The Zeitgeist of Risk Entrepreneurialism and cultural modernization among Chinese youth BY STEPHANY ZOO
hen I started my first company ing tech demi-gods like Jack Ma and Lei I was an idiot. Certifiably Jun, women entering the top-ranks or even so. I had no experience, had founding unicorns, and more Chinese done no market research, and mostly just families accepting this as a stable career wanted to do something that was sexier. option. However, there’s a more subtle and This was seven years ago. Now, five com- gradual zeitgeist of a more independent, panies and three social enterprises later, I risk-taking Chinese youth. This is not don’t think I’m that much smarter, maybe necessarily the most obvious result of the just more cynical. startup movement, but it has made subAs I get older, I become more fixated stantial progress in the traditionally riskon the idea of being a substantial person– averse Chinese culture. an executor able to implement amorphous It’s true the Chinese are hustlers, but strategies, a meticulous analyst who mea- they typically only take calculated risks. sures data and outcomes to optimize the Now, high-risk, higher-reward is a self-replan, and a researcher who inforcing cycle. As more understands problems It’s true the Chinese talented people enter risky holistically and provides their risk collecare hustlers, but they ventures, targeted solutions. tively goes down, meaning typically only take a higher chance of success, When I was younger, calculated risks. I was comfortable with which then attracts more being pumped up by vantalent. ity metrics and fluffy Forbes pieces. I’m no This willingness to stay curious and longer a hippie out to change the world; take risks is a new trend that bleeds into entrepreneurship has hardened me into a other areas of young people’s lives. As I data-based, optimization-focused business travel, I see more solo Chinese travelers, head. even women–something I could never say I’ve changed a lot, but so has China. half a decade ago. There are more experiOf course, there are obvious trends of the mental cuisines opening up in cosmopolchanging state of entrepreneurship in the itan cities like Shanghai, as compared to country–a higher number of young peo- my parents who still only eat Chinese food, ple joining the startup world and emulat- even in a city like Venice. 14
Stephany is currently living in Kenya to pursue her vision of building the China-Africa tech ecosystems after working in China for six years in design, fintech, and corporate tech.
Cultural tastes have widened too, from the widespread appearance of tattoos to interest in indie films to rap and TV shows. Another good example is how young business leaders, many of whom are the second-generation of successful manufacturing tycoons who did so well in second and third-tier cities, are looking for risk and reward along the Belt and Road. Since I moved from Shanghai to Nairobi, I’ve had a lot of young people reach out to me, from the young women I mentor in Henan to random people on LinkedIn and networking events. They’re interested in the work I do, but they’re more interested in how I made the decision to move to a new continent and start a new life– how I took a leap of faith. At the end of the day, the willingness to take risks exemplifies another trait–the ability to accept failure. In a culture where ‘face’ is so important, where the vices of failure are immortalized in a million idioms, failure is still a deeply unspeakable disgrace. But now, Chinese youth are starting to talk about this more openly and be willing to see it as stepping stone, rather than an irrevocable fall. As much as we think our Chinese elders are conservative, think about what they went through. At some point, they were also risk-takers and OGs. We’re just not falling far from the tree.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR Stephany strives to create stories that knit diverse backgrounds together. An entrepreneur at heart, she founded ecommerce site Bundshop.com and League X, a boutique branding firm. She is currently the Head of Marketing at BitPesa, a foreign exchange and payment platform for frontier markets, and Executive Director of Phoenix Risen, a social enterprise to combat sexual violation. stephanyzoo.com