UVA, Darden Alumni Share Insights on Entrepreneurship in China at Inaugural Forum

By Ni Tao

As China’s maturing economy searches for new growth catalysts, many University of Virginia Darden School of Business alumni there are applying their MBA education to starting new businesses — and finding success.

The inaugural UVA China Alumni Entrepreneur Forum, held in Shanghai in partnership with Darden’s Batten Institute for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, allowed alumni to share stories about and insights from their entrepreneurial efforts in one of the world’s largest and most dynamic economies.

Shaojian Zhang (MBA ’99), co-president of the UVA Club of China, revealed in his presentation that of all the MBA ventures formed by Darden or UVA graduates, 35 percent are consulting firms, 34 percent are products or services companies, and nine percent are finance and accounting firms, with a limited number of ventures coming from a background in technology, health care and manufacturing.

“Consulting is an industry UVA graduates have a traditional strength in,” said Zhang, who is an entrepreneur and investor. “Going forward, we expect our alumni to cross the boundary into more diverse fields.”

Learning From Successes and Failures

UVA alumnus Peter Zhang, founder and CEO of Bici Corporate Management Consulting Co., did not flinch from his failure as he reflected in a candid talk on what he said were “lessons he learned the hard way.”

Despite enjoying a head start in China’s now booming bubble tea industry, he said a lack of focus in growth strategy cost his company its early mover advantage in the competition against HeyTea and Nayuki, the two biggest players in the field.

“The key to entrepreneurial success is the intensity of your efforts,” said Zhang, who was named to Forbes’ 2018 30 Under 30 China list. “If your resources and energies are stretched too thin, intensity will weaken dramatically.”

Looking to embark on his own adventure, UVA alumnus Gary Chen defied his father’s expectations for him to take over the family clothing business. Instead, he created his ready-to-wear men’s fashion brand Gentspace.

In light of a perceived lack of variety in men’s wear available in the market, he chose a branding position that targets customers hoping to dress for all occasions — business, casual and anything in between.

It’s been a steep learning curve, Chen said, as he was responsible for everything from supply chain to store décor. Gentspace stores can now be found in upscale shopping malls of first-tier cities such as Shanghai and Beijing.

Big Data Looms Large for Chinese Startups

After all that has been transformed by big data in China’s online e-commerce sector, a new retail revolution is sweeping China’s offline business landscape. Central to it is the use of technologies like artificial intelligence (AI), which can play a big role in “bringing down decision-making costs to almost zero,” said UVA alumnus Jie Li, founder and CEO of Shenzhen Zhiyi AI Co., a tech startup that specializes in AI solutions and SaaS services.

Companies like Li’s are trying to redefine retail and commerce by using machine-learning and AI algorithms to analyze consumers’ shopping data. Store owners enabled by AI already are predicting sales with a higher rate of accuracy, Li said, leading to “smarter” logistics and inventory management.

Looking to Future China Forums for Entrepreneurs

Wei Jin (MBA ’99), also a primary organizer of the event, said UVA and Darden alumni’s natural affinity toward each other fosters a sense of trust conducive to collaboration, which is key for entrepreneurs. The inaugural forum is another channel to tap in to the power of the School and University network.

Shaojian Zhang said he expected the forum to develop into more flexible formats like panel discussions run by local chapters of UVA’s China alumni community.

“UVA and Darden alumni have a reputation for their collaborative spirit,” said Zhang. “So our close-knit community might offer guidance, support and help mitigate the senses of insecurity on the part of those would-be startup entrepreneurs about making their first steps into a whole new world.”

About the University of Virginia Darden School of Business

The University of Virginia Darden School of Business prepares responsible global leaders through unparalleled transformational learning experiences. Darden’s graduate degree programs (MBA, MSBA and Ph.D.) and Executive Education & Lifelong Learning programs offered by the Darden School Foundation set the stage for a lifetime of career advancement and impact. Darden’s top-ranked faculty, renowned for teaching excellence, inspires and shapes modern business leadership worldwide through research, thought leadership and business publishing. Darden has Grounds in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the Washington, D.C., area and a global community that includes 18,000 alumni in 90 countries. Darden was established in 1955 at the University of Virginia, a top public university founded by Thomas Jefferson in 1819 in Charlottesville, Virginia.


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