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Niao Wu – out of the corporate calm into the air

Niao Wu – architect and founder of the start-up Onyo

Has Niao Wu reached her goal? What a question. Of course not. Never. Although the 35-year-old architect has already built the innovation center for BMW in Shanghai, kicked it up a notch at the Boston Consulting Group, and founded her start-up Onyo in Munich in 2021. With her company, she provides sustainably produced work furniture for the home – for lease. “Homeoffice-as-a-service,” she advertises. But for Wu, the journey is always the destination. “Getting better, getting stronger,” she says, “and giving back to society.” That’s how the energetic woman describes the inner drive that led her from Haining in the eastern Chinese province of Zhejiang, its capital Hangzhou, and now to Munich.

“I come from a family that suffered a lot during the Cultural Revolution,” Wu says. One grandfather lost his life in the prison camp, the other was a journalist and secretary in the Taiwanese government. Wu’s father felt the effects of that. “He was not allowed to practice his passion, traditional painting, professionally and became a teacher.” In private, he inked, sculpted and calligraphed, and his mother – an accountant – kept the money together. “She was the rational figure in my life.” But her childhood was almost all about art. “I practically painted for the first few years of my life, nothing else.”

At the same time, her father shaped the young girl with his consistency. “Nothing is handed to you in life, you have to work for it” – this lesson stuck. When everyone was still asleep, Niao Wu had to get up at five in the morning and was sent to the kung fu master in the dark. “I hated it,” she says. Only now she is doing martial arts again, taekwondo, by choice.

A trained precision that benefits her when it comes to founding

Architecture as a major was a logical choice. “I was good at math and physics and loved art.” Her high school diploma was the tenth or eleventh best in the city, she says. That’s why she was allowed to enroll at Zhejiang University in Hangzhou – to this day, the tech metropolis on West Lake is her favorite Chinese city. Two and a half years later, a new university partnership with the Technical University of Munich led to a student exchange program, and Wu was offered one of the five spots. She had already learned German in an evening class.

“I enjoyed the structure of the German university, everything made sense to me,” she says enthusiastically. It was soon clear: she wanted to stay. She started her studies from scratch. “My professors in Hangzhou understood my decision.” She graduated in 2014, majoring in structural engineering and construction. “If you’re going to study architecture in Germany, go hardcore.” By that, she means deciding to delve deeply into the foundations of architecture. Her trained precision serves her well when it comes to founding, Wu says. “The logic, the way you deal with numbers, the structure: in a young company, it’s also about putting up scaffolding.”

Her first professional stop in Munich began with a letter of rejection. She applied for the global trainee program at BMW, was one of the last four candidates, but was disappointed: “I don’t fit in with the culture,” she quotes the explanation. One jury member, however, BMW’s head of department, recognized her potential and recruited her to join his team. Her expertise in both Chinese and German cultures became an asset when she was entrusted with the structural construction of the German automaker’s Shanghai Center for Research and Development. “It was my baby, from the first user requirement, to selecting the land, to coordinating the trades.” Later, she also took over project management in Beijing for the construction of the local research center.

Walking between cultures and driven cosmopolitan

Despite the demanding tasks, she sensed an alarming stagnation after just over three years. “The world out there is moving so fast, there’s a calm in the company. You go out for coffee three times a day, it’s so comfortable.” She took advantage of a BMW accelerator program and drafted bold battery plans as part of the team. “There, too: Everything is nice on paper, but no one is interested in real implementation.” The decision began to grow: She wanted to become an entrepreneur. She took business administration courses on weekends and ended up briefly at the management consultancy BCG. After this nine-month “crash course,” as she says, the business idea came to her.

Onyo was born during Covid, when the BCG consultant was sent to a home office. “I was able to set up my workspace at home, but many around me had a hard time with it.” There was a lack of competence and leisure. Kitchen tables and bad lighting became the health-threatening standard. ” I definitely believe that employers have an obligation to support their employees with ergonomic furniture in the hybrid work that is now emerging – and not literally save money on their backs,” says Wu. Together with Jens Woehrle, an ex-banker and software professional, she is putting her vision into reality. “We individually provide employees with high-quality and sustainable products without the employer having to worry about procurement, logistics or insurance.”

Her life as a “first-generation Chinese immigrant,” as she perceives it, is “not always straightforward”. It seems that she always takes a step back to look at herself. As a wanderer between cultures, a motivated cosmopolitan and a member of a generation that has understood that they matter. She hasn’t been able to visit her mother for three years, which is hard. Does she miss China apart from that? “Not terribly,” she says. “Here in Munich and also digitally, there are so many great exhibitions on Chinese culture – that gives me a lot.” Stefan Merx


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