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March 17, 2010

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Bright prospects in bringing up baby

Editor's Note:

Shanghai's strong economic growth should be attributed to not only the robust performance of state-owned enterprises but also the emerging power of the private sector. The number of private businesses now accounts for 72 percent of the total in the city, according to the local statistics bureau. Shanghai Daily has launched a biweekly column about small business people in Shanghai and how they cope with the challenges of entrepreneurship.

Smart, candid and energetic - when Wu Weiwei meets a client, she exudes an air of confidence, no small attribute in the success story of a woman in her early 30s who quit a white-collar job and started her own child-care business.

Her company Hui Ying Zhi Jia, which translates as "home of clever babies," trains baby-minders and sends them to work in homes with small children. After more than two years in operation, the company is providing Wu with more income than she earned selling semiconductor chips for a French company.

More importantly, she takes pride and pleasure in her work.

"I now work with my emotions, and that gives me a great feeling of satisfaction," Wu said. "Money matters, but it is not all about money."

"Money matters, but it's not all about money"

One reason she ditched her job and decided to strike out on her own was a desire to spend more time with her four-year-old daughter. No more business trips out of town. No more working overtime.

Her choice of field was also related to her child, having found it hard to find good, reliable babysitters in a business sector that lacks management discipline.

"People have high expectations for baby-minders," Wu said. "They should be able to take good care of the baby, and to provide some early education. Parents are demanding more than the simple babysitting of the past."

In 2007 - two years after she gave birth to her own child - Wu started Hui Ying Zhi Jia's Shanghai branch with an initial investment of 200,000 yuan (US$29,300).

Hui Ying Zhi Jia was founded in Beijing in 2000 and had opened nearly 20 branches by 2007 nationwide. The boss in Beijing happened to be a friend of Wu's and was very supportive in helping her start the business in Shanghai.

As a first step, Wu rented an office and employed one staff member to operate the company.

She "borrowed" two seasoned baby-minders from Beijing and received her first client just 20 days after the company opened its doors for business - thanks to clever marketing.

"I hope to ... make my baby-minders feel optimistic about their prospects"

Years of experience in marketing and sales helped Wu win that first client, she said.

"Compared with other agencies, like Jin Guo Yuan and Xiao A Hua, which came into the market much earlier than us, we had the advantage of a strong online marketing campaign to introduce ourselves to the public," Wu said.

She can still recall the exhilaration of that first client choosing a baby carer from Hui Ying Zhi Jia instead of one of her bigger, more established competitors. It strengthened her belief that the quality of baby-minders was the most important asset of her new company.

But how to find, train and retain them was a challenge, Wu said.

"Sometimes you spend a lot of time and effort to train a baby-minder, but she may soon quit for some higher-paid job or go behind your back and do a deal with clients secretly," Wu said.

To cope with a high rate of turnover, which is prevalent in the industry, Wu built a strong company culture and provided better benefits for her baby-minders.

Unlike other companies, which function solely as placement agencies, Hui Ying Zhi Jia provides dormitories for workers who need quarters, offers continuing education and organizes seminars for baby-minders to communicate with one another and sharpen their skills.

Hui Ying Zhi Jia also maintains a strict evaluation system. After two weeks of training and a successful test score, a child carer may be dispatched to a client's home. It takes at least six months for a junior baby-minder to win promotion to become a mid-level professional.

"The culture in our company is like the firms that I have worked in. I hope to establish an incentive system and make my baby-minders feel optimistic about their prospects," Wu said.

Most of the women Wu employs are middle-aged and from rural areas. They come to Shanghai from poorer areas, expecting easy money.

Some demand a starting salary of 3,000 yuan a month even before they start work.

"It is understandable for them to have such unrealistic expectations," Wu said sympathetically.

"I need to nurture their dreams and show them how it's possible to attain them on a step-by-step basis."

China is entering a new baby boom era.

According to the National Bureau of Statistics, more than 20 million babies are born each year on the Chinese mainland. The number of children under the age of three has risen to 70 million, almost 30 percent of them living in cities.

Shanghai is home to 220,000 children younger than three years of age, a threshold for them to go to kindergartens, and these children require as many as 160,000 minders, according to the Shanghai Zhili Vocational School, which grants certificates to qualified child carers.

The demand is expected to grow rapidly because new parents in big cities such as Shanghai and Beijing are mostly working couples who can't take full-time care of their infants.

At the same time, the Chinese tradition of grandparents looking after babies is also fading as many women postpone childbearing beyond the years when their parents are physically able to help raise grandchildren.

Working couples have the incomes to pay for top child care. It is not unusual for a well-qualified child carer to make 5,000 yuan a month, considerably above the average Shanghai monthly income of 3,292 yuan.


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