On July 29, Project Pengyou co-hosted a panel of young social entrepreneurs in Beijing with AIC Education’s China-Ghana Changemakers program. AIC education consultant Francis Miller served as moderator during an afternoon discussion focused on what it takes to thrive in the current industry. Our five panelists, who come from a range of backgrounds and experiences, discussed how they got started, what interested them in social entrepreneurship, and what beliefs they thought were central to undertaking a successful entrepreneurial venture.
The featured speakers included Andrew Shirman, founder and CEO of Education in Sight, Christiana Zhu, founder and CEO of dairy-free coconut yogurt brand Yeyo, Thomas Talhelm, founder of Smart Air, Enoch Wang, CEO of Career X 7, and Zheng Chao, founder and CEO of Paires. Read on for highlights and insights from these inspiring young innovators.
What is ‘entrepreneurship’?
The panel began with Francis asking each of the panelists for their definition of ‘entrepreneurship’ and how social entrepreneurship is different from regular entrepreneurship. All 5 panelists generally agreed that entrepreneurship was the idea of taking a problem and putting a business model around said problem in the hopes of solving it for the betterment of society. Panelist Thomas Talhelm also brought up the idea of innovation in his response, saying that entrepreneurship was “doing something that other people are doing in a different way”.
In distinguishing social entrepreneurship from the rest of the field, the panelists once again agreed that the main thing that sets their businesses apart from others is the idea that a social entrepreneur business does not focus on profit as its main goal. Andrew described his company as having a ‘double bottom line’: he’s focused on profit, but he also wants to create social outcomes and advance his means to deliver said social outcomes. Enoch said that social entrepreneurship for him boiled down to three words: visibility, liability and desirability.
How are you able to find supporters?
When asked how they were all able to transition their visions into success, the panelists all made a point to emphasize the idea that the people who were supportive and passionate about their cause readily reached out to them. Christiana furthered the idea by suggesting that, rather than hire for competence, she puts more emphasis on attitude, as competence can be trained but passion cannot. Zheng echoed that thought and said that people who shared his values would naturally come looking for him.
Thomas also cautioned that, despite all the enthusiasm that a person might have for their cause, they should refrain from trying to do everything themselves and outsource tasks when appropriate. Everyone also agreed that it was better to slow down and slowly build up a business rather than tackle everything at once, as most of their companies only had a few full time employees and a few interns or part time workers.
How do you get started in social entrepreneurship?
The panelists were then asked about the origin of their ideas and their journey to where they were currently, and how they transitioned into social entrepreneurship from their previous field. Many of them didn’t come from business backgrounds, but they simply pursued their interests and ended up in their current field. Some of the panelists, like Andrew and Enoch, decided that their former jobs weren’t what they envisioned and they didn’t like working for other people’s dreams, so they set out on their own. Thomas said that he found out rather quickly that he wasn’t the only one who had trouble with the air quality in Beijing, and realized that there was an untapped market potential in getting clean air to people. Zheng, who had previous experience in entrepreneurship in university, said that he believed more and more people were turning to creating their own businesses, and he wanted to create a movement for people to develop more meaningful relationships. Christiana also pitched into the discussion by emphasizing how important it was to have a mission statement, but to also have values that go beyond just a blanket generalization.
The discussion closed with all the panelists telling the audience that innovation doesn’t come with simple or small scale ideas. Enoch said, “If your dream doesn’t scare you, then it’s not big enough”, a reminder that entrepreneurship is about pushing boundaries and engaging problems in ways never done before.
We would like to thank everyone who made this event possible, from our co-organizers at AIC to our own staff members to our panelists who made this event so insightful with their time and wisdom. We’d also like to thank all the guests who came and contributed to a vibrant discussion, and hope to see you all in the future for other events!
Project Pengyou, is a global network of young Americans and Chinese with firsthand experience in both countries. As a program of the Golden Bridges Foundation, Project Pengyou provides transformative leadership training to mobilize next-generation leaders to launch campus chapters of U.S. China bridges-builders across the country. The initiative also maintains a dynamic online network with over 5,000 members and a resource hub curating China-related jobs, events and exchange programs. Project Pengyou is seeded by funds from the Ford Foundation and serves as a public private partnership with the U.S. Department of State. Learn more: ProjectPengyou.org
China-Ghana Changemaker Program, the first international exchange program between China and Africa where Chinese and Ghanaian high school students not only conduct research and complete volunteer teaching hours, but also design and launch their own social enterprises. In the summer of 2016, I and 4 other mentors lead a group of 7 Chinese Changemakers to Heritage Academy in Breman Esiam, Central Region, Ghana, West Africa. There, our Chinese and Ghanaian “Changemakers” collaborated to complete five exercises: community mapping, lectures from successful social entrepreneurs, problem brainstorming, business plan outlining, and a business pitch competition. Chinese Changemakers additionally presented their business ideas to the Chinese embassy staff in Accra, Ghana.