By Michelle Chen, Jimin Suh, Tony Xie and Troels Jeppesen
The path of entrepreneurship is a difficult one. The pain and tribulations faced in the field of entrepreneurship frightens most people away from entering the field. However, for Sophie Sun, this feeling of uncertainty and trepidation is exactly what she is seeking in life.
As the 31-year-old entrepreneur likes to say: “Fear is always bigger than reality.”
A fearless risk-taker, Sun walked away from a promising corporate career with two leading global companies – Airbus and Alibaba – to follow her heart and found a travel services venture called TravelRight. Sun says she welcomes new challenges, because she is her own boss.
“Each time I am inspired by a new solution or idea, I will dig deeper,” the founder of the Shanghai-based enterprise said.
Sun – whose company helps travelers deal with complications such as luggage claims, re-bookings caused by air travel disruption, and flight compensation – has been searching the world for ideas from an early age. After finishing her undergraduate degree in international economics and trade at Xiamen University in 2011, she decided at age 22 to pursue a master’s education like many other exemplary Chinese students.
What’s different, however, was her destination. She did not choose to go to the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, or Australia – popular destinations for her peers – but instead embarked on a postgraduate degree in France, in the southwestern industrial center of Toulouse.
For Sun, going to a non-English speaking country, one notorious for the rejection of foreigners, was a conscious choice, an experience to build her character and prepare her for the future.
“I picked a country which does not welcome foreigners at all,” she said. “If I can survive there, I can survive anywhere in the world.”
Upon graduating from Toulouse Business School with a master’s degree in marketing management and communication, Sun joined one of the most stable industries in the world. She found employment at Airbus and focused on leading aircraft delivery for the European giant.
During her time at Airbus, Sun was able to develop an empirical understanding of France’s economical and societal landscape. It helped her land her second job: When Alibaba decided to expand to France, Sun was chosen as the company’s first employee in the country.
During her stint at Alibaba, Sophie was able to expand the French team from one to 30 employees. At the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics, Sun represented Alibaba Europe as the Olympic Torch Bearer. However, despite her successes at the company, she did not stay long in her corporate role.
At the time of her departure, Alibaba’s market capitalization stood at nearly US$340 billion and had the ninth highest global brand value in the world. Why would someone give up such a stable, lucrative career for a path of uncertainty and hardship?
“Entrepreneurship is in my blood,” Sun said empathetically.
In China especially, this has become a growing trend. In a backlash against the 9-9-6 corporate work regimen – from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days a week – more and more young people are gravitating toward the field of entrepreneurship to not only pursue their passions, but also obtain the lucrative freedom of working for themselves.
Over the past two decades, entrepreneurship in China has grown at an exponential rate. In 2000, total revenues earned by Chinese state-owned industrial enterprises and those in the non-state-owned sector Chinese private enterprises were roughly the same at about 4 trillion yuan each. By 2013, while total revenues at state-owned companies had risen just over six fold, revenues in the non-state sector had risen by more than 18 times.
After leaving Alibaba, Sun spent some time traveling and reflecting on her career. She did not have another job or role lined up.
“I actually didn’t know what I was going to do in my next step. I did know that I was done with my corporate life,” she said.
Pablo Picasso, painter and Spanish expatriate who lived most of his adult life in France, once said that “inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.” The same rings true in entrepreneurship. For Sun, TravelRight was an idea which arose “accidentally,” but one which has flourished from her extensive experience both in travel and business.
Throughout her seven years in France, Sun had helped a plethora of travelers, predominantly former colleagues, in arranging transport to France. Many of them encountered disruptions or delays in their flights. As the hosting local, she would be the one to wrestle and tangle with airlines in obtaining compensation.
Sun soon realized she had accumulated a comprehensive network of resources and knowledge from working in the aviation industry. She recognized the gaping hole in the market for such services, especially amongst Chinese consumers. Since 2012, Chinese tourists have been the world’s top driver of growth in global tourism. But due to major differences in business regulation in China and in other countries, most Chinese tourists are unfamiliar with international procedures for making claims and filing legal disputes.
Sun felt there was business potential in this situation, and she was intrigued by the possibility of helping Chinese tourists. She also felt that, in a large corporation, workers lose control of their own careers and are directed by other people’s agendas. The result was the birth of her own enterprise, TravelRight, in May 2018. Her goal is to empower travelers to manage stressful situations during their air travel.
Sun’s choice in embracing entrepreneurship is a reflection of China’s gradual shift away from its traditional patriarchy. She believes many Chinese women are over-reliant on their husbands.
“In China, women tend to marry early, get kids, settle down,” she said. “If something happens, the women will lose everything.”
Her sees her choice of starting her own business as the antithesis of the traditional route for Chinese women. She is reliant only on herself and understands what makes her happy.
“Having taken control of my own life, I think I’m on a good track,” she said.
Entrepreneurship can be considered the ultimate meritocracy, where the best ideas and businesses draw in consumers. Regardless of your education, gender, or ethnicity, if your products are good, you will succeed.
In China, there has been a history of female entrepreneurship, Yang Mianmian of Haier and Lucy Peng Lei of Alibaba are both prominent examples. According to a 2017 report by the Chinese online platform 36Kr and start-up incubator GirlUp, women entrepreneurs in China today tend to concentrate in the 21-30 age group and are growing every year.
Ultimately, Sun says her choices in life boil down to her values and her passion. While working for Alibaba would have provided a stable and lucrative career, the young entrepreneur’s personality prevented her from doing so. From her choices in education to her choices in business, Sun has always been one to venture out into the unknown and embrace life with open arms.
She confidently brushes aside any additional difficulties faced by the traditional view on women and age faced in China. She sees her gender as an advantage, one which allows her to appear more approachable and gregarious. While she laments that she is “too old now for Forbes’ “30 under 30” list. Sun chuckles heartily as she notes that maybe she’ll be in the magazine’s “40 under 40.”
It’s this optimistic and passionate view on life that has helped Sun drive her businesses and serves as an illustration to us all, male or female, on the rewarding career that entrepreneurship can provide.
“To be independent, and to have something you’re passionate about in life, is the most important thing in life,” she said.
TravelRight is an international TravelTech brand, specializing to provide compensations for delayed flights or cancellation between China and Europe.
Before founding TravelRight, Sophie Sun worked as the first employee of Alibaba France and and Aircraft Delivery Project Manager with Airbus.
She took advantage of her previous experiences in building bridge between Chinese and European customers and airline industry to establish TravelRight.
In May 2019, TravelRight competed in ITB China Startup Award and made it into the finalists.
TravelRight’s employers consist of diverse mix of Chinese, French, and American culture and talents from digital innovation, travel insurance, airline service, and legal fields.
TravelRight’s services are free of charge to its consumers. A 30 percent commission fee is taken from each successful claim.