Jennifer Ma on riding against the wave
We caught up with Beijing-based Kiwi Jennifer Jin Ma to discuss how she and her business have fared over the past year. Jennifer runs an early childhood centre modelled off the New Zealand concept of Te Whariki, which now has a presence in 11 cities in China. We spoke to her about how her business, Little Oasis, has fared through Covid-19, the lessons she learned along the way, and her plans for the future.
Tell us a little bit about yourself and your business?
Kia ora, my name is Jennifer Jin Ma and I’m a Chinese New Zealander now living in Beijing with my husband and three young boys. I am also the Founder/CEO of a early childhood education lifestyle brand ‘Little Oasis’. The brand is inspired by my own upbringing in New Zealand (having immigrated at 8 years old), and having had my oldest son in London prior to moving to Beijing in 2012.
I had a vision for how the modern Chinese parents needed a more lifestyle based early childhood service. Little Oasis is a family club concept, utilising the NZ ECE Framework ‘Te Whariki’, and combining playground, family cafe, early childhood center, and community space into one integrated space.
Over the last 6 years we have grown the business from a single location in Beijing, to over 13 in 11 cities, and have expanded the offering to include retail, community projects with art galleries and culture events, publishing and F&B.
What was 2020 like for Little Oasis, and how did the pandemic & lock down affect your centers?
2020 for Little Oasis was like riding a tidal wave and learning to swim for the first time. As we are predominately an offline business, it affected us hugely from an income point of view, as we were shut for 6 months. It definitely caught all of us by surprise and every looming uncertainty of future shutdowns (as we’ve seen again in Dec/Jan/Feb) added to more caution as to how we should operate in the future.
Luckily, we made some correct strategic decisions, managed our cash flow, and created new innovative income earning services/products. Once the centers were able to re-open, we saw a surge in need from the families, and the second half of 2020 had some of our best numbers to date. We managed to still open 3 new centers (outside of Beijing) and signed the deal for our new flagship to open in March 2021 in Beijing.
Can you share with us some of the valuable strategies you used to cope with the pandemic, both in managing your team & retaining the customers?
Unshakable belief: as we faced a rather existential crisis of identity as to our relevance, we really questioned ‘why we should exist’ in the marketplace and this process of really examining the ‘why’ reconsolidated for us that Little Oasis was needed. We just had to ‘ride through this together’ – with our staff and our families.
Transparent, timely communication: we communicated this unshakable belief through and through and with both our staff and customers, and we never once left anyone in doubt as to our next steps. In terms of staff, we remained fully transparent and open as to the hard times we were facing, and looked for ways to keep all of our staff (by limiting the number of work days etc.).
For the families, our team quickly pivoted to an online system where we engaged through online methods, send off-line parcels and once the situation was stable, created new services to cater for ‘at-home playdates’. This saw incredible loyalty and approval from both the staff and members. That, yes times were tough, but we will get through it together, and we are here to serve.
Tell us about your most memorable experience in 2020? Any particular keywords or phrases that come to mind?
As we watched the crisis unfold in Beijing at the start of Chinese New Year, on the 4th day of the Chinese New Year break, our senior management team gathered online for more than 4 hours to discuss ‘crisis management’. We knew this wasn’t going away soon, and we needed to engage online. We started planning out how we were to operate, create new products, services, engage with our families, using an online method only. The team than had two weeks to go into production of our online portal, shoot videos for content, created books, online streaming sessions. And we did it! When we launched this two weeks later, the whole team was so proud.
‘Riding Against the Wave’ (乘风破浪): the whole year, for me both personally and professionally felt like a constant swim upstream. It wasn’t easy, but both myself and my team gained ‘new muscles’ as a result. The ride is not over, as I am writing this, we have been shut again until March, and even though the situation isn’t ideal, but we now know how to handle and face these situations, without panic or confusion. We have definitely become stronger for it.
Maturity and rebirth: our team had to really pull together, work on many new projects at the same time, hold ourselves to an even higher standard than before. I believe as a a brand, team and business, we have deeply matured throughout this pandemic. We’ve grown up together through this. There is a new sense of maturity and rebirth for the brand, as we set our sights on the next 3-5 years to really establish ourselves nationally as THE best early childhood education brand recongised throughout china. Our goal is 100 Little Oasis family clubs: to nurture the well-being and happiness of a new generation of Chinese families and children with a little bit of the ‘Kiwi goodness’.
Do you see any new opportunities or positives for the early education/ family recreation industry in 2021?
Absolutely. It has made us all the more certain of the need for offline spaces for young children (under 6 years old) irrespective how advanced online learning becomes. At the end of the day, the need for a second family space outside the home is a very real demand for families here in China. There is plenty of market vibrancy here, especially with innovative new products/ideas driven by the needs of the millennial parent. We see opportunities in product development especially in FMCG (we are exploring options right now), and create more in depth collaborations with training facilities both in NZ and around China, to inspire a new generation of Early Childhood Practitioners.
A side community project I am hoping will come to fruition this year is a University driven counselling hotline for families, initiated by myself and Little Oasis. Mental health for the parents, especially new parents, is a very real issue and one that many do not have the finances or network to know who to talk to or where to go. We intend to create China’s first therapist hotline, using the skills of PhD students from the top universities, and funded by companies and families in the community.
We do not think 2021 will be ‘easy’, we believe that there is much to be done yet to improve our brand, but the well-being and happiness of young children and families is definitely worth the ride!
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