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Cultural ties: Mead High student creates Red Thread Unraveled to benefit Chinese adoptees

UPDATED: Tue., May 25, 2021

When she was younger, Mead High School student Zoe Sponseller spent time with other Chinese adoptees in the region learning a bit about the country where they were born.

Today, much online information about China and its cultural heritage is limited or dated, Sponseller said. She thought about that in creating a business plan for Red Thread Unraveled.

The name is based on an ancient Chinese proverb that says, “An invisible red thread connects those who are destined to meet, regardless of time, place or circumstance. The thread may stretch or tangle, but it will never break.”

It’s relevant today for adoptees. “Yes, that was the proverb that is behind the business name and also part of the logo,” Sponseller, 17, said. As a junior, she’s involved in DECA, a high school group with business focuses such as marketing, finance, hospitality and management.

At just past a year old, she and a twin sister, Mia Sponseller, were adopted from China. “I’ve lived in Spokane ever since I was adopted,” she said. “I was 13 months old.”

In a recent Washington State University business contest, Sponseller won a $5,000 first-place prize for developing a 20-page business plan for Red Thread Unraveled. It outlined her idea to sell subscription boxes geared to Chinese adoptees and their families with the goal of strengthening and maintaining an adoptee’s cultural connection to China.

“This will be a quarterly subscription box model, so every quarter they subscribe, they’ll receive a new box,” she said. “In each box, there are going to be contents that will teach them more about China, about their country of birth.

“It will have things in it that are interactive and that people will find more interesting beyond a Google search or just reading an article off the internet. A lot of the articles about China off the internet are pretty old, outdated or are just not interesting anymore.”

She plans to include tangible items in the boxes. Those might include a Chinese children’s book translated into English, Mandarin language flash cards and teachable content. Other ideas are to bring examples of Chinese candy, magazines and what’s found in the country for Lunar New Year, including the celebration’s authentic recipes for families today in China.

Sponseller said she’ll use the WSU award funds to developing and testing the Red Thread Unraveled business plan. She hasn’t yet completed an online presence to sell the subscription boxes, but she’s purchased the domain name rights and an Instagram handle – both yet to be activated while more concepts are explored.

“I am planning on in the next couple of months and throughout the summer collecting information and getting other adoptees’ opinions on box contents, doing more market research and seeing how feasible of an idea this actually will be. If I do go forward with selling subscription boxes and creating a website and online presence, hopefully that will be fully in gear by the end of the year or the boxes themselves being sold at the beginning of next year.”

In her sophomore year, Sponseller explored an international business plan helping Chinese adoptees find resources about adoptions, which did well in DECA at a state competition. So, she thought of a similar theme this school year that could incorporate the popularity of subscription boxes. Adoptive families and even older adoptees could enjoy the interactive contents, she said.

Among gift box selections, she hopes to gear one for kids ages 12 and younger also focused on creating bonds with adoptive parents, as well as another version for 13 and older for more independent use.

“If a child is more in the younger age range, then a parent may also want to go through the box and learn about their child’s country of birth with them. They’ve done research, but they weren’t perhaps raised in an Asian household and may not understand the customs that well. It can be used as a learning tool for both the child and the parent together.”

“If I were to start selling them, I’d probably start with a more general one probably geared toward not super-young kids but also not adults, so around ages 8 to teenagers.”

China opened up an international adoption program in 1991, with an estimated 110,000 children from China being adopted globally, a recent NBC news article said. The majority of them are in the U.S. From 1999 to 2018, American families adopted about 81,600 children from China, according to the State Department.

Since about 2016, adoption activity from China has declined amid the country’s tightening of domestic laws regarding adoptions, a Pew Research survey said. As a young child, Sponseller participated with her family in Chinese adoption groups. “It was where we’d get to know other adoptees,” she said.

“We would celebrate holidays like Chinese New Year together, and just learning about a country that I was born in and its culture has always been interesting to me and to other adoptees that I know of. However, as we get older and we want to learn more, just doing a Google search on China culture, there are a lot of articles, but none of them are really that interesting to me or interactive to where I feel a little more connected, like I’m actually understanding it.”

For Red Thread Unraveled, Sponseller said her family offered supportive ideas. They are her dad Steve Sponseller, mom Beth Sponseller and sister. “My dad has given me a lot of input on business structure, but the business plan is my own,” she said. Early ideas are to charge about $40 per subscription box, or a full year’s subscription at $160, billed every quarter.

“My hope is that the adoptee will feel more connected or at least have a better understanding of their country of birth and be able to have a better understanding of China beyond what they’ll find online, and having tangible items can help in that connection,” Sponseller said.

The proverb frequently was applied to Chinese adoptees in finding a forever family, with a meaning of a thread between two people or to connect a child and family, she said. She’s hoping the boxes can support that, as well. “In a sense, it helps in a way strengthen the bond between a child and their family and an appreciation for their country of their birth at the same time.”

Her future goals include becoming a teacher in high school math and geometry. She’s also interested in chemistry and does ballet, so Sponseller has thought about teaching dance on the side during summers.

Around that, she acknowledges that her business idea might take off, as well. “Yes, hoping to. I still have a lot of work to do figuring out logistics, but I’d love to make this an actual business.”

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