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Business trends

Overseas-educated 'post Jack Ma' generation drives China's startup boom

Young entrepreneurs make full use of technology and management skills gained abroad

Pony.ai, an autonomous driving technology startup, is based in a corner of an office space in the outskirts of Guangzhou

GUANGZHOU -- Thousands of ambitious young Chinese who have studied abroad are returning home to set up their own businesses -- and they're bringing fresh energy to the Chinese economy. These entrepreneurs, many of them in their 30s, are forming the next generation in the startup sector in China, which has until now been led by their forerunners such as Jack Ma Yun, founder of Alibaba.

The number of Chinese students going abroad to study hit a record 610,000 last year, up 12% from 2016. For the past several years, more than 400,000 such students have returned to China and set up new businesses.

Pony.ai, an autonomous driving technology startup, is based in a corner of an office space in the outskirts of Guangzhou that accommodates a number of other new companies. Harry Hu, 32, serves as chief operating officer of the startup, which was founded less than two years ago.

The stereotypical idea about startups -- that they continually struggle just to keep the business going and pay their workers a pittance -- is not necessarily true.

"Salaries for new joiners at Pony start at 25,000 yuan ($3,900) a month, and many of us are paid more," Hu said. "Life here is not that difficult."

In China, where private businesses face fierce competition, how does a one and a half year old startup manage to pay salaries comparable to those at big names such as smartphone maker Huawei Technologies?

Hu graduated from Yali High School in Changsha, in China's inland Hunan Province, one of the country's top five high schools among nearly 20,000 senior high schools. After finishing high school, he attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the U.S.

After finishing his master's degree in 2012, he started working at Bank of America Merrill Lynch in Hong Kong and Industrial & Commercial Bank of China. He joined Pony.ai last September. The tiny startup's technology and potential helped it raise $150 million from well-known venture capital companies, including IDG Capital of China and Sequoia Capital of the U.S. The company's CEO James Peng and CTO Tiancheng Lou also have experience studying or working in the U.S.

Another Chinese self-driving startup, Roadstar.ai, also raised $128 million in mid-May. CEO Tong Xianqiao and CTO Heng Liang hold doctorates from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University and Stanford University, respectively.

These foreign-educated young elites, who have acquired advanced techniques and business acumen overseas, are returning to China to start new businesses. Of the 480,000 students who returned to China in 2017, 230,000 of them hold either master's degrees or doctorates.

Among these up-and-coming entrepreneurs are Liu Qing, 39, a Harvard graduate and president of Chinese ride-hailing giant Didi Chuxing ,and Wang Xing, 39, a University of Delaware graduate and CEO of China's largest online booking platform, Meituan Dianping.

It is safe to say that e-commerce behemoths Alibaba Group Holding, Tencent Holdings and Baidu have greatly changed China by utilizing the power of the internet. But this year Alibaba Executive Chairman Jack Ma Yun will turn 54, Baidu Chairman Robin Li Yanhong will turn 50 and Tencent CEO Pony Ma Huateng will turn 47.

It is only a matter of time before the next generation of young people returning to China with overseas education and know how brings more surprises to this country.

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