Jack Ma, the most famous businessman China has ever produced, is avoiding the spotlight. Friends say he is painting and practicing tai chi. Sometimes, he shares drawings with Masayoshi Son, the billionaire head of the Japanese conglomerate SoftBank.
The wider world glimpsed Mr. Ma for the first time in months last week, during a virtual board meeting of the Russian Geographical Society. As President Vladimir V. Putin and others discussed Arctic affairs and leopard conservation, Mr. Ma could be seen resting his head on one hand, looking deeply bored.
For Mr. Ma — the charismatic entrepreneur who first showed, two decades ago, how China would shake the world in the internet age; whose face adorns shelves of admiring business books; who never met a crowd he couldn’t razzle-dazzle — it is a stark change of pace.
Beijing’s biggest targets yet, as officials start regulating the country’s powerful internet industry like never before.
snatched from a luxury Hong Kong hotel in 2017. Ye Jianming, an oil tycoon who sought connections in Washington, was detained, as was Wu Xiaohui, whose insurance company bought the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in Manhattan. Mr. Wu later went to prison. Lai Xiaomin, the former chairman of a financial firm, was executed this year.
“The general iron rule is that there should be no individual centers of power outside of the party,” said Richard McGregor, a senior fellow at the Lowy Institute and author of “The Party: The Secret World of China’s Communist Rulers.”
Beijing’s clampdown on tech is already rippling through boardrooms beyond Alibaba’s.
Ant Group’s chief executive, Simon Hu, resigned in March. A few days later, Colin Huang stepped down as chairman of Pinduoduo, the mobile bazaar he founded and took public within a few short years. Pinduoduo announced his resignation the same day it said it had attracted 788 million shoppers over the previous 12 months — a bigger number than Alibaba.
proposed tougher rules for internet companies — or, as an official newspaper put it, “innovative methods of regulation and governance.”
China’s antitrust authority summoned 34 top internet companies to talk about new fair-competition rules. Within hours, they were discussing business changes and publicly pledging to stay in line.
“These new regulations are going to require internet platforms to look at how they innovate going forward, and the result is potentially less innovation,” said Gordon Orr, a nonexecutive board member at Meituan, the Chinese food delivery giant.
Even so, Alibaba and other internet titans have a status in China that could protect them from the most heavy-handed treatment. Officials have praised the titans’ economic contributions even as they tighten supervision. Mr. Xi wants China’s economy to be driven more by its own innovations than by those of fickle foreign powers.
That means it might be too soon to declare Jack Ma down for the count.
“His company is much more important to the success and functioning of the Chinese economy than any of the other entrepreneurs’,” Mr. McGregor said. “The government wants to continue to reap the benefits of his company — but on their terms. The government isn’t nationalizing Alibaba. It isn’t confiscating its assets. It’s simply narrowing the field in which it operates.”
Alibaba declined to comment.
Mr. Ma is no neophyte at dealing with the authorities in China.
He worked briefly and unhappily at a government-run advertising agency before founding Alibaba in 1999. At the time, China was still getting used to the idea of powerful private entrepreneurs, and Mr. Ma proved adept at charming government officials.
in the 2000s. “What a world-class company needs most is a soul, a commander, a world-class businessman. Jack Ma, I believe, meets this standard.”
Mr. Ma saw early on what success might bring with it in China, said Porter Erisman, an early Alibaba executive.
“There was only one person in the company who brought to our attention that one day we might face issues of being so big that we would come under pressure for having too much market power,” Mr. Erisman said. “And that was Jack.”
one of Alibaba’s biggest investors, Yahoo. Mr. Ma said the move had been necessary under new Chinese regulations. Alipay later became Ant Group.
“The Alipay transfer emboldened him,” said Duncan Clark, who has known Mr. Ma since 1999 and is chairman of BDA China, a consulting firm. “He kind of got away with it.”
work more closely with the state.
When Mr. Ma stepped down as Alibaba’s chairman in 2019, a commentary in the official Communist Party newspaper declared: “There is no so-called Jack Ma era — only Jack Ma as part of this era.”
China’s leaders need the private sector to help sustain economic growth. But they also do not want entrepreneurs to undermine the party’s dominance across society.
Last October, as Ant was preparing to go public, Mr. Ma spoke at a Shanghai conference and criticized China’s financial regulators. He had long seen Ant as a vehicle for disrupting the country’s big state-run banks. But there could scarcely have been a less opportune moment to press the point. Officials halted Ant’s share listing soon after.
