When we came across Amy DeCillis’ company origin story, it sounded like quite a rollercoaster. After graduating from New York University Shanghai, DeCillis was at a crossroads, unsure whether to return to the US amid a pandemic or stay in Shanghai. She opted for the latter and devised a plan to live and work here legally – by forming a company. She admits that it wasn’t initially her entrepreneurial spirit that sparked the founding of Okra, but she’s excited about the prospect of where this venture may lead her. Below, DeCillis shares her experience registering her company in China.
What initially brought you to China?
I was born in China then adopted and raised in Charlotte, North Carolina. My parents were always supportive and encouraged me to go back to China. As the only adopted sibling of five, my parents enrolled me in a private school because it had a Chinese-language program. My grandfather used to live in Hong Kong and Taiwan and worked for the US government. He could speak Cantonese and would teach me some characters, so I was encouraged to learn about China.
I first did a study abroad program in Beijing in high school. I learned about New York University Shanghai on that trip and ended up going there for my degree.
I wasn’t planning on staying in Shanghai after graduation in 2020. Because of the coronavirus outbreak, I saw a lot of my classmates fleeing and going to the New York campus. I felt loyal to Shanghai and China and wanted to stick it out. I’m glad I stayed.
How did you decide on starting a company as a means to stay in China legally?
As the COVID-19 pandemic worsened, I decided to stay in China because I felt like it was a better choice. I looked at my options but didn’t know what I wanted to study [in graduate school]. I knew I wanted to stay in China with the US job market crashing, but I needed a work visa.
“Starting my own company sounded like the best bad idea”
I had played soccer my whole life, and my coach at NYU Shanghai is local Shanghainese, so I reached out to him for advice as well as my former boss at my internship, who is a good friend and mentor. I also emailed NYU Shanghai, and the feedback I got was to work in the free trade zone, work in education, or start my own company. Starting my own company sounded like the best bad idea.
My coach was saying that I don’t need to be an entrepreneur, but I could be my own anchor. I wouldn’t need to rely on random tutoring jobs for my visa, and it is also easier to get hired if you already have your visa sorted since the company doesn’t have to cover as many costs.
The total cost of setting up my business was around RMB20,000 for everything, including signing up the company, financial services, visa fees, criminal background checks and more. But I did a cost analysis with my family, and we decided it made sense.
I get that it’s not the easy option for a lot of recent graduates, but it worked for me, and I ended up getting hired through one of my soccer teammates. They heard I was looking for work, so I joined WildChina, a tourism company. Basically, they pay my company, and then I pay myself. It’s good because I have more flexibility.
How did you decide on the name of the company?
When I was hashing out the plan – and again, I’m not an entrepreneur – I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do with it. So, when I was thinking of a company name, I didn’t want to make it something too serious. I kept thinking: Apple is a dumb name for a company, and if Steve Jobs can name his company Apple, then I can call mine Okra.
I named the company Okra because I’m from the south [in the US], and none of my other friends in Shanghai are from there. I’m always talking about how good the food is down south, and a lot of my friends don’t actually like okra. It doesn’t mean too much, but the last character of the Chinese name means ‘to incite or something provocative’ – or at least that’s what Pleco told me.
I didn’t discuss the Chinese name with any locals. I think that the Chinese name has a somewhat better intention, but the whole point was to have a placeholder.
So, what’s the plan for Okra?
Again, what I do with the company is still undecided. I’m close with the NYU Shanghai community, and my senior year I didn’t know what I wanted to do. Some friends mentioned they wanted to mentor younger people, so I set up a mentoring slash networking event that’s like speed dating style – something fun and quick – and that was the first thing I did with Okra.
I hope it could be a company that helps other companies start up, but we’ll have to see.
> This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. To learn more, scan the QR code:
[Images provided by Amy DeCillis]