Tennessee Entrepreneur Thrives on Pivots and Adaptive Thinking
Jalona Falkner does lots of Zoom meetings. She conducts one where her two young children occasionally pop into frame to ask, politely, when they can go to the swimming pool.
Their mom has been interested in China since she was a little girl growing up in Chicago. Her company, The China Connect, was a lifetime in the making. “I was the little Black girl always interested in China,” she recalls.
As an adult, she worked in a technology field. Then she started a company making clothing for women. She found a partner in Vietnam who could make the clothing. She wanted to scale the business, but that manufacturer couldn’t do it. An entity in China could, so she traveled there and started sourcing and exporting.
By 2018, people in the United States started taking notice of what she was doing and approached her about how to do business in China. That’s how The China Connect consulting business started, with a complementary travel agency formed to bring interested parties to China to source products and to sell in the China market. As such, she became part of what was then a growing group of Americans focused on brokering deals and building bridges.
Lemons and lemonade
COVID-19 soon disrupted the travel part of the company. She had just returned from China at the end of 2019, having been there for the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. She had arranged for representatives of 25 businesses to travel to China in March 2020, but that got canceled. “I wrote refund checks totaling $100,000,” she sighed.
The canceled trip gave her time to focus on advising clients about sourcing from and selling to the Chinese. Falkner has one US-based employee and a team in China that handles sourcing, shipping, and verifying the capabilities of factories. She also employs a lawyer and a consulting engineer.
Pivoting quickly, she started sourcing and importing personal protective equipment (PPE) using supply chains she had already set up. “I knew China was shutting down and that COVID-19 was on its way to the United States. I got huge shipments of PPE into the United States. I also connected other entrepreneurs who were looking to save their businesses by switching to importing PPE. It opened a whole new line of consulting.”
"The supplement industry in the United States is booming, and I’m trying to match those products to China.”
One of her clients included a telemedicine firm that provides remote medical services. They are developing a specific type of first-aid kit for kids with diabetes or allergies, and they needed products that address specific types of ailments. “This telemedicine company provides the platform for doctors to connect with patients remotely, but they were looking to create other avenues of revenue. Now they have these kits in stores.”
A good portion of her business comes through referrals. She markets with other brands and individuals who can reach companies that would be interested in her services. She engages in a lot of brand partnerships and direct advertising via social media. She also works with the chamber of commerce in Memphis, Tennessee, where she is now based. She has a couple of clients in Australia, but the bulk are in United States.
Her ideal customer is small or medium-sized. “Solopreneurs” she calls them with 1-20 employees. “Bigger brands tend to have sourcing departments and are already connected. When I work with bigger brands, it tends to be consulting on strategy. My customers are in all verticals: healthcare, fashion, beauty, and service providers like therapists and counselors.”
One intriguing opportunity she’s investigating now is whether China is ready for cannabis products. Yes, the now above-ground industry in the United States looks at China’s huge population and sees a brownie bonanza. “I’m getting a slew of inquiries,” she says. “There is a lot of opportunity to sell those products to China. There are still a lot of barriers on both sides, cultural and legal, to overcome to make it happen.”
She explained there is still a lot of regulation in China around CBD, a chemical in marijuana and its cousin hemp that has alleged health benefits. Products with the chemical include oils, tinctures, and candy including gummies.
“There is a growing movement within China with awesome organizations and brands creeping their way into increased awareness. Sunda makes clothing themed on THC (another chemical in marijuana and hemp). They don’t sell any drug. They are trying to build a culture in China that will lead the way to more acceptance.”
“Some things are overnight successes, but many overnight successes take decades to achieve.”
Always on the outlook for new products, she travels frequently to trade shows for different industries. “I just got back from Las Vegas looking for companies that could produce specific types of supplements and beauty products. In my research I found that while there is a lot of appreciation for Chinese medicine, the market isn’t as trustful of Chinese-made supplements. The supplement industry in the United States is booming, and I’m trying to match those products to China.”
Falkner would like to rebalance her business to include more exporting of US products to China. Most of her profitability comes from the import side which has become politically fraught. However, there’s an enthusiasm gap on the American side among smaller businesses. “Most US small business owners still think, ‘Why would China want to buy anything from us? They sell everything to us.’ It requires educating them about the opportunities.”
Regarding politics and the bilateral relationship, she strongly opposes the added tariffs. “When President Trump was in office, I understood the end game he was going for—a fairer trading relationship—though I would have done things differently.” She makes a point of ensuring that her client companies understand the effects of what she calls the “Trump tax.”
Ready to pivot
Due to all the current and future unknowns and risks, she’s a big believer in having a backup strategy for when a new pandemic hits or another war breaks out. “When the tours stopped because of COVID-19, I had to get creative quickly.”
For now, profits are good, and she believes as soon as she’s able to get back to China, the company will be even more profitable because she’ll have “both sides of the house running” simultaneously. Knowing her, she’ll be adding additional sides. “Some things are overnight successes, but many overnight successes take decades to achieve.”
Meanwhile she seeks a balance between the current mutual suspicion and vitriol and pretending that everything is fine. A middle way of sorts. “It would be ignorant if we totally ignored what is happening on the international level. I base my views regarding international relationships on the very real relationships within my own network in China. They are like us. They want successful business and strong relationships too.”
She encourages her clients to continue to invest in the relationships they have there while also having a backup plan. Focus on the things you can control, she advises.
She talks regularly with her contacts in China about the bilateral relationship. “They were concerned that the United States wasn’t being led in the right direction. Those conversations don’t happen as much with President Biden. This could change for the worse, or for the better though.”
Falkner is unusual in this business niche because she’s a woman and she’s Black. How does this translate in China? “There are different dynamics at different levels. At the celebrity level, Chinese people tend to love African Americans, like Beyonce. At a personal level, the sentiment isn’t as positive.”
She says the more you get to know people, the more welcoming they become. “Race and gender won’t come up as a conversation point unless there is a real relationship.”
She hopes there are more real relationships in the future, and that her connections will grow along with understanding and mutual opportunity.
“Sometimes I get goosebumps when I start talking about opportunities that are in front of me. The goosebumps confirm that the direction is the right one. As I’m working, I’ll get super excited—and I still am as we speak!”