In China, “it’s hard to say the emperor has no clothes these days,” said Kellee S. Tsai, a political scientist at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.
Mr. Ma has largely vanished from sight within his companies, too. In January, he popped up in an internal chat group to answer a business question, according to a person who saw the message but was not authorized to speak publicly. Employees later shared Mr. Ma’s message to reassure nervous colleagues.
estimated that Mr. Ma was not, for the first time in three years, one of China’s three richest people. The country’s new No. 1 was Zhong Shanshan, the low-key head of both a bottled-water giant and a pharmaceutical business.
Chinese news reports about his sudden wealth had to explain to readers how to pronounce the obscure Chinese character in his name.
Dr. Geschke had a way of “looking around the corner,” said Shantanu Narayen, Adobe’s current chief executive. “Civilization is all about written material,” he said. “Chuck and John brought that into the modern era.”
Charles Matthew Geschke was born in Cleveland, on Sept. 11, 1939. His mother, Sophia (Krisch) Geschke, worked for the Cleveland bankruptcy court as a paralegal. His father, Matthew, was a photoengraver, helping to prepare the plates needed to print newspapers and magazines.
Matthew Geschke often told his son that there were two things he should avoid: the printing business and the stock market. For a time, Chuck Geschke followed his father’s advice.
Raised Roman Catholic, he attended a Jesuit high school in Cleveland and joined a Jesuit seminary after graduation. But he dropped out before the end of his fourth year. He often said that he and the Jesuits had come to the mutual decision that the priesthood was not for him.
Building on the years he spent studying Latin in high school and at the seminary, he enrolled at Xavier University in Cincinnati and graduated with a degree in classics. Then he stayed on for a master’s degree in mathematics, before working as a math professor at John Carroll University, a small Catholic university in Cleveland.
His life took another turn in the mid-1960s, when he told a struggling student to leave the university. The next year, the student returned, telling him, “The best thing you ever did was kick me out.” The student had found a high-paying job selling computers for General Electric, and he soon taught his former professor how to write a computer program on the massive mainframe machines of the day.
Among the simple programs Chuck Geschke wrote that summer was a way of printing envelopes for the announcement of his daughter’s birth. Not long after, he enrolled as a Ph.D. student in the new computer science department at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, one of the first in the country.
Tim Min once drove BMWs. He considered buying a Tesla.
Instead Mr. Min, the 33-year-old owner of a Beijing cosmetics start-up, bought an electric car made by a Chinese Tesla rival, Nio. He likes Nio’s interiors and voice control features better.
He also considers himself a patriot. “I have a very strong inclination toward Chinese brands and very strong patriotic emotions,” he said. “I used to love Nike, too. Now I don’t see any reason for that. If there’s a good Chinese brand to replace Nike, I’ll be very happy to.”
Western brands like H&M, Nike and Adidas have come under pressure in China for refusing to use cotton produced in the Xinjiang region, where the Chinese government has waged a broad campaign of repression against ethnic minorities. Shoppers vowed to boycott the brands. Celebrities dropped their endorsement deals.
But foreign brands also face increasing pressure from a new breed of Chinese competitors making high-quality products and selling them through savvy marketing to an increasingly patriotic group of young people. There’s a term for it: “guochao,” or Chinese fad.
HeyTea, a $2 billion milk tea start-up with 700 stores, wants to replace Starbucks. Yuanqisenlin, a four-year-old low-sugar drink company valued at $6 billion, wants to become China’s Coca-Cola. Ubras, a five-year-old company, wants to supplant Victoria’s Secret with the most non-Victoria’s Secret of products: unwired, sporty bras that emphasize comfort.
The anger over Xinjiang cotton has given these Chinese brands another chance to win over consumers. As celebrities cut their ties to foreign brands, Li-Ning, a Chinese sportswear giant, announced that Xiao Zhan, a boy band member, would become its new global ambassador. Within 20 minutes, almost everything that Mr. Xiao wore on a Li-Ning advertisement had sold out online. A hashtag about the campaign was viewed more than one billion times.
China is undergoing a consumer brand revolution. Its young generation is more nationalistic and actively looking for brands that can align with that confidently Chinese identity. Entrepreneurs are rushing to build up names and products that resonate. Investors are turning their attention to these start-ups amid dropping returns from technology and media ventures.
When patriotism becomes a selling point, Western brands are put at a competitive disadvantage, especially in a country that increasingly requires global companies to toe the same political lines that Chinese firms must.
a jump in Tesla deliveries. IPhones remain immensely popular. Campaigns against foreign names have come and gone, and local brands that emphasize politics too much risk unwanted attention if the political winds shift quickly.
