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  Shandong entrepreneur proves she's fit for the lao da name  



Not many traditional Chinese women would feel comfortable being called lao da, a term generally meaning eldest brother, since in some circles it also means gang leader.

For Zhu Chengrong, a 52-year-old businesswoman from Linyi in East China's Shandong Province, the name is a point of pride. In fact, she includes a picture of her face on every package of Zhu lao da brand instant dumplings and sugar-coated haws that her company makes.

Haws are the small apple-like fruits that grow on hawthorn trees. The sweet-and-sour fruits make for a popular snack when coated with sugar and served on sticks.

"I am not the eldest child in my family. My father, two brothers and four sisters and even my husband all doubted my ability to excel in business. They discouraged me from continuing whenever I experienced a setback," she said. "I wanted to prove my capability to them. I wanted to be a lao da."

And in the few short years Zhu has been in business she has done both, proving to all doubters that women can also be lao da. Not only is Zhu a self-made millionaire whose products are sold overseas, she also employs more than 1,000 workers.

In China, women like Zhu Chengrong account for about 20 per cent of all entrepreneurs. Forty-percent of these women run private enterprises, according to official statistics from last year.

Many of them have built their successes from scratch. Some left jobs to start their own businesses, while others became entrepreneurs to support their families after being laid off. Zhu Chengrong belongs to the latter category.

Zhu got her start in business when she opened a pedicab company in 1998 after being laid off as a sales manager of a blanket factory.

Sensitive to the fact that many of the laid-off workers she had hired to operate the pedicabs were embarrassed to be seen by friends in their new jobs, Zhu bought them sunglasses and wide-brimmed caps to help them hide their features.

The company slowly expanded, and it looked like Zhu's fortunes had changed for the better.

Inspiration struck in October 1999 while Zhu was out recruiting more pedicab drivers. She happened to see an old farmer chopping dawn a hawthorn tree. The old man had more than 2,300 hawthorn trees, but nobody wanted to buy his fruit, no matter how cheaply he sold it.

"I pitied him and decided to buy all his haws for 0.2 yuan (US$0.05) per kilogram, which was about 10 times what he was offering," she said.

The old man delivered 9,000 kilograms of haws the next day, costing Zhu 8,000 yuan (US$1,000).

"I wasn't going to tell my husband, but he found out anyway and got angry. I was upset and decided to move out after he accused me of squandering money," she said.

Determined not to give up, Zhu started experimenting with her fruit at night, searching for the perfect recipe to make sugar-coated haws. She managed her pedicab company during the day. She ended up going through more than 1,000 kilograms of sugar during the experimentation phase. She stopped being able to tell the difference between the different recipes after tasting so many of the sugar-coated fruits. Zhu gave some of the fruits to her parents and asked them test her recipe. Her elder sister ended up losing an artificial tooth in the sticky sugar-coating.

"She got very angry and blamed me for bringing them bad luck. My father also called me the shame of the family because he thought I was going to end up on the street, yelling at passers-by to buy my sugar-coated haws," she said.

In June 2000, she finally found a formula that would not endanger dental work. Everyone who tested her concoction gave a thumbs-up.

All that remained was to come up with a name.

She decided to register her new brand under the name Zhu lao da, much to the delight of the officials at the local industrial and commercial bureau, who ridiculed the idea.

"They said that if I dared to register a brand called Zhu lao da, why not just go with hei she hui (Mafia)," she said. But it was Zhu who had the proverbial last laugh. Her snacks took the market by storm, and the local media were enamoured of the woman who called herself lao da.

Of course, success is not just in a name. For thousands of years, street vendors have sold their snacks without packaging. Zhu reversed this tradition by wrapping her haws in modern packaging, making them more sanitary.

As a result, she has been able to ship her products to supermarkets in China and to other buyers in Australia and New Zealand. Business has been booming ever since.

Inspiration struck again when Zhu bailed out a flour factory that was facing bankruptcy. She went on to open a dumpling restaurant and later established an instant dumpling factory.

"Women have family and children to take care of, and that takes effort. Many women give up," she said. "I am now in this position because I never yielded to adversity."





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