My name is Byronie Richards. I am from Jamaica but have been living in China for over five years. I am a black, young female entrepreneur who is actively figuring out what it is to be a business woman in the fast paced, constantly evolving and uncharted economy of China.
As part of my MBA studies we were required to do a short study abroad programme. I found an internship programme in a Chinese-American partnership in China, which was a rewarding and very eye-opening experience. At the end of it, I decided to stay and actively work in China.
Becoming an Entrepreneur
At the end of my three years of working in the corporate world, I reflected on what I had accomplished during this tenure in China and said to myself, well, I had originally set out for China with the intention of starting my own business and after three years, if I wasn’t going to move towards that original goal, it made sense to simply return to the US or Jamaica.
It was a scary, palms sweating and heart pounding decision, to take the plunge and open a business. I stumbled upon the idea, why not start simple; solve an existing personal problem – a place where I can get my hair done, just as what I had gown accustomed to back home in the west.
Finding a Solution for a problem
This business idea was far from being an altruistic one, but I soon found out it wasn’t a bad one after all; it could be capitalized. After starting part time operating for two days only, I realised that a salon providing services for all hair types (Afro, Asian, Caucasian and mixed) was an unfulfilled need and one that continued to grow.
It was an untapped market with no players or barriers to entry. I was fully aware of this and had the experience handling them in my previous corporate jobs and importantly, the capital requirement was not very high nor intensive.
Even though I had absolutely no experience in haircare business (other that being a client in a salon), I decided to open Studio Ebony, a hair salon in Shanghai. The rest is history.
I must say it has been a roller coaster ride thus far. A wild and tremulous roller coaster ride would best exemplify what it has been doing business in China.
One of the biggest kink in the expat entrepreneurial roller coaster is securing funding for your business. In China, local loans are not provided to foreigners looking to do small service business and it is also pretty much impossible to get loans or funding from the US or Jamaica to start a small business in China. Other major challenges included customs and immigrations – importing products for the hair salon and getting visas and residence permit for staff.
A communication gap helped me out of a sticky situation
The craziest story, which still makes me laugh after almost two years of it occurring is, during the salon renovation project the contractors brought in the mafia to try and extort more money from the young, black woman who was doing it all by herself, with no local support or protection. The situation would have ended badly, but it didn’t for the most oddest reason – lack of communication. The mafia was brought in to threaten me, but how can you threaten someone who doesn’t understand you? They kept shouting and carrying on and I pretended I didn’t understand his actions and what he was saying because I didn’t speak Chinese. In the end they gave up and left, as I kept laughing and saying “I don’t understand what you’re trying to tell me”! It was actually quite a hilarious situation where the mafia left confused and frustrated. Though not being able to understand Chinese helped in this situation, I must say it was probably the only time it did.
My Top Tips for establishing an Expat Business in China
- One of my biggest regrets is not learning Chinese. If I could do it over again, the first thing I would do is to learn Chinese.
- Don’t do it alone, if you don’t have to. Get a trustworthy partner to share the agonizing and rewarding journey.
- Finally, if you are not prepared for the long haul, which requires constant effort and determination to keep the business going, don’t even bother starting.
Although there have been many challenges there are just as many good memories. There are lots of things I love about being an expat entrepreneur. The support from other expats is usually very genuine and positive: they are very willing to come out and support your business.
In China other entrepreneurs are very willing to support each other. This provides very positive energy that helps in so many ways. I also love the appreciation from clients who are so grateful for the service you are providing them.
Your clients just make it all worth it!
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