Zhou Qunfei: The world’s wealthiest self-made woman

Zhou Qunfei is the world’s wealthiest self-made woman and the richest in China. Unlike other business titans, hers is not a household name. Her business, Lens Technology, isn’t particularly glamorous, but has a reputation for high quality and employs over 80,000 people. I hope you find as much inspiration in her life as I did.

Qunfei was born into poverty and grew up in China’s Hunan province. Like many children in rural families, she contributed to her family from a very young age. Qunfei was a passionate student, but other responsibilities (including tending to livestock) required her time and attention. Her father, who was partially blinded in an accident, raised Qunfei and her two siblings. Living with her father’s disability heightened her attention to detail, a trait that would serve her well in business. She had to be hyper-aware of her surroundings and where items were placed, to avoid confusing him. Her mother passed away only 5 years after Qunfei’s birth.

At sixteen, Qunfei dropped out of primary school to pursue full-time work and contribute to her family financially. She was quoted saying, “In the village where I grew up, a lot of girls didn’t have a choice of whether to go to middle school. They would get engaged or married and spend their entire life in that village. I chose to be in business, and I don’t regret it.”

Qunfei left her village and moved in with family members in Guangdong province, seeking work near Shenzhen University. She sent part of her earnings to her father, saved, and invested in herself. Her proximity to the University allowed her to continue her education and she explored a range of topics including computers and accounting; she even secured her commercial driving credentials!

At one point, Qunfei was working in a factory that manufactured watch parts. Her responsibilities included shaping the glass, which gave her a unique opportunity to understand lenses. The conditions in the factory were poor, and she made the decision to resign. Qunfei wrote a letter of resignation that included her appreciation for the job opportunity, but clearly laid out the reasons for her departure. The letter made its way to the factory chief, who offered her a promotion after her letter crossed his desk. Qunfei said, “Maybe it was because my resignation letter was well written and this attracted the attention of the factory supervisor. They kept me on and gave me a promotion to head up my own newly created department.”

In the intervening years, Qunfei worked (and saved) diligently. The watch factory went out of business when she was 22, putting her out of a job. Because of her consistent saving, Qunfei had a nest egg of $3,000. Empowered by her savings, she made the decision to launch her own business creating lenses with support from her family. She prioritized product quality and was extremely hands-on, focusing on the manufacturing details. Over time, she expanded beyond watches and began serving electronics companies.

Ten years after the launch of her own business, Motorola requested Qunfei’s help to create a screen for their new Razr V3 phone. Seeing the potential in phone lenses, she founded Lens Technology, and began attracting customers like Samsung Electronics. When the Apple iPhone launched in 2007, it was with Lens Technology’s glass, which helped propel her company’s growth.

Qunfei’s focus on high-quality products and innovative, scratch-resistant screens, made her products unique. She has said in interviews that she would watch the rain falling on lotus leaves as a child – which inspired her to create Lens Technology's patented, scratch-resistant coating. “Droplets of water would roll around the surface of a lotus leaf and not leave any trace,” she said. “If it wasn't for my primary school teacher reminding me to be observant I may not have had the inspiration to think of my invention.”

The business Qunfei started has a massive workforce, went public in 2015, and had revenues of over 23.7 yuan in 2017. Qunfei is Chairman of the Board* and holds over 87% of the company’s shares; Forbes estimated her net worth at $8.7 billion. Her passion for the details of manufacturing and high-quality output propels her to this day. Qunfei refers to work as her hobby, alongside mountain climbing and ping pong, and cites her desire to learn as the secret to her success. Her cousin, Zhou Xinyi, said, “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.”

I love Zhou Qunfei’s story for so many reasons. Her persistence, detail orientation, and the fact that she created her own business using her nest egg as seed money are similar to other entrepreneurs. What struck a chord with you? I’m curious to hear your thoughts!

xoxo, Ms. Financier

*Yes, that is her official title, irrespective of the fact that she’s a woman. We need to gender-neutralize these titles, people! She should be Chair of the Board, period.

Learn more about Zhou Qunfei:

How a Chinese Billionaire Built Her Fortune, by David Barboza via The New York Times (This profile is absolutely superb!)

How A Former Factory Girl Became A Billionaire: Zhou Qunfei, The Richest Woman in China, by Dr. Amarendra Bhushan Dhiraj via CEOWORLD Magazine

From Rags to Riches, by Elaine O’Flynn and Edward Chow via Daily Mail

Asia Power Women 2016 Profile in Forbes

Wikipedia Page