Zhou Qunfei is the world’s richest self-made woman. Zhou, the founder of Lens Technology, owns a $27 million estate in Hong Kong. She jets off to Silicon Valley and Seoul, South Korea, to court executives at Apple and Samsung, her two biggest customers. She has played host to President Xi Jinping of China, when he visited her company’s headquarters. But she seems most at home pacing the floor of her state-of-the-art factory, tinkering. She’ll dip her hands into a tray of water, to determine whether the temperature is just right. She can explain the intricacies of heating glass in a potassium ion bath. When she passes a grinding machine, she is apt to ask technicians to step aside so she can take their place for a while. Zhou knows the drill. For years, she labored in a factory, the best job she could get having grown up in an impoverished village in central China.
Lens Technology is now one of the leading suppliers of the so-called cover glass used in laptops, tablets and mobile devices, including the Apple iPhone and the Samsung Galaxy. This year, her factories are expected to churn out more than a billion glass screens, each refined to a fraction of a millimeter. In creating a global supplier, Zhou, 44, has come to define a new class of female entrepreneurs in China who have built their wealth from nearly nothing — a rarity in the world of business. In Japan, there is not a single self-made female billionaire, according to Forbes. In the United States and Europe, most women who are billionaires secured their wealth through inheritance. “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,” she said in an interview at her office, where there was a wooden statue of Mao and a 27-inch desktop Mac. “I chose to be in business, and I don’t regret it.”
Zhou Qunfei was born in 1970 to a poor family in Xiangxiang, Hunan province, China. Before she was born, her father became blind in an accident in the 1960s, and when she was five her mother died. She quit school at age 15 and became a migrant worker in Shenzhen, the special economic zone in Guangdong province. While she dreamed of becoming a fashion designer, she eventually landed a job on a factory floor in the city of Shenzhen, making watch lenses for about $1 a day. In Shenzhen she deliberately chose to work for companies near Shenzhen University, so she could take part-time courses at the university. She studied many subjects and passed the examinations to be certified for accounting, computer operations, customs processing, and even became licensed for driving commercial vehicles. Her biggest regret is not having studied English. She worked for a small firm making watch parts. When that business folded, she established her own company in 1993, with her savings of HK$20,000. It was her cousin who encouraged her to start on her own, and her brother, sister, and two cousins all helped in the business. At the new company, Zhou did it all. She repaired and designed factory machinery. She taught herself complex screen-printing processes and difficult techniques that allowed her to improve prints for curved glass. Along the way, Zhou Qunfei married her former factory boss, had a child and divorced. She later married a longtime factory colleague, who serves on the Lens board, and had a second child.
It was the mobile phone that made Zhou a billionaire. In 2003, she was still making glass for watches when she received an unexpected phone call from executives at Motorola. They asked if she was willing to help them develop a glass screen for their new device, the Razr V3. At the time, the display screens on most mobile phones were made of plastic. Motorola wanted a glass display that would be more resistant to scratches and provide sharper images for text messages, photos and multimedia. Soon after, orders started rolling in from other mobile-phone makers like HTC, Nokia and Samsung. Then, in 2007, Apple entered the market with the iPhone, which had a keyboard-enabled glass touch screen that rewrote the rules of the game for mobile devices. Apple picked Lens as its supplier, propelling Zhou’s company into a dominant position in China. After that, Zhou invested heavily in new facilities and hired skilled technicians. More than once, colleagues say, she put up her apartment as a guarantee for a new bank loan. Within five years, she had manufacturing plants under construction in three cities. Lens operates round the clock, with 75,000 workers spread across three main manufacturing facilities that occupy about 800 acres in the Changsha region. Each day, the company receives bulk shipments of glass from global manufacturers like Corning in the United States and Asahi Glass in Japan.
Zhou designs and choreographs nearly every step of the process, a detailed-oriented approach she traces to her childhood. “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,” she said. “That’s the attention to detail I demand at the workplace.” Her work habits lean toward the obsessive. Her company’s headquarters is at one of her manufacturing plants in Changsha. In her spacious office, a door behind her desk opens into a small apartment, ensuring she can roam the factory floor day or night.
Her 'rags-to-riches' story now serves as an inspiration to many budding women entrepreneurs, not just in China but rather worldwide.
Source: Wikipedia, Google search and a New York Times article featuring her ‘rags-to-riches’ story.