Mainland Moments: Young entrepreneurs make Shanghai home

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China is opening up a world of opportunities for young Australian entrepreneurs, writes Karen Tye from Shanghai.

Confucius said: “Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.” For Andrew Collins, CEO of Mailman Group which is headquartered in Shanghai, the saying rings true.

“I’ve been an entrepreneur my whole life, and I’ve only ever known life this way,” he says andrew collins headshot square-1 webpassionately.


At just 34, Collins’ company, which develops social media and technology strategies for the China market, has three subsidiary companies and hires over 30 people.

As for Kimberly Ashton, co-founder of Shanghai’s first natural foods store Sprout, her foray into small business grew organically from her background and passion in event management and her interest in health and wellness. “I wasn’t an entrepreneur until recently but I think that many people who’ve been in Shanghai or China for a long time tend to get a little entrepreneurial. It’s the right environment to do new things and launch concepts,” she says.

*Pictured: “I’ve been an entrepreneur my whole life, and I’ve only ever known life this way,” says Mailman Group CEO, Shanghai-based young Australian, Andrew Collins.

Then there’s Alexandra Chu, founding partner of The Anken Group, a boutique real estate development company that uses sustainable practices to design and build commercial spaces for the Shanghai market. She primarily came to Shanghai for a bit of adventure and to learn Mandarin and had smaller ventures and projects before Anken, which took top honours in the Sustainable Development and People’s Choice categories in the 2010 Westpac AustCham Australia China Business Awards.

“We were seriously up against some heavy hitters like BlueScope Steel – which made it all the more surprising and rewarding,” Chu adds. 

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Collins, Ashton and Chu are among the growing number of young, talented and successful Aussies who are proof that the world really can be one’s oyster in Shanghai, the pearl of the Orient. All three individuals cite the advantageous marketplace as the catalyst for them to start up their own business.

“China has all the opportunities that Australia doesn’t have, although turning those opportunities into something tangible is much easier in Australia,” Collins admits.

“For me, the health and wellness field in China presents huge demand and supply and makes it anKimberly Ashton Garden-1 web exciting opportunity and adventure to embark on,” Ashton, who is in her early 30s, says. “Whilst our customers are still 70 percent to 80 percent expats, the number of health conscious Chinese consumers and curious ones is growing.”

But where there are opportunities, there are also challenges to overcome.

While funding is a common issue with small businesses, Ashton says that this obstacle has a China-specific angle to it for her business.


“A Shanghainese business partner and I have been self-funding the business and it is now time as a small business to scale up. Finding investors in China or in Asia with similar passions for health, nutrition and whole foods is slightly more challenging though as we are market leaders/pioneers in what we are doing and being first you do it the hard way – educating consumers about food, lifestyle, health and things that they don’t know they need nor want.”

*Pictured above: A study trip to Hangzhou as part of a UTS International Studies degree was the starting point for a China-based career for young Sydney entrepreneur, Kimberly Ashton.

The challenge that comes to mind for Collins is people management.

“This was difficult for me initially, managing diversity and overcoming the language barrier. I’ve always tried to be as patient as possible and to accept that there are differences and that we should navigate around these, not try to change them completely or mould people or ideas into something else,” he says.

“You have to learn enough of the language so as to develop respect – ignorant foreigners do not make it too far in this country. Honestly though, I’m neither a cultural guru nor do I believe that if I spoke fluent Mandarin, it would have added to the success of my business,” says Collins, whose clients have included Manchester United and Liverpool football clubs, Citibank and GMAT.

Chu, who was born and bred in Australia and studied architecture at Melbourne University, did not Alex Chu Anken webspeak any Mandarin when she first set foot in Shanghai. She says that she immersed herself in a very local environment early on to gain an understanding of Chinese culture, language and the market, which was an enormous learning curve.

“I’ve been in Shanghai since 2000 but you’ll have to give me another 10 years before I can read or write,” she laughs.

*Pictured: Alexandra Chu arrived in China to study Mandarin but went on to form The Anken Group, a boutique real estate development company that uses sustainable practices to design and build commercial spaces for the Shanghai market.

Ashton, however, is of the view that bilingualism plays an important role in a successful business in China. She studied Mandarin in Hangzhou as part of her University of Technology Sydney international studies degree and is fluent in oral and written Mandarin.

“Both my language and culture studies and the exchange program have been keys to my success in China. Immersion in the language and understanding the business culture is important in managing staff, dealing with customers, suppliers, partners, media, the list goes on. Moreover, I think these days, those who come to Shanghai looking for work are required to have a base level of Chinese, I for example won’t hire anyone (kitchen staff and junior staff excluded) if they aren’t bilingual – this goes for both Chinese employees and expat employees,” she says.

“Specifically, in what I’m doing with food education, corporate events, public talks and media appearances, being bilingual, understanding Chinese concerns for wellness, and being able to make jokes in Chinese are vital to my success and building on the brand and what we are able to deliver,” Ashton says.

Aside from the language, Ashton views partnership as another important aspect in a successful business in China.

“I have been very lucky with my business partner. She was the third person I met in Shanghai. I know many entrepreneurs can face obstacles with set up, administration and getting things done in China sometimes,” she says.

Ashton says finding a great number two is imperative. “In China, I couldn’t have made my company prosper without locally grown talent I could trust.”

Collins agrees. “Patience is also important as I think it takes at least three years to develop credibility within the industry,” he says.

“My advice for budding entrepreneurs is to develop relationships big or small and to build a network with trust and integrity. Moreover, people tend to benchmark their expectations to their previous job back home, such as pay, which may ultimately hold one back,” Collins says.

“Sometimes not knowing everything works. If I had known back then what I know now, maybe I would not have jumped into this market – however, it’s been an extremely rewarding and memorable experience.”  


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