cotton shanghai

WereldZaken: MVO over de grens

Vandaag is WereldZaken gepubliceerd, een e-magazine met nieuws, verhalen en ervaringen over internationaal ondernemen. En deze editie staat geheel in het teken over maatschappelijk verantwoord ondernemen in het buitenland! Goed leesvoer dus.

Voor WereldZaken mocht ik een blog bijhouden van mijn verblijf in Shanghai in januari: ik schrijf o.a. over duurzaam voedsel, dilemma’s rond MVO in de productieketen en sociaal ondernemerschap.

Meer leesmateriaal

Wil je meer weten over waar ik in Shanghai mee bezig ben geweest? Op dit blog kun je daarover vanalles vinden. Lees bijvoorbeeld deze stukjes:

> over ondernemerschap: China & Nederland vergeleken

> over stedelijke ontwikkeling: Shanghai’s streetscapes

> over duurzaam voedsel: ethical food in China

> over de relatie Japan & China

In de categorie China zijn ook meer dagelijkse stukjes te vinden, en impressies van eerdere bezoeken en China-gerelateerde thema’s. Of, neem contact op als je specifieke vragen hebt, of een keer met een kop koffie verder wil praten.


When you share an emotion, people will remember.

When you share a story, people will remember.

This is what I took home tonight after listening to Vikas Jhingran while he spoke about what it takes to write World Championship speeches.

Afterwards in the bar, a friend and I were talking about both our blogs. Both starting entrepreneurs and both trying to convey what we do through our blogs.

I’m struggling to do that last bit. But it took until tonight – and until my friend pointed out the obvious – that the above two lines don’t just apply to amazing speeches. They also apply to blogs.

It’s not surprising: in public speaking as well my strength lies in speaking about something informative, which I can do in an pleasant, relaxed manner. And I do the same in my blog posts: they are mostly rational, factual, filled with jargon. But: what happened to the story? Where’s the emotion?

To develop my blog into what I want it to be, I need to share the stories and the emotions. I know they are there. It’s why I do what I do. But how to get it out there?

Perfect timing for #blogawaynl to start next week…

Projects in progress: Absolute Asia


I consider it a pretty essential part of my work & business: building relationships with people I’ve worked with, with new people who work in similar fields as me and in general having access to a large and diverse network of professionals across industries, countries, etc to rely on when needed. Working as an independent advisor, having access to such a network is also essential to be able to provide clients with the expertise they are looking for if this goes beyond what I can offer on my own.

I’m not alone in thinking like this, of course, and in the Netherlands there are lots of networking clubs and events. Despite that, during lunch last summer, Eun-mi Postma and I concluded that we were missing something in the midst of all these different networking possibilities.

Many networking clubs for young and/or starting entrepreneurs bring together a broad group of people, from graphic designers to stylist and business consultants. Yet, we were looking for something a little more focused on our common theme: Asia.

Many of the Asia networking opportunities bring together a variety of people such as export managers, CEO’s, government representatives and while these are (for me) very valuable events to attend it can be hard to find younger, like-minded entrepreneurs in this group to share experiences with or to build a network on of professionals to collaborate with.

So this is when and why Absolute Asia was born. It intends to be a networking platform aiming to bring together (young/starting) entrepreneurs in the Netherlands with a focus on Asia. But within those broad parameters anyone is welcome, so our last event included people working on design, higher education, film, branding, sustainability, urban development and covering a large part of the Asian region.

Curious and interested to join? We are hosting another event next week, February 20th, in Amsterdam.

Weekend reading: Beijing vs Delhi, SMEs vs MNCs and Sochi

This weekend I spent almost completely at the Korzo Theater for the Holland Dance Festival: seeing an expressive dance performance on stage, but also getting a glimpse of different workshops on Saturday and Sunday for dance professionals by well-known Dutch choreographers. I’ve loved getting this behind-the-scenes look at how dance is created. Listening in on a workshop on choreography where workshop leader Soosan Gilson shared some of the essential ingredients of the creative process, I also realized that maybe this isn’t so different from the process of developing yourself as an entrepreneur and creating (and realizing) business ideas. This also takes time and you need to be willing to step outside of your comfort zone.

