Why China is an incubator for female billionaires
Oft-cited in China is one of Mao Zedong's more famous proverbs: "Women hold up half the sky."world Updated: Mar 25, 2010 17:35 IST
Oft-cited in China is one of Mao Zedong's more famous proverbs: "Women hold up half the sky."
Given salary disparities and still-persistent discrimination in many parts of the world, Mao's ideal is far from reality. But a handful of Chinese women have indeed reached the pinnacle of financial and professional success by at least one measure: they have made it into billionaires club.
Half the world's 14 self-made female billionaires--that is, those who didn't benefit from inherited fortunes--have struck it rich on China's mainland. They include Hong Kong entrepreneur Chu Lam Yiu, who peddles ingredients to China's tobacco companies, and Xiu Li Hawken, a U.K. citizen who helps run below-ground shopping centers in China. Hawken is one of three self-made women to debut on this year's billionaires list after their companies went public on Asian stock exchanges in the past 18 months. Another real estate fortune belongs to Wu Yajun, who took her Longfor Properties public in November and is now the world's richest self-made woman.
A variety of circumstances has led to the increasing success of female entrepreneurs, says Linda Xinrong Kausch, a Shenzhen-based writer who is writing about a book about how 12 Western businesswomen achieved success in China. The development of a hospitable social and economic environment has been crucial, she says, which not only allows but also encourages women to get an education and start their own companies. Another factor is the constantly changing market regulations of a developing economy, which afford more flexibility and less red tape than a place like Europe. Plus, she adds, it's a matter of pride for these women to make a tangible contribution to their family and to the nation.
"Most of the Chinese working women will say, 'I'm proud that I work,'" Kausch says. "Chinese women are always very ambitious, and it's in their nature to be hard-working people. And they are finally being rewarded for it."
While some major sectors--such as banking, steel, telecommunications and electricity generation--are still essentially state-owned, a sizable chunk of new wealth being created comes from entrepreneurs working hard in a variety of fields such as real estate, retail and consumer goods.
"Hundreds of thousands of new Chinese companies have made this country the world's most competitive business environment," Edward Tse, Greater China chairman of consultancy Booz & Company, writes in his book, The China Strategy: Harnessing the Power of the World's Fastest-Growing Economy. "China is now the world's largest and fastest-growing source of entrepreneurial startups."
In China female workers make up about nearly 50% of the enrollment at universities and 36% of the total labor force, according to state media. Women now contribute about half of household income, up from 20% in the 1950s, says Shaun Rein, founder of the Shanghai-based China Market Research Group.
A 2002 survey of Chinese female entrepreneurs found that many build up business acumen and managerial skills by holding high posts at large state-owned enterprises, and that it is through these sorts of connections that entrepreneurs are able to raise the capital they need. Others gain experience in the private sector. Most, the study says, are highly educated, either at domestic universities or abroad.
Take Zhang Xin, 44, who with her husband Pan Shiyi started property developer Soho China. The daughter of ethnic Chinese immigrants from Burma, Zhang grew up poor and worked in a Hong Kong factory as a teenager before making her way to Cambridge University. With a master's in developmental economics she got a job at Barings in Hong Kong, analyzing the emerging private market of her native China. She went on to work on Wall Street, where she says she grew disillusioned and opted to return to China. After meeting Pan in Beijing, the pair decided to start their own real estate business. Zhang says that she brought more money to the partnership, from her Wall Street savings.
Half a century later, Mao's adage about the importance of women to a society is echoed by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof and his wife, Sheryl WuDunn. In their book Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, they argue that it is impossible for countries to progress if women aren't active and productive members of the workforce. China's enviable advancements on the world stage, they say, is a direct result of women's economic empowerment.