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Made in Kunming (continued)

Kunming is a chaotic situation, though it wasn’t always. The capital of China’s second-poorest province, it was once the country’s geographic afterthought. The inland province— Yunnan—borders as much of Laos, Vietnam, and Myanmar as it does the rest of China. Though modern connections with Hanoi stretch back to French colonial days, Kunming wasn’t connected to Shanghai by rail until the 1960s.

There were upsides to the isolation deep in Southwest China. Less industry has spared Kunming some of the intense smog of China’s largest cities. All the better to enjoy what’s known as the City of Eternal Spring, where palm trees are present and average highs hover in the 60–75° F range year-round. Yunnan province has long been a tourist destination for much of Southeast Asia.

Still, it is China. And Kunming, a city of 3.5 million, is booming with the rest of the country. The growth is evident in new transportation infrastructure. A six-line subway system is under construction. The new airport “makes [Boston airport] Logan look like a fifth-tier city,” said Peter Kurzina, the MIT Sloan senior lecturer who mentors the school’s China Lab students in Kunming.

Kurzina, a turnaround specialist, graduated from the MIT Sloan Fellows program in 1988 and returned to campus in 2004 to teach Managing in Adversity with senior lecturer Howard Anderson. He first traveled to Kunming in the summer of 2012 to teach in the 10,000 Women Initiative.

A five-year, $100 million effort, the 10,000 Women Initiative is underway in 43 locations around the world and has nearly 100 educational and nonprofit partners. It was China Lab founder Huang who convinced the initiative’s leadership at Goldman Sachs to work in Kunming. MIT Sloan already had a decade-plus relationship with Kunming’s Yunnan University, whose faculty travel to Cambridge to work with MIT Sloan faculty.

But with the 10,000 Women Initiative, Huang upped the ante. Not only would Kunming’s most promising women entrepreneurs receive free management education at Yunnan, but they also would take classes with Kurzina and be eligible to work with a team of MIT Sloan China Lab students—free consulting work from some of the most promising business school students in the United States and China.

Kurzina, for his part, fell hard for Kunming and the entrepreneurial energy of students in the 10,000 Women Initiative.

“I really thought I might be talking to 43 women from 43 different villages working on small, local businesses,” he says. “Instead, I worked with a wide variety, aged probably early 20s through early 50s. Two of them had businesses doing US$1.5 million-plus a year. Some were just starting businesses, but they were all very entrepreneurial, and they were very amazing.”

During the 10,000 Women Initiative classes, the entrepreneurs competed in a business plan competition, which Kurzina helped to judge.

The winner of the competition was Fei Xuemei, the vice president of preserved flower company Holyflora. Through an eco-friendly process, Holyflora replaces natural fluids in fresh flowers with biodegradable preservatives that allow the flowers to maintain their fresh look for several years.

Founded in 2010, Holyflora grew to become one of the leading preserved flower companies in China and had its eyes on the international market. But like the Nankan craft factory, hard work and instinct could only take Holyflora so far. Xuemei knew she needed business expertise. She was thrilled to be accepted to the 10,000 Women Initiative, where she attended classes at Yunnan University and studied with Kurzina.

Impressed by Xuemei, Kurzina traveled to the Holyflora factory and met with management staff there. Holyflora was later matched with an MIT Sloan China Lab team, and Kurzina was asked to return to Kunming as mentor to eight MIT Sloan students working on China Lab projects at Holyflora, Nankan, and two other Kunming companies.

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