for exercise. Her husband solved this problem for her with a thoughtful gift – Ultimate Frisbee lessons in nearby Century Park. Now she has an easy to manage fitness routine. “Slowly I became more fit, and I would often go back to work after a session feeling revitalised and ready to tackle the challenges that lay ahead,” she says.
Aspiring women entrepreneurs need to remember the importance of a healthy work-life balance says Lily. “Before I became a mother I would easily clock 170 hours of overtime per month. With a family, this balance is unsustainable.”
Sue, Denise, Gong and Lily are part of a growing global trend of MBA students with a flair for entrepreneurship and/or an interest in making it the focus of their MBA study. CEIBS has responded to these needs and the MBA Class of 2016 was officially the first to offer students the option to choose a concentration in entrepreneurship. In addition the school launched the MBA eLab incubator last year, which helps student entrepreneurs flesh out their business plans and attract VC funding. CEIBS has also organised overseas study tours that give MBA students a first-hand look at entrepreneurship cultures abroad. Among the current batch of CEIBS MBAs, 30% said they plan to start their own business, and several have already had a successful start-up.