The Story of an International Entrepreneur

From China to France to the UK

This is the part of our ongoing series in which we interview people who have interesting jobs and and get them to tell us how they landed them. They will also reveal how they handled the transition to the real world after graduation —

Siqing (rhymes with cha-ching!) is fluent in English, French and Mandarin, runs her own jewelry business and works full-time on the digital side of a travel company in London.

From age 11, she decided she would not lead an ordinary life. Her post-grad tale is one of hard work, ingenuity (she created her own study abroad exchange program) and relentless drive. Her path takes her from Southern China to France and eventually to London, where she currently lives and works.  (We first met at a Chinese supper club in London run by a mutual friend we both met in Beijing.)

siqing amsterdam

Siqing, in Amsterdam, on a rare day of relaxation

If you’re feeling lazy or need motivation or have ambition to start your own business, read this. 

You haven’t led the typical life of a Chinese girl. What was your childhood in Chengdu like?

Most of the time in China, it’s the parents who pressure the kids to study and work hard, but in my case, I’m the one who wanted to do it. There was one really good school in Chengdu, the Chengdu Foreign Languages School. They accept 200 kids out of 20,000. I took evening and weekend courses for an entire year to prepare and when I was 11, I took the entrance exams and was accepted. But my parents never pressured me to do it — I wanted to prove it to myself.

It was a boarding school and we had class from Monday- Saturday. Every day, we had to wake up at 6.40am and go to bed at 10.30pm. Even after dinner, you study. We had to cut our hair short and keep it short for the entire time. The school was almost run like the military.

It was so competitive: the school also “eliminates” kids every year — in my final year (the 6th year), there were only 84 students left out of 200. It was brutal. The kids that get kicked out had to go to ‘normal’ schools. I survived by the skin of my teeth.

If I were in a normal school, maybe I would have been outstanding, but that school was full of geniuses, so I felt mediocre most of the time. I focused on learning English well because that was my best subject.

How did you end up traveling abroad for the first time?

I was the best English student in my class and was part of an exchange program with the States, so when I was 16, I spent a month in Washington, DC.

When I first arrived in America, it was mind-blowing. I felt like I’d landed on a different planet.

My American host family had nine bathrooms! I counted so that I could go back to China and tell my friends. Their house was like a palace – I’d get so lost that I couldn’t even find my room sometimes. But the schoolwork at the American high school – it was so easy compared to what we studied! They were a few years behind us in the curriculum and the hours were so short compared to my school in Chengdu.

In America, I was popular. I even had a really sweet, shy American boyfriend for the month I studied in the States.

What happened after you graduated from high school in China?

I got a double degree from Sichuan University, which is a pretty good university in China. I studied French and business. I spent my first three years there and spent one year studying in France.

Actually, I created the exchange program between the two universities. I met a guy who went to the French school in Chengdu and I decided that I want to make an exchange program between my Chinese university and a university in France.

You created the exchange program?

Yeah – I went to Sichuan University and told them my idea. I lobbied for the two schools to meet – people came over from France and I showed them around and translated at the meetings. I converted the curriculum and scores and negotiated the contracts. It worked out that it wouldn’t be as expensive as studying a year in France outright, since the French students also came to Chengdu. It was the first exchange program for students at Sichuan University.

I started the program when I was a sophomore at college, and then spent my senior year in Dijon, France studying International Trading Commerce at Ecole Supérieure de Commerce de Dijon for the Erasmus.

Why did you study French? Why study in France?

I couldn’t make up my mind about what I wanted to do, but if there’s one thing that will always be useful, it’s a language and I knew I was good at languages. I was buying myself some time. I realize I wanted to go into business because during university, I started working as an interpreter for international conferences where investors come to China to talk to local businesses and look for potential suppliers and investments.

During this time, I learned business phrases and I began to figure out what they were talking about, so I decided to study business and French. Also, I was friends with French expats in Chengdu and I really liked them. It gave me the idea to go there.

What were your first impressions of France?

I loved it. I felt like I’d come home. It was such a strong feeling. I think I was born in the wrong country. Europe is my home. Even before I came here, I knew.

I made so many friends in France. And I loved it. My best friends are still from that year.

What did your parents think of your moving to France?

My mom didn’t support the idea. Even though the tuition was low, they still had to pay for my living expenses. She did ask, “Why don’t you just find a job or something?” But my dad encouraged me.

What did you do after you finished your degree in Dijon?

I did my masters degree in international trading at Ecole de Management in a different town in France – Strasbourg. It’s a French Alsatian city with heavy German history, and belonged to Germany many times in the past. I picked up some German when I was there, too.

How did people treat you in France? Was it hard coming from China?

