Building a Brand Overseas Kate Boe ’13's business is filling a gap in the baby-food business in China.
Q: Where are you from?
I was born and grew up in Washington, D.C. When I started my college process, I really had no idea where I wanted to go. My mom thought W&L would be a great fit for me and pushed me to do a tour. Initially, I didn’t even want to visit. I did a campus tour, loved it, and decided W&L was the best place for me.
Q: You have a rather unusual double major, in Chinese and biology. What drew you to those areas?
I did have an unusual academic path, but these two subjects were my main interests. I had started studying Chinese in high school and wanted to continue. Similarly, I had loved science, particularly biology, from a young age. I had great biology professors my first year at W&L, which made me interested in pursuing that degree. It wasn’t always easy to balance two difficult and dissimilar course loads, but I had great support from my professors, particularly my advisers, Paul Cabe and Yanhong Zhu. I chose to study and to do what I enjoy and am most interested in, and that has shown in both my academic and career paths.
I actually never took a class in the C-school. I wish I had now that I am starting my own business. I would recommend all W&L students to take advantage of the liberal arts curriculum and ability to register for a variety of classes outside their interest or major. You never know when you’ll need knowledge in a different field.
Q: How did you end up overseas?
I initially went to China for a six-month teaching program — sort of a gap year before heading to graduate school. I ended up changing those graduate-school plans and found a permanent job in Shanghai in the health-consulting industry. It was a great place to start a career in China, to learn about the Chinese market, and to learn the cross-cultural work-life skills I needed. During this time, I also pursued professional certifications in international development and project management, as well as integrative health coaching. They have combined to be helpful and a great network for starting a health business in a foreign market.
My biggest takeaway from my unconventional career path is to stay flexible and be open to opportunities. Don’t be tied to a normal path or what you think you have to do to have a successful career.
Q: What company do you work for?
I have a full-time job at JUCCCE and do Bunnie’s Baby Foods on the side. It’s been a good combination for me, as my job with JUCCCE complements the idea of Bunnie’s.
At JUCCCE, we are building China’s first food-education program, which is centered on interactive, gamified nutrition and food lessons for kids and families to improve personal and planetary health. It’s an internationally recognized public health and environmental initiative, and it’s given me amazing access to global experts. Next month, I’ll be going to SXSW and the Salzburg Global Seminar to present and discuss the vision we have for China and global licensing of the program.
Q: Describe your start-up.
The idea for Bunnie’s (Chinese name is 伴你 “ban ni,” which means “accompanying you”) came very naturally. I was active in the health scene in Shanghai, restaurants, fitness studios, etc., and I would host nutrition and health workshops. In spring 2015, I hosted a Katherine Mom and Baby Health workshop, and it was very popular. Many of the moms were concerned about baby food, weaning and baby food brands. Parents, both Chinese and expats, really only purchase imported baby food or make their own in China. The imported options aren’t always the best, healthiest brands, are limited in quantity, and very overpriced — one jar of ordinary Gerber baby food can be over $3. There are also a lot of food-safety issues in China, which makes people wary of anything locally produced.
I realized there was a huge gap in the baby food market here. It was definitely an a-ha moment for me to start Bunnie’s. I knew as a health coach I had the training and knowledge I needed to make the foods despite the fact that I don’t have a baby of my own.
Bunnie’s is all natural, and the produce comes from a network of ecological farms. I don’t use sugar or juice or heaps of water in my baby blends. I’ve developed recipes that are nutrient dense and still taste yummy to babies and fussy eaters. My current product lineup is eight flavors suitable for babies around 6 to 18 months old. By working with my farms, I’m supporting the movement to a healthier environment, too. Connecting small, ecological farms to consumers and new opportunities is one of the best ways to contribute to building an environmentally friendly China.
Besides, the actual food products, I am positioning Bunnie’s as a reliable source of information of healthy parenting and child rearing. I have just started an Official WeChat Account and a linked WeChat ecommerce store. WeChat is the predominant social media outlet in China, with 840 million active users. I consider the WeChat posts and social media almost as a Bunnie’s product in themselves. It’s extremely valuable to my brand, and parents are hungry for legitimate and interesting family health knowledge. Focusing on WeChat and the local Chinese market has been a priority of mine for the past couple of months. I’m positioning Bunnie’s as totally healthy and safe, as well as trendy and modern for young Chinese moms.
One of the biggest hurdles is the manufacturing, because the food is perishable. I make it in a kitchen facility and not a factory — it’s a choice that reflects my belief in the importance of fresh and natural foods. My big goals for this year are optimizing production, as well as increasing my suppliers and, obviously, growing sales and the Bunnie’s brand.
Q: What advice would you give young entrepreneurs?
At first, I tried to do too much myself. I’ve found that things get way easier when you ask for help. I’ve developed some great friendships with Chinese people who are enthusiastic about my idea and business and want to be a part of it. There is an art to finding the right balance between holding down a full-time job and creating a start-up — the entrepreneur term is “bootstrapping” — I would like to think I’ve almost mastered that art. However, the best advice I can give is, don’t beat yourself up and wear yourself out.
Bunnie’s has not been an overnight success, and I am totally okay with that. I do what I can, and rather than spin my wheels, I try to sit back and think about new solutions or finding advice.
I have had to learn to put myself out there a lot and actually sell the products I’ve created. The selling is hard for me, because I’m not a natural salesperson — it’s harder than I thought it would be. But I think it is important for everyone to learn these skills, and every W&L student should practice their inner salesperson. It builds confidence, public speaking and self-awareness.
Q: What have been the challenges in developing a business in China?
Doing business here is surprisingly not as daunting as one might think. Traditional industries are regulated and more difficult to tap into, but the F&B space is growing exceptionally fast here. Entrepreneurs and other businessmen I’ve worked with are open and eager and very collaborative. Being a foreign woman in business here has not been a problem either. I think the culture is egalitarian, and women and men are represented fairly equally in the workplace. Plus, blonde hair still goes a long way in China.
Q: How difficult was it to build a social network?
When I first moved to China, I was introduced to two people through friends. That’s it. At first, it was hard, but the expat community is open and welcoming — everyone is far from home and needs friends. I’ve also made some great Chinese friends who have been an awesome support and source of guidance for life and business in China.
I’ve attended the W&L events held in China, as well as some KKG ones, but there are not very many alums here. I hope more will join me here in this great city. I’m connecting with the Spring Term abroad group here this year and will participate in some of their activities. I’m looking forward to it.