Still, interest in local brands marks a significant shift. Post-Mao, the country made few consumer products. The first televisions that most families owned in the 1980s were from Japan. Pierre Cardin, the French designer, reintroduced fashion with his first show in Beijing in 1979, bringing color and flair to a nation that during the Cultural Revolution wore blue and gray.
Chinese people born in the 1970s or earlier remember their first sip of Coco-Cola and their first bite of a Big Mac. We watched films from Hollywood, Japan and Hong Kong as much for the wardrobes and makeup as the plot. We rushed to buy Head & Shoulders shampoo because its Chinese name, Haifeisi, means “sea flying hair.”
Today in Business
“We’ve gone through the European and American fad, the Japanese and Korean fad, the American streetwear fad, even the Hong Kong and Taiwan fad,” said Xun Shaohua, who founded a Shanghai sportswear company that competes with Vans and Converse.
Now could be the time for the China fad. Chinese companies are making better products. China’s Generation Z, born between 1995 and 2009, doesn’t have the same attachment to foreign names.
Even People’s Daily, the traditionally staid Communist Party official newspaper, is getting into branding. It started a streetwear collection with Li-Ning in 2019. That same year, it issued a report with Baidu, the Chinese search company, called “Guochao Pride Big Data.” They found that when people in China searched for brands, more than two-thirds were looking for domestic names, up from only about one-third 10 years earlier.
makes up only about 40 percent of China’s economic output, much less than it does in the United States and Europe.
Patriotism aside, entrepreneurs argue that their ventures rest on a solid business foundation. Similar trends happened in Japan and South Korea, both now home to strong brands. Local players better know the abilities of the country’s supply chains and how to use social media.
Mr. Xun’s sports brand has half a million followers on Alibaba’s Taobao marketplace and sells at the same prices as Vans and Converse, or even slightly higher. He said his brand competed by making shoes that fit Chinese feet better and offering colors favored locally, such as mint green and fuchsia. He sells exclusively online and teams up with Chinese and foreign brands and personalities, including Pokemon and Hello Kitty. At 37, he’s the only person in his company who was born before 1990.
The guochao fad has also reinvigorated older Chinese brands, like Li-Ning. For many years, sophisticated urbanites considered the brand, created by a former world champion gymnast of the same name, ugly and cheap. Its signature red-and-yellow color combination, after the Chinese flag, was mockingly called “eggs fried with tomato,” an everyday Chinese dish. Li-Ning was losing money. Its shares were on a losing streak.
Then the company introduced a collection at New York Fashion Week in early 2018. Its edgy look, combined with bold Chinese characters and embroidery, created buzz back home. Its shares have risen nearly ninefold since then. Now Li-Ning’s high-end collections sell at $100 to $150 on average, on a par with those of Adidas.
National Basketball Association and Dolce & Gabbana passed pretty quickly, this bout could linger, many people said.
“In the past, some Western brands didn’t understand or failed to respect the Chinese culture mostly because of lack of understanding,” Mr. Xun said. “This time it’s a political issue. They have violated our political sensitivities.”
Then, like any savvy Chinese entrepreneur who knows which topics are sensitive, he asked, “Could we not talk about politics?”
Done right, blending is like cooking, taking whiskeys with different flavor profiles — honeyed, spicy, caramel, smoky — and combining them into something cohesive and original.
“For us, it’s all about nuance, and finding new flavors and profiles,” Mr. Beatrice said. The goal of blending, he said, is to tease those out, “so that the whole is more than the sum of its parts.”
This kind of blending, aiming to create new flavors, not just cheaper whiskey, is common in Scotch. Compass Box, a company founded by an American expatriate named John Glaser, has turned out dozens of highly acclaimed blends, ranging in price from $35 to about $800.
Such an approach may be where American whiskey is headed. Every distillery has a house style, which can be both a mark of distinction and a limitation. And most distilleries have an incentive to keep their products consistent, year after year.
Companies like Lost Lantern and Barrell offer the opposite. To them, distilleries are making the raw ingredients, which they use to create a final, more complex whiskey. For drinkers always looking for something new, blenders and independent bottlers could offer a constant source of surprise.
It’s still a new idea in America, said Ms. Ganley-Roper, one that takes some whiskey fans aback — but just for a bit.
“We love that moment when people go in all apprehensive,” she said, “and then, suddenly, they say, ‘Aha!’”
In a start-up economy of self-described “boss babes,” Ashley Sumner wants to be known in simpler terms.