Everyone was really nice to me. I think the French are racist against people who don’t speak French, but my French was already good when I arrived. I remember sitting with a bunch of French students and they were complaining about the other Europeans in their country who don’t speak French. They started complaining about foreigners. I said, “But I’m a foreigner!” And they said, “But you speak French so well! You’re one of us.” I think it’s mostly about the language for them.

What happened after you finished your degree?

After I graduated, I started sending my CV to companies in Europe. I posted it on the professional German website, Viadeo, and someone contacted me about a graduate recruitment program at a gaming company in London.

I was like, “What? London?” That had not crossed my mind at all. I always thought I would stay in Europe – I’d had two interviews for jobs in Switzerland. But I came to London and had to interview for two days at an assessment center and I got the job.

What did you think of London?

London was pretty much like a wonderland to me! That’s actually a very good word. I could understand the language but that was it. The black cabs, the food, everything was very exotic to me. I remember at the hotel I was staying at, there was a breakfast buffet and I asked if they had any croissants because I was used to eating that in France. They just looked at me like, “What?”

And I called everyone ma’am or sir, because in French that’s what you do: madame this, monsieur that. They thought I was so weird, but I got the job.

Tell me about your first job in London.

It was a graduate recruitment program for a gaming company – so I spent months in the marketing and publicity departments but I also had to actually manage a gambling retail shop for six months as part of the program! They were like “You’re Chinese! Manage the shop in Chinatown!” Now that’s racist!

It was one of the hardest jobs I’ve ever done. And everyone spoke Cantonese instead of Mandarin! To be a shop manager you have to do ten things simultaneously. It was a super-overwhelming, crazy job especially when there were angry customers who had just lost money. After those six months, I was trained in the marketing and publicity departments.

How did you feel about working in the gaming industry?

I had some ethical doubts about it, but not serious enough for me to turn down the job. Gambling is a highly regulated industry in the UK and the company actively engaged in programs to make sure customers don’t get addicted,  so in a way they were helping a lot more than illegal bookies in countries where gambling was illegal. That being said, I never thought gambling was in any way glamorous and I did try and get out as soon as I could. I don’t think it contributes much value to the society and also, I personally had no interest in sports betting and gaming.

What happened after your first year on the job?

After a year, I found out they’d applied for the wrong visa for me. It meant that when it expired, I had to leave the UK and couldn’t come back for 12 months. They decided to send me to Beijing so that I could meet with Chinese government officials to try to legalize gambling in China. It was PR work and it meant dealing with Chinese officials who assumed I would help them instead of help my company. I hated that job. I saw corruption firsthand and it was not pleasant at all.

One time, one of the officials definitely tried to marry me off to someone’s son! She kept asking me to teach English to a government official’s son and I kept saying no. Finally, I agreed to show up and talk to him about learning English. Then, when I arrived, I realized we were having dinner at a huge table with his entire family: aunts, uncles, grandparents, everyone. They started asking me, “How tall are you” and “Are you healthy?” and “How much money do you make?” I was pretty naïve back then and just kept eating and answering their questions. Only afterwards did I realize, “Wait a minute – I think they were trying to marry me off to that guy!” And he was one of those typical Chinese princelings: chubby and covered in pimples. But I don’t think he liked me, either.

What was it like moving back to China after you’d been living in London and France?

I wanted to go back to London as soon as possible because I loved it so much. It was an amazing adventure: the theatres, the food, the high streets, the immense diversity in culture, the people, my friends. It was so exciting.

The moment I landed in Beijing, I had a plan: I’d apply for a different UK worker’s visa in one year and move back to London.

The best thing I liked about Beijing was it was so easy to make friends and I had a great social life and loved the diversity of people there. But I hated my job. I was really depressed.

I decided that I was going to start my own business. While I was working for the gaming company, I was saving all of my money and managed to save 10,000 pounds (16,410 USD).

I wanted to start a pearl jewelry business. I found pearl suppliers in China and decided that I would sell them in Europe. I launched right into it: I hired a website designer and programmer.

It was a really stressful time. I was living off of my savings and I invested a lot of money into my jewelry company. Buying pearls is actually really expensive and I knew nothing about e-commerce at the time. I was punching in the dark.

siqing pearls houhai

Then, I moved back to London and the gaming company contacted me again. They were like “Well, we spent all the time and money training you.” I wanted to learn more about the digital side of things so I met with a guy in the IT department and told him I wanted to learn about websites. He hired me to help manage their internal communications. It was basically an entry-level job but it was web-related, which is what I wanted. It was also less risky for the company to have me working on the internal digital side of things.

I got a lot of on the job training. I asked everyone to tell me what books to read. I found some amazing mentors.

