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Li Zhao: Point Person in Iowa-China Trade

June 2, 2017

A Guangxi native fell in love with the US heartland and found business success.

When Xi Jinping made a return visit to Iowa in February 2012, Zhao Li had the privilege of listening to his speeches on two separate occasions and shaking hands with him.

"I felt so proud and moved when I listened to his speech in such close proximity," Zhao said of Xi, who was vice-president at the time.

Zhao is the co-founder and president of Iowa China Group, a West Des Moines-based business that helps Iowa companies looking to enter the Chinese market and Chinese companies seeking investment opportunities in Iowa.

Since establishing Iowa China Group in 2010, Zhao has led many businesspeople from Iowa to China. Through those trips, Zhao helped them forge friendships and business deals with Chinese.

With Zhao's help, Stine Seed Co in Adel, Iowa, the world's largest private seed company, successfully entered the China market.

"Now China has become its largest market outside of the US. They export a variety of corn seeds to China," Zhao said.

So far, Zhao has helped in the trading of more than 60 lines of products between China and Iowa and has become an authority on Iowa-China business relations.

Zhao initially started her business to focus on helping Iowa businesses export to China. However, Chinese investors started to trickle into Iowa for opportunities after Xi's visit in 2012.

Zhao shifted gears and widened her business scope to also help Chinese investors find opportunities in Iowa. In recent years, she has helped numerous Chinese companies negotiate deals, from a tomato greenhouse to a pork farm.

"I think Chinese interest in Iowa has not yet reached a critical mass," Zhao said, disclosing that there are quite a few deals being negotiated.

That critical mass might come soon with Iowa Governor Terry Branstad now the US ambassador to China, Zhao said. Visibly more Chinese individuals and companies are making trips to Iowa this year. She sometimes receives several Chinese groups in a busy week.

Also, Branstad's successor as Iowa governor, Kim Reynolds, will lead an agricultural trade mission to China from July 19-28. On the trip, Iowa will pitch its farm products, such as corn, pork and soybeans.

"Personal relationships and friendships are significant in the Chinese culture, and if Iowa farmers want to be the main supplier of choice to China's 1.4 billion people, one of the world's biggest customers, that's where we'll go," Reynolds said on Tuesday.

"To help Chinese companies to succeed in Iowa will be my focus for the next three years," said Zhao, who has a close working relationship with Iowa state government and local businesses.

Zhao came to Des Moines in 2008 through her previous job with the multinational Dutch banking company Rabobank Group. Iowa's capital city was where she met and married Justin Mandelbaum, who runs a real estate development, acquisition and management firm. Together, they formed China Iowa Group.

Growing up in Nanning, Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region, Zhao never dreamed that one day she would call a US Midwest city her home. However, her thirst for wider skies destined her to go far in life.

"I applied to teach English at New Oriental Education & Technology Group while studying in college in Changsha. People at New Oriental opened my eyes to the outside world, and I decided I need to go out of China to experience more," said Zhao, in recalling the first nudge toward Iowa.

Her desire for more experiences led her to three different schools in Austria, Italy and the Netherlands. After completing her postgraduate program in the Netherlands, she was hired by Rabobank Group.

She was transferred to London for a year before she was transferred again, to Des Moines, within the company. There, she fell in love with the warm hospitality of the Midwest.

"I worked in London for a year and really wished to experience holidays and weddings with local people. Maybe British people are really reserved; I was never invited. I came to Des Moines right before Halloween, and I was invited to family Halloween parties. Soon it was Thanksgiving and Christmas, and I was again invited," Zhao said.

For Zhao, the cultural difference between London and Des Moines was like night and day.

"People are genuinely nice here, and they genuinely care about me as a person. I think this is why President Xi returned here for a second visit," Zhao said.

"The kindness he received years ago in Iowa, I received too. Iowa made me more down-to-earth and calm."

To repay such kindness, Zhao soon started volunteering at various local organizations, including hospitals, and became an active member of the community.

She met Mandelbaum in 2009 at a Greater Des Moines Young Professionals Connection event, fell in love, got married and now has an infant daughter.

Iowa's embrace of her gave her confidence, and she left Rabobank Group to start her own business.

"My parents are entrepreneurs in China, and I think I have inherited that spirit from them," Zhao said.

Zhao has been recognized for her contribution and professional achievement. In 2009, she was named Diversity Committee Person of the Year by YPC Des Moines and received a volunteer award from the Commission on the Status of Iowans of Asian and Pacific Islander Heritage.

In 2010, she received the Governor's Volunteer Award for the hours she donated to community organizations in the metro area.

Professionally, Zhao was a member of the Des Moines Business Record's 2011 Class of Forty Under 40 and a 2014 Honoree of the Iowa International Center's Passport to Prosperity Award.

In less than a decade since landing in Des Moines, Zhao has established herself as a major force in building business bridges between Iowa and China. She serves as a Bankers Trust Community board member and is on the Export Council of the Greater Des Moines Partnership. She also served on many other boards in the past.

Recently, Zhao was nominated as a candidate for UNI Woman Business Owner of the Year - 2017 Women of Influence.

"I feel very lucky to live in this era. The growing power of China provided me these opportunities to travel abroad, to act as a bridge between China and the US.

"With Iowa Governor Branstad as the ambassador, the future is more promising. I am very passionate about US-China cooperation, and I want to do more to improve it," Zhao said.