Entrepreneur puts the welfare of rural people before profits

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 September, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 06 September, 2009, 12:00am

When Chen Baoshan , 23, came to Beijing from rural Hebei six years ago, he was penniless, and all he wanted was to have a better life for himself. But after landing a job by chance at Fair Field, a company that works with impoverished rural women to make and sell high-end embroidered handicrafts, he cannot imagine starting his own business without giving something back to society.

What were your early days like in Beijing?

My family was too poor to send me to university, so I came to Beijing after high school to look for work. It wasn't easy. I tried many different jobs, from security guard and waiter to salesman for a logistics company. Several nights I did not have a place to stay and could not afford dinner. I ended up sleeping in internet cafes.

How did you find the job at Fair Field?

Three years ago, I answered an internet ad seeking a salesman for a factory that makes environmentally friendly canvas bags.

While I worked there, Fair Field was one of my clients, commissioning us to make tea-leaf bags. Then in October, Fair Field was looking for a manager to develop manufacturing bases in rural villages.

It involved a substantial pay cut, but I still decided to work for the company because I wanted to learn more about its unique business model.

At the time I only had a vague concept of what a social enterprise was: the canvas-bag factory I had joined by chance hired handicapped people.

One book influenced me in particular: The Ten Ancient Scrolls for Success: From the Greatest Salesman in the World by Og Mandino, a famous must-read for marketing professionals.

The book said the first principle in being a good salesman was actually compassion, which is quite different from the way most business is done in China right now. The goal of making money should be about making people's lives better - whether it's your employee, your customer, or your own family and friends.

Initially I thought I was only going to stay a short while at Fair Field because of the modest salary, but now I don't see myself leaving. I want to see the programme mature until it becomes sustainable.

Can you tell us more about your work with rural women?

I am mainly in charge of staff training. We have always had a steady group of embroiderers, but I was hired to build a team of people who sew so we don't have to rely on outside factories to sew the embroidered pieces into finished products, such as bags and notebook cases.

Language was a problem for me initially because most of these rural women speak only dialects. But now a bigger problem is hanging on to them. The workers are not paid salaries; they are paid by the number of pieces they make. And because many of these women are in their 40s or older, picking up a new skill and spending a whole day at the sewing machine is no easy matter. We lost a lot of people initially.

So what I do is organise meals and activities, and make our relationship more like that between friends than employers and employees. I also try to explain to them the ideals of Fair Field.

We have just carried out our third batch of recruitment, and we managed to hire 25 seamstresses; the first time, only five signed up. The fact that workers are earning up to 1,000 yuan (HK$1,400) per month now, as opposed to 300 yuan in the beginning.

What changes has Fair Field brought to their lives and to yours

Apart from the money, working at Fair Field has helped give these women a sense of purpose. The land in these impoverished areas is basically no longer farmable, and with the husbands normally working in towns and the children grown up, the women used to just play cards all day.

And many did not pay much attention to their personal hygiene.

But now they take pride in the way they look and that they are taking money home. Also, when they are free, some of them study and discuss how to improve their embroidering and sewing with us.

As for me, it gives me indescribable joy when I see how I am helping these women improve their lives. Even if they are not making big money, their smiles are always so bright, so genuine - smiles that come from the bottom of their hearts. These are smiles that I think urbanites can never experience.

What is your understanding of social enterprise?

In the West, social enterprise might refer to a company whose goal is to help underprivileged communities make money. It requires charitable spirits from both the shareholders and employees. But I think in China right now, operating on pure ideals is impractical. Most people are still at the stage of improving their livelihoods, and to require employees to accept low wages just because it's a charitable cause is not sustainable for the business.

What are your personal plans?

Last summer, before I started working for Fair Field, I opened up a computer store back in my hometown. I'm in charge of sourcing, and my elder brother is managing the shop. About once a month, we go into the villages to offer free computer training. This is because I believe the computer is a crucial tool to improve the lives of these rural residents. Many have told me how useful it is to be able to check online the price of grain, fuel and vegetables. Of course, this also makes sense commercially, because once I've taught them how to use a computer, they'll naturally come to me if they want to buy one.

I opened my second store in December in a town 25 kilometres away. And thanks to Fair Field, I've learned a lot about doing business in rural areas and how to expand my business using chain stores.

Chen Baoshan spoke to Ng Tze-wei