Students’ Business Proposal to Preserve Traditional Chinese Art Wins Harvard Award

By Rosa Vivanco

Mason finance major Ran Niu recently won an award from the Harvard Action for Tomorrow Venture Program. The competition, held by the Harvard College Association for U.S.-China Relations, invites teams of young entrepreneurs from elite universities in both countries to present innovative solutions to tackle existing social problems within the United States and China. From the 15 to 20 teams that presented in this year’s competition, Niu and her team were selected as winners for their proposal Finding the Lost Soul of Jianshui Purple Pottery, which is centered on the pottery from their home province of Yunnan in China.

School of Management dean Jorge Haddock poses with finance major Ran Niu and the Harvard Award. Niu’s business proposal was on Jianshui purple pottery from her home region of China. The teapot that Dean Haddock holds is made of the purple pottery and a gift to the school from Niu. Photo by Alexis Glenn.

Niu is participating in the Sino-American 1+2+1 Dual Degree Program at Mason. As a part of this program, Niu began her studies in China at Yunnan University then transferred to Mason for two years after which she will return to China to complete her studies. Her teammates, Yemeng Li, an art history and art management major, and Yuchen Liu, a marketing major, are currently studying in China.

“We like to call our team a 24/7 team,” explains Niu. “Due to the time difference, I was asleep when my teammates were preparing for the competition, and I was working on the project while they rested.”

The team named their company TAO, which is the phonetic spelling of the Chinese word for “pottery,” as well as the Chinese word for “way.” Niu’s parents inspired the project through their love of the local pottery from their small, rural town. Local artists in Jianshui have created beautiful pieces of  purple pottery for centuries. The pottery is unique because of its intricate engravings, no glaze polish, and use of calligraphy.

This local art form and its rich history are not well known outside of Jianshui. TAO’s proposal aims to market the pottery globally in an effort to preserve this traditional form of art, revive it with fresh and creative ideas, improve the quality of life for the Jianshui people, and inspire hope.

“The proposal aims to improve the local pottery industry environment and enhance fair trade,” says Niu. “Our vision is to create a better trade environment for the Jianshui purple pottery industry and revive this traditional culture.”

In their market analysis, the team saw that the revenue of Chinese luxury items and the volume of Chinese art work trading have been steadily increasing. Their proposal capitalizes on this opportunity by marketing the pottery as a luxury item to middle-class families who want to raise their social status by purchasing luxury items, have the ability to purchase such items, and are interested in traditional culture.

The team’s strategy includes providing professional training for local Jianshui artists at the Sichuan Fine Art Institute, inviting high-profile artists to contribute to the local artwork and using this work to attract the public’s attention, and opening flagship shops in a major city. All of these steps will assist in positioning the pottery as a high-end item. Niu traveled to Jianshui to speak to local artists and shop owners about the feasibility of the proposal. Many were enthusiastic about the plan and agreed that it would be successful.

“Identifying the opportunity to bring the multigenerational pottery-making talents beyond the traditional borders of her home province demonstrate Ran’s ability to think like a global business leader,” says Allison O’Brien, School of Management’s associate dean of undergraduate programs . “I am very proud of the work done by Ran and her team, and the recognition of the quality of their entry by the Harvard Action for Tomorrow Venture judges only serves to validate the capabilities of our Mason business students. We truly are developing the next generation of global business leaders here in the School of Management.”

This article was originally published in a slightly different form on the School of Management website.

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