Opportunity knocks in China

When her plane lands in Zhengzhou this summer, Elizabeth Guan will begin the final stage of a 10 month-long journey to bring UBC Sauder Social Entrepreneurship (SSE) to China. After overcoming significant hurdles, Guan and her fellow UBC Sauder volunteer instructors - and a group of aspiring Chinese entrepreneurs - are poised to benefit from her can-do approach.


With a successful eight-year track record in Africa, UBC Sauder Social Entrepreneurship Program Director Frances Chandler wanted to expand the program’s reach.

China was top of the list. The powerhouse Chinese economy has slowed in recent years, resulting in more people living in poverty—in rural areas in particular—and fewer opportunities in urban areas.

The Chinese government sees entrepreneurship and innovation as a new driver of economic growth. It has implemented various policies and programs to encourage people to start their own businesses.


Entrepreneurship has always played a part in China’s economic growth, despite a lack of government recognition or support. Nearly 25% of the adult population are already entrepreneurs, twice as many as in the U.S., according to the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor.

Recent policy changes are having an affect. In 2015, the National Development and Reform Commission reported an average of 10,000+ new enterprises a day.

In an op-ed, the China Economic Review noted this “surge in entrepreneurship,” highlighting the growing interest in social enterprise. In The Guardian, The shape of social enterprise in China highlighted the “huge role” social enterprise can play in the country. 

The time was ripe for SSE to step into this growing culture of entrepreneurship. When the initial program location fell through, UBC Sauder BCom Student Elizabeth Guan stepped into the breach.

The Zhengzhou native was already working as a program Research Assistant, helping to translate the curriculum for Chinese participants. She had also travelled to Kenya with SSE the previous summer.

Guan took up the challenge of not only finding a new SSE location and helping to negotiate with Chinese partners, but also adapting the curriculum for Chinese participants, recruiting student volunteers and planning trip logistics.

“I was very excited and nervous about the whole process,’ she says. “I’m an international student, so I was worried about taking on something as big as this while also studying.”


Guan is no stranger to throwing herself into fresh challenges. The 3rd year BCom student travelled to Kenya with SSE in 2015 and took a summer entrepreneurship program at Tel Aviv University in 2014.

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During her first year at UBC Sauder, the active volunteer and keen traveller also developed a keen interest in social entrepreneurship.

“I have been dreaming of changing the world since I was a child,” she says. “I grew up in China where smog has been a problem for years, experienced the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in Tel Aviv, and I taught in the biggest urban slum in East Africa.”

With a passion for marketing and international relations, Guan hopes to eventually put her business education - and overseas experience - to good use working for the United Nations or with NGOs.

“I am motivated by finding solutions to big problems and engaging with parties that deal with difficult issues,” she says.


Guan’s first major task was to convince SSE staff of the merits of a new location for a China pilot program. Having grown up in Zhengzhou, the capital city of Henan Province, it made sense for her to propose her home city.

However, she also had to use her local knowledge to prove that the city fit the requirements and aims of the program.

“Henan Province is a huge agricultural province,” she says. “It’s the birthplace of Chinese civilization, so it’s a very interesting destination.

“Zhengzhou itself is growing rapidly, partly thanks to new government policies to help the region. It’s also a huge transportation hub, connecting China’s two main railways. Lots of people want to get to the city, so there are lots of opportunities.”

In addition, Premier Li Keqiang toured Henan province in 2015, stressing mass entrepreneurship and innovation as a new way to grow China’s economy.

China Infographic

The second location - Longnan City in Gansu Province - is more remote with more farmers and small businesses. It’s also a perfect location for SSE as Longnan is China’s first ”pilot city for poverty alleviation through ecommerce."

Guan used her local Zhengzhou contacts to help facilitate a partnership with Zhengzhou University of Light Industry.

“There were lots of late-night Skype meetings with China tying down the details,” she says. “We had to be super flexible. At first they wanted to do something different, so we had to come to an agreement.”

It was also Guan’s job to help adapt the SSE curriculum to work with both university students in Zhengzhou and farmers and small business people in Longnan.

“We researched a lot of Chinese small business data and created a case tailored to the Chinese economy,” says Guan.

Generous support from Catherine Zhang, President of Rockcheck Holdings and a UBC graduate, was instrumental in getting SSE China off the ground.

“UBC Sauder Social Entrepreneurship acts as a bridge to help students use their education to make a difference in globally,” says Zhang, who previously supported SSE Kenya. “I saw first-hand how the program benefited people in Kenya and became interested in how it could be adapted for China.

“In China, most people migrate to the cities. Our long-term aim with SSE China is that more entrepreneurs will return to their home towns to create and develop businesses that benefit their local communities," she adds.

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Guan is convinced the pilot will be a success.

“There are so many people in China that it can be hard for many to find work,” she says. “We can share our business skills with them, mentor them in entrepreneurship and help them start their businesses.”

Her initiative has already changed the SSE program dramatically.

“We’re creating a history for both schools (UBC Sauder and Zhengzhou University),” says Guan. “The SSE program will be an elective for their students and a new experience for us. We’re going into the unknown.”

Her efforts also helped to double student volunteer numbers this year.

“The program continues to grow,” says Frances Chandler, Program Director. “It’s a completely student-led program, and every year it turns out to be a life-changing experience for our student groups.”

Frances points to recent comments by the Governor General of Canada, who said every student should gain experience overseas, for further proof of the program’s benefits.

“We will do an evaluation of the pilot in China and make improvements,” says Frances. “We hope to expand to a third location.”

Is opportunity about to knock for another enterprising student?