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Chen Zhu: The Yin and Yang of doing Global Business and Startups

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Chen Zhu: The Yin and Yang of doing Global Business and Startups

August 26
00:16 2020

The old world view in China emphasized business roles and opportunities for boys over girls. And while there is a shift in this thinking around the globe, female business leaders today are those that will deal directly with the recent and pivotal transition. Leaving all other issues aside, this generation of women forged ahead with far fewer female mentors to look up to.

Eventually, these young women continue to fill the ranks of leadership but their story already instills the tenets of entrepreneurship, adaptation, and innovation.

Like many young girls, Chen Zhu understood her first impression on others via their reaction to her looks. Being attractive and well-dressed, however, does not directly carry into the roles Chen saw herself envisioned as an adult for the future. It was from this realization that she began to differentiate and train herself. Through academics and competitive swimming, Chen cultivated a reputation based on her intelligence and diligence. Compliments often labeled on little girls made way for expressions of admirations often used to describe valued colleagues and respected rivals: dedicated worker, impeccable strategist, a relentless competitor, a true visionary.

In the early 2000s, at the age of 15, Chen began her first online business. It was an e-commerce business centered on beauty and fashion products for female customers. As she discovered more about the industry, she learned tech facets that translated to all products. She connected with partners and suppliers learning about logistics, online transactions, web portals, team-building, product & services development, growth. While most in these fields were male and often her seniors, it became evident to her peers that Chen’s experience with this female-orientated venture would transcend into other markets.

A male Microsoft China senior manager taught her more during a high school elective course and inspired her to strike forward even if she did not see many other women along the way. Other male co-workers and supervisors continued to see her potential.

Current P&G Vice President Carlos De Jesus managed Chen when they worked together on Gillette’s $200M business in China. Above all, he pushed for Chen to focus on performance, a gender-neutral metric. In this way, results became a tool for Chen to deter gender bias. Chen reflects on when the inevitable struggle arose, “He focused on compassion and encouragement whenever I faced a challenge that involved work and gender. He helped me discover how resilient women can be when we need to show leadership. We didn’t ignore that I was a woman, what would have made me an outsider at the time. We focused on how this could benefit the team and how I was part of the organization. Because of this, I always felt accepted and supported.”

With this acceptance from male counterparts, and in recognition of what women like Chen have been able to do in such a short time, a shift in narrative has occurred. More young people are finding female role models and are giving women like Chen the opportunities to develop additional skills—where instead of looking up for a helping hand, they are looking down to extend their own. Where often she was following someone else’s lead and guidance, Chen is now honing her craft as a teacher and mentor.

Chen underscores what she learned from other female leaders not only relates to business practices but about the responsibilities of being a woman. Speaking of Anna Fang, partner and CEO of ZhenFund and member of the Forbes Midas list, as well as philanthropist and educator Laura Arrillaga-Andreessen, Chen summarizes the lessons learned from their influence, “Anna and Laura made me realize that empowering other women is part of how I earn everything I hope to achieve. All of the education, experience, and good fortune only means that I’m in a better position to contribute to the success of others.”

Chen sees this evolution primarily as a venture capitalist, “As an investor, I have to decide who to build up and stand alongside. I have to find people that I believe in, people with the capacity to change our society. It can become an avenue to give back to other women after all of the support I received. Women have ideas that are exciting and new. We can immediately look at sectors like elder care, infant care, female lifestyle businesses, but having more women involved leads to more balanced views and fresh perspectives across all industries. It creates a domino effect. More women investors back more women founders to employ more women to ultimately serve more women customers.”

These relationships are proving vital to the non-traditional startup economy. With thinking sprung forth from women, companies can tap into their unique situations. For instance, Poshmark, a fashion resale startup supported a lot by Chen, provides a platform for style-savvy women to earn money by rotating their wardrobes and passing along their fashion sense. Where some traditional companies would think of a housewife as someone relegated to a limited consumer role, Poshmark engages them as a valuable contributor to the overall business model.

Yet, again drawing from her background, Chen doesn’t see women’s companies as limited to “women’s” products.

One of Chen’s investments, Run The World, is growing as a platform for live streaming and conferencing. Together with Andreessen Horowitz’s Connie Chan, the breadth of the startup’s leadership is all-female, including co-founders Xiaoyin Qu and Xuan Jiang. “This is another example of how women-founded startup and innovation help our society as a whole,” Chen said.

Chen has also invested in an Amazon Prime-like business called Anna Pinol’s Mylabox which hired mostly women employees to deliver affordable groceries directly to households.

Chen is confident that these female founders can make it on their own but she highlights the importance of other women pioneers being there to meet them. “In this journey, the higher you rise up, the thinner the air. It becomes more and more male around you. Within founders and investors especially, it has been rare to find women. To help each other and continue to reach higher, we’ll need the empathy found in female fellows.”

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