While on a run near her home in the Venice neighborhood of Los Angeles in early March, Ms. Sumner was thinking about identity and the peppy phrases that female professionals use to describe themselves online: “girl bosses” and the like.
“I worry about the negative impact of that,” Ms. Sumner, 32, said. “I worry that it allows investors to see founders who are women as a separate class from the rest of the founders. I worry it allows investors to write women founders smaller checks. I do believe that women need to help inspire other women but also that identity can be used as labels to separate us.”
Ms. Sumner is the chief executive officer of Quilt, an audio platform for conversations about self-care topics like wellness in the workplace, PTSD and astrology. (In prepandemic days, the company organized work gatherings and group discussions in people’s homes.)
I am a female founder,” she typed, then dramatically crossing out the word “female” and adding a caption that read in part: “putting my gender in front of what I am belittles what I’ve accomplished.”
Ms. Sumner isn’t particularly active on Instagram or Twitter. On LinkedIn, she had never done more than repost someone else’s articles or musings. But given that platform’s focus on professional life, she thought it was a reasonable place to first share her handiwork.
Ms. Sumner’s post has drawn nearly 20,000 comments, from men and women in the United States, Australia, Africa, Latin America, India and beyond; from executives, construction workers, health care employees, professors and military professionals.
Revel Experiences, a marketing firm in Boston, contacted three successful business owners she knows to ask them what they think. Each said there is not yet enough representation of women in leadership ranks to ignore the gender disparities. “In order to change things and truly achieve parity,” said Ms. Urekew, 50, “you need to have more visibility for other women.”
She added: “I love that she started this discussion, it opened up my eyes to many more aspects.”
I Follow the Leader, a consulting firm that specializes in diversity, equity and inclusion strategy, initiatives and education in Durham, N.C. “It was a little shocking at first, to see ‘female’ crossed out,” she said of Ms. Sumner’s post. “I immediately clicked to see what she said, and I thought it was really striking.”
Ms. Mosley, 34, said in the unconscious bias seminars she leads, she asks people to consider the way race, gender and other traits influence narratives about people’s professional skills and how they can perpetuate inequities. “When people see me as a Black woman leader,” she said, “they are assuming that my being Black and a woman influence my leadership style.”
She believes these labels can sometimes hold women back from being considered on equal footing to men. She said that being a Black woman is a significant part of her identity, but she, like most people, has far more dimensions. She believes her professional traits result most from being an athlete and the oldest of four children with driven parents.
Faryl Morse, 55, who owns the footwear company Faryl Robin, was also moved to make her own post, listing the social media lingo of “Boss Babe,” “WomEntrepreneur,” “Girl Boss” and “Mompreneur.”
“Let’s please stop adding these cute names to women who are ambitious and are going after their dreams with persistence,” she wrote. “It is not empowering any woman.”
Rayy Babalola, the founder of the Agile Squad, a project management and consulting firm in Kent, England, was captivated by the responses on LinkedIn but says that it’s not so easy for everyone to drop the labels and forget the struggle and perseverance required to find professional success.
Ms. Babalola, 30, believes that to call herself a Black woman business founder conveys that she has overcome the dual obstacles of sexism and racism. And she feels a responsibility to signal to other Black women that they too can have a path to business ownership.
“Being a Black woman has affected how I have been treated, and that has pushed me to become a founder,” she said. “And you can’t be selfish,” she said. “Just because you found a way doesn’t mean that it’s OK, now you can be silent.”
She thinks identifiers like “female founder” and “Black-owned business” are still important. “Until those terms stop rattling minds,” she said, they need to be used to remind the world that they remain something of a novelty and in the minority.
Nikki Thompson, of Overland Park, Kan., said she never shares her opinion on social media but when she came across Ms. Sumner’s post, she couldn’t stop herself. “Labeling perpetuates the differences we should be seeking to resolve,” she wrote.
As a registered nurse, Ms. Thompson’s responsibilities include continuing education training and paperwork for patients, and many forms ask about race, gender, generational demographics, religion and ethnicity. She understands that data collection is essential when it pertains to diagnosis and treatment of illness. But she questions the value of that data collection in the many other facets of daily life. (Ms. Thompson was happy to answer the question of her age — she will turn 41 next week — but noted that labeling people’s age is part of the problem.)
“What if we drop the labels, maybe the biases would subside,” she said. “This is a daily thing in my career, and I think a lot about words and bias and unconscious bias and how we might decrease it.” (She also said that the pendulum can swing both ways: She has heard relatives say of her male peers, “I had a male nurse and he was very good.”)
