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Tian Zhongmin: Challenges for social entrepreneurship in China

Tian Zhongmin Photo: FYSE

Tian Zhongmin is the founder and CEO of the Beijing Jintian Autism Training Centre, an organization providing education and boarding to children and youth with autism.

Prior founding the centre, Tian lived in the Netherlands and worked as legal consultant for an international firm in Beijing, a very well respected position with a high salary.  In 2004 Tian took the family responsibility to choose a school for her autistic nephew. Yet while visiting every autism-training centre in Beijing she became disturbed by the quality and methods in those schools, leading her to the decision to quit her job and open her own school. Feeling initially very unsure and regretting the decision, she only told one of her work colleagues about her plans, but when he decided to join as a business partner, it gave her the motivation to get started.

Andrea Lane (L): What was your first step to start the center?
Tian: I went back to school to study about Autism. My partner started to build a school on some land he owned. It was a stupid decision, but we didn’t know any better. It took about 10 months to finish construction and after a while in operation, we were driven off from the land and had to leave, moving to our current location.  We wasted over 1 million RMB on that first school

L: Where did you get the money to start? Did you develop a business plan?
Tian: Our backgrounds didn’t help us in starting this school. We thought, “if we choose this career, we should pay for everything, we should take money from our own pockets.” We invested money from our savings to build the school. As the process continued and we found ourselves using more of our funds, we applied for government funding, but were unsuccessful.

L: Do you still think this way?
Tian: No. I always discourage new social entrepreneurs from investing their own money. It makes it hard for you to choose whether to give up or continue. My advice is to focus on developing a sound business model first if you want to be a social enterprise. You have to act based on market demand. You cannot expect people to buy from you because of your social related mission.
“Focus on developing a sound business model first if you want to be a social enterprise. You cannot expect people to buy from you because of your social related mission. “

L: How did you find the right people to work for you?
Tian: To attract teachers we pay higher salaries than the market rate. Many teachers in Autism training centres are frustrated, overworked, and underpaid. Even though we were initially paying them out of our pocket, I believe this was a crucial to make them feel valued and encourage a new teaching style. To train all our teachers to build a different approach to teaching the children I initially would have personal conversations with each one to understand their approach and to share our understanding with them, but I no longer have time for this and needed to hire a professional manager that I can trust.

L: How is your center financially sustainable?
Tian: The Autism training circle is very small and once teachers were hired the word spread. Students were interested and we could charge an attendance fees. At the end of the first year we had 20 students enrolled.
When we moved to our new location many of our students couldn’t come with us, and we also started to provide training to autistic orphans who had no means to pay for it. I was worried other students’ parents would question if we provided trained some children for free and not others. I decided to make the autism training free and look for an alternative way to make money.
Currently our income derives from our organic farm, whereby we sell our produce around Beijing. Initially it was hard to find customers and I had to rely on friends, however with increasing publicity we gained new customers. However our challenge remains the pricing of our organic products, as customers have to be willing to pay a higher price for the organic food. Salesmen come and buy from other farmers in the area who do not farm organically, but not from me. In hindsight, I didn’t think about pricing and whether it could sell.
Our income does not yet fully cover the costs of the school and I am continuously looking for new income generating models and because of our difficulties in earning sufficient income we also seeking donations.
“I am a social entrepreneur because I never intended to ask for donations. I want my children to feel normal – why should we beg to society?

L: Running the school still requires extra money from you. Does it make you feel nervous? Do you ever feel like giving up?
Tian: Yes, very nervous. At the beginning of the month I can’t sleep, but something is keeping me going. I am happy with how our school serves the children. I still have the passion to provide a better future for the children – if the children were not doing well, I would consider giving up.
My friends and former colleagues are always encouraging me to give up and come back to work. They tell me they can get me a job at a good law firm and I can have my “own life again.” But my values have totally changed. If a child makes progress, I feel excited. This is my life now.

L: What have you learned about yourself as a (business)woman?
Tian: I have developed tremendous strength over the years. I have to be strong for not only myself but also my employees and children.
In the future I like to see the school divided into two parts, with the business on the farm and the non-profit autism training. When I deal with the farm, I want to be treated like a businesswoman. I don’t get respect as a businesswoman and am always seen as a charity-woman. It is hard for others to see the separation. I spend a lot of time answering questions, “why should I donate money if you’re trying to make money?”, “If I’m paying for an organic product, why should I be paying for your work at the school?” No one tells a business what they should do with their money, but as soon as you add a charity element to things, people feel they can tell you what to do.

L: What advice would you give to other social entrepreneurs based on your experience?
Tian: Pick a pure model of either business or non-profit, unlike me where I went back and forth. My model is half business, half charity. I’m neither here nor there, and it’s hard. Running a social enterprise is about business and earning money according to the market. Then it’s your choice with how to reinvest in the business.
Do not use your own money because it will make it harder for you to make decisions. Sourcing money from others makes you accountable to them and more responsible with your decisions. It can be a problem, however, when donators want you to do things differently than you’d like.
Never stop believing. Even now, despite the hardships, I still believe.

(Written by Andrea Lane as part of the Women in Social Enterprise Conference Series Coverage)

The Women in Social Enterprise Conference hosted in Beijing, Shanghai and Chengdu in autumn 2013 aims inspire more women to pursue their passion, think big and come together to address societal challenges in the 21st century. Women had the opportunity to network with local and national entrepreneurial role models discussing their ideas, failures, successes and lessons learned.
More info at http://wiseconference.weebly.com/

 


 


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