I believe that I have entrepreneurship in my DNA: my father and my father’s family always ran businesses. I have seen and experienced the ups and down of family owned business numerous times. It was an interesting experience and enriching in many ways as not only have I learnt from it, but it taught me to create opportunities for myself.
I chose law school based on my mom’s smart advice (she was a counsellor!). According to my mom, law school was going to provide me with various options (lawyer in private practice, general counsel, running a business, academic career, journalism, politician if I wanted given that many politicians are trained lawyers and many others…) AND a title, indisputable title, as lawyers always have a good reputation worldwide. A McGill law degree would allow me to move around the world if I wanted. I took all law courses related to businesses as soon as I could, and a few summer courses in the McGill University B Com Faculty during the summer while working. One of my objectives was to make money as quickly as possible, to have professional options and freedom at different levels.
Through out university, I had the concept of offer and demand in mind: if I offer something in demand, I could ask a high price for it. This would allow me to make money and have options – options to do what I want and where I want. I understood the concept from my CEGEP teacher, Mr. Domingo, a firecracker Spanish teacher teaching economy in Quebec city, my home town. Throughout law school, I kept thinking about what I could offer to whom and where upon graduating with a law degree from McGill University, a top Canadian university, often referred to as the Harvard of Canada. I believed having a Civil law degree and a Common law degree was key to target civil law and common law countries. I had met, during law school, classmates who had travelled the world and studied different topics. I knew doing an exchange students program was also an option during law school. I came across a program offered at the National University of Singapore. Singapore, far away, eastern part of a very populated world and very different than my French speaking small homogenous hometown.
FIRST VENTURE INTO ASIA
Asia meant foreign languages and various cultures. Scary but why not? I could be the lawyer from the West helping Asians to understand the West when doing businesses with “Gweilo”, I could be the bridge between Western and Asian companies doing businesses, I could tap on the huge population in Asia who would start to have commercial disputes given the number of trades growing, I could be their lawyer, I could be the trustworthy face, and I could help some Asian countries to build their laws and regulations given my experience in Canada. I had a civil law degree and a common law degree after all: most countries in Asia were both! I had full confidence in myself and lots of ideas, almost TOO many!
I left Canada in July 1998 at 22 with about USD 3,500 earned by being a tour guide for Americans coming to visit Quebec and Montreal to learn French, working part time in a law firm in Quebec during my school year and the summer and working at the McGill Legal Clinic. My super young brother and older cousin had given a me loan of about USD 300 each. I had no clue then, that Singapore was one of the most expensive cities in the world. I was confident in learning and studying the Asia legal systems for a year. I had a vision. I never thought I was not going to make it. Right after my studies, I managed to find a job in the Asian financial turmoil – many companies were cutting down jobs to foreigners… I went for the niche concept: I spoke French and English, I had a civil law degree and a common law degree from a great Canadian university, I had started my local journey in Asia for a year by then and I had local knowledge in some ways. I found a small French law firm managed by a female dynamo lawyer who was going to give me a chance: I could be part of her team working with French clients investing in Asia. I was going to work for nearly nothing but I had promised her I would show her how dedicated and hard working I was and she would keep me and want to pay me a higher salary soon.
LIFE IN GUANGZHOU
A nuanced law firm with lots of hard work and long hours. I carried on as a lawyer from a UK firm with this French team until I finally moved to China. I wanted to be in Guangzhou, not Hong Kong. Why? The niche concept again! Hong Kong had too many lawyers while Guangzhou, a small city of about 10 million then, had one foreign lawyer working in the office of a UK firm. Guangzhou was the mecca of manufacturing for the world with its Canton Trade Show, had lots of French speaking companies investing in Guangzhou, was building nearby a IT city called Shenzhen. I believed then IT was going to be the next big thing, so I followed my intuition. I joined a Chinese law firm – what a cultural but amazing shock even after my few years in Asia – I was going to build my own practice within that firm. I was the only foreigner…furthermore, a woman… pregnant of my first child. Dedication, hard work and creativity. Thinking outside the box to find ideas to market my services and training local lawyers to satisfy our Western clients’ demands and standards were all important aspects in my success. After three years, I believed it was time to set up my own law firm… in China. There was a lot of redtape and regulations in this industry. At this point, I had been profiled in a few newspapers in Canada given the projects I had handled in China – I was profiled in one of them at 35 week pregnant with baby number 2 before catching a 22 hour flight back to Asia. Pregnant or not, I was out all the time with different embassies, companies, chambers of commerce, lawyers working for other foreign lawyers in other parts of the world, accountants, bankers. I was out there. At this point, besides doing legal work, people were calling me to check the quality of their products in China thinking I was a lawyer cum engineer!