Surprised by the reaction to her post, Ms. Sumner acknowledged that many of her experiences are influenced by being a white woman, “with all the privilege that entails,” she said. “But how do I see myself? How do I identify? As a founder, and as someone who starts discussions.”
This is not news to those who are prominent in beauty culture. After all, they’re often famous because of social media, and when they choose to make a beauty line, it’s not just about cashing in — most of the time they feel insecure, and they use cosmetics to help themselves feel better and want to share those to make others feel better too. But this becomes a vicious cycle, and it’s hard to step back.
Michelle Phan, an early influencer and Ipsy co-founder, confused the beauty community when she stopped posting online in 2015. Two years later, she restarted her makeup line, Em Cosmetics, which she bought back from L’Oréal, and sold her stake in Ipsy. “Once, I was a girl with dreams, who eventually became a product, smiling, selling and selling,” she said in a 2017 video explaining her departure. “Who I was on camera and who I was in real life began to feel like strangers.” She added: “My insecurities got the worse of me. I became imprisoned by my own vanity and was never satisfied with how I looked. The life I led online was picture perfect. But in reality, I was carefully curating the image of a life I wanted, not had.”
Working within the system, Rae was trying to address the way that she was also torn apart by a lot of the same concern over her looks that other people had. She even built vulnerability into the branding of her makeup line. Last year, Rae and Item sold a round, orange-colored compact, and when you opened it, it had a mirror with the words “I love you say it back.” This was a riff on a popular meme, a standard-issue message of girlboss empowerment but also an acknowledgment of widespread insecurity that Rae, and the person buying the compact, might feel.
I thought that was sweet, but an intimate relationship with the idol was also what the consumer was demanding. A display of insecurity from Rae, or at least an acknowledgment that Rae might look in the same mirror and need a jolt of confidence the same way the consumer does, may be part of that. “Relatability is the No. 1 thing that makes people click ‘check out,’” Sarah Brown told me.
It was hard to tell whether Rae was truly insecure or simply using a marketing tactic to gain fans. “Everybody is insecure about their bodies, and the more our culture gets visual, the more insecure we’ll all get, and it doesn’t matter how you look objectively one bit,” Widdows, the philosopher, told me. “So it’s not implausible to think even the most beautiful celebrities might also be insecure. In fact, it’s very plausible to think they are. But to say that they suddenly stopped being insecure because they put their own lipstick on, I find much less plausible.”
Still, the psychological flytrap in this kind of rhetoric — “I want you to know your body is perfect even though you’re buying this product to look like me, and I am insecure about my looks” — was powerful, and stars other than Rae were gesturing to it as well. When I asked Camberos, the beauty executive, where he saw beauty culture today and where it was going, he said it was connected to the issue of mental health. Rae told British Glamour that she felt she was in a good place regarding her appearance lately and quoted the saying “Comparison is the thief of joy.” When asked about what she was proudest of, though, Rae said, “Just staying mentally healthy has been a really big accomplishment for me.”
It was a bit chilling to think about linking these two things, a beauty brand and mental health, especially as our era of global pandemic comes to a close and we emerge in the light, blinking, looking to create new idols. In September, Selena Gomez, who has been open about her bipolar disorder, introduced her own line, Rare Beauty. In marketing efforts, the company, which offers soft concealers, foundations and blushers, vowed that “we will use makeup to shape positive conversations around beauty, self-acceptance and mental health.” And shortly before the musician Halsey began promoting her new makeup line in early 2021, she chose to post an old photo of her emaciated body on Instagram, explaining that she suffered from an eating disorder. Kylie, too, recently put a saying from a self-help author on her Instagram — “may the dark thoughts, overthinking, and doubt exit your mind right now,” it read in part — along with a photo of a bathtub and naked legs, slightly covered in suds, against which rested a clear pink bottle from her skin-care line.
Fonio, a cereal grain imported from West Africa, was once relegated to the shelves of tiny grocery stores frequented by immigrants primarily from Senegal and Mali. But it has gradually made its way to Whole Foods, where pouches decorated with a painted map of Africa are nestled amid packages of rice and lentils, aimed at a broader range of American consumers.
That journey was pushed in part by a Brooklyn company, Yolélé, which roughly means “let the good times roll” in Fula, a West African language. Yolélé also offers seasoned fonio pilafs, a line of fonio chips and, coming soon, fonio flour.
The company was founded in 2017 by Philip Teverow, a food industry veteran, and Pierre Thiam, a chef from Senegal who grew up eating fonio. Mr. Thiam is confident that Americans would eat fonio, too, if they had better access to it.
