On the Radar

In Flow in Shanghai: Adventures of New Ventures

Peaking out from carrot greens | Where My Heart Leads

It’s okay to not know what you want to be when you grow up, because when you start following your heart, the experiences will lead you to your calling.

“The experience was like just everything I’ve done I’ve always felt is preparing me for the next thing, which it did. The steps led from one to another.”

Kimberly Ashton on their introducing wellness to companies in China

Karen Tsui, Editor of Where My Heart Leads

Where did you grow up?

Kimberly Ashton: I grew up in Singapore as an expat kid. I think that set the tone for being open minded and curious to new people and cultures and experiences.

It’s very transient. 

I moved to Australia, for the end of high school. It was definitely a contrast to see how people grow up in one place, in one country, or maybe one city or one street. And I never really had that which was fine. And again, in hindsight, I’m glad.

As a kid, what did you want to be?

You know when they asked you in school, and I don’t remember the teacher asking me but I remember there’s always two things people ask growing up – 

What do you want to be when you grow up? What’s your dream wedding? 

And I’m like, I don’t know. Like, those two things just completely dissociate me. 

First of all, maybe I was like, I’m never going to grow up. So I can’t answer that question. And probably, I’ve reinvented myself so many times that it’s impossible to answer. Like, when you’re a kid, and you want to be, a firemen, or whatever it is you want to be. I’ve never had that. And that’s been true, because I’m not here to be one thing, or do one job.

What brought you to China?

I’ve always loved languages, travel and different cultures. So I was thinking between learning Japanese and Chinese. But there was a calling inside of me, and my parents were like you should do Chinese – it would be really useful. And I’m like, fine, I’ll do that first. 

So I went to Hangzhou and did a year and a half of exchange.

What called me there the second time was the opportunity to use my Chinese. And I had some friends who stayed there after Hangzhou. They were working there, and I thought – that sounds fun! So off I went, thinking I would just go for a while and see what happens. And 16 years later, I’m like, Okay, that was great. That’s enough. That’s 16 years in Shanghai, and 18 years in China altogether.

What led you to leave the corporate job?

My friend Amena and Georgia, who you know, they were pulling at my side going, “Come on let’s do it after the World Expo!” I was working in the bank in events and marketing, which is not a fun place to be if you’re a non banker in a bank.

How come?

Definitely not heart-led. *jokes*

Definitely not feeling it and enjoying it from from a place of knowing and purpose.

It was really fun to do that year. I loved it. And I don’t regret any of anything that I did in Shanghai at all, actually. When my role finished after the World Expo in Shanghai 2010, the bank was like, we really want you to stay. You can work in HR and training. Good money, and you can work with the Melbourne team, you can go back to Australia regularly. I’m like, no – no, thank you.

And my friends were like, “Come on, let’s do this Wellness Business.” So to answer your question, it was a part of me that just knew I had to go into wellness, and part of me was like, they were waiting.

Did the three of you have enough wellness background then?

At that stage for what we wanted to do – Yes. 

So Amena had the innovation background, she’s been working in innovation, wellness, for many years now, but she was doing that as well. 

And then I was doing health coaching, but I was fairly new at it, and health, wellness, and nutrition. 

And then Georgia was the business side of it, and just an avid fan of Chinese medicine. For 10 years we were a wellness consulting company. 

We were a bit early, we’ve always been a bit early, which I’ve since realised, and in understanding my own elements, and my own personality, and a lot of this is off slightly off topic. But you might find it interesting. 

I’m into this whole birthing experience at the moment. So I was born early, and I’m a spring element, a wood element in Chinese medicine in my numbers. So I’m just always early – with ideas, not like on time to a party, necessarily. *laughs* 

1. Wellness consulting in China

What is wellness consulting?

We were doing events and for staff – so employee wellness programs, corporate wellness days, we were doing things like projects with BUPA, and insurance companies on creating products or service offerings for them to be more health and wellness rather than like, here’s medical insurance. 

