This article is the first in a series that discusses gritty female entrepreneurs who have overcome failure to achieve the kind of success that they enjoy today. This article is part of Miss Kaya’s series of inspirational Wonder Women who embody the spirit of grittiness, resilience and passion. Know of a woman who can be featured? Reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org to find out more and get them featured.
According to Forbes, amongst the 2,208 billionaires in the world now, 256 are women. Also, while more than half of the female billionaires today are from China, only 17% of today’s women’s billionaires are self-made.
Amongst them, one who caught our attention the most was Zhang Xin, otherwise also known as the woman who built Beijing. Zhang Xin and her husband, Pan Shiyi, and her, lead real estate developer SOHO China (HKG: 0410), the country’s largest prime office real estate developer that focuses on the central business districts of Beijing and Shanghai. SOHO is now known for contributing to creating buildings that stand out from the skyline and as of today, she and her husband have a networth of $3.5b.
A story of rags to riches
Born in Beijing, China, during the communist era, Zhang recalls her childhood years to be extremely gray and bleak. Due to the communist regime, everyone, regardless of education was paid the same and there was little commercial transactions going on. As she told CNBC’s “The Brave Ones”,“In spring time (we’d) get (a) sandstorm and the whole sky would be all gray.”
Following an exile to the countryside and a homeless few years in Beijing, Zhang Xin and her mother escaped to Hong Kong, where the teenage Zhang worked as a garment factory worker. For the first time in her life, she experienced the workings of the free economy and was extremely driven to carve out a better life for herself, going for night classes even after 12 hour work shifts.
Working in the factories for 5 years, she slowly accumulated her savings and managed to earn a Hong Kong passport at age 20 and buy a ticket from Hong Kong to London, where she toiled hard as an immigrant and taking night classes before eventually clinching a scholarship and securing a place at the University of Sussex and Cambridge University respectively.
Since then, she never looked back. She headed west working at the London Investment bank Barings, followed by Goldman Sachs on Wall Street. By 1994 she was ready to return to China, lured by the possibilities of an opening economy and moving away from the cut-throat investment banking world. A friend suggested she looked at the property business – where she met her current husband Pan Shiyi, who was the co-founder of an up-and-coming company, and sold her his dream of liberalizing China through real estate. Despite coming from an even poorer background than hers, he asked for her hand in marriage just four days after their first meeting, and she decided to leave the banking industry to set up Soho together. That was in year 1995.
The journey from the start was never easy. While Zhang studied and worked as a banker in the West, Pan came from an impoverished background and had never step foot onto the US. These cultural differences gave rise to disagreements on the working styles and business decisions in the early years of their marriage and marriage, they almost got a divorce.
“It was about , how do we get land? How do we get financing? How do we convince people that we can do it?… By just telling people the vision and asking people to believe in the vision and start working on it.”– Zhang, in her 2017 interview with CNBC.
The business began to turn around and improve from being an indebted startup. Zhang was awarded the Individual Patron of Architectural Works at the 2002 Venice Biennale for her Commune by the Great Wall project (now a boutique hotel next to the Great Wall). Yet, there were still many failures along the way, with Zhang claiming that her “first failure came in 2003 when (she) tried to take the company public”, where she tried but failed.
Wall Street was finally ready 4 years later in 2007, and we saw the company raise US$1.9b in its IPO, giving it the title of Asia’s largest commercial real estate IPO and valuing Zhang and Pan at US$4b.
And even after that, not all was smooth sailing as 2008 witnessed the Global Financial Crisis which led to a slump in the world financial markets. Today, though, SOHO has an annual revenue of close to a billion dollars and has also been named as one of the “Most Admired Companies” in China by FORTUNE (China edition) Magazine for six times since 2006.
What she has to say after all this? – Failure is inevitable
“You will always bump into difficulties, challenges and problems. It appears to be that we seem to be doing quite well, but as it is now, we’re still having challenges every day. So I think that’s just nothing unique. That’s just life.”– Zhang, when asked her view on failure and how often she encounters bumps,
Zhang, here, is an example of true grit success.