A Startup Experience in Shanghai

I have always considered myself to be a problem solver. If you were to ask me what I wanted to be when I grow up, my first answer was and still remains “a detective.” What a way to spend your career, traveling the world, looking for clues, and – in the end – piecing everything together to solve some grand problem. While I am currently not on track to be what is colloquially known as “a detective,” I am in the process of becoming something quite similar: an entrepreneur. Entrepreneurship in its simplest form is professional problem solving. An entrepreneur cannot be considered successful if their services do not solve a problem faced by a large clientele. My first experience with entrepreneurship occurred my senior year of high school in an entrepreneurial studies class. Here, I was introduced to many entrepreneurs in my hometown of Buffalo, New York. I was also able to start my first business venture, Z Spools. Z Spools began with seeming failure. After returning from a relaxing winter break, my entrepreneurial studies class tasked with create a business startup. From restaurants to security systems, any and all ideas were welcome, as long as you could provide a 75 second pitch in support of your startup. In short, the goal was this: to encourage your class mates to join your business bandwagon through an engaging elevator pitch. After such pitches, we would vote for the top three startups and create business models in teams of three or four. Entrepreneurialism is essentially a method of problem solving, so with such an open-ended task, I knew the best way to begin was to find a problem worth solving. Considering my preexisting interests in holistic and Native American medicine, I knew that I wanted to work with nature, plants in particular. Thanks to a seventh grade science class, when thinking about the problems existing in our natural environment, I immediately thought of invasive species. After doing some quick research, I found three prominent invasive plant species in my home state of New York (hydrilla, water chestnut, and garlic mustard) with which I could work with. In light of my proud foodie status, I decided that my startup would involve harvesting such invasive species and marketing them as food products in local grocery stores and restaurants. Considering that Wegmans (a local grocery store chain in Buffalo, NY) was already doing something similar with Lion-fish, and the aforementioned plants are popular food items in other countries, I knew that my idea had great potential. Unfortunately, the rest of Entrepreneurial Studies class did not share this belief. They instead preferred startups involving pillows, cruises, and ice cream, none of which solved any problems I viewed worth pursuing. In short, I was bitter, but this discontent inspired within me an entrepreneurial spark which I pursued with great vigor. Now in Shanghai, I continue to explore my interests in entrepreneurship.

Entrepreneurs in the Chinese marketplace, as it pertains to Shanghai, realize the importance of cross-cultural expression. The precarious and “liminal status” of the entrepreneurial class in Chinese society allows such group to thrive in innovative spaces commonly found in Shanghai.

To learn more about the entrepreneurial experience in Shanghai, I reached out to Adja Sy, the owner of Lalu, a skincare venture here in Shanghai. During my interview with Adja, I learned a lot about her life prior to founding Lalu. Adja’s first experience in China was nine years ago in Ningbo where she participated in an exchange program. An internship with Goodyear narrowed her sights to Shanghai, and now, almost a decade later, she call’s Shanghai home. Her favorite aspect of living in Shanghai had been the diversity. She explained that being around so many different people of diverse experience forces you out of your comfort zone, and – as a natural introvert – forced her to be less shy and meet a wide array of Shanghai’s diverse population. Growing up in Paris, she had some previous experience studying Mandarin; however, her level of communication did not lend itself to the complexities of product sourcing in China; so, when starting her first business endeavor in Shanghai, she focused mainly on sales and marketing within the Shanghai’s foreign community. She recommends, however, to master the Chinese language prior to starting a business venture in China; it leads to great benefits along the entrepreneurial path as she later explains.

 While she had no previous entrepreneurial experience prior to creating Lalu, she comes from an entrepreneurial family. Her father and her grandparents all owned businesses in Senegal – where she was born. Considering her family’s path in occupation, she always knew that, one day, she would own a business. While she viewed this as a daunting goal, she did her best of fend away negative thoughts that may deter her from achieving such. “Don’t be scared,” she would encourage herself. “Just go for it.” She wanted to do something for herself, something that would make her feel independent. Not just this, but also, as a foreigner in China that does not has the conventional beauty characteristics of a Caucasian foreigner, she often felt as if she had to beg for a job in Shanghai. Many employers in Shanghai’s customer service industry prefer employees with more of a Caucasian appearance. This is because of a preference for lighter skin in China; the though is that customers will prefer to interact with shop keepers in line with a beauty standard that they are accustomed to seeing. For this reason, Adja wished to carve out her own space in Shanghai’s workforce where she would not have to be overly constrained by the beauty standards accustomed to most in China.

An interesting concept mentioned during my interview with Adja was the idea of cross-cultural expression through foreign and local entrepreneurial interactions. It is in my opinion that China would benefit from the interactions between foreign and local entrepreneurs. A concept termed by the innovator Frans Johannson explains that “diversity drive innovation.” Diversity in experiences and backgrounds spurred by the conversations between foreign and local entrepreneurs would inspire further innovation and entrepreneurial spirit to take place in Shanghai.  

