08 Mar, 2022
10 : 00
These five feisty ladies — all YCIS mothers — have led from the front in a man’s world, refusing to fit into conventional moulds. We met with them for a series of candid chats to learn more about their incredible journeys.
Blooming, blushing, loud, quiet, warm and tough, they embody the true spirit of International Women’s Day.
Parent from YCIS-Shanghai Pudong
Mother of four
Vice president of Apple and Managing Director for Greater China
In 2008, Isabel then the president of wireless software engineering company Palm, received a personal invitation from Steve Jobs to lead Apple's wireless technology software engineering team. In the following nine years, she participated in the technical development of several Apple products, from wireless networking and Bluetooth to Apple Pay, HomeKit, and CarPlay. Five years ago, Isabel was officially appointed Apple's vice president and Managing Director of Greater China.
Isabel recalls vividly the time she spent in Canada with her father. In the late 1990s, the 16-year-old went to Canada to study. While studying, she worked with her father until she received her diploma in electrical engineering at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia.
Those early days had a great impact on her life and thinking. It was her perseverance and confidence that saw her through numerous challenges.
The following is our conversation with her.
You went abroad as a teenager and your father provided critical support for your educational journey. In what ways did your father influence you?
My father had a huge influence on me. He had made incredible sacrifices to make sure I could choose the career and life I aspired to.
I still remember one day during our second winter in Vancouver. I had taken part in an outdoor school activity. The school had asked all the parents to pick up their children from a designated area after the event. I waited for my father for a long time, but he did not show up. I had to walk a long way home by myself. It was very cold. As soon as I entered the house, I started to complain and get angry at my father. Under the dim light from the living room, my father was scribbling something with a pen. He slowly raised his head and said gently, "I'm sorry, I lost track of time. I lost my job today, so I’ve been looking for job opportunities in a newspaper". I assured him that everything was going to be fine and we would earn our rent together.
There’s another story I remember very clearly. During a Christmas holiday, my father got a temporary job delivering presents to another city. This was just before Christmas and the route involved tough mountain roads. It was dark and my father was not familiar with the directions, so I accompanied him and helped him find the addresses. At the time, I didn't understand why we couldn't spend Christmas at home.
It wasn't until later that I realised the hardships and pleasant days we experienced together made me a stronger and more confident woman. In honour of my father, who passed away from cancer 10 years ago, I established the ‘Ge Pengtu Scholarship for Women in Engineering or Computer Science’. This is to help women who aspire to pursue a career in computer science and encourage them to make a difference.
We are talking about female empowerment and breakthroughs. Have you encountered any challenges in the workplace as a woman? How did you deal with them and get to where you are today?
Yes, I have faced quite a few challenges, but I prefer to see them as opportunities for growth. I kept an open mind. I chose to major in electrical engineering, which had a low proportion of female students. Later I left Palm and the wireless team I built from scratch, in order to join Apple. Then I returned to China as the Managing Director of Apple's Greater China region. Each time, it meant a huge challenge for me. But every single time, I enjoyed starting from scratch, writing my own script, learning new skills, and challenging the seemingly impossible.
What qualities do you think powerful women possess?
Self-confidence, gratitude, a positive mindset, curiosity, and a willingness to take risks. Instead of just being a go-getter, a powerful woman should be purposeful, committed, and resilient. Also, she should have team spirit and know how to be kind to others.
What advice would you give to young women picking a college major, planning their career, or choosing a partner?
Young women face many major life choices. I hope they keep an open mindset when faced with difficult decisions and ask themselves some key questions: such as which opportunity is more impactful and which option you may regret if left unexplored. When choosing a major, see it as finding your mission in life. Not just a job in the future, but a career, a mission you truly believe in.
Here’s my advice for career development:
1. Have the courage to express your opinions. I always encourage my team to "Take a seat at the table" and speak. If you don't participate, your voice will never be heard.
2. Speak for what you want. Women always underestimate themselves. You need to say what you want.
3. Dare to seek help from others.
4. Don’t give up easily.
5. Learn from everyone. Lots of people ask me who my mentor is, and I always say, I learn from everyone.
Parent from YCIS-Shanghai Pudong
Mother of two
General Manager of L’Oréal Paris
Eileen has fought gritty battles in the workplace. After graduating from Fudan University, she faced fierce competition as she tried to gain a foothold in beauty product giant L’Oréal. After just one year as a management trainee, she became the youngest executive at the company. At the age of 26, she went to Harvard to pick up an MBA. At 28, she joined the headquarters of L’Oréal in Paris. At 30, she moved to Singapore as general manager. By the time she turned 35, she had returned to Shanghai as the general manager of L’Oréal for the entire country.
