Lorena reuniting with her mentor, Adja Sy, in Shanghai, China

My journey with China began in 2009 when I first started studying Mandarin, thanks to my mom encouraging me to learn the language. As a ten-year-old,

I had no idea what opportunities would come my way through my Chinese studies. Beginning with my first trip to China in 2015 as an exchange student in Wuhan, I learned firsthand that there is no one story for China; it is a very multifaceted country. I took this mindset with me as I continued my studies abroad.

In the fall of 2018, I returned to China, enrolling at Fudan University to delve into the complexities of business and politics. I also interned with Rethink, a forward-thinking manufacturing consultancy startup in Shanghai’s Xuhui district, solidifying my passion for Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) practices.

My time at Rethink inspired me to return to Shanghai the following summer to immerse myself in the city’s vibrant startup community and find others like me dedicated to grassroots, environmental work. I met ecopreneurs — entrepreneurs at the intersection of social enterprise and environmental advocacy — championing circular economy practices and zero-waste living. While I learned a lot about Chinese culture, business, and politics during my studies in Shanghai, I also discovered the supportive Black community in Shanghai, participating in events organized by Black-led platforms, including Teranga Valley and Afro-Asian Matters. 

While exploring Black culture in Shanghai, I met one of my current mentors, Adja Sy, who has left a lasting impact on me. Adja is a Senegalese woman who has lived in Shanghai for ten years and owns her successful skincare brand called Lalu Raw Beauty. Understanding that darker skin tones are often viewed as being less attractive in Asia, I was quite inspired by Adja’s success as a beauty guru in Shanghai. After reaching out to her through WeChat, she invited me for tea at her apartment, where I interviewed her about her work with Lalu and her experience living in Shanghai as a Black woman. I assumed that, because of her race, she must have experienced instances of discrimination and prejudice. She confirmed my assumption. Sometimes, these instances were purely out of ignorance; once, when she was selling some of her products at an outdoor market, a woman asked her if her skin would turn dark, too, if she used Lalu products. Other instances are a bit more disheartening, like the fact that Adja started Lalu Raw Beauty because it was challenging to find a job in customer service because of her ethnicity. But Adja quickly reassured me that Shanghai is an international city, and she stayed for ten years because she was welcomed by many, including those in the expat community. 

She explained that “while I am proud to be a Black woman here in Shanghai, I consider myself to be human first. Here in Shanghai, I am not one of many Black people but one of many foreigners. I consider Shanghai my home, and while I face difficulties as a foreigner here, I do not always attribute these difficulties to my status as a Black woman. I am human, as we all are.” 

This was the first time I ever had a conversation about Blackness with someone outside of an American context. My time with Adja expanded my understanding of my Black identity beyond an American context and connected me to the global African Diaspora. I realized how unaware I had been of other Black experiences outside my country, and I was inspired to learn more. 

Exchange program in Beijing, China in 2015

When I returned to Shanghai during the Summer of 2019, I made an effort to reach out to more Black expats. Some I would bump into at networking events or conferences. Others I met at Teranga Valley, an entrepreneurial think tank that focuses on China-Africa relations and Afro-Asian matters, a cultural hub for artistic collaboration between Africans and Asians in China. It was very inspiring to see locals and a diverse array of expats come together to share a common interest and respect for African culture. I was even able to reconnect with Adja during this return to Shanghai. I expressed how much she has inspired me in her work with Lalu Raw Beauty. Her role as a strong female entrepreneur pushed me to further my own entrepreneurial efforts, which ultimately led me to the Schwarzman Scholars program.

Schwarzman gave me a deep understanding of Chinese politics and the intricate interactions between international entrepreneurs, national governments, and Chinese manufacturing policies. During this transformative experience, I was introduced to NABEA by a fellow Scholar, Raven.

As a member of NABEA, I developed a strong drive to explore ecopreneurial communities across greater Asia. This aspiration led me to pursue a dual MBA and Master of Science in Sustainability. With Asia housing 55% of the global consumer class and the U.S. just a little behind, my ultimate goal is to foster collaboration between these regions to advance sustainable practices in areas such as food systems, water technology, and manufacturing.

NABEA’s impact on my journey inspired me to join the 2023 cohort of LeadNext fellows supported by the Asia Foundation. This leadership fellowship further fueled my determination to understand and support ecopreneurial ventures in Asia, and it has provided me with valuable insights into environmental and social impact initiatives across the continent through virtual leadership masterclasses.

As a Black global citizen, I aim to promote Afro-Asian solidarity by expanding my experiences in Asia. I am committed to bridging the gaps and overcoming tensions between Black and Asian communities worldwide. Organizations like NABEA are crucial in connecting the two largest continents through workshops and language classes.

As a NABEA member, I seek to further my journey of growth and discovery and contribute to the ongoing efforts of connecting, understanding, and advancing sustainable practices between the African and Asian communities. We can create a brighter, more inclusive future for the U.S., Africa, Asia, and beyond. 

Thank you for taking the time to learn about my experiences with China and NABEA! Learn more about my work here: http://ecolorena.com/ 


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Why I Joined NABEA – Lorena James
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