By Diana Yin
From delighting children with personalized cupcakes to painting the sky with concrete and steel, Harvard alumni are stamping their chops in every corner of Shanghai life and business. We profile these alums periodically in Shikumen, the blog of the Harvard Club of Shanghai.
The Palate Knows the Path
Before uprooting to China, Tiantian Mayimin, AB ’02, JD ’07, and Chenling Zhang, AB ’04, were both on the path of surefire success.
Tian, a Chinese-born American who speaks with a professor’s thoughtfulness, was an attorney with a prominent firm. She had a Harvard philosophy degree, a Harvard law degree, and a judicial clerkship under her belt. Scaling the ranks of the firm was the final, albeit long, stretch toward becoming a judge.
Chenling, a fast-talking, sharp-dressed Shanghainese native, had headed straight to Wall Street after studying applied math at Harvard. After another five years in private equity, she was a twenty-something leading teams and rubbing shoulders with middle-aged CEOs from America’s heartland.
Neither had planned to be the first entrepreneurs to bring cold-pressed juices to China.
But They Are.
Tian and Chenling are the co-founders of VCleanse, the juice-based cleanse company that has inspired thousands with one message: healthy eating can be easy and delicious.
Their cold-pressed juices made such a huge splash in Shanghai that, in only two years, they have
- Expanded to Beijing, Tianjin, Jiangsu and beyond;
- Opened four new venues: an event space in Shanghai’s EcoVillage, a café on Yongjia Road, a kiosk at Portman Shanghai Center and a shop in Beijing's CBD; and
- Added an eye-popping natural foods menu that has dazzled food critics, nutritionists and event planners alike.
All this has generated an electrifying buzz for a company that could already boast 11,000 Weibo followers without spending a single yuan on advertising.
VCleanse is a serious, investor-backed company in hyper-growth mode.
“Could be faster.”
It Didn’t Happen Overnight.
In 2009 Tian and Chenling began to face the age-old question:
“Is this what I’m meant to be doing with my life?”
This was a pair who had met while planning Harvard’s largest student conference in Asia. This was a pair whose perfect bilingualism in Mandarin and English was as useful as an expired ticket in their respective fields. This was a pair for whom excellence was both Harvard’s imprint and their own signature.
“At the law firm, I was engaging with my own brain in front of the computer,” Tian recalled one day while sipping VCleanse coconut water. “And that wasn’t enough for me.”
But what would be enough wasn’t any clearer than going to work the next day.
Meanwhile, Chenling had always known she wanted to be an entrepreneur. Her restlessness grew with every new deal she scrutinized as an investor.
“I thought Tian was my best shot at entrepreneurship,” Chenling laughed from across the table. “Our knowledge pool was very complementary.”
In 2011, Tian met Chenling in Boston. The two brainstormed business ideas, ranging from baby foods to data analysis. But the cleanse concept topped the list. Tian had completed a ten-day “master brew” juice cleanse. Chenling was about to start her first cleanse.
“We wanted to do good and do well,” Chenling said. The cleanse concept could work.
As the wellness market heated up in the United States, Chenling and Tian turned to China, where they could leverage their cross-cultural and language skills.
In 2012, they moved to Shanghai and leased a tiny shop on Yongjjia Road. Hewlett and Packard’s first garage. They poured their savings into building a cold room and buying state-of the-art hydraulic presses. The hardware dominated the space, leaving only a sliver for retail. But they tinkered and brewed, and found loyal customers.
“Our Palates are Right for This.”
Chenling pointed to a delicious array of earth-toned chips. “We came up with these because customers were asking for a healthy snack.”
“They’re made from the fibers that are left over from the juicing,” Tian added, biting into a kale chip. “These are good,” she nodded, as if she were still product testing. And she could have been. Their mantra, “delicious, nutritious, and effective,” compels them to taste and experiment constantly, to perfect, to obsess about product quality.
It permeates every aspect of the business.
- They turn quaint phrases like, “We have a really great organic farmer,” with pure earnestness, because they insist on full control at the source of their supply chain.
- Their kitchen personnel wear winter coats, since the juices must be pressed at below negative four degrees Celsius for maximum freshness and food safety.
- They care about the complete look and feel of their brand, down to the meticulous design of their bottles, because their customer’s experience starts before any products are purchased.
Healthy Living is the Future.
Western wellness principles are catching on in China. And VCleanse’s impact can be seen in its customer base. Ninety-five percent read Chinese exclusively. The World Health Organization selected VCleanse to cater the opening of their new Asian headquarters. Even Tian's and Chenling’s parents, disciples of the traditional Chinese diet, have begun to understand what their daughters are trying to achieve.
Perhaps Chenling and Tian were meant to become friends on that sprawling campus in Cambridge, not only to transform lifestyles through VCleanse, but also to transform lives.
Because here they are, in Shanghai, far from their surefire paths, pursuing their passion, and still brewing just the right blend of excellence and success.
Diana Yin, MPP ’94, is a writer based in Shanghai. She maintains the blog, www.presentinshanghai.com.