Sunday, October 18, 2009

What's Up with Social Enterprise in China?

In my final installment on China, Marie So, my internship supervisor and co-founder of Ventures in Development (ViD) agreed to field some questions I had about social entrepreneurship and poverty. Marie and her business partner Carol Chyau met at Harvard's Kennedy School before founding ViD and incubating Mei Xiang Yak Cheese and Shokay, two organizations aimed at helping impoverished Tibetan yak herders. Besides winning business plan competitions (and boatloads of startup cash), Marie speaks fluent Mandarin, Cantonese, and French. She's an inspiring person, knows what's up, and had some cool things to say. Here's our conversation:

Me: Other than what I've already explained and that you're basically a rock star, what else can you tell people that might identify you on a more personal level?

Marie: Just like anyone else, no different. I am as a friend to my friends, like we were friends since kindergarten. I have always been known as someone who takes the off-beaten track…If people go right I go left. So my friends know I like to run off doing "weird" things.

Me: The first thing I ever wanted to be when I grew up was a door. The second thing was a garbage collector (so I could ride on the back of the truck, obviously). I had high aspirations. Not everyone grows up wanting to be social entrepreneur. When did you decide this was for you?

Marie: I do not define myself as a social entrepreneur. The way I see it – regardless of what it is called – is trying to make changes, positive changes to people’s life, be it our target group, be it our staff, as a do-good company. Internally (staff, target group) and externally (suppliers, clients, etc.), it is very hard to be a good integrity company.

Me: Do you think ViD is reaching this goal?

Marie: I’ll give you a quick example. We have a woman who was hired to count inventory in our warehouse, and she didn’t join Shokay because of social entrepreneurship. But from her I see changes, I see her learn new skills from just counting inventory to now managing logistics…from no interest in social work, social entrepreneurship, to see her talking about our company mission/vision to her community and her daughter’s school. And now she joins our company weekly activity to help migrant workers in a bathhouse near our office. I see we have made more impact than just with our herders. It translates across everyone.

Me: I know how you have two different models for Shokay and Mei Xiang Yak Cheese. Shokay is the “in-house” model run by the leadership of ViD, and Mei Xiang Yak Cheese is the “incubation” model run by the poor, but supported by ViD. Can you comment the outcomes of either of these models?

Marie: For us, it [incubation of Mei Xiang] does not work. Maybe for people who are very experienced and set up with lots of cash, it might work differently. In China, once people see money, forget social. It's the nature of Chinese people. I know of a business incubation that was initially successful, but the entrepreneur ran away (dropped the social bit and made plenty of money). Others are just pretending to start a social enterprise and using the money for their own good.

Me: What brought you to the conclusion that for-profit companies were the way to go for development, as opposed to traditional non-profit organizations?

Marie: Through our work, I have thought through this many times, whether social enterprise is the most efficient way of delivering impact and results. And the answer could be “no”, for-profit isn’t the best way: let the for-profit make the money and donate, letting the non-profit deliver the services. HOWEVER, not all things can be talked about in just economic terms, I think. With financial capability, one can do more. I just hate to say this, but "money talks, bulls%!t walks". With financial capability, one can influence policy, influence decisions, which, if done with the right integrity, can help a lot more people and have a much bigger impact. It’s just that most of the corporate world does not think like this, as their foundation is built on shareholders who only care about returns. But I think in long run, in the next 50 years, times will change.

Me: When I was scheduling my travel for the year I was looking for innovative organizations. I found nearly nothing in China, other than you guys. India has GDP per capita less than half of China's, yet you can't go anywhere without tripping over a non-profit organization. Why do you think social entrepreneurship is so miniscule in China?

Marie: I think the terminology is new, the concept is new. The NGO concept has just started.

Me: Has creativity been stunted in China (the country is famous for rote memorization, for example), and might this have an effect on social enterprise?

Marie: No, I think people are so entrepreneurial and creative and smart (imagine making fake eggs!). But the incentives, mission and vision still needs time.

Me: Fake eggs?

Marie: I saw it on news in Guangzhou. An egg is already cheap enough, but someone wants cheaper and can make it cheaper using random materials. The egg shell is a mould from chemicals, and it has yolk and all.

Me: How do you define poverty?

Marie: I see poverty in people's eyes. Some communities are very poor by whatever World Bank standard, but you can see hope in their eyes. There are communities in countries where you feel no hope in people's eyes – it's very dead. That I see as poor. When people do not have hope or access to make choices, then it’s very difficult.

Me: What is the worst poverty you've ever seen, by your definition?

Marie: Actually in India [where the interviewer is currently located]. Off any streets when I stare at street kids, they look really, really deprived. Their eyes look very hopeless.

More about Marie...

3 Must-Read Books:

  1. “How to be a Rainmaker” by Jeffrey Fox (I buy for all my staff)
  2. “The Art of War” by Sun Tzu
  3. Random magazines like Monocle, Wallpaper, National Geographic, and random gossip magazines like Hello, to find out who are the popular actresses so in case Shokay can one day afford to hire one

3 Things on Your To-Do List

  1. Stay healthy
  2. Take vacation
  3. Get more sleep

Who’s your role model?

Mmm, no role model. I like to observe different characters, but I don’t idolize any of them – more so respect.

What's playing on your iPod now?

Ben Harper, Jack Johnson

Well ladies and gents, that's about it for this interview. If you want to learn more about Ventures in Development or even donate, you can check out their website here. Also, if you want to buy some amazing yak down (I can vouch!...I'm kind of into seriously) for knitting or even finished products, head to

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