Zhou Qunfei is the world’s richest self-made woman and she is no stranger to hard work. Qunfei truly has come a long way, despite losing her mother at age 5 and being forced to dropout of high school at 16. Her nickname is “Brother Fei” because she’s thought to be as “tough as a man” – maybe even tougher. After years of laboring in a factory, the best job she could find in her impoverished central Chinese village, she worked her way up to become the CEO of Lens Technology, a company worth over $11BN.
This 48-year-old CEO is very hands-on and has been known to engage as an operator to ensure that the company’s process doesn’t have any errors, much to the dismay of James Zhao, a general manager at Lens Technology.
“That will put me in a very awkward position,” Zhao says. “If there’s a problem, she’d say, ‘Why didn’t you see that?’”
Qunfei’s company, Lens Technology, makes “cover glass” used in laptops, tablets, and mobile devices. They supply for both Apple and Samsung, two of the top leaders in the industry. The thin glass is incredibly difficult to make, with the sheets coming out at around only 0.5 millimeters.
Qunfei represents a new wave of women entrepreneurs in China who have built success from nothing and have gone on to achieve high leadership positions their industry. Her advice on the road to success? The key is perseverance.
“When you give up halfway, you won’t have the courage to come back and start from the bottom all over again,” she reveals. “Only when we persist, can we succeed. Don’t give up because of a little setback.”
And Qunfei has seen plenty of setbacks. After leaving her schooling and hometown, she worked on a factory floor making watch lenses for around $1 a day.
“I worked from 8 a.m. to 12 a.m., and sometimes until 2 a.m.,” Qunfei recalled. “There were no shifts, just a few dozen people, and we all polished glass. I didn’t enjoy it.”
From there, she used the small amount of savings she had to open a watch lens store with a few relatives, committing herself to learn the complex techniques and improve existing glass practices.
“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,” said her cousin Zhou Xinyi, who helped her open the workshop and now serves on the Lens board.
From there, her self-taught expertise led her to the door of the mobile phone boom. Motorola asked her to help manufacture a glass screen, and Qunfei quickly agreed. She pushed through dips and challenges of the new market with passion and strength. Colleagues say that, more than once, she put up her apartment as a guarantee for a new bank loan.
“She’s a passionate entrepreneur, and she’s very hands-on,” declared James Hollis, an executive at Corning, which has a partnership with Lens Technology. “I’ve watched her company grow, and her develop a strong team. Now there are over 100 competitors in this space, but Lens is a Tier 1 player.”
Now, Zhou Qunfei is one of the most accomplished women in the world. She openly offers tips to those who want to follow in her footsteps, with her top tips being: prepare well, keep learning, and never give up.
“First, improve your overall competitiveness. Second, you must be mentally strong. Third, strengthen your understanding of the market and your competitors,” Qunfei revealed to CNBC Make It. “You must gather the courage to face failures.”
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