American Community Survey by the New American Economy, a research organization. Chinese and Mexican immigrants owned most, selling cuisines familiar to American palates. But entrepreneurs from countries like Guinea, Kazakhstan and Senegal are gaining a foothold with less well-known cuisines.
Marketing these foods in the United States has its challenges, like cultural identity and consumer perception. The savviest entrepreneurs work with designers and brand strategists to make their products more approachable.
One of the biggest hurdles is choosing visual clues — fonts, colors, illustrations and photographs — that channel a product’s physical or conceptual provenance. A brand identity that’s too sleek and polished might appear inauthentic and lose credibility. Yet folksy designs or a reliance on regional symbols can look cliché and dated.
Creating the right visuals is a “subtle balance,” said Paola Antonelli, senior curator of the department of architecture and design at the Museum of Modern Art. A new foreign food’s packaging must stimulate curiosity and radiate authenticity, “making you feel like there’s some sort of familiarity that maybe you had not yet discovered in yourself,” she said.
Cultural heritage is crucial for a new product, said Phil Lempert, a food industry analyst known as the Supermarket Guru. “You have to stand out,” he said, adding that there is a strong appetite for foreign cuisines and products, especially among younger generations: “They love to experiment with food.”
The global food industry has changed substantially over the past several decades, Mr. Lempert said. New foreign food brands today tend to celebrate their origins, whereas businesses just 10 years ago might have pushed to Americanize their products.
“There was a stigma there,” he said.
Supermarket distribution has also changed. “A lot of these smaller ethnic brands used to be distributed by ethnic food distributors,” Mr. Lempert said. “Now, these companies are going direct to the supermarket.”
Other strategies include posting on social media, especially Instagram, which is considered an effective, low-cost way to market products, and selling directly to consumers through websites and e-commerce marketplaces like Amazon.
But the key is often packaging. A designer’s ability tends to be a blend of creative thinking, diverse professional experience and wide travels. This often outweighs a shared nationality, ethnicity or culture; in fact, many entrepreneurs prefer working with designers from different backgrounds to better see their story through a fresh lens.
Mr. Thiam wanted to use Yolélé to claim fonio’s West African identity while avoiding labels like “exotic” and “ethnic.” He and Mr. Teverow approached Paula Scher, a partner at the design firm Pentagram, where Mr. Thiam already had connections because of his cookbooks. He said that he would have liked to use a designer of African descent, but that when he saw Ms. Scher’s map of Africa, it was “love at first sight.”
After Ms. Scher’s design hit the shelves last spring, sales surged 250 percent, Mr. Teverow said.
Using product names in foreign languages is a common hurdle for food business owners. To broaden the appeal of her classic Middle Eastern spice blends like hawaij, baharat and ras el hanout, Leetal Arazi, a co-founder of New York Shuk, worked with the graphic designer Ayal Zakin to craft a visual solution.
The labels feature elegant illustrations of the contents in each jar, like turmeric or chili peppers, balanced with a modern gold logo and a tiny stylized camel in silhouette.
“All of a sudden, you are less afraid and intimidated to pick it up,” said Ms. Arazi, whose products are sold at supermarkets like Whole Foods and specialty stores.
Mohammed and Rahim Diallo, brothers from Guinea, faced the same challenge for their intensely flavored gingery drink, Ginjan. The designer Ruen Ellis removed any mystery about the drink by listing the ingredients — ginger, pineapple, lemon, vanilla and anise — on the label below a circular logo that centers on a silhouette of Africa.
A straightforward or celebratory story that can bolster a brand’s identity isn’t always possible. Some immigrant founders have fraught relationships with their homelands, or history has convoluted their story.
In late 2018, Daniyar Chukin and the design firm Little Fury rebranded Mr. Chukin’s vaguely Russian-sounding company, Misha, to the vaguely German-sounding Wünder Creamery.
Mr. Chukin had struggled with how to market quark, a creamy yogurtlike product popular in Germany. He grew up eating it in Kazakhstan, where the Soviets had brought it. “Here I am, a Kazakh guy, marketing a product I knew as a Russian one, as a German one to American consumers,” he said with a laugh. “It’s starting to work now.”
His quark is packaged in a yogurt cup with a clean, Nordic look, and Wünder Creamery’s annual earnings are about $1 million after growing 50 percent a year, he said.
Some immigrant entrepreneurs choose to have zero visual references to their food’s country of origin.