“You have to enjoy being lost.”

With those words, below is a belated selection of articles and online reading of the past week which I thought are worth sharing. Happy reading!

Beijing vs Delhi

There’s always a lot being written about the (bad) state of the environment in China. So why is it we hear so much less about pollution in that other big Asian giant, India? As it turns out, the level of air pollution in Delhi is worse than in Beijing yet we don’t hear about it and neither is this a (political) issue in the city itself. ChinaDialogue explores why this is.

SMEs vs MNCs

The following link is to only a short article, yet I thought it was quite an interesting illustration that yes, indeed, the questions that small businesses and large multinationals are confronted with are largely the same. It’s easy to think that these would be widely different. What IS different though is how a business can deal with these questions. Whereas MNCs will often have their own specialists in house or have more resources to get in the needed expertise, this is a lot more difficult for SMEs to do easily. This is also why several government programmes (for instance, in the field of international business or CSR expertise) are aimed specifically to SMEs.

The Olympics, business & human rights

There’s no escaping it for the next two weeks, so why avoid it on here: the 2014 Winter Olympics started on Friday in Russia. The Dutch are off to a golden start. But, the Olympics have also been surrounded by a lot of controversy this time: gay rights, corruption and exploitation of migrant workers are just a few examples. But an article in The Guardian on Friday asks what companies connected to the Olympic Games have done to speak out about these topics. Does business have a responsibility to speak up?

I’m leaving you with a long-read still on my wishlist for later: the Council on Foreign Relations published an extensive piece on China’s environmental crisis which looks like an interesting read.

The picture accompanying this post is not actually taken at this year’s Holland Dance Festival – I wasn’t able to take any good shots this time. So instead, I’ve used one from last year’s Cadance Festival.

Japan in Shanghai

Time for a confession: I’ve loved all the things Japanese in Shanghai while I was there.

Of course, Japan and China are tightly linked together. In all manner of ways: historically, culturally, (geo)politically, economically – and usually, it’s the bad stuff that hits the media. The rows (admittedly, across East-Asia, not just with China) when a Japanese PM visits Yasukuni shrine. The disagreement on the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands. And really every time that Japan or a Japanese politician does something that doesn’t agree with its neighbours.

But: it isn’t all bad stuff. In fact, Japan is probably the most present foreign influence in Shanghai (this is probably different across China, and Japan’s influence is likely to be less away from the East Coast). It’s everywhere. And I doubt Chinese consumers are always aware of the fact that a certain brand, product or company is even Japanese (though possibly I should give them more credit)

Most obvious are all the Japanese restaurants in the city. Anything you’d like you can eat: of course sushi and sashimi, but there are tons of ramen restaurants, Japanese curry, and I also found okonomiyaki and takoyaki. All the major chains are here: from Saizeriya to Yamazaki bakery and from Ippudo ramen to Yoshinoya. And for good prices – or at least, much better prices than at home so I’ve filled up on my Japanese food cravings for a while. They’re popular with the Chinese too: often the restaurants were very busy.

There’s more Japanese food: in the few supermarkets I visited there were a lot of Japanese products on the shelves. Typically Japanese food (like the curry packets or instant noodles) but also lots and lots of choice in sweets and chocolate. Again, good news for my regular need for some Pocky’s.

In retail, the perspective is the same. And I also think some of these brands have fairly successfully re-branded themselves as non-Japanese. That is, it’s not visible much that a certain brand is a Japanese brand – the ads are clearly focused on Chinese, or use Caucasian models (as is the case for Uniqlo for example).  Other products do use Japanese words and characters a lot: it’s almost as if there’s been no effort at all to market their product to a different audience – which is the case a lot for the candies and sweets.

In the various galleries and museums I visited there were often a lot of Japanese artists and designers featured. That they are also popular was demonstrated by the massive crowd at the Kusama Yayoi exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art.

So, what is really happening in the China-Japan relationship? They are clearly economically dependent on each other so how does this reflect on what people think?

