Guest blog and video courtesy of The Story Exchange, a global video project empowering women to start their own business.
Learning a foreign language in an American school used to mean making a choice between French, Spanish or maybe Italian.
But today, as China shapes the world and expands its economic influence, schoolchildren around the U.S. are increasingly being offered the option of learning Chinese. And that’s where Xiaoning Wang, an immigrant from China based in New York, is focusing her entrepreneurial efforts.
“Chinese has become one of the most popular foreign languages in public and private schools … We supply [language] textbooks and books about China and Chinese culture.”
Wang admits she is an accidental entrepreneur. She really had no plans to start a business, but after the birth of her son, an idea germinated after trips to a local park in New York City.
As infants were rocked and toddlers played, Wang chatted with other parents about their children, many of whom were adopted from China. It was the late 1990s, a time when thousands of Americans were adopting Chinese girls.
“They kept talking about about Chinese culture. They wanted to learn things from me and wanted their children to learn about their heritage,” Wang says.
These parents were desperate for products and materials that could help their adopted children learn about their origins — items like children’s books on China’s language and culture, traditional clothing, as well as arts and crafts.
Wang started her company, ChinaSprout, in 1999 to meet this demand. She flew to China to hand select products and then sold them in the U.S. over the Internet.
Working across international borders is bound to have challenges, given time differences, currency risk and language barriers. And even though Wang is a Chinese native, she still has major problems dealing with Chinese suppliers.
“You want a yellow they give you orange, and you want red they give you pink. You want a size ten and they give you a size 12,” she says. “So you keep telling them ‘Just give me what I ordered, don’t give me something else,’ and they just don’t get it.”
Despite these obstacles, ChinaSprout grew fast as inventory expanded from 100 products to over eight thousand within a few years. And the company quickly evolved from a home-based business to one with a warehouse, complete with a staff.
But in 2008 the Chinese government put restrictions on foreign adoptions and ChinaSprout took a big hit, forcing Wang to re-evaluate her business.
She shifted gears and is now focusing her attention on providing textbooks for Chinese language classes, which she first began supplying to American schools in 2003.
Her latest challenges comes as budget cuts affect schools and larger international publishers enter the market, making it more difficult for ChinaSprout to compete on tight margins.
“I go to China, Hong Kong and Singapore to select the books and then go to the schools and make recommendations. And then all the other [competitors] just get the exact same book that I selected.”
Frustratingly, Wang says she built up the market for Chinese educational products over the last decade, only to be pushed aside as mammoth companies rush in to grab their share of what she worked so hard to develop
It is an age-old problem many entrepreneurs and inventors are confronted with after coming up with new products or selling to new markets.
“[ChinaSprout] really started all this Chinese language education [in America] from the very beginning and to push it to new schools. Now many schools are teaching Chinese and competitors are coming in.”
Given this enormous challenge, Wang says she’s hoping that her focus on personal service and the close relationships she’s developed with school administrators will keep her ahead of these corporate giants.
If not, she says, she may be on the path to becoming a serial entrepreneur. And this, from a woman who had no intention of starting a business.