I also learned a lot about Adja’s day to day trials and tribulations as a business owner in Shanghai. Prior to creating Lalu, Adja had no previous experience beauty or skincare experience. She wished to fill a market which lacked in China: natural skin products. She wished to create a skincare brand meant not just for people with darker skin but for people with sensitive skin. After have issues with sensitive skin and dry hair due to the China’s water and air quality, she learned to make her own products at home, and Lalu took off. This niche market of natural, handmade skincare products inspired Adja to continue her business endeavor in Shanghai. She wanted to create a brand  that appealed not just to 老外 skin, but also Chinese skin. An added appeal was the fact that she would become the first African women in China to own a skincare business. In a Financial Times article featuring Adja, she was quoted says that “In Europe, you’d prepare everything first [prior to starting a business venture]. In Shanghai, you just try it and see what happens.” Such an approach makes the entrepreneurial experience in Shanghai all the more interested. There exists a supportive, entrepreneurial community here in Shanghai that makes this “diving in head first” experience succeed for some. Adja explains that you just have to go for it. You cannot worry about being perfect all of the time, mistakes and corrections will be made along the way, just enjoy the entrepreneurial journey.  Another supportive service available to entrepreneurs in Shanghai is WeChat. Adja explains that WeChat was a tremendous help in launching her business. She was able to attain free marketing by reaching out to people on the app. WeChat’s many offerings from communication, payment services, and advertisement allows anyone to be an entrepreneur.   Since first launching her business in 2014, Adja faced many problems growing her business as a foreign entrepreneur. The largest problem she faced occurred after completing the necessary paperwork to become a legal enterprise in China. As a small business she had difficulties sourcing quality products in the relatively small quantities she needed. Not only this, but she also faced an immense issue when a factory refuses to give her the products she needed even after paying the factory and signing the proper contracts. Only after hiring a lawyer and threatening to expose the factory on Weibo was she able to get her money back. This whole process took almost a year to resolve. Many foreigners face similar issues when working with factories in China, but fortunately, Adja was able to overcome this issue. As Lalu continues to expand, Adja wishes to expand her business to other Chinese cities such a Beijing, a city where both foreigners and locals may be looking for natural skincare products to fight the affects harsh water and air quality on their skin and hair.  Adja works hard to bring the best ingredients from all over the world to make her products as to provide the best quality products to her customers. Now that Adja had successfully progressed through the past fews years with Lalu, she will soon start seeking investors to help further expand her business. She is also looking to grow her team by hiring interns and other professionals to join Lalu. Looking back on all she has achieved as a business owner in Shanghai, Adja sees that she could not have reached this level of success anywhere outside of Shanghai. The entrepreneurial energy is like no other in this city. She has successfully created a community of fellow, female entrepreneurs in Shanghai through WeChat where they share ideas and are able relate over the trials and tribulations of female business ownership in Shanghai. Not only this, but her status as a Black woman is perceived differently here than back home in Paris. In Shanghai, she is a foreigner. In France, she is Black. Having an entire foreign community of diverse backgrounds to support her endeavors, Shanghai has provided an immensely supportive community despite her status as a woman with unconventional Chinese beauty characteristics.

As a Black woman in China, I found an odd comfort in being able to interview a woman similar to me in race and culture. Through my experience growing up in the United States, the concept of finding solidarity within the Black community is quite common. Considering the United States history as it pertains to race and the treatment of African Americans, the Black community is quite strong. African Americans tend to support each other in both social and professional spaces; however, this “kinship” is not exclusive. It relies on the concept of common grief over the treatment of “our people” in American history. This is a difficult concept to explain through language, but simply put, Black people in America share a common sorrow that pulls them together as a community. Now as a momentary member of Shanghai’s foreign community, I jumped on the opportunity to interview a woman like me. While she is not American, she is African; and similar connections can be drawn between the African and African American experience, especially as these experiences pertain to life in Shanghai. During my interview with Adja, I decided to ask her questions regarding her experience as not only a foreign business owner in Shanghai but also as a Black business owner in Shanghai. I asked her question such as “being a Black business owner in China, do you believe you appearance as a Black woman has been an advantage or a disadvantage?” While she answered these questions, she prefaced her answers with this:

“While I am proud to be a Black woman here in Shanghai, I consider myself to be human first. Here in Shanghai, I am not one of many Black people but one of many foreigners. When it comes time to defend myself and my fellow Black people in the face of adversity and discrimination, I will do so; however, my entire life does not revolve around my race. While I was born in Senegal, I was raised in Paris and have lived in Shanghai for many years now. I consider Shanghai my home, and while I face difficulties as a foreigner here in Shanghai, I do not always attribute these difficulties to my status as a Black woman. I am human, as we all are.”

These words, while they are paraphrased, resonated with me. As explained prior, race is largely imbedded in the identities of many Americans of African descent. While I can say that both Adja and I are proud of our African descent, I can say that both of us appreciate being able to belong to part of a greater foreign community in Shanghai. As foreigners, our diverse background allow us to introduce parts of home into the Shanghainese community. Whether it be through pastries in a French bakery or Shea butter in Adja’s skincare products, the best of many worlds come together in Shanghai. As mentioned prior, Entrepreneurs in the Chinese marketplace, as it pertains to Shanghai, realize the importance of cross-cultural expression. The precarious and “liminal status” of the entrepreneurial class in Chinese society allows such group to thrive in innovative spaces commonly found in Shanghai.

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