Of the 234 women on the 2,095 billionaire list Forbes, only 67 are considered to have “passed alone”: half are Chinese.
A record 456 Chinese have been added to the list of global billionaires in 2020, recently published by the American magazine. Forbes. Chinese women appear in numbers on this list. Their particularity: they have often built their fortunes themselves.
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Most of the richest women in the world, such as Frenchwoman Françoise Bettencourt Meyers (15th in the ranking), have inherited their fortunes. Of the 234 women on the 2,095 billionaire list Forbes (ie a little over 10% of the total), only 67 are considered to have “passed alone”. The American magazine describes them as women who have built a business or a fortune on their own. Almost half of them are from Greater China: 28 from mainland China and five from Hong Kong. India, a country with a population comparable to that of China, has just two women who have created multibillion-dollar fortunes.
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A specialist in business strategy and East-West competition at the Darden School of Business (University of Virginia), Professor Ming-Jer Chen provides an update for L’Express on the background and particularity of these Chinese business women.
Where do they come from the billionaire women of the Middle Kingdom?
Ming-Jer Chen : Currently, the wealthiest “self-made woman” on the planet is Zhong Huijuan. She is president of Hansoh Pharmaceutical, a Chinese drugmaker, and is believed to be worth $ 16.3 billion. She is followed by Wu Yajun, who made his fortune in real estate development after founding Longfor Properties in the 1990s and whose estate is estimated at $ 13.7 billion. Third on the list is Lu Zhongfang, who with his son Offcn co-founded a vocational education and preparation institution for public service entrance exams, and who has a net worth of 9.5. billions of dollars.
Zhong Huijuan, Wu Yajun and Lu Zhongfang are among the new category of wealthy entrepreneurs in China. Most of these women are 50 years of age or older. They witnessed the difficult times of Mao’s Cultural Revolution and experienced both hardship and opportunity when China opened its door to foreign investment in 1979. The desire to bring a better life to their children has often the driving force behind their entrepreneurial ambitions.
How did these women take their place in the business world and build their fortunes?
M-J C. : Their wealth comes mainly from the manufacturing industry and real estate. Some of them have also seized higher risk opportunities in technology, biotechnology and artificial intelligence. In China, sole proprietorship was legalized in 1981, unleashing the spirit of initiative and transforming Chinese society previously based on agriculture into a vibrant market economy. The ensuing manufacturing boom in Shenzhen and other special economic zones allowed to experiment with capitalism allowed women to take advantage of new job opportunities they had previously not had access to. Many female entrepreneurs have risen through the ranks of the factory world. Economic reforms have also given them unprecedented career opportunities, allowing them to set up private businesses and make their fortunes.
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Did they have to overcome any particular difficulties?
M-J C. : They worked a lot to get there. Working long hours is a common practice in China. Like their male counterparts, foundresses often work after midnight. This vision goes back to the Confucian work ethic, one aspect of which is the chi ku : the art of persisting in difficulties. These values, such as working to exhaustion, are unique characteristics of Chinese entrepreneurs, both in mainland China and abroad. Another important aspect of Confucianism, which in part explains China’s economic success, is the individual sacrifice made for the benefit of the family, the city of origin or the employer.
Are these women from upper strata of the population or have they completed long studies?
M-J C. : Some Chinese billionaire women never went to college – remember that at the start of the Cultural Revolution, all schools in China were closed and some universities were closed until Mao’s death in 1976. But that didn’t stop them from learning. Education is highly valued in China. By developing their businesses, the Chinese founders continue to improve their skills to anticipate the changes inherent in their functions. It is for this reason that executive MBA programs are in high demand and have become the flagship program of Chinese business schools.
In Europe, we often see that women entrepreneurs lack networks. Is this also the case for Chinese business leaders?
M-J C. : In China, personal networks, or guanxi, are the key to the success of new businesses. The guanxi is a term referring to relationships defined by reciprocity and mutual obligation and based on trust and the sharing of experiences.
Entrepreneurs doing business in China have to deal with a large number of stakeholders, including government officials and local community leaders. The founders excel in this area. They tend to think more globally. They place more emphasis on their relationships with all key stakeholders and often hold positions in local or central government.
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Have these Chinese business women changed the image of women in China?
M-J C. : It would be wrong to believe that in the past Chinese women were powerless and submissive to men, as they are often portrayed in the West. The word “woman” is pronounced in Chinese “qi”, which means “equal”. In Chinese tradition, women are used to wielding great power and influence, although this can sometimes go unnoticed.