“What if we basically just remove the whole idea of being an ethnic food?” said Nigel Sielegar, a designer from Indonesia and the owner of Moon Man, minimalist Southeast Asia dessert stall in the cavernous basement below Essex Market on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
After pandemic restrictions closed his eatery, Mr. Sielegar pivoted in July to producing sweet kaya jams featuring purple ube, golden palm sugar and green pandan. The coconut milk-based jams are packaged in glass jars with “Moon Man” running diagonally in huge white type across a black label.
The company has sold more than 1,000 kaya jam jars directly to consumers nationwide, Mr. Sielegar said, and recently expanded to selling half-gallon containers wholesale to restaurants.
Package design and brand identity might seem superfluous, even shallow, but they are often the needed prompt for customers to buy, said Dan Formosa, a design consultant.
“There is a expectation of what it’s about and a sense that it’s worth trying,” he said.
The frenzy has already led to trouble. The stock of Nikola, an electric car start-up that went public via a SPAC in June, has plunged more than 80 percent after Hindenburg Research, an investment fund, accused the company in September of lying about its technology, overstating business deals and deceptively rolling a truck down a hill in a product video. Trevor Milton, Nikola’s founder and chairman, resigned, and the Securities and Exchange Commission and Justice Department have started investigating the company.
The S.E.C. has also opened inquiries into Clover Health, a health insurance start-up, and Lordstown Motors, an electric truck start-up, which both went public through blank check companies in recent months.
On March 10, the S.E.C. warned that SPACs face distinct risks and potential conflicts of interest. The agency was particularly critical of those backed by celebrities, concluding that “celebrities, like anyone else, can be lured into participating in a risky investment.”
For now, the special purpose vehicles remain on the prowl for targets.
Jedidiah Yueh, chief executive of Delphix, a data infrastructure company in Redwood City, Calif., has experienced the interest firsthand. Mr. Yueh, who founded Delphix 13 years ago, said SPACs began reaching out last summer as his business picked up in the pandemic. The company, which helps customers process and automate data, recently became profitable and is a candidate to go public.
But Mr. Yueh said he hadn’t decided if Delphix would go public through a traditional offering or another route, such as a “direct listing” or SPAC. As he has sorted through the options, SPACs have flooded his inbox with messages almost every day. One even sent a mailer to Delphix’s unoccupied office last year while everyone worked from home in the pandemic.
Mr. Yueh said he had met with some SPACs out of curiosity. But he quickly got the sense that sponsors were telling him whatever they thought he wanted to hear. Once they learned that Delphix was profitable, “they just switch gears and talk about how easy they are to work with,” he said.
He said he had stopped responding to cold pitches and created a canned response to ward off others. The investors he met with weren’t the kind of long-term backers that Delphix wanted, he said. But in a nod to the trend of celebrity-backed SPACs, he added, “I would have taken a meeting with Shaq.”
The country’s internet giants, once celebrated as engines of economic vitality, are now scorned for exploiting user data, abusing workers and squelching innovation. Jack Ma, co-founder of the e-commerce titan Alibaba, is a fallen idol, with his companies under government scrutiny for the ways they have secured their grip over the world’s second-largest economy.
But there is one tech figure who has managed to keep the Chinese public in his thrall, whose mix of impish bomb-throwing and captain-of-industry bravado seems tailor-made for this time of dashed dreams and disillusionment: Elon Musk.
“He can fight the establishment and become the richest man on earth — and avoid getting beaten down in the process,” said Jane Zhang, the founder and chief executive of ShellPay, a blockchain company in Shanghai. “He’s everybody’s hope.”
fiery blast — China cannot get enough of Mr. Musk. Tesla’s electric cars are big sellers in the country, and the government’s growing space ambitions have spawned a community of fans who track SpaceX’s every launch.
trailblazer or a fraud, and examining everything from his upbringing to his taste in Beijing hot pot joints. Start-up founders swear by his belief in “first-principles thinking,” which looks for solutions by examining problems at their most fundamental level. A stack of books by Chinese authors promises to reveal the secrets of the “Silicon Valley Iron Man,” which is the nickname that seems to have stuck in China, not King of Mars or Rocket Man.
In a long thread about Mr. Musk on the question-and-answer site Zhihu, a user named Moonshake writes that most people start out full of hope but gradually accept the “mediocrity” that is their fate.
“Only a superman like Musk can move past the endless mediocrity and toward the infinite, to see the magnificence of the universe,” Moonshake writes.
