SOHO China CEO Zhang Xin became a billionaire by falling in love with risk

SOHO China CEO Zhang Xin became a billionaire by falling in love with risk
Image: Pan Shiyi
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Dubbed “the woman who built Beijing,” real-estate magnate Zhang Xin is now worth over $3 billion. But life was very different when she was growing up in communist China during the Cultural Revolution. “The buildings were gray, everyone dressed in gray,” she told The Telegraph. “We never noticed the sky—there was no notion of blue sky being important for the soul. Nobody was prosperous.”

When Zhang and her family moved from Beijing to Hong Kong, she began working 12-hour days on textile factory assembly lines at age 15. Her family had struggled financially, and Zhang says that while the work was hard, it woke her up to a sense of possibility. “I really felt free in Hong Kong,” she said to CNBC. “I could buy anything I wanted to buy. I could eat anything I wanted to eat. And I could wear anything I wanted to wear.”

Zhang was inspired to leave China to get an education, and used her earnings to study in England. She went on to work for Goldman Sachs in London, then briefly in Hong Kong and New York City, where she helped bring privatized Chinese factories public. Intrigued by China’s burgeoning urbanization, she decided to move to Beijing, where she met and married her husband—who purportedly proposed just four days after they met. Together, in 1995, they founded SOHO China, a real-estate development firm. Within 10 years, it was the largest property developer in the country—and Zhang had played a key role in reshaping Beijing’s skyline.

Unlike the dark, bland buildings of Zhang’s childhood, her sleek, unusually shaped Beijing and Shanghai landmarks have been described as an expression of China’s approach to capitalism. SOHO China has developed over 54 million square feet and collaborated with world-renowned architects like Zaha Hadid to create iconic, tech-forward landmark buildings.

Zhang has also emerged as a champion of the benefits of globalization for the Chinese economy, launching a scholarship foundation that sends Chinese undergraduates to study at top universities abroad like Harvard and Yale. “It is important for China to be integrated with the rest of the world,” she writes for the New York Times. Zhang has also been outspoken about her desire to change stereotypes about women’s roles in China, writing on Sina Weibo, “Looking at the status of women in China, we still see a bias towards boys in the countryside, most abandoned children are girls; we have few women ministers. But women dominate in school and the Olympics, and there are more and more self-made women entrepreneurs.”

In an interview with Quartz, Zhang explains why she sees opportunity where others see risk—and how she breaks down hierarchy wherever she sees it to provide women with as many professional opportunities as possible.

1. What’s your big idea that other people aren’t thinking about or wouldn’t agree with? Why is it so important?

I have always been inspired by the idea that buildings should be art. However, as an office property developer, I have found that many people do not link this type of real-estate development with architecture. When it comes to offices, people tend to think all you need to do is build a “nice” efficient building. But even office buildings will be there for the next 100 years and will make up a permanent part of the city. I believe property developers have a unique opportunity to build the face of the city. Buildings leave a physical legacy, representative of our moment in history, like the pyramids of Egypt, the Great Wall of China, and Paris’s Eiffel tower.

So as a developer, I feel I have a special opportunity—and a responsibility—to build something representative of the innovation, creativity, and technology of our times. My goal is always to build something I will one day be proud to show my grandchildren, and tell them, “Look at what we built back then!”

This idea that buildings should be art led me to bring some of the best international architects to China to lend their designs to commercial real estate. Now you can see how modern architecture has influenced China so much. If you come to visit major cities in China today, you will see avant-garde architecture used not just for offices, but also for shopping malls, stadiums, and cultural institutions.

2. What behavior or personality trait do you most attribute to your success?

I think it’s my sense of adventure. It’s the daringness to take on projects that no one has done before, and feeling excited to do something that no one has done. Where other people see risk, all I see is excitement. This personality trait has really fit well for China during the intense period of economic growth from the time I started the company until now. That sense of adventure and daringness are what it takes to get things done in a developing economy.

3. If you could make one change to help women at work, what would it be?

Give women more chances.

4. At the start of your career, what do you wish you had known? What, if anything, do you wish you had not believed?

When I look back, I feel like I didn’t have enough confidence. I wish I had had more confidence to be myself, know who I was, and embrace who I was. In my twenties I was too busy becoming another person, and in my thirties I was too busy trying to impress other people. It wasn’t until my late forties that I found the confidence to truly be myself. If I could live again, that would be the one thing I would want to tell my younger self: Be confident to be yourself.

I grew up in a society—in communist China—where no women should think they were beautiful. In fact, there was no sense of femininity in that way. When I look at the photos of myself in my twenties and early thirties, I think, “Why didn’t I have the confidence to feel like I could look beautiful?” I was always choosing tomboyish haircuts and ugly clothes. I didn’t wear anything that was showing any femininity. I just didn’t grow up with that, so I didn’t have the confidence to look sexy or beautiful. Now I know its OK to be a successful power woman, but also be feminine and confident about how I look!

5. When in your career did you feel most despondent, and what did you do to turn it around?

Oh, multiple times. I’m just like anyone else. There are moments I feel very defeated, and there are moments that I feel hopeless. But the thing about me is I always know that it’s just for a short time. I always remind myself when I’m in those moments, “Stop feeling sorry for yourself. Just get up and run. Stop complaining, stop feeling like this.”

So the next thing is, how do you do that? Now I know how to do it: I put on music I like, and I read a book or even just page of a book I know is inspirational. Those are all the very little things that I do to get myself out of feeling blue.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with having those moments. Everyone has them.

6. A key part of success is building strong professional relationships. What practice do you use to cultivate them with your colleagues?

When I see hierarchy around, that always makes me feel very uncomfortable. I always try to break down those walls and make it very personable. I always look at a colleague and try to find his or her special talent. There is something special and unique about every person, and it is always about encouraging them to do more of that, and making them realize their talents even more. Sometimes I see a talent in a colleague they may not have thought they had, and I try to give them a challenge to grow in a new direction. That has really served me well in strengthening relationships and strengthening the team of colleagues around me.

7. If there’s one thing men can do to improve women’s life at work, it would be…

If there is one thing men can do, it’s just give women more chances. There are not enough chances given to women. The reason we have more women in senior positions at SOHO China is because they have been given more chances. If I wasn’t a woman CEO, I don’t know if more women would be given the same opportunities at the senior level.

I think it’s just too easy for people to have a bias against women and think, “Oh, she’s going to become a mother, she won’t have the attention span, she’s going to be busy at home.” And so right away they form a negative bias against women’s ability to perform at work. Obviously this bias is based on the assumption that women must be doing all the housework and must be doing all the childcare, and therefore she must not have the same attention span for work. But from my experience as a CEO, I have not seen any women who do not live up to company expectations. Even women who have multiple children, they all find a way to do it. When they’ve been given a task to do, they live up to it. Perhaps it takes a woman to understand that these biases are absolutely unfounded.

Bonus Question:

Everyone should own… a pair of running shoes!

This interview is part of How We’ll Win, a project exploring the fight for gender equality at work. Read more interviews with industry-leading women here.