At just 21 years of age, Nicole Kersh found herself in regional China meeting manufacturers for her burgeoning online business – which placed number 64 in the recent BRW Fast 100. For the founder of 4Cabling and now the Australian Institute of Management’s2012 Young Manager of the Year for NSW and the ACT, the language barrier, the cultural barrier and her sex added up to the “perfect combination” of factors working against her. Kersh’s experience in China illuminates the difficulties of doing business in developing markets.
Kersh started the business with no knowledge of the online retail industry while she was doing a degree in architecture. “Being of the younger generation,” she says, she saw “complete inefficiency” in the cabling market. The industry was split into those with technical know-how, the manufacturers, the wholesalers and the retailers, creating an overpriced product.
As the daughter of parents in the electrical industry, Kersh knew enough about that side of the business to see an opportunity. The online side, however, was new to her but she credits her youth with her ability to learn quickly.
Kersh taught herself html and built a website that sent her a text when an order was placed. She would have to sprint out of lectures to her university’s computer labs to arrange delivery.
As a marathon runner in her spare time, Kersh is no stranger to completing difficult tasks. Yet her recollection of her first trip to China is enough to put most people off doing business there, particularly as a young woman.
When she first met the manufacturers, it wasn’t just the fact that no one would take her seriously as a young woman. “I actually had people offering to buy me for the night,” she says. “I thought I needed to learn to swear in Chinese.” There is “the way China treats you as a woman and then the way it treats business people,” she says. For Kersh, it’s a gap that could not be bridged.
Returning to China with a male Chinese colleague she had met at a trade show revealed two versions of the nation. Kersh realised she was being offered much lower prices when she was with a male Chinese colleague. “It made me panic,” she says. “I felt they were cashing in on me being female.”
Kersh also recalls asking questions of manufacturers only to be ignored as they responded to her male colleague. She doesn’t expect that to change soon.
Fortunately, Kersh is optimistic about the future of 4Cabling. With 17 employees and a rapidly expanding business, she is looking to become Australia’s largest online cabling wholesaler within 12 months.