Another user in the same thread says he named his son Elon to express his admiration. The user did not reply to a message seeking further comment.
claimed credit. (Mr. Musk’s reaction to the news — “Well, back to work …” — was liked 22,000 times on the Chinese social platform Weibo.)
Later that month, as Mr. Musk endorsed the run-up in GameStop shares, many in China were riveted, drawn to the drama by the same distrust of big financial institutions.
“Occupy Wall Street could never be copied in China,” said Suji Yan, an entrepreneur and investor in Shanghai. To do that, “you’d have go on the streets,” he said. Buying protest stocks is safer.
embrace of Tesla — and vice versa — when the United States and China have never trusted each other’s high-tech companies less.
marveled at the way Mr. Musk handled the country’s hard-nosed authorities. They have been more critical of the ways he has sometimes treated his own workers. He lashed out last year at California health officials who demanded that a Tesla factory there remain closed out of coronavirus concerns. The company has also come under scrutiny for workplace injuries and racial discrimination.
“He is a real dreamer and creator, yet he is also a coldblooded, self-absorbed megalomaniac,” Hong Bo, a longtime tech commentator in China who writes under the name Keso, said of Mr. Musk. “I admire his courage in breaking with outdated conventions, and yet I intensely dislike his trampling on the bottom lines of humanity.”
Mr. Musk and Tesla did not respond to emails requesting comment.
The frustration with Big Tech is part of a wider malaise in China. For many young people, decades of breakneck economic growth seem to have resulted in only fiercer competition for opportunities, less stability and less say over the direction of their lives.
On the Chinese internet, the term that has captured the mood is “involution,” previously used by anthropologists to describe agrarian societies that grew in size or complexity without becoming more advanced or productive.
The feeling among young Chinese people that they are fighting harder for a slimmer chance at material gain is leading them to hope to “reorganize life in a different way,” said Biao Xiang, who studies social change in China and is director of the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology in Germany.
later apologized for “excessive self-promotion.” Or Jia Yueting, who set out to best Apple in smartphones and became buried in debt. Even Mr. Ma of Alibaba appears to have helped catalyze the government’s crackdown against him by speaking a little too frankly at an event about his annoyance with regulators.
shared a stage at a Shanghai tech conference in 2019. There may never have been a more mismatched pair. Mr. Ma was earnest and engaged, at ease in the role of conference grandee. Mr. Musk was fidgety and jokey. The two did a great deal of talking right past each other. Mr. Ma said the answer to superintelligent machines was better education for humans. At this, Mr. Musk merely laughed.
In a compilation of awkward moments from the event posted on the video site Bilibili, the comments are brutal, mostly to Mr. Ma.
“This is the person who in China was once looked up to as a god,” one person wrote. “In the presence of a real master, he is like a performing monkey.”
SEOUL, South Korea — The small white delivery trucks zip down streets all over South Korea. The uniformed workers send photos of safely delivered packages to impatient customers. Workers can move so fast, their employer promises, that it calls the service “rocket delivery.”
The trucks and the operation belong to Coupang, a start-up founded by a Harvard Business School dropout that has shaken up shopping in South Korea, an industry long dominated by huge, button-down conglomerates. In a country where people are obsessed with “ppalli ppalli,” or getting things done quickly, Coupang has become a household name by offering “next-day” and even “same-day” and “dawn” delivery of groceries and millions of other items at no extra charge.
The company, which is sometimes called the Amazon of South Korea, is set to get a big endorsement on Thursday from Wall Street. Its shares are expected to begin trading in an initial public offering that will raise $4.2 billion and value the company at about $60 billion, the second-largest American tally for an Asian company after Alibaba Group of China in 2014. On Wednesday its shares were priced at $35, according to a person close to the company.
Coupang may need the money. South Korea’s big conglomerates, called chaebol, and others are building their own delivery networks as Coupang plans its expansion. It faces other issues, too, such as growing concerns about working conditions after the death of several Coupang warehouse and delivery workers that some relatives and labor activists blamed on overwork and poor labor practices.
likes to say, “Our mission is to create a world where customers wonder ‘How did I ever live without Coupang?’”
an e-commerce giant.
As competition heats up, superfast delivery is quickly becoming the new norm, weakening the novelty of Coupang’s “rocket delivery” service.
And it continues to pitch itself as an essential service for busy South Koreans.
In a letter to potential investors, Mr. Kim put forward an example of a quintessential Coupang shopper: a working mother who, late at night, realizes she has forgotten to go shopping, and then places an order online through Coupang.
“When she opens her eyes, it’s like Christmas morning,” wrote Mr. Kim. “The order is waiting at her front door.”