Bringing a strong sense of aesthetics, quality to children's space
The road to being a successful female entrepreneur – be it a restaurant owner, a designer, a gallery owner or a retailer – can be bumpy. In this series, "She Power," we talk to women from different countries and different backgrounds about their experiences and stories of setting up businesses in Shanghai. One thing these amazing women all have in common – they all yearn to build a brand that does good, that gives purpose and fulfillment, and even a palpable sense of joy.
Allison Kopher, a native of Minnesota in the United States, and her German husband, Marcus Hafkemeyer, have made Shanghai their home. They are living here with their two children, Simon and Benedict.
Since her first pregnancy, Kopher has concentrated on children's designs that match her aesthetic taste. Her online children's store, Modern Littles, was born out of her desire to create a one-stop shop for design-oriented, sustainable and high-quality toys, interior products and furniture sourced from around the world.
Q: Before we talk about your company, would you please introduce yourself?
For nearly 10 years, I have lived overseas with my family in Frankfurt (Germany), Beijing and Shanghai. My German husband, Marcus, and I met in 2013 in New York. We inspired each other to change up our lives drastically. We married in Italy, and in 2016 we welcomed our first son, Simon.
In March 2017, Marcus took a new job with a state-owned car company in Beijing. This brought our little family of three to China, where we have been for the last six years. Our second son, Benedict, was born in 2020 in Shanghai and made us a family of four.
Q: After living in Shanghai for a few years, why did you decide to strike out on your own and build up a business to source children's products?
After having spent one and a half years in Beijing, Marcus moved to another job in Shanghai in September 2018. Until this point, I was studying online at New York University in Frankfurt, caring for our young baby, settling us in four different homes, creating lives for us in three cities, developing our friendships, and starting to work full-time briefly in Beijing.
Throughout those first five years abroad, I longed to find a job to satisfy my need for professional growth. After moving to Shanghai, I settled Simon into his new kindergarten and started to consider my options.
One of my favorite parts of moving was the styling and restyling of our homes. Having a child in Germany meant I was introduced to a wealth of beautiful European children's brands with products that fit beautifully into an adult home.
After I moved to China, I found it difficult to source the products I was looking for. Taobao was the main channel, but I missed the small online stores in Europe that were full of beautiful, functional, quality products for children from many different brands. That was the seed from which Modern Littles grew.
Q: What makes Shanghai's business environment so remarkable?
I was introduced to a WeChat group called Boss Lady, a very active group at the time with so many women exuding entrepreneurial spirit. It was inspiring, to say the least. The idea of starting my own business felt out of reach but exciting.
The people in Boss Lady were kind and helpful and were always willing to provide contacts, advice, or even just a sounding board. The road was very bumpy, but I felt confident hearing about the journeys of other women who had all walked it ahead of me.
Q: What are you trying to bring to the local community?
When I started Modern Littles, the idea was to bring a strong sense of aesthetics and quality to the children's space. In my own journey as a parent, I found that higher-quality products are more multifunctional and last longer.
These types of products are not easy to find in China. I saw my son's creativity blossoming, which was a bonus to me as a parent and someone who wants a calm interior with less "noise" from many plastic toys thrown around.
Q: What are the biggest challenges in setting up a business here? How do you stay motivated?
Early in 2019, I started the process of opening a WOFE, working with a great team of lawyers. I also needed to get a trading license, so I felt more confident working with lawyers than with agents. I worked to develop a team including lawyers, agents for importing and customs clearance, logistics for warehousing and product delivery, marketing professionals, accounting, a mini-program developer, and eventually Taobao pros.
I've been thankful for some mentors and friends who are experts in their fields to help me along the way. Building a business is full of highs and lows, and the lows are very low, but every little win feels like quite a big high. I love seeing the photos of my little customers and how they incorporate the products we sell and love into their lives. This truly keeps me motivated.
Q: What's the moment that made you most proud?
The proudest moment for me was seeing the fruits of all my labor leading up to the mini program being developed and the first products on the "shelves" just after the New Year of 2020. Unfortunately, just afterward, COVID-19 hit. Highs and lows are all intertwined.
Q: What are you working on now?
Currently, we are working on building up our following on Xiaohongshu (Red). It's a really tough social media platform to crack, but it's also been instrumental in seeing how the market has already changed so much in the years since I started Modern Littles.
It's a good insight into whom our customers are and which products and brands they love. It will help us get a better handle on what the best product mix is and how to better serve them.
Q: Who is the female role model that inspires you?
I can honestly say that I find inspiration in all women. Mothers, non-mothers, working, staying at home with kids – I like to think about what everyone has gone through to get where they are. All the sacrifices they have made, in whatever form, to excel in their current lives. All women are warriors.
Q: What advice do you have for women entrepreneurs?
When you feel defeated, take a break. Give yourself some distance from it all, and spend time reenergizing yourself with what inspires you and what inspired you to become an entrepreneur in the first place.
In every instance, that has always helped me remember why I am doing what I am doing, and I feel ready to step back into making steps forward every day. I recently received advice to take "giving up" off the table, and despite how simple it sounds, I hadn't ever thought of it like that, and I try to live by that now.