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UPSTARTS

Making a Difference
Teachers and students of
the Lang Lang Learning
Potential Development
Center in Beijing, one of
the social enterprises
Avantage Ventures is
advising.

Zhang Meng
Avantage Ventures hopes to help social enterprises become self-sustaining by TOM SPENDER

M
“ y dream is to destroy the school However, in the Chinese mainland to address them. It also makes raising
totally with a missile,” says the few are familiar with dyslexia, according money to finance the Lang Lang Center’s
7-year-old boy on the video. to Lan Zi, whose Lang Lang Learning continued operation difficult – which is
“Every day is the same there. I don’t Potential Development Center in Beijing’s why Lan Zi wants the school to operate as
like doing homework. I have no idea about Xizhimen district is the country’s first a sustainable business generating its own
others’ feelings and the reverse is also true. school to offer specialized training for income through tuition fees rather than
My handwriting is the worst in my class. dyslexic children. relying on donations.
The teacher would punish me. I would This lack of awareness means “Without proper help these kids
have to stand at the balcony for one hour.” millions of dyslexic Chinese children go might end up on the streets. They could
The boy feels this way because undiagnosed. Some are even punished become gangsters. So this work is very
he has dyslexia, defined as difficulty in for their learning difficulties by parents meaningful,” says Lan Zi. “If we are
reading and writing and thought to affect and teachers who don’t understand the financially independent then we can offer
between 5 and 17% of people worldwide. cause of the child’s problems and the ways this training to more children. Donations

22 China International Business | November 2010


just aren’t stable.” banking. their ability to scale up their activities if
The Lang Lang Center is just the “Investing in a social enterprise is they are trying to attract funding.”
kind of social enterprise that Yvonne Li and not about getting the money back, it’s Li’s decision to make a difference
her company, Avantage Ventures, hopes to about giving people dignity,” says Li. “If by starting Avantage grew out of her
help. A former investment banker, Li and you hand them money they will always be work in investment banking, when she
her partners started Avantage Ventures dependent on you. If you invest in them served on her firm’s committee advising
in 2008 to you support them in their belief that they charities. As part of her committee
help such have the ability to do something and create work, she organized a trip for some of
enterprises income of their own. And if the investment her colleagues to a school project run by
develop does well, investors get their capital back the China Literacy Foundation in rural
resources and can go and re-invest in the sector. Shanxi.
and con- “The aid model is really important “Afterwards, five people came up to
nections in war-stricken countries or during natural me and said the trip had changed their
with in- disasters, such as the earthquake in Haiti lives. That trip gave me more satisfaction
vestors. or the floods in Pakistan. But there are than anything else in the job. It was a huge
The Lang also models that allow social enterprises sign that I had no feeling for the numbers
L a n g to thrive on their own without aid money game even though I was in finance.”
Center and if they can then it’s better for the NGO Later, while she was examining
is one sector and less burden on the government. a structured equity product based on
of about So why not?” carbon credits that she described as
50 such B e s i d e s t h e L a n g L a n g c e n t e r, “awful, highly speculative and possibly
Avantage is working with Canyou, a even damaging to the environment,” she
software company in Shenzhen run by became interested in the carbon market.
a person with a disability, whose 700 “It was commercial in one sense
employees also have a disability (see so I could still use my commercial skills,
October CIB ). The company needs working but it had the greater purpose of helping
capital in order to scale up his business. the environment. And that’s what really
On the environmental side, Avantage is prompted my decision to leave the
working with Hebei Jing Long Husbandry banking sector,” she says.
Pig Farm, which is looking at a scheme to Tw o y e a r s a f t e r i t s f o u n d i n g ,
capture the methane from pig waste (which Avantage Ventures is now in the process
otherwise contributes to global warming) of raising money so it can also invest
and use it to generate clean energy that directly in the social enterprises that it is
can be used to power the farm and sold currently advising.
into the grid. The process also creates a Last month, Avantage held its first
substance known as “bio-sludge”, which social investment forum in Hong Kong,
can be used as a fertilizer, reducing an event that brought together poten-
reliance on chemical-based fertilizers. tial investors, social entrepreneurs and
“Social entrepreneurs have both experts on the sector, including Jose
Spender

an innate desire to make a difference Maria Figueres Olsen, a former president


and strong business acumen. They are of Costa Rica and an expert on climate
m

innovative in how they approach both the change and sustainability.


Images by To

social sector and business,” says Li. At the forum, Avantage launched
Indeed, there’s plenty of desire to its investment club, called the Impact
make a difference in Asia, Li says, but Investment Circle, which is not a fund
Asian social enterprises are less visible of pooled capital but is instead a way
enterprises that Avantage is working with than those in other regions because of the for investors to gain access to well-
across Asia. number of different languages spoken run social enterprises that need capital.
Instead of relying on continued in Asia, lower levels of English language Over 120 investors from across Asia and
philanthropy to keep going, social proficiency and the Asian cultural trait of Europe had the opportunity to hear about
enterprises look for investment to reach doing things in a quiet and understated multiple social investment models and 15
sustainability and expect to eventually pay manner rather than bragging about one’s said they would join the newly launched
their investors back. achievements. club.
The term social enterprise was “With the dominance of English “We said to investors: here are the
coined in the West, where the idea it takes a longer time for Asians to be enterprises, they all have very strong
developed out of the aid model. It heard,” says Li. “And there are a lot entrepreneurs, competitive advantage,
is now taught in universities and of unsung heroes in Asia who just sustainable business models and we’ve
qualifying enterprises are often eligible don’t talk about it. It’s an Asian cultural done all the consultation and due diligence
for government grants and preferential characteristic. It absolutely does hinder – now get on with it,” says Li.

China International Business | November 2010 23


UPSTARTS

She expects investment into social Yvonne Li of Avantage Ventures the value of the organization. That isn’t
enterprises to follow the pattern set by valued in today’s society. We are trying to
investment into microfinance, a decades- promote a sector which would value it.”
old industry now worth USD 20 billion. Back in Xizhimen at the Lang Lang
The first investors gave money in the Center, Lan Zi says she hopes to set up schools
form of grants, expecting no more return to help dyslexic children all over China.
on their investment than getting their Her calculations are simple.
initial capital back, and then they became Assuming an average of 10% of children
greedier as they saw the returns that the are dyslexic, there are about 500,000
industry was able to generate. dyslexic children in Beijing, Shanghai
“It’s a fairly new concept in Asia and Guangzhou alone. That’s a market
so they won’t have really high expecta- of USD 500 million based on tuition fees
tions initially. But as things become more of around USD 1,000 per year. With just
mainstream more institutional investors a 1% share of this market, Lang Lang
will come in expecting a return. As it can generate USD 5 million in revenue,
develops more players who will help the enough to be sustainable.
sector become more professional and The value to Chinese society of pre-
sophisticated,” she says. venting hundreds of thousands of children
But to Li, social enterprises offer from missing out on an education is

Image courtesy of Avantage Ventures


greater value than a normal commercial incalculable.
investment because of the social benefit they “In Chinese we have a saying: ‘xian qu,
bring. xian lie ’, which translates as ‘he who goes
“To me, social enterprises are the first, dies first’,” says Lan Zi. “We want to go
future,” says Li. “Social enterprises don’t first but we have no intention of dying.”
have a pure profit motive, but if you could And hopefully with the help of
put a value on the social or environmental Avantage Ventures, the Lang Lang center
impact that they have, this would increase will be able to reach its goals. ■

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24 China International Business | November 2010