Yuan Yao: Living life a la carte

Culture | by Aimee Groom
Posted: June 15th, 2012 | Updated: June 15th, 2012 | Comments
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Yuan Yao is the kind of person I've always wanted to be: organized, passionate, successful and great fun to be around. You know that saying about if you want something done, ask a busy person? That was invented for Yuan. Since I met with her last December, she has launched a third edition of her Beijing and spent two months volunteering with Child's Dream building schools in Cambodia, helping in a medical center in Chiang Mai and visiting a refugee camp near the Burmese/Thai border as part of the same NGO. I, however, am only just now getting around to writing up our conversation. So without further ado, let me introduce this young entrepreneur, ambassador for Child's Dream and all-around advocate for doing good in the world, Yuan Yao and her company, À la Carte Maps. >>>

What are À la Carte Maps?

Rather like Yuan herself, à la carte maps are colorful, creative and friendly. Each map gives a unique insight into its city, and is accompanied by a welcome letter from your "friend," who fills you in on the basic info you need to know. This info includes how to get around, what local specialties to keep an eye out for and provides a directory of their favorite eats, drinks and boutiques. The maps themselves are gorgeous and the map for each city is hand drawn by a different artist to give an individual style to each location. The writers are all local residents and experts when it comes to their city and remain anonymous to ensure objectivity. "We don't tell people who did the map." Yuan explains. "There's no advertising, that way we can write whatever we want. 'The view is great here but the food sucks' is what your friends would say." And that's exactly what the à la carte audience wants to know—where to go, what to see, what would a friend recommend. So, who are their audience exactly? I ask. "They're Flashpackers," she says. "Backpackers who are are well traveled, and who may have already been to that city several times but want to discover it from a different angle. They're 25-45, with enough money to afford nice experiences but at the same time, like to mix things up. They'll stay in a boutique hotel but then go for street food, or go to a local massage place where nobody speaks English, then an art gallery, then dress up for dinner. They're people that like to get lost on purpose, who go to Paris and sit in a café for four hours to get the spirit of the city. They are also people who don't have a lot of time. Like me. I don't have time to spend hours online researching a place. The map gives a maximum of 150-200 tips, so even if you just travel with that you could go for two weeks, but it's also good for a weekend." Not only are the maps gorgeous and full of carefully curated content and insider tips, they're practical, too. Made by travelers for travelers, they've thought of the practicalities too: they're printed on matte-laminated paper, making them moisture-resistant and durable so they won't fall apart when you need them most. Now, how did it all begin....

Who is Yuan Yao?

Originally from Hangzhou, Yuan's family moved to Switzerland when she was four years old. Her mother, a writer, was an important figure in here life—not only did she teach her to speak Chinese (a skill she did not enjoy acquiring but is enormously grateful to have now), she taught her how to be independent; that she could do anything she put her mind to. "She was always saying: 'If you want something Yuan, you can do it yourself.'" says Yuan with a smile. "She would send me to buy books on my own in China when I was two-and-a-half, and so off I would go to the bookstore. It was one of those shops with the glass counter and I was so short the storekeeper couldn't see me. I would call: "Ayi, ayi," and the shopkeeper would just ignore me, thinking I was somebody's kid. I stood there for 30 minutes until another woman came along and took me seriously and after 40 minutes, I went home with my book. So I think my mother was really encouraging, there was never anything I couldn't do." It was clearly a lesson well-learned—when Yuan returned from attending high school in the States at 15 years old, she was intent on fulfilling her childhood dream of working in social projects and sat down to write to every organization she could think of that had something to do with human rights. [callout title=Yuan recommends:] In Shanghai.... Head to Yongfoo Elite in Shanghai for an evening and soak up the romantic ambiance that oozes from every corner of this beautiful former British Consulate-turned-restaurant/bar set in gorgeous gardens in the French Concession. Take a tai chi class on the Park Hyatt's 85th floor courtyard that overlooks the city. You know down there it's crazy but from up there the city is so peaceful. and Beijing.... Hit Beijing's parks to see water calligraphy, Peking Opera and daytime waltzes. Buy a sky lantern on the east side of Houhai Lake and send it flying up to the heavens propelled by a flickering candle. Head to the food stalls and restaurants by Minzu University (Mínzú Dàxué, 民族大学) to discover the flavors of China's 56 minority groups. It's very cheap, very authentic and very loud. Want more? You'll have to buy the map and find out![/callout]"I lived in this little rural town in Switzerland and they were all in Zurich and Bern but I just write and said 'Hi, I'm 16 and I'd like to get into this line of work.'" The tactic worked, however, and it won her a mentor and lifelong friend: the General Secretary of UNESCO. Amused by this young girl with confidence beyond her years, the incredibly busy woman took the time to write back and encouraged Yuan in her studies and dreams. "I really think that I've been fortunate to have such great mentors in my life, strong women. A lot of people talk about encouraging young people but they don't do it. She saw the potential and really, really supported me." Their written correspondence eventually culminated in an invitation to Yuan to go to Bern to meet a delegation from Sri Lanka who wanted to meet some Swiss youth. "I was amazed," said Yuan. "They want to meet Swiss youth and you are going to invite me to the capital to meet them... don't they have Swiss youth in Bern? But she picked me up and we went to this fancy restaurant and she was really, really encouraging. After that, when she was representing Switzerland at all these conferences she would sometimes take me with her and she would introduce me to people. I got really lucky."

