College senior Yang Fugang is a legend among his fellow schoolmates. Two years ago he opened an online cosmetics and accessories store that now makes a profit of 30,000 yuan ($4,300) every month.
As a Yiwu Industrial & Commercial College student in east China's Zhejiang Province, Yang started a shop in May 2007 on Taobao.com, China's largest C2C shopping website. As the business thrived, Yang rented an office and hired several employees to help out.
SELF-EMPLOYMENT ONLINE: Zhang Li, a sophomore college student in Hubei Province, has an online store on China's leading C2C website Taobao.com (CFP)
Yang is not the only student entrepreneur in his school. According to college President Jia Shaohua, the institution has some 1,800 students engaged in both online and brick-and-mortar retail.
In Beijing, 26-year-old Chen Xiao has been selling her time at different prices through her online store on Taobao for several months. Consumers can buy one hour, two hours or a whole day of her time to ask Chen to do things that they don't have time to do, such as buying railway tickets. The business has been going well and there have been many mimics across the country.
"Maybe we owe a 'thanks' to the global economic crisis as it has changed students' mentality about employment," said Jia.
College students should give much more consideration to running online businesses instead of seeing such ventures as inferior, said Wang Jianhua, deputy to the 11th National People's Congress (NPC), China's top legislature, during an interview with Sina.com in March.
Wang urged college students to start their own businesses because of the otherwise grim job situation. A recent survey by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences said China's urban unemployment rate is approaching 9.4 percent. With those numbers, and with the future uncertainty of the market, a quarter of the country's 6.1 million college graduates in 2009 may have problems finding a job.
In an effort to cope with the rising unemployment facing recent graduates and the expanding labor force, the country is working at new policies to encourage them to start own businesses, including tax preferences and low-interest loans.
Despite the recession, online shops are seeing a boom as more customers turn to websites in search of better deals. A report released by Taobao and iResearch, China's leading online research company, shows the volume of online shopping in China increased by about 129 percent to 120 billion yuan ($17.6 billion) in 2008.
Taobao.com also has figures from 2008 showing that its shop owners between the ages of 19 and 24 make up 35 percent of the total, and most of these young owners are college students.
"The experience of our school proved that every student can help solve the employment problem by opening an online store. It's almost a low start-up costs and low-risk business and it is the best option for students," said Jia. He said 400 students so far have made a monthly income of 1,000 yuan ($145) online.
Jia encourages students to build their businesses online by allowing them to earn academic credit by reaching profit benchmarks instead of taking classroom courses.
Yang has become the school's biggest success, with annual revenues reaching 2 million yuan ($289,000) from his business, which sells mostly cosmetics. In an ironic twist, Yang used to score poorly in his classes.
"It's not likely that everybody can be Yang; it takes considerable effort to get there," said Jia. "But everybody in the school can become a shop owner making 3,000 yuan ($434) per month if he or she wants to." Jia has established a self-employment school at the college, whose enrollment includes only eligible students who can earn more than 8,000 yuan ($1,160) per month.
Under professional campus guidance, Jia's students are also able to share practical knowledge and advice that could prove helpful to new entrepreneurs. The students also learn how to market goods at fair prices, bargain with suppliers and withstand difficulties commonly found in business.
"The college not only offers a favorable business environment, it also teaches me a lot of refreshing concepts and ideas that help me not become a bookworm," said Yang.
Yang attributed his success to his own efforts and persevering through hardship. Some students who started online businesses found their early revenues to be too small, so they gave up. Others failed because they did not do any market research or they were just too lazy to take care of the business, he said.
"We acknowledge that starting an online business does not work for everybody. There will be inevitable failures. But failure is not all bad if one draws the right lessons from it," said NPC Deputy Wang.
The bulk of new business owners entering new and modern industries, including e-business, will have a positive impact on China's economic structure, said Zhang Libin, a Chinese human-resource management research fellow. Encouraging college students to take the initiative in new industries helps them to realize their worth and to transform the country's economic pattern, the researcher said.