In the fall of 2010, Ying Chen enrolled at the Harvard Business School (HBS) with a vision to “contribute to rural development in China” – at least that’s what he wrote in his essays. Unsure how exactly, he spent lots of time trying to understand rural development challenges and models in various countries. During the next two years, he worked with SKS in India and as an Enterprise Solutions to Poverty fellow under the wing of founder Nancy Barry in rural China. Through these experiences, it became clearer that he would focus on models for connecting rural communities with essential goods and services.
Last December during the winter break, Chen and his six friends and colleagues went to 30 villages in Hunan, Hubei, and Anhui, China to conduct research on rural delivery models. Then last March, they formed a team to enter the HBS Business Plan Contest (now known as the HBS New Venture Competition) under the name XinfuGo where they placed second. Around the same time, Chen also applied for the Echoing Green Fellowship with the XingfuGo project and successfully became a 2012 Echoing Green Fellow.
Needless to say, much as happened over the last two years with Chen and his team. Yet this humble and sincere individual takes the time to reflect and share his musings with friends, family, and mentors. Whether these relate to start-ups, life, hopes, or fears, this social entrepreneur believes the reflections – at the very least – provide an “interesting bedtime leisure read” for the recipients of his letter.
Before entering Harvard, Chen had already decided he would focus on creating value at the bottom of the pyramid. But just like many social entrepreneurs, the question was how?
I have thought about many possibilities during the first year. What about joining a state-owned enterprise with established rural infrastructure, such as China Mobile or Postal Service Bank of China? What about working as a non-profit social worker, for organizations like One Foundation? What about strategizing and operating for a great Chinese social enterprise with sound culture and model, such as CreditEase? Or, what about going back to my familiar investment profession, facilitating capital allocations through philanthropy funds, or development funds like IFC? After examining my capabilities and characters, I eventually decided to go for the start-up route.
Fears of Starting Up
In his letter, Chen honestly admits that he fears a lot in the unfamiliar start-up world. He decided to sit down to write all the fears on a piece of paper, and acknowledges how strange some seemed.
For example, “local gangs smash our stores and office”, or “drink to death with officials or business partners”, or “can’t find a job if I fail, and remain single [until] 40”, or “can’t take care of my parents when they are sick” or “being left alone in rural China by colleagues”. Of all the fears, the biggest one is that the start-up trial will force me to confront my limitations, and the likely “embarrassing” facts that I am not capable.
As I wrote all the fears down in ink, those fears gradually fade away. I think being fearful is precisely what eventually makes me strong and firm. Because it forces me to think carefully through all the draconian scenarios, and if I still decide to do it, it will be very hard for anyone else to convince me to quit with a reason that I never thought of.
Then Came Graduation
He never imagined that following graduation, he would be leading a start-up to improve the lives of those living at the bottom of the economic pyramid in China. Looking back, he remembered a thank you letter that he wrote to a professor.
During the first gathering at Burden Hall two years ago, you asked us about our expectations for the two years. My answer was, “It is transformational”. You asked me again, “What does it mean?” And I answered half-jokingly, “It means that I came in as one person, and will come out as a different one…” That is when the whole Burden Hall burst into laughter. I guess back then no one was taking my answers seriously.
But when I look back [at] the two years, it has been truly transformational experience, and I indeed came out of the school as quite a different person, at least on the surface. As a private equity investor before HBS, I came out as a social entrepreneur dedicated to serving disadvantaged rural consumers in China. HBS is critical in this transition, as it helps me to get a bit more clarity on my relationship with myself, my family, my community and the world. It definitely takes lots of soul searching and struggles, but I was still amazed that just a little bit clarity of our selves can lead to so many differences in decisions and characters, and sometimes surprising courage in choosing a path less traveled.
After graduation it was off to China. Three of his colleagues who conducted field research with Chen – Bang, Dongdong, and Yijie – are now part of the core team of the XinfuGo rural delivery project, now renamed Tang Mall, and its company registered as QianQian Tech. Already, the team has spent two months in a small town in northern Jiangsu for a pilot and is living together in a 3-floor house, of which two of the floors will be for the company and the remaining one for living. Because all have been accustomed to living in urban environments and a couple have even left prestigious jobs at large consulting firms for this journey, it does mean a lot of adjusting in many areas. But the journey is in full force.
How well can we pull this off? Hard [work] is important. Luck is important as well. Thus a balanced perspective and relaxed attitude is critical to make this route long and sustainable.
In a follow-up post, we will look at the future ahead, including the company’s operations.
Excerpts were written by and appear, along with the photo, with the permission and courtesy of Ying Chen.
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