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Shanghai entrepreneur gets set for Sydney brainstorming competition

Zoe Zhang is taking her ideas from Shanghai to Sydney
Culture
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Zoe Zhang is taking her ideas from Shanghai to Sydney.
Zoe Zhang is taking her ideas from Shanghai to Sydney. Olivia Martin-McGuire

by Lisa Murray

When Zoe Zhang returned to China from studying in the Netherlands two years ago, she wanted to do more to promote creative industries.

So the 27-year-old artist focused on public education. She set up a media platform, Creating Box, bringing news about designers, artists and events from around the world to the local audience and she became a curator at one of the top contemporary art spaces in Shanghai, the 21st century Minsheng Art Museum.

Then she had an epiphany.

"It's all about money," she says at a coffee shop in Shanghai's old French Concession.

"Artists need money to make a project. They can apply to art foundations or museums but that money is limited.

"I see people study abroad and then come back and decide they can't be an artist because they need to make a living."

While this is a problem around the globe, Zhang says it is more acute in China where investors are sceptical of ideas or concepts, which haven't yet been tested in the market.

So Zhang, who is heavily involved in Shanghai's start-up scene, organised four "funder dating" events where she brought together investors, designers and entrepreneurs.

Joint project

Zhang will bring her ideas to Australia this week when she joins the China Australia Millennial Project – a competition which brings together more than 100 young entrepreneurs from China and Australia to find new business ideas to solve the problems of the Asian Century.

The entrants who have mostly not met each other have been collaborating online for two months but meet in Sydney from Monday before pitching thier projects to panels of professional investors on Friday.

One participant in Zhang's dating scheme in Shanghai was a start-up called Fitting Room, which designed robots that change size according to the measurements online shoppers feed into a web site. The idea is for the potential purchaser to see what the clothes would look like on the equivalent of their body.

"They didn't need money," says Zhang. "They had already raised around 20 million yuan but they needed a marketing director and a technical person so they came along."

The events were successful, attracting about 100 people each time, many of them involved the IT sector. However, Zhang wanted to focus on raising money for artists and designers so now she has set up a crowd-funding web site, where people can pitch their ideas. If the project or product eventually becomes profitable, her company will take a commission.

Zhang, who completed an arts degree in the eastern Chinese city of Hangzhou before heading overseas to study interactive design at Eindhoven University of Technology, says China's education system needs to change to support more innovation and creativity.

"In the Chinese education system the teacher tells you what you need to do and then sets a study plan," she explains.

"On my first day in the Netherlands, the teacher asked us to prepare a personal study plan. When you know what you want to achieve and you have to think about how to do that, it makes you more self-motivated and willing to explore something new."

Zhang says the mega-success of companies like Alibaba and smartphone maker Xiaomi has changed the environment for budding entrepreneurs in China.

"The government wants to change the economy to be more innovative and creative and not reliant on manufacturing," says Zhang.

"They are giving start-ups seed money. It's a better environment than when I was a kid."

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Editorial Team
Editorial Team
Keeping a pulse on Asia's aspiring and leading entrepreneurs, Entrepreneurs Asia editorial team brings readers the latest news, interviews, events and other resources that matter.

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