Wellesley Senior – and Yaks – Carry the Hopes of Tibetan Peasants

Oct. 16, 2008

Arlie Corday,

WELLESLEY, Mass.— A native of Hong Kong who now lives in Braintree, Mass., Wellesley College senior Jenny Chu is a political science major/economics minor who has the gift of gab. Her ability to sell a newly developed yak cheese to high-end restaurants made her a one-woman sales force recently, finding markets for cheese produced by one of China’s most prolific animals, the yak.

Chu worked as an intern this summer in Shanghai with Ventures in Development (ViD), an organization that creates social and business development for impoverished people. In China, the group identifies rural poor who are disenfranchised from the benefits of the country’s economic boom, using business solutions to address sustainable development issues.

The yak cheeses, as well as yak cashmere woolens, are giving new hope to poor farmers in Yunnan province in western, or Tibetan, China. Chu worked to benefit a new business, Mei Xiang Yak Cheese, a for-profit social enterprise that brings yak cheese from Yunnan province to gourmet cheese consumers, providing a steady source of income to local herding communities. The factory is run by an enterprising Tibetan family who hope to bring development to their village. They have been trained by a U.S. cheese expert from Wisconsin and have been helped in their marketing efforts by Chu.

Here’s a Q&A with Chu about her summer experience in the Elizabeth Luce Moore Indentified Internships in Asia program through Wellesley's Center for Work and Service.

Q: So, what did you do with your summer vacation?

A: I was given the job of coming up with a strategy to launch yak cheese, one of ViD’s incubated social enterprises, into the Shanghai niche cheese market. This involved doing a lot of market research and benchmarking entry strategies, as well as personally speaking to procurement people of retailers to make cheese sales. Q: What challenges did you face? A: At first, my work as the “Yak cheese girl” was extremely unsettling because I had never sold or marketed a product to an establishment in a professional capacity. I learned to make cold-calls to high-end restaurants and cafés and to do “elevator pitches” for yak cheese, hoping to set up a meeting with either the procurement people or the head chefs. Fortunately, I was never turned down on the phone doing these cold calls, and I got the opportunity to travel all over the city for client meetings.

Q: Tell me about the product.

A: The product itself, gourmet artisanal yak cheese, was delicious. I did not have to work very hard in pushing the quality of that cheese. However, my emphasis on the social enterprise aspect really captivated my clients and they were happy to partake in our ventures, specifically the more socially conscious restaurants that could afford the premium our cheese asked for.

Q: What will you take way from your experience?

A: I still cannot believe that I spent the majority of my summer selling yak cheese and securing distribution outlets in Shanghai, but the experience allowed me to develop new skills and definitely pushed me outside of my comfort zone. Also, at the end of the day, I would immediately feel rewarded knowing that my work affected change as I would call our cheese farm in Yunnan after successful client meetings to place an order for cheese and hear the gratitude in the voice of the head cheese maker, Zhuo Ma.

Q: What will you remember most about your time in China?

A: While my experience traipsing around the city was rewarding, my work inside the office allowed me to develop a sense of home in Shanghai. Our office constantly bustled with activity and noise, hosting a women’s knitting cooperative that designs and produces items for the Shokay Yak cashmere line. In addition to managing a mini-factory within our office, ViD also had to accommodate the summer interns whose work spanned from business development to photography and clothing design. Within this cozy setting of a workspace, I was able to interact with not only the summer interns but also the local Shanghainese workers, who could perhaps be the fastest knitters I have ever seen. During lunch hours, I would sit with these middle-aged Shanghainese women and we would discuss every aspect of our lives. They were extremely interested in my experiences in America, and I was excited to find out more about their values and viewpoints on social issues. It was a very heart-warming experience for me to interact and develop relationships with these local women because I am also Chinese but not from the mainland. My home city, Hong Kong, is extremely different from the rest of China, but I felt an unexplainable connection to these sweet Shanghainese women who immediately treated me like their own daughter.

Q: Do you see a future for yourself in China or with the company you worked for?

A: I feel that the social sector in China is still really young and has huge potential to achieve great things for the Chinese society. There is definitely an opening for the social sector to compensate for the needs that the government has failed to address across different levels of society. Because of this opportunity and need for the social sector to expand, I am actually interested in pursuing social enterprise work after graduation in China. I would love to continue working for Ventures in Development if they could afford another full-time hire for business development.

For more on Chu’s internship, click here to read a story about her that appeared in the magazine City Weekend Shanghai, published in China during her stay.

Since 1875, Wellesley College has been a leader in providing an excellent liberal arts education for women who will make a difference in the world. Its 500-acre campus near Boston is home to 2,300 undergraduate students from all 50 states and 68 countries.