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February 15, 2019

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Fruits of entrepreneurship are for everyone

Getting up at 6am, Li Siyi, 17, accompanied by her parents, heads for a cold store in Baoshan District to check on the condition of her goods — apples and pears from her mother’s hometown in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region.

It is a long way from Putuo to the suburbs, but nothing will stop Li’s first steps into the business world.

Li has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair. When she graduated from middle school last year, she came up with the idea of opening an online store to sell Xinjiang produce, an idea she found hugely preferable to staying at home and living on handouts.

Li’s father was injured when working in a factory and can now only do some light part-time jobs. Her mother has a hearing problem. Her younger brother is only 13 years old.

Li’s inspiration is to do something for her family as well as for the many people who have helped her along the way.

“I often took her to charity events when she was young,” said Xu Na, Li’s mother. “When she visited an orphanage, she was depressed for days after seeing the children there, most of whom were not only orphans but also disabled. She told me that she hoped she could make some money to help people like them some day.”

One day she asked her parents if she could get some apples and pears from an uncle who owned an orchard in Xinjiang. She planned to sell them online.

In November, her uncle gave them 3,000 boxes of apples and 1,400 boxes of pears along with some red dates and nuts. He told them they could pay him after they sold the goods.

Adept with technology, Li registered a store online and got busy like any other young entrepreneur, taking pictures and posting them online, dealing with customers and printing orders.

She then came up with “Smile Together,” and with the help of a former teacher, she packed apples as gifts for blind people. “Our society makes me feel warm in my heart. Many people have helped me and given me many things. People far away have listened to my worries and provided me with advice. Their support and encouragement let me face the world with smile,” she wrote on her WeChat. “Blind people cannot see the beauty of the world. We should give them more care and warmth.”

Due to her condition, Li cannot speak clearly. With flexibility in only a couple of her fingers, she nonetheless practices writing every day. But one finger is all she needs to type on a cellphone or computer, enough to communicate with the world and run a business.

The business environment, however, makes few allowances for those with special needs.

At the beginning, her fruit sold well with help of some charity volunteers and friends of the family, but the same frustrations every startup faces soon emerged.

Because of poor packaging and the rigors of express delivery, some fruit was damaged in transit. Customers believed they had been sold inferior goods and demanded refunds. So Li bought Styrofoam nets online and repacked all the apples to prevent them from being damaged.

Li’s story soon came to the ears of taxi drivers from Shanghai Qiangsheng Taxi Group, who helped the family transport their goods by cab, largely eliminating the worries about the damage to the fruit by logistics companies.

Yesterday morning, two Qiangsheng drivers, Chen and Zhang, joined the family checking the fruit and delivering 60 boxes of apples and pears to customers in the Pudong New Area.

Chen is a member of a team of seven from Qiangsheng’s volunteer group supporting the family. Zhang helps out whenever he is needed.

“Our team has been doing charity work for a long time. We noticed the family’s difficulties in December and offered help,” Chen told Shanghai Daily. “My home in Baoshan is not far from the cold store. So after I have my breakfast, I ride my bicycle here to help them, and my colleague helps deliver the goods.”

Zhang said there are over 200 formal members of the Qiangsheng volunteer group and more like him in reserve.

The family then suffered another setback, one familiar to all retailers — overstocking. To cut the high costs of transport from Xinjiang they shipped in a lot of fruit, but sales are erratic, and the cold store costs 135 yuan (US$20) per day. Moreover, the longer the fruit is stored, the less good it tastes.

The Spring Festival has been a huge trial for the family. At the end of last week, they had not received a single order for two weeks, which made Li doubt her decision to start the business in the first place. Thankfully, her story was reported in the media and orders began to flow in again.

One customer drove to the cold store yesterday morning to pick up apples for himself and his friends. “I read Li’s story on social media last night and contacted them to buy some of their produce,” he said.

As a sign of appreciation for their new customers, the family are giving them red dates and pears as gifts, and will donate part of their earnings to charity.

They plan to introduce more Xinjiang products, such as raisins and lamb. They are also considering a brick-and-mortar version of the online store.

Putuo District Disabled Persons’ Federation trained Li’s father, and he now has a better idea of what it takes to start a business. He obtained a business license last month, and the federation plans to help the family with market analysis and provide them with other help in the next stage of their endeavors.

“In her life, my daughter has received help from so many people. She appreciates them and has always hoped to be able do something for them in return,” said Li’s mother.


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