Ting Xu endows VCU's inaugural Female Founders Speaker Series
Feb. 10, 2020 - Wendy Martin
Ting Xu is passionate about possibilities. She sees them everywhere. Ask the Shanghai native about Richmond, Va. – the city she moved to in 1989 – and she describes her joy at witnessing Richmond’s 30-year transformation into an inclusive, global city center.
“When I first moved here, every weekend, I had to drive to D.C. to buy decent Chinese food. Now we have everything here.” In the same breath, she exalts that, in recent years, “hundreds of thousands of citizens attended special exhibitions like Forbidden City and Terracotta Army at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts to gain a better understanding of Chinese culture.”
The transformation Xu herself has undergone since emigrating to the United States is far more dramatic than that of the city she now calls home. In 2020, the founder and chairman of Evergreen Enterprises and the Plow & Hearth family of brands will sponsor an inaugural Female Founders Speakers Series at the VCU School of Business to help inspire female business students to become entrepreneurs and business owners.
“Female business startups are still way underrepresented in society overall. I travel extensively to Asia, and it always surprises me to observe there are more female business startup owners there versus the U.S.,” says Xu.
Lack of capital is one persistent problem. According to Pitchbook’s 2019 VC Female Founders Dashboard, the percentage of venture capital funding going to startups with at least one female founder had stayed around 10 percent since 2016, and venture capital going to all-female founding teams had hovered around 2.2 percent for the last two years.
An American dream powered by Chinese role models
Growing up, Xu didn’t have to look far to find powerful female role models. “My mother was a professor at Fudan – one of the most prestigious universities in China. She wrote textbooks, led research and was on the design team that made the very first EKG machine in China. At same time, she was an amazing, hands-on mom. Her ability to achieve a successful and fulfilled professional life while raising my brother and me set a great example.
In 1993, Xu, then a computer programmer at the Virginia State Health Department, launched Evergreen Enterprises. She intended the small business as a vehicle for her retired parents to embark on a second career, making decorative flags in her garage. None of them could ever have dreamed the remarkable journey that small company would take. Today her family’s global businesses employ about 1,000 people – including 250 in the Richmond area – and generates total annual revenue of approximately $250 million.
“Our creative department [at Evergreen Enterprises] has a high concentration of VCU grads. We have more than 40 people in our product development and creative department. About half of them graduated from VCU. We hired great alumni and they referred their friends!
“As a Richmond-based wholesale company, we are in such need of students with multiple disciplines. VCU and the da Vinci Center, especially, present students who have solid training in data analysis and engineering construction, but they are also very creative. They call this T-shaped students – individuals who use both left and right brain. That’s what employers really need today – students like that.”
Evergreen Enterprises help da Vinci students “make it real”
For several years, Evergreen Enterprises has partnered with the da Vinci Center to give entrepreneurial students the opportunity to collaborate on innovative products, like:
Self-watering planters – In fall of 2015, a cross-disciplinary team of six da Vinci students from arts, business, engineering and humanities developed solutions for self-watering planters for Evergreen Enterprises. The team developed and tested a series of prototypes ranging from low-cost, low-tech options to solar, high-tech premium options. The group also developed packaging, branding and point-of-sale displays.
HugglePods – da Vinci Center students also worked closely with Evergreen’s product teams on marketing for HugglePods. These large, fabric hanging pods, available from Hearthsong, encourage children to head outside for active play and also offer a cocooning space for sensory challenged children.
“In both instances, it immediately became clear to me how hungry the students were for entrepreneurship. The young women, especially, seized on the opportunity to ask me questions. They were my inspiration for a female founders speaker series.”
Xu’s message for female entrepreneurs
According to VCU School of Business Chief Development Officer Shannon Duvall, the Ting Xu Female Founder Speaker Series will present one or two nationally or globally known female speakers on the VCU campus each year, starting during the 2020-2021 academic year. These signature events will include the broader VCU and Richmond communities to maximize opportunities and resources.
Xu’s initial gift of $20,000 will fund speaking and travel fees for female speakers relevant to entrepreneurship. Approximately $5,000 will be earmarked for selected student professional development opportunities, such as participation in regional or global SoGal Pitch Competitions.
Xu hopes that all VCU students find inspiration in the series. “You don’t need an earth-shattering idea to start a business,” she explains. “I had a very simple idea: to help my parents to start a new life after they settled in Richmond. That started with a tiny product – decorative flags – and we built from that.”
The message that Xu wants female students to take away from the programs is more pointed. “I want them to know there is nothing better in the world than to wake up every day and want to go make a difference, to be impactful. Starting a business and being a business owner is probably the most direct way to achieve that,” she says.
“Earning a paycheck and supporting a family is important to a lot of women. Many of us want that feeling of accomplishment. For me, and other female entrepreneurs, finding and following that voice within has been the wind beneath my wings. It’s been a rewarding experience to build a business from garage to global and to raise two wonderful children. It’s the best feeling in the world.”
IDEATE Female Founders Summit
The Female Founders Speaker Series will kick off with the IDEATE Female Founders Summit, which will bring together the best of the region’s founder and innovators to make change in their communities and cultivate opportunities for the next generation.