A Chinese executive taps into knowledge and insight from U.S. executives in order to assure success for a social enterprise in China.

By Gregory Pings, manager of Content Marketing for Xerox.

She had a good job as a marketer for Sony Hong Kong Co., Ltd. She liked the work, which paid well, and the product line that she supported was successful. For a Chinese woman — or a man, for that matter — this was the type of job that commands respect back home.

Wenyi Xing with U.S. mentors Shelley Diamond, managing director, Young & Rubicam New York (left), and Barbara Basney, vice president for Global Advertising and Media at Xerox.

Wenyi Xing with U.S. mentors Shelley Diamond, worldwide managing partner at Young & Rubicam New York (left), and Barbara Basney, vice president for Global Advertising and Media at Xerox (right).

“But at some point, it does not matter how many units you sell,” Wenyi Xing observed. “It was no longer meaningful. Why not choose work that does something for other people?”

That was in 2002.

Enter Professor Mao Yushi, the renowned economist who eventually received of The Cato Institute’s 2012 Milton Friedman Prize for Advancing Liberty. Mao — hailed as a national treasure by his fans, and a traitor to the Chinese people by his detractors — is one of China’s best-known advocates of government policy reform. Among his attempts at reform is the Fuping Development Institute, which seeks to improve the welfare of China’s poor by increasing opportunities for development, and promote social justice.

Wenyi decided to work at Fuping in Beijing for one year. “It was a step down,” Wenyi recalled, “because, at that time, non government organizations did not get the kind of respect that is afforded to private companies. But I wanted a different lifestyle. I wanted meaningful work that improves people’s lives.

“Professor Yushi was my first mentor,” Wenyi said, after she described how the one-year stint turned into 12 years that have changed her life, in addition to some 25,000 other lives.

Today, Wenyi is visiting with U.S. executives at Xerox, Young & Rubicam, Save the Children, and Concern Worldwide. She is here courtesy of the Fortune/U.S. State Department Mentoring Partnership. The program provides young women from the developing world the opportunity to meet senior leaders at U.S. corporations, and enter into mentoring relationships.  (Update, April 24, 2014: Learn more about Wenyi and the time she spent with executives in the U.S. on Y&R Covers, a blog from Young & Rubicam.)

Being Mentored and Being a Mentor

In those early days, Fuping’s mission was focused on helping rural female migrants succeed in their new urban homes and jobs. Opportunities for untrained, rural women are limited. Often, the only possibility is to marry well, which isn’t always an option. In those early days, Fuping’s mission focused on teaching domestic skills so that rural migrants could work as housekeepers and nannies.

Wenyi is now vice president in charge of Fuping’s trustee communication and fundraising. She and her colleagues quickly understood that the problems of China’s rural poor could not be solved only with vocational training for women. Fuping also started other social enterprises in the industry of rural microfinance, high quality early education services for equal education, and eco-agriculture exchange network all over China. Fuping’s mission now is to create equal development opportunities, and make services work for poor people through investing in leading social enterprises and visionary social entrepreneurs.

With the development of social impact investment, Fuping’s staff has grown from 20 to about 200, which brings its own problems – frankly, problems that are good to have so long as you know how to work them. However, the move from a purely social enterprise to social investments requires a shift in thinking.

“We need to figure out the type of platform we need to support a social enterprise that is also a platform of networking social investors and social entrepreneurs,” Wenyi observed. “I need to know how we can do well, in addition to doing good. How to find friends and partners, how to be a good supporter. I need to know what successful people look like, what they do, how they think.”

She believes that each of these pieces will determine whether or not she will be a good mentor to the people who work with her, as well as for the people Fuping serves.

Wenyi’s aim during her time in the United State: Gain practical organizational ideas and business knowledge about:

  • Improving Leadership.
  • Operating in multiple regions.
  • Handling relationships and communications with a board of trustees.
  • Managing and administering fundraising activities.

On her first day at Xerox, prior to the first in a series of meetings with executives (beginning with CEO Ursula Burns), Wenyi displayed a portfolio that included a calendar that was packed with dawn to dusk meetings for each day of the next two weeks, and brief biographies for each person on that calendar.

It crystallized her first lesson of being a mentor: Take it seriously, plan well, and communicate clearly. The lesson is especially important for anyone who, like Wenyi, works with powerful and influential people in order to assure success for their social enterprise:

“We work with some of the richest people of society,” she said, “but we work for the poor.”