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Shanghai’s Startup Scene Takes Flight

Young professionals gather at one of Shanghai's Naked Hub co-working spaces. Modeled after WeWork, Shanghai currently has seven Naked Hub locations with five more planned. Photo by Nathan Allen

Young professionals gather at one of Shanghai’s Naked Hub co-working spaces. Modeled after WeWork, Shanghai currently has seven Naked Hub locations with five more planned. Photo by Nathan Allen

Leela Greenberg loves ice cream. Haagen Dazs mint chocolate chip, in particular. For as much as she loves ice cream, she equally loathes airplane small talk. So when she boarded a 15-hour flight from Shanghai to Mexico in February, she made a face, sending a message to the guy next to her not to even consider opening his trap.

And then dinner came, with ice cream for dessert.

“I ate all my ice cream. Obviously,” Greenberg, 28, recalls, with emphasis on obviously. “And I looked over at him and he’s not eating his ice cream. And I’m like this guy is weird, what is his problem?”

The guy was Alvin Chiang and he noticed Greenberg’s bewilderment. Chiang, a diabetic, explained to Greenberg his inability to consume ice cream and handed over the frosty dessert. Feeling a bit guilty, Greenberg opened the conversational door — and found out she was sitting next to one of the most adept Internet and e-commerce professionals in China.

And Chiang was writing a job description for an internship.

OPPORTUNITIES FOR BOTH SEATMATES

For the remaining 13 hours of the flight the two talked, mainly about Chiang’s newest venture, Gululu. He told Greenberg — currently an MBA student at the China Europe International Business School (CEIBS) in Shanghai — everything from the size of the company to his investor pitch. Greenberg was intrigued by the company and position. And Chiang was intrigued to learn about a network of driven and intelligent young professionals only a few miles from his company’s headquarters.

At the end of the flight, Chiang gave Greenberg the job description to pass around her CEIBS network. But Greenberg had a different plan in mind. She took the two-and-a-half page job description, edited and reformatted it to fit on one page, and sent it back to Chiang. He liked it so much, he hired Greenberg as an intern immediately to start as soon as she got back from the Chinese New Year break.

Leela Greenberg with a Gululu product. Courtesy photo

Leela Greenberg with a Gululu product. Courtesy photo

A STARTUP EPIPHANY

Chiang, 45, started his career in the Internet before many knew there was an Internet. He began in 1998 at Acer in his native Taiwan, where he says the company was “trying to do what Amazon was doing.” In 2000, he moved to Yahoo!’s Taiwan headquarters, where he eventually became director of online media planning. After a brief stint as a vice president of sales at Chinese Internet tech giant NetEase, Chiang was hired in 2007 by Jack Ma to head up media sales for the Alibaba Group. About a year later, Chiang left Ma’s empire for the “Facebook of China,” Renren. As chief marketing officer, Chiang was instrumental in the company’s IPO in 2011 — but soon after going public, Renren’s reputation took a hit when it was discovered to have overstated its users by nearly 130 million; it took another hit over a user privacy breach. After five years, Chiang called it quits in 2013. “I spent 10 years in an executive role chasing revenue for public companies,” he says.

When Chiang left Renren, he was 42 and lost. Living conditions in Beijing were “upsetting,” so he sold his apartment. “I was actually quite confused about what to do,” Chiang says. “I was having a mid-life crisis.” Offers from “multiple publicly traded companies” poured in, but Chiang declined. Instead, he spent a year traveling, investing, and finding himself. And he took a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

It was in Jerusalem that Chiang experienced a startup epiphany. Alongside three friends, he made his way to Jerusalem’s Western Wall, also known as the Wailing Wall. “I thought making a wish by the Wailing Wall is a pretty serious thing,” he recalls, noting his diabetes diagnosis in 2010. It turned out, it was a serious thing. Chiang says his mind went blank for about 20 minutes before a few words were illuminated. “I’m not allowed to share all of the words with you, but one key word was health,” he explains. “God gave me diabetes for a reason, and it is something I need to tackle.”

Chiang believed in the power of epiphanies after reading the autobiography of Japanese writer Haruki Murakami, who decided to become a writer after an epiphany he had while watching a baseball game in 1978. “He said he wanted to become a writer simply because he had an epiphany watching a baseball game,” Chiang says. “So I thought, why not, right?”