When I mentioned or spoke about this to Chinese people I met I got the impression that for the younger generation Japan is often an example of how to organize a country: wealthy, clean, and organized. Several Chinese people I know are learning Japanese: whether out of personal interest, or because they feel it will increase their future career opportunities.

The bad stuff is, of course, there too: the memorial for the Nanjing massacre was renovated several years ago and now offers testimony to the drama that occurred at Nanjing in 1937 at the hands of the Japanese army. Unfortunately, for the second time I was unable to actually see the exhibit myself (this time I found myself in front of a closed memorial; the other time it was under renovation) so that is still on my list of things to do when I’m next back in Nanjing.

Of course, most of these examples are anecdotal (I’m sure there’s research about this out there) but maybe, if it were (more) up to the younger generation, the Sino-Japan relationship might not be in such dire straits.

A quick google already revealed some research on this of course: this is a link to the Genron China – Japan public opinion poll results of August 2013, which looks at how people from one of these countries perceive the other. Not surprisingly, after all the problems in the bilateral relationship, the disapproval rates are pretty high….

Also, this Pew research of last summer has interesting numbers on the view in Asia towards Japan. The China numbers seem to match the numbers of the Genron poll above. Pew also includes many other countries in the region in their research (scroll down to the last paragraph of the article).

Entrepreneurship: China vs Netherlands

Apart from the CSR-related discussions and work I’ve been busy with in Shanghai, the other topics I’ve explored mostly revolve around the topic of entrepreneurship. Either in the form of for example social entrepreneurship or co-working, but it also came up at unexpected places. For example when a local Toastmasters meeting I attended had ‘entrepreneurship’ as the theme of the night and as part of the evening an entrepreneur shared his insights on starting your own business.

Especially this presentation was for me a very clear illustration of the huge difference between entrepreneurship in China and the Netherlands. In the Netherlands, it’s become fairly common for people to be working independently, to be an entrepreneur. But that often means that people are working on their own, a ‘one (wo)man workshop’ so to speak (like myself). And while there are of course plenty of people starting a business which is product-based and which requires investment, this is not necessarily the norm anymore.

My sense is also that it is increasingly difficult to start a product-based company requiring (substantial) investment: banks have become notoriously cautious with providing credits to new businesses, and there’s a clear move towards other ways of financing, such as crowdfunding.

Listening to John Loong’s story (and combining this with what has come up in other conversations throughout this month) the situation in China is completely different. John shared his experience in setting up (so far) two companies, both with substantial start-up investment and both have grown/are growing rapidly. His first company was sold after only two years, with an increase in value from (I’m not completely clear on the numbers anymore but roughly) 2,5 million RMB to 30 million RMB. His new company has already (in 1-2 years’ time) grown to 60 employees.

I can’t imagine this happening in the Netherlands. Of course, there are fast growing companies (FD Gazellen is an example of an initiative which keeps track of fast growers), but this type of growth – both in speed of finding enough investors and in physical growth of the company seems unfeasible to me in the Dutch context. Interestingly, John did emphasize the one thing that I think is key in entrepreneurship in the Netherlands as well: follow your passion and do what you want to be doing. That said, a lot of his talk – and in fact, a recurring thing throughout the night – was still about the financial benefits of it.

Am I too negative about the sense of entrepreneurship in the Netherlands and the possibilities here?

Maybe. Then again: it isn’t really surprising that China just works faster also in this aspect. Almost the whole world looks at China – and surrounding countries – as THE place to lead worldwide growth. This is the place where skyscraping buildings are still being built, and at break-neck speed. This is, in the minds of many, where things still can get done – quickly and boldly.

