Among the many stories of grass to grace, rags to riches, the story of Zhou Qunfei is perhaps the most dramatic and most interesting. None of those who had worked with her as co-factory workers would have imagined that she would one day be the richest woman in the whole of China. Even if a soothsayer had whispered such monumental idea in Zhou’s ears she would most likely have regarded such talk as nonsense.
Zhou Qunfei was born in 1970 to a very poor family in a farming village in Central China. Her father was blind, having suffered an accident in the 1960’s. When she was five, her mother died. In order for Zhou to support the family she began to work in the farm. But when she turned 16 she had to quit schooling in order to take up another job that would help herself and her blind father.
Zhou moved from her hometown to Shenzhen, a special economic zone that was bustling with casual jobs. In Shenzhen, Zhou chose to work in companies near the Shenzhen University so she could take part-time courses at the University.
She worked in a small family owned business that made watch parts. According to Zhou, the work was tough and the pay was too little. She was paid $1 per day and worked from 8am to 12am, and sometimes to 2am. The work was also boring and monotonous. So, three months into working for the company, she handed in her resignation. She thanked her boss for the opportunity granted her to work in his firm but said it was not enough for her. Her boss declined to accept her resignation, instead he moved her to another department and promoted her to head that department. Looking back, Zhou said she believed her boss made that move because he was impressed by her resignation letter; it was very unusual to find a factory worker who could write.
When the business Zhou worked with eventually folded, she left, and, under the advisement of her cousin started her own business of manufacturing glass lenses for watches. She had saved up HK$20,000 from her overtime. She was known to send her monthly salary to her father. Her relatives (brother, sister and two cousins) also contributed financially to the start of Zhou Qunfei’s company in 1993.
In 2001, Zhou had a big break when she was contacted by a Chinese mobile phone giant asking if she was ready to retool her business for the production of screens for smart phones. She jumped at the opportunity, and that started her long fruitful journey into producing scratch-resistant screens for smart phones.
Having made good profit from the contract with the phone giant, Zhou Qunfei in 2003, launched Lens Technology, a touch-screen manufacturing company. The knowledge and experience Zhou had gathered while she worked as a factory worker in her former job played an important role in the rapid rise of Lens Technology. Zhou perfectly understood the glass-making process and she was able to produce very high quality touch screens so it wasn’t long before corporations like Apple and Samsung contacted her to produce screens for their phones. In 2013 alone, her company shipped 476 billion pieces of protective glass, including 451 million for mobile phones and 25.5 million for table PCs
Zhou Qunfei became the world’s richest self-made woman and the richest woman in China when her company began trading on the Shenzhen Stock Exchange on March 18. Her company’s shares hit the daily trading limit for 13 consecutive days making her net worth grow by 452 percent. This means the 590 million shares held by Zhou as CEO of the company had a market value of around $10 billion, this put her ahead of the former richest woman in China, the real estate tycoon, Chen Lihua, who is reported to worth $7.1 billion.
Zhou Qunfei’s wealth is expected to even grow more with the introduction of the Apple watch in stores.
Lens technology currently has over 60,000 employees.
In 1994, Zhou Qunfei married the owner of her former workplace. They had a child but later divorced. Zhou Qunfei is currently married to her colleague, Zheng Junlong, from back in her days as a factory worker, who now serves on the board of her company. They have a daughter.
Lessons from Zhou Qunfei
Wait for that big break:
Zhou Qunfei started her company in 1993, but it wasn’t until 2001 that she had her lucky break. Many people wrongly have the idea that a business should begin generating huge profits from the first or second year; it is most times never that way.
Becoming successful will take longer than you think it should. Someone once wrote, “…you have to stick with something long enough to catch a few lucky breaks and eventually become successful”. Most successful self-made billionaire had their moment of big break. You just have to stick with what you are doing long enough, so long as you believe in it.
Someday, just one blessed day, you would get that call or receive that email that would change everything.
Willingness to learn and observe:
When asked during an interview Zhou Qunfei attributed her success to her willingness to learn. While working in her former workplace as a factory worker she had studiously understood every step of the manufacturing process, and this helped her in the setting up and eventually success of her company.
Even now, with over 60,000 employees she is known to take walks in her factories and sometimes operate some of the machines in order to ascertain flaws and instruct on how to improve it. She pays close attention to the manufacturing process.
Zhou Qunfei also said the inspiration for the patented scratch-resistant screen came from her observation of rainfall on lotus leaf. Her primary school teacher had instructed them to be observant of phenomenon around them. Zhou Qunfei said,
“Droplets of water would roll around the surface of a lotus leaf and not leave any trace. 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.”
Despite how much wealth and status Zhou Qunfei has garnered, she still remembers to stay humble, she said, “I’m not qualified to be a high-profile person, I think it’s important not to get carried away when you are successful – and not to let yourself feel gloomy when times are bad.”