MY FIRST FIRM WITH MY BROTHER
The mistake that many people made was assuming that because I was in China, I knew each Mr. Chen, each plastic moulding companies. I had no clue about it but I had a brother who was an engineer. He had to come to China! After about 6 months of discussion with him, he agreed to start our adventure in China in 2005. We had no money – but wanted to set up a company together providing turnkey projects to foreign investors in China: legal set up, operational set up by an engineer, looking after accounting and growing their business on the local market. This was not our best idea! We struggled financially the first two years for a couple of reasons. We had the wrong business model: we understood that clients were going to appoint us as lawyers only if we were a law firm, not a consulting firm. I had to get the right approval from the different authorities in Singapore to eventually re- open our China office. I had to be creative and think outside the box… quickly! The consulting business continued and focussed on trading and organising trade missions for governmental authorities. Lots of stories behind these, from limited fund, to the endless hours, funny and scary stories – it was intense but we were having fun. The company still exists today and makes money! My brother and I were in together, no matter what. We had different focuses and maxed out on our respective strengths between operations, engineering, compliance, business developments, etc.
We also set up a QC firm in China, e-business, a volume business which had a different business model than the law firm (which had high profitability but a limited turnover due to the time spent billable concept) and the consulting (lower profit margins but higherturnover). We later sold the QC firm a few years later to a French group.
We simultaneously set up a factory with a focus on manufacturing metal and plastic industrial components. The factory is now only owned by my brother. He added a 3D Printing arm recently while I focus on my law firm, HJM and my “pet projects” like the Young E3 Entrepreneurship Fund, a block chain spin off of some of HJM services, growing the firm in Africa to tap on the next wave, my involvement as co-chair of the Asia Pacific Forum of the International Bar Association and Secretary General of the Inter Pacific Bar Association, both organisations having a total of more than 5,000 lawyers mostly based in Asia, etc.
OUR AMBITION FOR YOUNG E3
All our businesses have grown organically, with no external financing. We keep reinvesting our own money to avoid pitfalls we saw our dad experience, unfortunately. There has been a lot of hours worked, perseverance, discipline and sweat behind these companies but we do not regret it and we would both do it again. We know that the end product is worth every sweat, blood, and tear shed in the process of a new business, but we want to help to prevent others from making the same mistakes we did, which is why we want to help and give back to other younger entrepreneurs!
Most of our clients at HJM are entrepreneurs. They are successful, inspiring, they have rich experiences, lots of perseverance, they have amazing stories. They are humble and generous of their time and ideas. They think outside the box constantly to maintain their business and keep their edge in the global market.
Being surrounded by this type of people most of my professional life, spending intense days (negotiating in China and Asia with them for their projects), I had the opportunity to get to know quite a few of them, all in different industries, with different personal backgrounds and coming from all over the world. We share a passion for business and many other things.
The Young E3 Entrepreneurship Fund came from the wish to combine knowledge, drive and experience from entrepreneurs I got to know over the years to inspire and mentor driven youngsters who are the next generation of entrepreneurs. I am not sure the next generation will have a life time job, financial and employment security like some generations had. By sharing with the next generation, we are helping to create independent outside the box thinkers and entrepreneurs. Creativity, innovation, perseverance and energy are a recipe for success. Why not combine people sharing these values together to create an amazing incubator of future employers and entrepreneurs?
– Caroline Berube, Young E3 Entrepreneurship Fund Founder