Possibly on the other side of this is the growth of social entrepreneurship. Social business is supported by the local government – at least in the case of Shanghai – as a way of making use of business to solve local social issues such as the inclusion of minorities or disabled, providing better services for the elderly and so on. And, at the same time this should be a way to stimulate local economic development, especially in those parts of the city which might otherwise be left behind. Talking to Leigh-Anne, the project manager of incubator for social businesses and NGO’s The Nest, I was impressed with their big ambitions in making the physical space of the Nest an area of development, inclusion and collaboration. It seems early days still, not just for The Nest but for the development of social entrepreneurship in general in Shanghai, though hopefully the same eagerness and energy that surrounds the more regular start-up initiatives such as those of John Loong will spill over here to make this a success.

This brings me back to the comparison with the Netherlands, where the group of independently working entrepreneurs is still rising. This also leads to new forms of doing business and (professional) collaboration: co-working and networking platforms have grown quickly as a way of bringing these entrepreneurs together, provide space to work, and create opportunity to connect with like-minded people. Even though in absolute terms the number of freelancers and other individual entrepreneurs may be higher in Shanghai, in relative terms this is not the case at all. Which probably is also (part of) the explanation of my previous vent about the difficulty to find flexible workspace in this city: there is just not as much need for it. This also makes the business model for co-working locations in Shanghai very different – and more complex maybe, when they’re confronted with high rent for locations, and a community that is at the moment less open and less eager to find others to work with. In one of the conversations I had about this, I also got the feeling that despite all the growth and innovation happening in China, real creativity and people who dare to take a chance to think out of the box and try something different and new are still hard to find.

If anyone has some of their own insights to share about entrepreneurship in China, I’d love to read your comments!

A new year: déjà-vu

For the past few days it’s almost felt as if I’m again making plans for a new year, and reflecting what I’ve done so far. And the last time I did that was only a few weeks ago at the end of 2013, preparing for my second year of entrepreneurship.

I guess the start of the year of the Horse is in a way for me a symbolic new start as well. Taking off straight at the start of 2014 for a few weeks here can also be interpreted as a bit of an escape: because properly being in the Netherlands also means finally having to get on with things and get all these ideas in my head going and financially executable. Leaving for Shanghai put off that moment for a bit. Or rather, it was a way to create more of those ideas, or strengthen the ones that are already in there without being in my regular surroundings.

So, while I’m at Shanghai’s Pudong International Airport waiting for my flight home I’m taking some time to put a bit more structure to those plans. I started a few days ago with contacting some people to set up a few meetings this week. Because, I’m back in business straight away with a lunch meeting a few hours after I arrive back. Best way to get started it feels.

This month has been good. Hopefully, the posts on this blog have given you some idea of what I’ve been spending my time on (the non-work things are put into visuals on my Flickr stream). I’ve also had to choose more clearly about what I want to focus on as an entrepreneur and the direction I want to go forward in. It reminded me again how scary this can be: how do I know whether saying no to a big potential assignment really is a smart decision? For the moment I have to trust my instincts which are telling me that I made the right choice.

I had three goals for this month:

  • Improve my Chinese
    I still have a long way to go but I feel as if I’m getting a bit of a grip on this language. Though I wish people in the real world would have the patience to allow me to put together a normal sentence
  • Get to know more about local developments on sustainability and CSR (and related topics)
    It’s been great to finally attend some of the network events I follow online in real life, and to meet people with interesting stories to share. Every single meeting and event has given me some new insights in to various topics, which I hope have gotten across here a little. It’s hard to summarize every discussion, and so many things have come up in bits and pieces and only start to make sense when looked at together (a good example of this is a post on entrepreneurship coming up on this blog which combines so many separate things I’ve heard across these weeks).
  • Strengthen my local network on CSR and business in China
    For the most part, this has worked though it has been focused more on the CSR-networks. Some of the people I have met this month who work in this field, I had already been in touch with for a while so it was good to finally be able to talk face to face. And while here I got the opportunity to be involved in a CSR project which the Dutch Consulate General is launching on CSR in the supply chain where I’ve been conducting interviews with CSR managers at a range of Dutch companies based in this region, so this has been a great boost to this third goal.

I guess one other thing I wanted to get out of this month is to get to know this city and its surroundings better. Because being here for only a few days each time doesn’t do that. So I’m happy to have visited so many places, to be wandering across the city (did I mention already that Shanghai is very walkable) and to play tourist in Suzhou and Hangzhou (and a very little bit in Nanjing).

