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Chinese property tycoon encourages entrepreneurship

During talk at MIT Sloan, Zhang Xin details how she helped bring 'color to Beijing'
From left to right, Yasheng Huang, Zhang Xin and Yung Ho Chang.
From left to right, Yasheng Huang, Zhang Xin and Yung Ho Chang.
Photo: Terry Tong

Even as China’s economy continues to grow rapidly, there is still room for new entrepreneurial ideas to be amply rewarded, Zhang Xin, CEO and co-founder of SOHO China, said in a talk at MIT Sloan Thursday.

“You don’t have to be rich, you don’t have to have connections, but you need to be creative in your own business ideas,” Xin, 45, told a group of students, staff and faculty during a talk titled, “Dynamics of Chinese Economy and Society – A Perspective of a Real Estate Entrepreneur.” The talk, sponsored by the Office of the Associate Provost, was part of the MIT China Forum.

Xin sat down for a conversation with two moderators, her “dear friends” Yung Ho Chang, professor in the Department of Architecture, and Yasheng Huang, China Program Professor in International Management at MIT Sloan. They discussed topics ranging from social media to real estate to motherhood.

Xin and her husband, Pan Shiyi, founded SOHO China in 1995. The company went public 12 years later, raising $1.9 billion.

SOHO, or Small Office-Home Office, is a development business that tries to find a balance between architecture and commercial viability, founded in part because of Xin’s desire to become part of China’s early economic reforms in the mid-1990s. After graduating with a master’s degree in development economics from Cambridge University, she worked for an investment bank in Hong Kong for several years. Xin and Shiyi started SOHO from scratch.

“We had no capital, assets or experience,” Xin recalled. “We had plenty of energy and ideas, and those early days were a pure struggle.”

At the time, developers in China were selling apartments as “concrete shells,” lacking in aesthetics and amenities. SOHO China changed that by including colors on their buildings (Beijing was “all gray” back then, Xin said) and outfitting their apartments with cozy rugs, gleaming hardwood floors, furnishings and artwork. People lined up in droves to buy the attractive apartments and a newspaper article dubbed Xin and Shiyi as “the people who brought color to Beijing.”

Today, SOHO China still stresses design and is starting a new project in the high-speed train transportation hub in Shanghai.

“We are very much seen as a design-driven company, because whatever we build will be a part of the city and forms the face of the city,” she said.

Still, Xin said, China’s expansion remains tenuous and must be closely monitored by entrepreneurs looking to succeed.

“Politics is the risk factor,” she said. “China is now at the stage where people are not satisfied with just economic growth … they want more freedom and [many things] are still very much controlled by the government.”

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