Xiaoying Zhou reports on female entrepreneurs in China

In April 2012, Tiantian Ma and her partner finally moved to Shanghai to open up China’s first cold-pressed juice and natural food cleanse company, VCLEANSE. In less than two years, VCLEANSE has consolidated its supply chain, received funding from angel investors, and opened its second physical store in Beijing. On Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter, VCLEANSE has attracted more than 11,000 followers and customers regularly post pictures to show off their healthy lifestyle to friends.

Tiantian was born in Xi’an, China, and lived there for seven years before her father moved the family to the United States. A proud Chinese-American and first-generation immigrant, Tiantian attended Harvard for both her undergraduate and law school studies. She spent a couple of years as a lawyer in Washington, DC before realizing that starting a business was what she really wanted to do in life. Today, Tiantian’s parents still live in New Jersey, and her fiancé also works in the States, but Tiantian has moved back to China by herself.

“I know, the decision to move back might sound counterintuitive to many,” Tiantian told me over Skype. “But what’s really exciting about China is seeing its growth right before your eyes.” There is serious need for basic infrastructure building in China. “Often times you’d have to build your supply chain all by yourselves. It’s a lot of work, but it also makes you feel you are part of the development.” Tiantian’s positive outlook has also helped her deal with the Chinese bureaucracy. She has to navigate her way through opaque administrative structures and officials not telling her all the required details upfront. She is, however, set on going through the process and learning things herself.

Before the arrival of angel investors, VCLEANSE was funded by a small sum of capital saved up from Tiantian’s and her partner’s previous professional careers. But after two years of living and doing business in China, Tiantian has also learned that “the bravest ones are actually those most ordinary-looking, small business owners. There are a lot of them in China. They don’t fit with the Steve Jobs creative genius label, but they are also entrepreneurs.”

Tiantian and her partner at their meeting with Chinese business leader Pan Shiyi.

According to Global Entrepreneurship Monitor, an initiative aimed at measuring the level of entrepreneurial activities around the globe, China and the United States scored roughly the same for “total early-stage entrepreneurial activity for female working-age population” in 2013, though a much higher percentage of Chinese female entrepreneurs’ businesses were “necessity-driven.” For the past two decades, state-owned enterprises have been downsizing in China, resulting in millions of workers losing their jobs. In recent years, unemployed college graduates have also become an increasing demographic in the country. In these scenarios, small business owners have been the real job creators—indeed, many created their own jobs after getting laid off—and economy boosters.

Zhengqin Rui is one such small business owner. “Classifying businesses into purely opportunity-driven or necessity-driven is a bit extreme, don’t you think?” Zhengqin commented after I shared with her GEM’s findings. “Most people would be somewhere in between—it’s not like you would have absolutely no other option if you didn’t start your business.”

This assessment certainly applies to Zhengqin herself. After graduating from Nanjing University last year with a bachelor’s degree in biology, Zhengqin has been preparing for graduate school entrance exams and running her own business at the same time. “You see, the business seems to be running well and I would really love to just put all my eggs in one basket, but it’s too risky.”

Zhengqin has made a name for herself designing and selling trendy campus-themed T-shirts and other accessories to university students in Nanjing. In August 2013, Nanjing’s Industry and Commerce Administration adopted a new set of rules regarding business certificate applications, which comes into effective in March this year. Among other good news, there will no longer be thresholds for initial investments, and people can use their own home address to register and get their small businesses started. Although Zhengqin is worried about the amount of taxes to be incurred, she wants to get her studio registered as soon as she can. “Business development becomes so much easier once you are a legit, registered company.”

Regardless of looser regulations and greater support from government agencies, Zhengqin is still somewhat confused about where exactly she wants to be in the near future. “You need to be tough in order to persevere and develop your business,” she said, before commenting on the indispensable qualities for any female entrepreneur, “it’s like the biology major—definitely not for the softies among ladies.” However, Zhengqin also confessed that she is still quite unwilling to quit her lifestyle as a financially dependent student, even though her current income from the studio is sufficient for her living expenses.

“I don’t know about people out there in the society, but within my college friend circle, few guys appreciate the tough-lady type—they’d feel you’re being too overbearing.” But one girl in her studio did start a relationship with a “good-looking guy,” Zhengqin added quickly, “so it’s not like it’s totally impossible!”

One thing that is certain about the increasing number of female entrepreneurs in China, then, is that it has little to do with the rising status of Chinese women. Another native Chinese entrepreneur I spoke to said she felt that the fact she was happily married definitely put her parents at ease, and allowed them to accept her decision to quit her job and start her own company.

However essential the government initiatives may be, it is a broader change in gender dynamics that is growing the ranks of China’s female small business owners.

Xiaoying Zhou is a senior at Yale University. Contact her at xiaoying.zhou@yale.edu.

This article appears in the April 2014 issue of China Hands.