So. Ready to go home.

I’m excited about being back in the Netherlands and continue with all these topics that have come up here. I’m taking home a few project ideas and collaborations (though still very undeveloped, so I won’t spill about them in detail here). But of course: I already have several things to continue working on.

That means that the following week has meetings on CSR in Myanmar, improving supply chains and – of course – some New Year celebrations. And this month also sees another edition of Absolute Asia. The postponed event on CSR in China will also be getting some renewed attention again.

Also, if you want to know more about the topics or projects I’ve been talking about here, please get in touch. Of course, also get in touch if your organisation wants to do something with CSR in Asia. I’m always happy to meet for a coffee to talk through ideas and possibilities.

Weekend reading: on WeChat, ‘sea turtles’ and more

While I’m on a long flight back to Europe, here are some interesting reads from the past week(s) on – mostly – China.

‘Are you on Wechat?’

This is probably one of the questions I’ve heard most while here. So, clearly, this is a major communications channel for people living here. And WeChat is much more than just a Chinese version on Whatsapp, as is explained in this extensive and interesting article on TheNextWeb.

Journey of the ‘Sea Turtles’

Another article on contemporary society in China, posted on TeaLeafNation this week, goes into the background of Chinese who’ve studied abroad and decide to come back to China, or don’t come back, or come back and leave again. It’s a complicated discussion, and the article shares some examples of why this is also a very personal discussion for many Chinese people in this situation. There’s a lot to gain in China in an economic sense: job opportunities and the fact that you are not a migrant in an unknown country, but at the same time this isn’t always as easy as it seems with having to build a new network and being confronted by a lot of social issues (high cost for housing, schools, etc).

Shenzhen Architecture Biënnale

At the moment, the Shenzhen Architecture Biënnale is taking place, which is curated by Dutchman Ole Bouman. As you can tell from this blog I’m interested in (sustainable) urban development, especially as it is such a huge issue in the Chinese context. This article (in Dutch) offers a critical perspective at this year’s biennale, and asks why none of the questions relevant to the ever-continuing Chinese urbanisation are asked at this important event.

Still to see:

And on my list to watch back in the Netherlands is this episode of Rambam on supply chain transparency in the textile industry, specifically focusing on two Dutch companies (Wibra & CoolCat) which have been very negatively featured in the Dutch media the last months (especially CoolCat). From a Dutch perspective, when talking about CSR in international business it almost firstly arrives at supply chains and then it immediately links to the textile industry. I am currently doing some work on this with a group of Dutch companies in Shanghai and am very curious what this programme will present in this case (as especially in the CoolCat case, I think there is a lot of misrepresentation going on).

Shanghai’s noise pollution

Earlier this week I had a meeting in a noisy, crowded and loud Starbucks. Of course, this is not unusual at all. I already wrote earlier about the difficulty in finding places to be able to work at for a short time, the noise is one aspect that makes that difficult.

As we spoke, the level of noise in this particular place came up. The man I was meeting said that one of his main irritants of living in Shanghai is the noise pollution. And he’s right: there is noise and sound coming from everywhere all the time.

Today, I visited the Power Station of Art for an exhibition on design and its function in urbanization and cities. It was a lot bigger – and more interesting – than I had expected so unfortunately I couldn’t see all of the exhibition. It showed mostly different concepts and ideas on how cities can be designed to be more livable, especially in the Chinese context. These ideas were presented in the form of models, video installations, 3D or photography and included work from Chinese designers and artists, but also quite a few Dutch artists (including Daan Roosegaarde and the Go West Project), Japanese designers and a range of other international names. Topics covered included mobility, urban structure, production, etc.

But back to noise. This was also one of the parts of the exhibition. The explanation alongside one of the designs read:

If harmony metaphorically describes a society in unity, then noise could be seen as dissidence, or resistance to an otherwise smooth system. Nowhere is the mirage of harmony and contention to noise more clearly expressed than in public plazas in China […]

Interesting perspective.