Zhou Qunfei, a high school dropout, is the world’s richest self-made woman with a net worth of over US$7 million, according to Forbes.
In an interview to The New York Times, Zhou reminisced her journey to becoming a billionaire from a tiny village in the Hunan Province of central China. At the age of 16, she dropped out of school and travelled south to find better work, ending up at a watch lenses making factory in Shenzhen.
“I worked from 8am to 12am, and sometimes until 2am,” Zhou recalled. “There were no shifts, just a few dozen people, and we all polished glass. I didn’t enjoy it.”
Three months later she wrote a letter of resignation to her boss, complaining about work hours and boredom but expressed her wish to learn more. Impressed by the letter, the factory chief offered her a promotion instead, adding that the company was soon to adopt new processes.
In 1993, Zhou decided to set out her own path, with US3, 000 in savings and support of her relatives, the 22-year-old opened her own workshop – where she excelled in all departments from repair, design to complex screen-printing processes and techniques for curved glass.
“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,” her cousin Zhou Xinyi, who helped her open the workshop and now serves on the Lens board, told the Times.
A decade after Zhou founded her own factory, Motorola approached her to develop a glass screen for their new device, Razr V3. “I got this call, and they said, ‘Just answer yes or no, and if the answer’s yes, we’ll help you set up the process,’ ” Zhou recalled. “I said yes.”
That decision made her a billionaire. It didn’t take long for mobile-phone makers including HTC, Nokia and Samsung to roll out orders to Lens Technologies. And when Apple launched the iPhone in 2007, it picked Lens as its supplier – giving the company the position to dominate the market in China.
But as orders poured in, Zhou had to invest in technology and man-power. She put up her own apartment as guarantee for bank loan on more than one occasion, according to her colleagues. In five years, Zhou had three manufacturing plants paned over different cities.
Despite being crowned the richest self-made woman on the planet, the 44-year-old remains obsessed with details of the work her factory puts out. “She’ll sometimes sit down and work as an operator to see if there’s anything wrong with the process,” said James Zhao, a general manager at Lens Technology. “That will put me in a very awkward position. If there’s a problem, she’d say, ‘Why didn’t you see that?’ ”
“My father had lost his eyesight, so if we placed something somewhere, it had to be in the right spot, exactly, or something could go wrong,” Zhou recalled. “That’s the attention to detail I demand at the workplace.”
“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,” Zhou said. “I chose to be in business, and I don’t regret it.”