Key Lesson: Personal mastery and a desire to learn can take you far.
Zhou Qunfei has come a long way from her tiny farming village in China’s Hunan province. As founder and CEO of Lens Technology, which manufactures glass covers for a wide range of consumer electronics, including Samsung and Apple devices, Ms. Zhou recently broke perhaps the ultimate glass ceiling by becoming the world’s richest self-made woman. This year, her factories are expected to produce more than a billion glass screens.
By all accounts, Ms. Zhou is a fastidious and demanding boss, who sometimes takes a place on the production line to make sure the systems she created are operating as they should. She started working in factories when she was 16 (polishing glass for watches) and opened her own glass workshop by the time she was 22. “She’s a passionate entrepreneur, and she’s very hands-on,” says John Hollis, an executive with Corning who has worked with Ms. Zhou. “I’ve watched her company grow, and her develop a strong team.”
Though she left school at a young age to help support her family, she looked for work opportunities near Shenzhen University, so she could take part-time courses. Over time, she pursued a variety of interests and became certified in accounting, computer operations and customs processing — she even became licensed to drive commercial vehicles. When she resigned from her first factory job, she took the time to write a letter of resignation, outlining her complaints about the long hours and boredom with the work. But she also expressed her gratitude for the opportunity and her desire to learn more about the business. Her boss was impressed, and ultimately convinced her to stay. A string of promotions followed.
After striking out on her own, Ms. Zhou did everything herself to bring her new factory online: She designed and repaired machinery, created processes, taught herself and others complex screen printing techniques, and focused on improving prints for curved glass (the Apple Watch uses glass made by Lens Technology). And she remains very close to the factory floor. The company headquarters are located inside a production facility, and Zhou’s spacious office suite includes a small apartment, which means she can patrol the factory day or night.
As her wealth and fame have grown, Zhou has remained characteristically steady, telling the Hunan Daily: “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.” For her, it’s all about the work and the product. In his recent article about Zhou in The New York Times, David Barboza made this observation: “Ms. Zhou sat quietly through much of the shareholder meeting, but on the tour of the factory, she came alive. The shareholders hung on every word.”
Zhou Qunfei is our Grounded Leader of the Week for transforming her work into a meaningful calling, for her commitment to excellence, and for her drive to succeed. She is a model of vocational health.