One of my mentors was going on maternity leave and she said, “I’ll train you so you can replace me.” That’s when I moved into the gaming website team, where I worked for two years. I read books on the field all the time. I also read books on cognitive psychology and industrial design, because I knew that when I went looking for another job, I needed my CV to stand out. I needed to prove that even though I didn’t have a degree in website design, I had a breadth of knowledge that other people didn’t have. It helped me a lot in interviews.

I eventually quit the gaming company and started working at agencies as a user experience architect for websites (a UX architect). Everyone in the digital business can improve their CVs and portfolios by working for both agencies and clients.

siqing computer dog

What is your job in layman’s terms?

I design the blueprint for a website or a mobile app. I choose how to present the information and decide what features a website should have. I create something called a wireframe (or an interactive prototype) which a designer takes and then applies a graphic layer to it. Then a programmer develops it.

My job is to make sure the website or app’s features are intuitive and engaging for the user, while also making sure they are feasible from a technical perspective.

The agencies I worked for had really big brand clients but they’re like sweatshops. I worked for them because I knew I needed to get those big brand names on my CV.

How were you balancing this work with your own company?

When I first moved back to London, I woke up every day at 5am and worked on my jewelry company from 5-8am. Then I’d get ready for work. Every night, I was asleep by 9pm. I had no friends at all. I was poor. I had nothing. I knew I had to get my shit together and work really really hard.

Sometimes when my alarm would go off at 5am, I wouldn’t feel very awake so I’d make myself go for a run along the river and even the swans were still asleep in the water. I was up before even the swans! That’s how early it was.

I couldn’t do that now. I’m too old now! But it was worth it then. And I made back the money I invested within two years.

What is your current job?

I’m technically still a freelancer, but I’ve been working for the same travel company for 18 months now. They are in the process of transforming their business into a digital-led organization.  Like previous digital jobs, I was hired as an user experience architect: I helped them figure out their customer experience strategy and build a portfolio of travel apps for phones.

Then I got promoted to the title of Product Owner of a portfolio of these mobile apps. My new role is to define what features the team builds for these apps by working with different country divisions and understanding our customers.

This job is actually very similar to running my own business – I need to think about technical architecture, budget and the team capacity, as well as make sure that the app features bring both customer and business value.

How do you still have time for your jewelry business? 

I make sure I block out 4-5 hours to work on my pearl business every Saturday. I’ve just re-launched my jewelry website – it’s called Jacqueline Shaw. I’m really proud of the designs – they’re elegant but great value. I name the designs after actresses that I think represent the beauty and style of the pieces.

What was the turning point in your career?

When the gaming company screwed up my visa and I had to go back to China, I was at a low point. I was heartbroken. I wanted to be an entrepreneur and I was super-driven, but to be honest, my jewelry company didn’t take off as well as I thought it would, at least not as fast as I thought it would. It was not as easy I had thought it would be.

But after working on it so hard and learning about websites – that’s the only way I was qualified to get hired on the intranet side of the gaming company back in London, which lead to everything else. And even when I was working full-time, I took photography courses and accounting courses at night so that I could improve my jewelry business.

Your mom was just visiting you in London for the first time. What does she think about you living here?

Until my mom visited me, she didn’t understand why I was here or that I’m a lot happier here.

But when she visited, she liked it here. She thought everything was very clean and charming. My career is healthy. She gets it now.

What’s your advice to recent graduates or anyone who’s struggling with what to do with their life?

This takes me right back to where I was in 2008, working for the gaming company in China. Not only did I hate my job, I hated my life! For someone who feels like this,  I would say, never accept this as your reality! Figure out what you’d like to do and then make a plan, then take each and every step to lead you there, no matter how hard or how far it seems.

I mean, literally write down what you would like to achieve on a piece of paper and worship that paper. You might get there way faster than you expect! I think the most important thing, really, is to believe in yourself. It sounds cheesy, but it’s true.

The “Post Grad Dispatches” feature comes out every Wednesday. Stay posted.

GRADUATES IN WONDERLAND is an epistolary memoir about  two friends who document their post-college life in a hilarious and relatable epistolary memoir living in Beijing and Melbourne (Jess) and New York and Paris (Rachel).

We think it’s the kind of book anyone who has found themselves searching for the right career, the right partner or even the right country would enjoy (plus there are so many strange stories from Beijing, Paris and Australia buried within our letters).

And it’s not just for grads (despite the title) — it’s a story of love, discovery, heartbreak and finding comfort in your friends (even when they are 5,000 miles away). It’s on sale now, was reviewed in The Hairpin, Cosmo and BUST magazine and is sold in bookstores including Barnes and Noble, as well as on Amazon Kindle.

If you live in China, order the book here: Graduates in Wonderland.