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Enterprising Times: Young Entrepreneurs Come of Age

After three decades of unbridled economic growth, the face of Chinese business is changing. From the large, state-owned enterprises that have traditionally dominated the country's industrial landscape, young Chinese entrepreneurs are now going it alone in growing numbers.

The Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM) is a not-for-profit academic research consortium that produces the largest single study of entrepreneurial activity in the world. GEM 2010 conducted research in 59 countries and among their findings was the fact that Chinese in the 18 to 35 year age group ranked number one in the world in terms of entrepreneurial propensity. To give some context, 4.7 per cent of Americans in the same age-group want to start their own company; in China that number is 10.26 per cent.

Whereas previous generations aspired to job security and an important title, entrepreneurs such as Bill Gates and Jack Ma are the icons for a new generation of China's best and brightest. The following are just some of the country's most exciting young innovators.

Lisa Li & Zafka Zhang: The Hai Gui Entrepreneurs

Married couple Lisa Li and Zafka Zhang met as undergraduates at Fudan University before leaving China to pursue post-graduate studies in London. As with a growing number of their contemporaries who seek education and work experiences overseas, they returned to China in order to leverage what they had learned into the world's most dynamic market. These hai gui (a slang term for Chinese who go overseas and then return home, the phrase literally means sea turtles) are playing an increasingly important role in China's entrepreneurial ambitions.

Lisa Li, 32, loves research. She started her working life at a large market research firm in Beijing where she was building a career and was regularly promoted. Before long, the limitations of working for someone else became all too apparent, as she started thinking about new kinds of research, but was limited by superiors who were more interested in proven strategies than trying something new.

After discussions with her husband, Zafka Zhang, 31, whose background is politics and sociology, Li realised that together they had the perfect skill set to research China's highly sought-after youth market. In 2008, that realisation became China Youthology, a market research firm focused on young people in China.

“We thought we had unique insights to offer and if we started to share them with people on the internet, we would eventually be found,” Li explains. “We started writing the blog, writing about the Olympics and what young people thought. In China the key thing for marketers is to understand societal changes and then understand business targets, rather than the other way around.”

Their niche set them apart from other market research firms and China Youthology quickly found success. Li and Zhang built a team that was dedicated to research and, most importantly, interested in what was going on in the hearts and minds of China's youth. Before long, the couple recognised they were more than a market research firm, they were “thought leaders” for a new generation.

“We realised we have a great passion for research, but what really excited us was the opportunity to really interact with young people and being able to add value to their lives. So we identified our vision to be inspiring to Chinese youth, empowering them and making their voice heard in society,” Li says.

Over three years of developing their own business, Li says the primary learning experience for her and Zhang has been the necessity of having faith in their instincts and following through on their ambition to run a market research company that was different to their more traditional competitors. She says they're now confident they are on the right track, but it was a different story when they started and there were plenty of people telling them their business model wouldn't work.

“The other major learning experience has been the power of sharing,” Li says. “The market research industry has this history of being very closed but we believe in the power of sharing in the internet era. Because we share our insights, we learn more from the community and build trust in the community, which then helps us a lot in our research. I feel as though with China Youthology, I have found my role and value in society, which is just great.”


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