Amena Lee Schlaikjer has been involved in new enterprises in China for some time, previously describing herself as an “entrepreneurialist” as she’s always launched businesses for others. But she’s just launched her own initiative, Wellnessecity, a Shanghai-based operation aiming to create ways to live healthier in cities. She spoke to ‘eg’ about conceiving and developing her own enterprise – and about getting close to consumers.
How long have you been in China? Can you tell us something about your experience in China?
If you add up all the years of living in Greater China, including Hong Kong and Taiwan, I’ve been out here for about 18 years. My father was an American diplomat so I spent much of my schooling years in major cities in China Ð Shangahi, Beijing, Guangzhou Ð along with Hong Kong and Taiwan, where my mother is native American ???. I went to University in the States (Columbia and Fashion Institute of Technology in New York); then worked for a few years, before coming out to Shanghai, where I’ve now lived for almost seven years. My adult working years out here have included working in the fashion/cosmetic/lifestyle industries on start-up initiatives: researching for Vogue’s beauty section, Zagat Restaurant Guide, branding for CiCiGirl Cosmetics, launching of the M.A.C counters and then helping start-up ?WhatIf! Innovation. At ?WhatIf!, I wore many hats throughout the businesses but mostly worked on building and promoting the office and team, alerting interest groups, doing projects and managing the business with our directors.
What inspired you to start your own business?
As of May last year, I took a six month sabbatical to handle some health issues where I created my own “Amena University: Understanding the World of Wellness” in which I also worked on some self-development through an intensive Yoga Teacher’s Trainer’s Course. It was after this break (during which I also married my husband) that I came back to Shanghai with a mission to innovate in wellness. Wellnessecity is an initiative that I started in March of this year to help others create ways to live healthier in cities. For now, it includes independent projects in wellness around three things: first, coming up with business ideas for entrepreneurs; second, research for corporations around the LOHAS consumer; and thirdly, wellness events to educate the community. We held our first fair, “The Wellness Works”, in the Spring. It was all about taking old dilapidated factories and rejuvenating them with ideas and people passionate about living well, and I’ve already had a couple of projects in hospitality, green living and philanthropic fashion.
Why did you choose to focus on wellness?
Like anything, the industry of wellness is really just a means for businesses to make the right decisions. Wellness, as a value-set, tends to be an easier place to do this but essentially I am fascinated by consumers who start making behavioural changes in life that are motivated by love rather than fear. That’s a really powerful place to innovate, with the right intentions, not taking advantage of human frailty like many other industries do, and find a way to empower consumers and business owners to act consciously when it comes to their actions, purchases or ideas. When I say ‘act consciously’, this is all about not spending, consuming or creating beyond our means regarding health and sustainability. I also think it’s an area that Chinese consumers are going to relate to more, as a platform for personal responsibility, as distinct from Corporate Social Responsibility and the Green movement, which can be very intimidating arenas for many people. Essentially, we only have control over our immediate lives and taking our conscious decision-making to our bodies Ð our health Ð and our households Ð sustainable and green living Ð is going to be much more comprehensible, and actionable, at the end of the day.
You have been to so many cities in China, why did you choose Shanghai for this initiative?
Mostly because I am in Shanghai now and have spent the last seven years building a life here. It’s also a great place for fostering entrepreneurship, new ideas, experimentation and innovation. And it probably has the most people in China suffering from “Affluenza”. What better place for enlightened business practices in the seat of the world where the economy is growing in double digits, people are gaining wealth (but not health) every day, and all eyes of the world are on?
What kind of difficulties have you encountered starting something new in China?
There’s always the initial, “How do you make this into a scalable business…what’s your executive summary?”. I have one in my back pocket but the truth is, businesses change all the time in China (that’s why most of them fail because they don’t change fast enough and invested too much from the start). I’m actually more of a self-starter creating a vision, a set of intentions and values, building a selection of case studies that proves this works. That’s why I’m also calling this an “initiative” for now; building awareness and studying the consumer’s desire to live well. I am also the Shanghai manager for Asia Pacific LOHAS, Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability where we do research for large corporations to cater to this group. Along the way, I’ll have some projects under my belt, a few events and hopefully an inspired team to hire or join. It depends on who finds whom first. This is about change, not about maximizing profit margins unintelligently Ð though of course, we all need to make a decent living and balance spreadsheets with sufficient funds to keep people motivated.
How has your time in China affected your business/career?
It’s probably made me difficult to market anywhere else in the world! I think it’s given me lots of perspective on how to thrive in a difficult environment. How really being on top of your consumer and your market is going to be the key to success. How going with the status quo without believing in a certain value-set, is going to be a stifling experience. How business will always be about tough decisions but they should be geared towards going the right thing, the right way, with the right people… otherwise, it’s not really worth it… you’re just running after money and not inspiring others.
What kind of advice do you have for expats who want to start their own initiative or business in China?
During my first year here, to better understand the cosmetics industry, I used my brief stint as a professional make-up artist and worked my weekends, twelve hours a day (standing in heels mind you!), at cosmetics counters putting make up on consumers, understanding their preferences Ð and practicing my Chinese! Try something a little less painful but you get the idea: do field research… learn the culture… get close to your consumer… and don’t be afraid to experiment or act out of character to get to the right idea.