45-year-old entrepreneur, Zhou Qunfei, is both China’s as well as the world’s richest self-made woman, says the latest edition on personal wealth by the Hurun Report.
Nicknamed the “Touchscreen Queen”, she is the founder of Lens Technology, one of the world’s leading suppliers of the highly sophisticated and ultra thin cover glass used in laptops, tablets and mobile devices, including in the Apple iPhone and the Samsung Galaxy.
She owns a $27 million estate in Hong Kong, and has a reported net worth of $7.8 billion, although it was only back in March of this year, when her company was first listed on the stock market that Zhou rose to international prominence. She still maintains a low profile, rarely giving interviews or making public appearances.
Born in an impoverished farming village in Hunan province in central China, Zhou had a hard upbringing. Her mother died when she was five, and she had to care for her father after he lost the use of his hands in an accident.
At the age of 16 she moved to Shenzen and laboured in a factory where she manufactured watch lenses. She quit after just 3 months but her resignation letter impressed her boss so much that he offered her the first of several promotions if she stayed.
Three years later she set up a successful rival company of her own. Motorolla came calling in 2003, asking Zhou to develop a groundbreaking glass screen for their mobile phones.
Zhou hasn’t lost touch with the work ethic, skills and hands-on knowledge that she learned in her younger years, nor with the home province she grew up in.
Her office has a small apartment attached so she can be on site day and night if necessary and in 2007 she had the company headquarters moved to Changsha in Hunan province.
“She’ll sometimes sit down and work as an operator to see if there’s anything wrong with the process,” said James Zhao, a general manager at Lens Technology. “That will put me in a very awkward position. If there’s a problem, she’d say, ‘Why didn’t you see that?’”
“In the Hunan language, we call women like her ‘ba de man,’ which means a person who dares to do what others are afraid to do,” remarked her cousin Zhou Xinyi.
Not only does China have the most billionaires in the world, the Huran report also revealed China to be the global leader for women in business, identifying 49 self-made Chinese billionaire women, out of a total 73 in the world. Eight of the entries in the top ten were Chinese.
Having built up her fortune from nearly nothing, Zhou has come to symbolize other Chinese women who have done the same, a rarity in business. In Japan, there is not a single self-made female billionaire, according to Forbes. In the United States and Europe, most women who are billionaires secured their wealth through inheritance.
According to Huang Yasheng, an expert in China’s entrepreneurial class and a professor of international management at MIT, women have been able to flourish in China with the advent of capitalism thanks to the promotion of gender equality under the Communist Party and because of the fact that the country had few established players when entrepreneurs like Zhou entered business in the 1990s as China’s economy began to surge.
By Daniel Paul