Enter the United Nations

Six months after Switzerland joined the UN in 2002, Yuan landed a role as a youth delegate. It was tough and competition was fierce but she made it into the team of five and was chosen to be the representative to go to New York. So at 20 years old, Yuan set out for the United Nations in New York. She was both the youngest and the first non-Caucasian in the Swiss delegation and the pressure to succeed was intense. "There was so much work and pressure. All of a sudden you're there, working for the Minister of Foreign Affairs and they want to do PR training because they need to know exactly what you are going say and do because they can't be there checking you all the time. I wanted to do well to prove they'd made the right decision to send me." Along with all that, Yuan was still also studying in college and working to earn extra money. [pullquote] There were all these people in Gucci suits, saying: "We have to do something to fix these issues, let's write some legislation,' and then they'd go and drink Champagne.[/pullquote]"It was a crazy time. And that's when I realized it wasn't for me. Not because of the pressure but because of the bureaucracy. There were all these people in Gucci suits, saying: 'We have to do something to fix these issues, let's write some legislation,' and then they'd go and drink Champagne."

On the road

The UN assignment finished, knowing that this life was not for her, Yuan finished studying and set out with a backpack to discover the world. It was on this journey that she found the inspiration for À la Carte Maps, a way to make her own money and the means to give back to society on her terms. "Everyone thought I would be a diplomat, but for me, I'm too impatient. If I want something, it has to happen quick, now. I need to see results and I cannot wait for three years 'til maybe someone says: 'Well maybe I can give you the budget but maybe not, blah, blah.' So I went on a one year trip round the world. That's when I had the idea for the map and my thinking was that if I make my own money, I can do whatever I want with it. If I want to build a school, I don't need to ask anybody. I can build it the way I think it should be done, so that's how I got into business."

Things come together

"I was in southeast Asia and I was so fed up with all these maps that would fall apart after two days." She explained. "I like beautiful things but found the maps always looked the same: full of commercials and trying to give too much information. You know, if I go to a city, I don't need 400 pages of recommendations. If you give me 60 Italian restaurants, that's not helping because I'm only here for three days. What I really needed was a friend to tell me the good and the best places to go." And she's right. What friend ever tells you 'these are the 60 best restaurants in town?' They give you one or two they know you'll love. yuan yao_Jan Gerber The seed of an idea was there and it was in Thailand that it finally burst into life. "There's a map in Bangkok called 'Nancy Chandler's map,'" Yuan continued, "which is also hand drawn and really pretty, but messy. It's not very user friendly but people love it because it has such a personal approach. I saw that and  had the idea for à la carte maps. I called my best friend on Skype and said 'Let's start a company.'" The friend, Jan Gerber, was the perfect complement for Yuan's creativity. While she took care of content creation, PR and marketing, he took care of business. "He likes all the things I don't like," says Yuan. "Financial statements, contracts and playing around with numbers and I like to create so it's very clear in our business who does what. We've been best friends for ten years and it's important to have someone you can rely on." Today à la carte maps cover 19 cities in 11 countries around the world and 10% of the profit on each map goes back into a social project in that map's city. To learn more or purchase a map, visit the À la Carte Maps website. To learn more about Child's Dream, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to empowering marginalized children and youth in the Mekong Sub-Region (includes Myanmar, Laos, Thailand and Cambodia), visit the Child's Dream website.

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