We were creating wellness day programs and themes and having monthly speakers and things in the cafeteria to get employee engagement. But it’s really tough in China, because it’s so new for staff then.

Now it’s more normal. I don’t know that it’s expected but it’s definitely normal. Health and wellness as an industry has grown everywhere, really.

What were the takeaways from starting that venture?

I think it was good for just getting a feel for the corporate side of wellness because that’s a harder sell because those people are less likely to be aware of or interested in wellness than yoga people for example, or fitness people. They’re already into that, looking after myself or Mind, Body, Health, that kind of thing. 

So it was a good experience in learning how to package things, you know, offerings, how to write different content, create different events, to raise their awareness on the importance of wellness. We did a lot of events, and we had our own events as well  – workshops and conferences. 

So the experience was more just like everything I’ve done I’ve always felt is preparing me for the next thing, which it did. 

And so after that, Georgia and I opened a health food store. And then we had non-stop events for individuals and corporates, and everyone in between. It was good preparation really.

2. A store then two: Selling brown rice to people in China

What were the tough parts going into that?

Apart from the the administrative and logistical things of opening a store in China, I would say that the hardest thing is the concept. Because that was back in 2013-ish. Again, very new. There’s still no health food store anywhere in China. 

So creating a shop, selling stuff that people don’t know they need yet, like nuts and seeds and whole grains. Every day, people would come in and go, What’s this? What’s this? How do I cook it? Why do I need to eat it?

What were the risks and the rewards of doing something so new?

The risks was everything! 

So why do it?

Because we, I, just knew I had to do it. We just followed the path that we wanted to do, because we’re very passionate about the topic and the concept of the brand and the store.

A big part of us just was like, Yes, it was risk. And everyone else around us was like, Yeah, it’s a big risk. 

But it was just like, there was no other choice at the time, I would have done exactly the same, obviously, maybe, you know, better business decisions. But for the most part, it was just like, I have to do this. I want to do this. Yeah, I can’t explain it more than that really. 

And everything fell into place. 

When it was like time to make a decision, do we move in here? Yeah, Why else? Why wouldn’t we? Or move out and then into other space? Same thing, it just kind of just flowed. When we had the first one. Then, we expanded to the second store.

The steps led from one to another. 

And then it became, oh, well, maybe we should sell some products. Okay, let’s sell some products along with the cooking class. So then it just became, it just grew organically and small. I think, for me, that was the best way. 

We’re all, learning on the job, how to sell brown rice to people in China. 

In terms of the flow, it was just more like a combination of, I want to do this, and I need to do this. That was the feeling. 

I’ve worked in jobs where I knew it was a mistake to go there, or every morning, I would wake up and hate it. 

That’s when you know, when your body is telling you. Listen to your body and your feelings.

What made you feel viscerally that you wanted to dive into Chinese medicine or nutrition?

The first time was when I read a book from Amena. 

She said to me, you need to read this book or check this course out or something. And I read the term, I think it was Integrative Nutritional Therapist or something. I’m like, that’s me! That’s what I want to do! Literally, in my whole body and my centre’s like, I gotta go do that! 

I don’t know what it means still really, it’s a vague term, it could encapsulate everything I do, but it doesn’t mean one thing. 

That was that first time I felt it and it stuck. 

And I can remember the feeling of longing and like, clarity and confirmation. I’m like, I have to go do that. And so everything I’ve done since then, 2009. I just sort of built my toolbox since and understood that there’s so many modalities and things. 

Continue on to Kim’s sharing on her Eat. Pray. Love – esque two year travelling and learning qigong after 18 years in China. The people she met, the observations she made, helped shaped her approach of using the Traditional Chinese Medicine understanding of how organs and emotions are interlinked, and the five elements to bridge a a gap in food and our well being.

All images are from Kimberly Ashton unless otherwise noted.
Date of interview: 8 June, 2021 via video conferencing.