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Finding Success as an Asian American Entrepreneur - a Different Mindset

Who is Tianyi Joe Zhu? Give me the elevator pitch.

I’d probably title myself as an international entrepreneur and investor. I wear a lot of hats, a lot of titles. At this point, I’m chairman of my holding company, Zhu Holdings Group. I’m chairman of Jiangsu Fuel Cell Technologies, partner in Smart Health Ventures, co-founder of West Suburban Angels. I’ve got a couple of board seats and advisory positions.

It gets mind boggling. I play the surgeon role. I don’t have to be full-time at anything, which is really helpful [laughs].

What’s taking up most of your time these days?

With Jiangsu, we acquired the license to a battery technology firm. We’re in the process of setting up manufacturing and customer base. At the same time, we’re recruiting a CEO, which has been really busy.

I’m one of the shareholders and board members of Cooper Clinic China. Essentially, we bought the license for the Cooper Clinic in Dallas. It’s the number one preventative care clinic; George Bush, Obama, all the stars go there for their yearly checkups. We’re taking that to China and partnering with various firms out there.

Also, I’m co-founder of West Suburban Angels, an angel investment group. And Smart Health Ventures is a healthcare accelerator. These four major projects take up the majority of my time, and I dabble in other things as well.

How did you get to become an entrepreneur?

I think it’s a bit of nature and nurture. I’ve always been a little bit rebellious, crazy. I love to take risks. I’m a Thai boxer, and I’m an aspiring mountain climber.

From a nurture perspective, I’ve always had incredibly supportive parents. My father, when I was like 7 years old, gave me a bunch of ‘96 Olympics suit pins and said, “Go sell these door to door.” I’ve had fantastic mentors in my family who have helped me develop into an entrepreneur.

When I was in elementary school, I wanted to be a biologist; I loved animals and nature. Not to say I’m superficial, because I believe money is just a tool to live free. But when I saw the average starting salary of the biologist, I remember looking at that, closing the book, and pulling out a business book. Part of that is I’m a first generation immigrant. We started out kind of rough, and we built ourselves up. Prosperity and success is important to my family. That’s always going to be a piece of our lives.

How old were you when you came from China?

Yeah, I was born in Shanghai. I came over when I was almost three. My father came first, then my mother and I came.

How do you recognize investment opportunities?

I’d certainly say that I’m not good at it [laughs]. Well, this year has been very successful. But it’s as much an art as it is a science. As a science, there’s analyzing the numbers, but there’s always signal and noise. The art in the game is really what separates the good investors from the great investors: the George Soroses, the Warren Buffetts.

At times, it’s literally trusting your gut. I’d say good investors have high IQs, great investors have high EQs. Much of it comes from doing a lot of deals, being disciplined and being able to control your emotions. A lot of people talk about it, very few people can actually do it.

For a lot of Asian American businessmen, it can be a lonely road to walk. Do you often find yourself being the only person of your ethnicity in the room? How do you overcome that?

It’s an obstacle, absolutely. But I think as any investor or entrepreneur would tell you that where there are obstacles, there’s really true opportunity. I think the flip side is that by being the only Chinese guy in the room, I represent something that other people can’t represent. I can do something that other people really can’t do.

Many of my U.S. partners can’t go to China and have that cultural connection. Especially when you talk about the secondary cities. In the first-tier cities, there are so many [expats] now. But you go to the second-tier cities—Changzhou, Nanjing. You can’t do business in those places the way I can, and that’s an advantage.

There are so many businessmen out here in China. And now Silicon Valley is flooded with Chinese investors, and New York, too, especially on the real estate side. The amount of Chinese buying real estate in L.A. is astronomical. I think it’s really starting to change the perceptions of what Chinese are capable of.

It’s true that our education system, our cultural values are very much about being “A” students, listening, and doing what we’re told. As businessmen, sometimes you have to break some eggs, to make an omelet. Those are some of the areas we struggle with. But it’s starting to change significantly.

Looking at your investment portfolio, would you say there’s a common thread?

You know, I’d love to say I’m industry focused but I’m not. I really go where the opportunity is. I rely on a lot of the secondary and third sources experts who validate technologies.

I like more on the ‘deep tech” side of things you can’t replicate with basic skills. My only real skillset is my ability to attract people far smarter, far greater, with far better resources to help me accomplish a goal. In that sense, I’m not an expert, but I find stuff that’s been validated by industry experts. And I like the strong brands, like Cooper Clinic—that’s something that can’t be replicated overnight.

How do you balance work and play?

I live by a particular quote from E.B. White: “Every morning I work is to wake up with the determination to both change the world and have a hell of a time. Sometimes this makes planning my day difficult.”

The second part is trying to live unique experiences, and to see the world. There really isn’t a lot of balance in my life, to be honest. I spend most of my time doing work, but work is so much fun. I don’t sit behind a desk. Sometimes part of my work is interviews; sometimes it’s sitting on board meetings, sometimes it’s entertaining guests. A month ago I was entertaining the CEO of the largest playground manufacturer in China. I spent two days driving him around Chicago. We spent a day on the lake in a boat. I kept thinking, “This is work but this isn’t really work.”

Why Chicago?

Chicago will always be my home because of the network of friends I have here. We don’t talk business. They don’t care if I’m the world’s biggest business guy or broke on the streets.

I really decided Chicago was it after spending so much time on the road. I spend about 50% of my time in China, and travel becomes lonely. I have great networks in China, but there’s a difference between business partners and the friends I’ve had here for ten, fifteen years.

I like to say there are two things you can’t put a price tag on: great memories and peace of mind. From a peace of mind standpoint, Chicago has to be home.

Wrapping up, what’s the next big opportunity for Asian American entrepreneurs?

I think there are several. Pretty much every major Asian country right now is a growing economy. There are technologies being innovated in the U.S. that can be taken over to Asia. On the flip side, a lot of these [Asian] countries are capital rich. So we look at how we can move that funding over to the U.S. how we can transition some of that money to the U.S. to get better investment values.

Plus, the migration of Asians into the United States in the last five years. That’s such a huge population that has its own needs. A lot of them are not as fluent from a language standpoint; they need to connect with their own people. That alone is a huge buying market. Many of them are affluent. Being able to connect with them from a cultural standpoint, a lot of people will be trying to capture that. That’s the real opportunity for a lot of Asian American entrepreneurs.

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