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Made in Kunming (continued)

For Shriya Palekar, an MBA student at MIT Sloan, the China Lab might be better described as challenging. Palekar and Charu Shirai, MBA ’13, were assigned to work with Fei Xuemei and her growing preserved flower company, Holyflora.

Each China Lab project begins in January, when two MIT Sloan students are paired with two students at a partner university in China. The team of students works together remotely until March, at which point the MIT Sloan students travel to China for about two weeks. The project continues there in its most fervent phase, with students working in offices and factories, investigating the business.

Work continues after MIT Sloan students return to Cambridge. Their Chinese counterparts join them there in late spring. Together, the group finalizes its reports and recommendations. Along the way, the goal of the project tends to morph and grow.

“The project scope evolved a bit from the time we first got the application to where we’re at now,” Palekar said about her work with Holyflora. “When we got there, it got a lot more detailed. It was originally supposed to be, ‘Figure out where we can market our products.’ We got there and they had just been approached by the sourcing company that provides all sorts of imports to Pier 1 Imports, as well as the sourcing company that does that for Restoration Hardware.”

Holyflora vice president Xuemei first approached MIT Sloan about hosting a China Lab team with hopes that the team would continue to develop a full business plan for the growing company. But when she met the team students—Palekar is American, Shirai is Japanese—she saw an opportunity to tap their experience with those markets and expand Holyflora’s distribution base there.

“I thought, ‘How can I use this opportunity to help my company?’” Xuemei said. “We wanted Shriya to help us do some market research. Already we had been approached by American companies, and now we know more about what our customers really need, what they want.”

Palekar was struck by how much trust Xuemei and her co-founder put in the student team.

“It was an incredible experience because they were so invested in the project,” she said. “They were treating us like we worked at McKinsey or Bain. That was the level of expectation. I think all Sloanies are go-getters; we’re very excellence-oriented people. But it was a level of accountability that I haven’t felt since I left my job [in healthcare].”

“I think because of our work, Holyflora—being a company that has a strong management skill set and intuition—I think they gained a lot more of the nuanced understanding of the customer and the market and how it works,” she said. “Part of it was the analytical capabilities, the market research capabilities that my project partner and I brought to the table.”

The China Lab team ultimately recommended that Holyflora focus its efforts on entering the wedding flower market in China, improving price competitiveness in Japan, and winning a valuable sourcing contract with a Hong Kong agent to increase sourcing to the United States.

Xuemei admitted to once being skeptical about the need for business education and telling a partner that developing a business plan was a waste of time. Her work with Goldman Sachs’ 10,000 Women Initiative, with MIT Sloan faculty, and with the team of China Lab students has changed that.

“Honestly speaking, doing this business is really very hard,” Xuemei said. “Sometimes you want to give up. Sometimes I think if I give up, it’s OK for me. I can go back to my family. I can still have a very good life.”

“Now I try to study more and more. I’m happier than before. I can imagine what my company’s future is.”...