Chinese studying abroad and the entrepreneurs serving them

Chinese students are studying abroad in droves. In this series, I discuss some forces behind this trend. I will also publish transcripts of interviews I conducted with two entrepreneurs serving this ever-expanding group.

The trend of Chinese students going abroad seems unlikely to slow in the near future. The International Herald Tribune cites Global Times research data showing that “the number of [Chinese] students wanting to study abroad has increased by more than 20 percent each year since 2008”. In addition to ample job opportunities for returning graduates, the reverence for foreign degrees makes the payoff for returnees substantial.

This flood of students means there are plenty of opportunities for entrepreneurs to provide value, and profit while doing so. I recently interviewed two serial entrepreneurs targeting Chinese students studying abroad — this series will include transcripts of those interviews.
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Old Chinese people in the park

Every morning at around 8:00am the small park we live above in Shanghai springs to life with music, dancing, Tai chi, and singing. If this post was about night-time in a park in the US, you would probably think it was a place where high school kids hang out and have parties. Not so in China. Our park is for elderly Shanghai residents, and all morning long they fill the park as they get out of their homes, socialize, and keep the rust from forming on their joints.

At about 11:00am the park starts quieting down as they all go home to have lunch, but then at around 12:30pm the senior center located at the park’s entrance springs to life with groups that sing, dance, and play instruments, usually as they recreate famous Chinese opera pieces. This boisterous activity continues until around 5pm, when the building suddenly falls silent and dumps the retirees out onto the street so they can go home to start cooking dinner. As long as it’s not raining or snowing, this is their daily routine.

While I find the senior center interesting — though, to be honest, it’s filled with a bit too much Chinese opera for my taste — I’m not writing this just to share a fun factoid. This senior center is just one of thousands throughout China that are serving this very large segment of the population. For the right kind of entrepreneurs, these retirees, along with the demographic shift they represent, are a great opportunity.
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How Chinese stereotypes could influence your business

“Shanghainese only care about money.” “Beijingers are really pretentious.” “People from Shanxi are really cheap.” These are a few of the numerous stereotypes I have heard Chinese people say about other Chinese people while living in China. I even often hear Chinese people use these stereotypes to explain their own views: “Of course that’s how I see it; I’m from Beijing.”

I used to just get frustrated and think of how detrimental stereotypes can be since, as an American, I have been trained to find them abhorrent in any form.[1] However, I have recently been considering how these stereotypes could affect businesses operating in China, whether foreign or domestic. Even if the stereotypes don’t apply to every individual, when people from a given area believe a stereotype is a cultural trait then it may just turn into a self-fulfilling reality as they play the cultural role expressed in the stereotype. This is something businesses need to be acutely aware of as they formulate their strategies in China.

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1.3 billion people drawing you in

I frequently ask business people why they are interested in doing business in China. The most common response I hear involves the promise of 1.3 billion Chinese consumers with rapidly rising disposable incomes. While this may be factually accurate, in my experience I’ve found that it’s safer for businesses to think of China as having many demographic subsets, rather than thinking of it as one country with a homogenous population.
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