Eileen has spent almost her entire career with L’Oréal. In her early thirties, she encountered stiff opposition leading a 100-strong multinational team in Singapore. She was determined to win and emerged strengthened by that experience.
Her perception of ‘strength’ has changed over the years, morphing from, "I want to be the first" to, "I want to inspire people".
Below are excerpts of our conversation.
You've been very successful in your career and there have been few detours. Is this because you have a clearer understanding of yourself?
Luckily for me, I knew very early on what I liked and wanted. I like history and art, and I also love beauty, so I like to pursue beautiful things. I’m optimistic about the future of the industry, and I had a yearning for L’Oréal for a long time.
When I was an undergraduate student at Fudan University, I happened to participate in a business competition organised by L’Oréal. The company representatives who delivered lectures impressed me with their mature, capable, and elegant ways. They were in their early forties. Back then I wished I could be one of them. I wanted to be like that in my forties. Today I can say my wish actually came true.
I am a logical thinker. Rational thought helps me make decisions fast. Now I manage a team of 3,000 people, with countless decisions to make every day. I’m quite decisive and will move forward once a decision is made. So basically, I rarely experience regrets, withdrawals, or confusion, which probably makes me luckier than lots of people.
Based on what you see, do you think women have a lower career ceiling than men?
The proportion of female executives at L’Oréal is quite high. This might be related to the industry. I think career development is more about individual differences than gender differences. After working and living in the United States, France, and Singapore, I have found that there are more and more successful professional women in China's first-tier cities. On the contrary, many women in Europe and the United States choose to return to their families after giving birth. I think this has something to do with the progress of our social concepts.
Asian culture has also played a role, because many Chinese families have helpers to take care of their children, while European and American families usually don’t. Chinese women are very resilient and can endure hardships. Of course, returning to the workplace or to the family is a personal choice, and there is no distinction between high and low. My opinion is to choose whatever inspires and satisfies you most.
Do you often get asked about how to balance family and work? Some successful women object to such questions as they imply inequality between the sexes and a higher demand placed on women.
My husband is asked about this issue too. It's an issue both men and women have to deal with. As for the balance, I don’t think it exists, but there can be a trade-off. For me, it means fusion. For example, I'm video chatting with you right now, with my daughter reading a book next to me. We stay together every weekend, reading, exercising, chatting, and eating. she learns from what I do, and I keep my eyes on her — this is what I call a state of fusion.
Of course, the role of my husband is very important. I am very fortunate that my husband is very supportive. He worries more about family matters than me. He is a strong spiritual support.
Maybe young girls want to ask, how can they find such a good partner?
I think the most important thing is not to be influenced by external KPIs, such as education, income, and whether he has a house or a car. None of these matters. What does matter is the core and essence of this person. You know, the person you choose is going to accompany you for decades. When faced with ups and downs in life, those KPIs may be instantly reset to zero.
Who is the most influential woman in your life?
My mother, without a doubt. Just this morning, she booked a plane ticket and said she was going to Xinjiang. Almost 70 years old, she has been to over 60 countries, and still has great passion and curiosity about the world. She is an amazing woman. You know, people in her era have gone through a lot of hardships, but she is still so optimistic, kind, energetic, selfless and generous. The setbacks I experienced in the workplace were nothing compared to the hardships she went through. She is the light of my life.
If you could give young women some career advice, what would you say?
In a word, play to your advantage.
I have seen many people just follow the trend and make choices. Even if they are not good at maths, they insist on studying finance just to make more money. But if you choose what you are good at and interested in from the beginning, there will be a steady stream of energy that enriches you. You will get better and become more interested in it. This forms a positive cycle.
Jo is a mother of YCIS-HongKong. She now is the COO of Bamboo International and has been dedicating herself to become a stay-at-home mum for 10 years.
In order to take care of her parents, both in their nineties, Jo, who had lived on the mainland for 25 years, decided to move back to Hong Kong in 2018.
More than ten years ago, when her daughter was about to enter middle school and her son, primary school, Jo decided to sell the clothing company she had founded from scratch in order to return to her family. She wanted to "be present for her children and teach them by example".
Three years ago, her daughter graduated from Oxford and started her independent life. Her son has grown into an excellent student, with strong character. Jo returned to the workplace, learned new skills, and managed a new business. It was an example of maintaining the spirit of life-long learning and giving back to society.
Balance and fulfilment is what Jo pursues. She has fought to overcome cancer twice but sees this as a ‘good experience’. She has stayed clear-headed, brave, and calm. The experience has taught her children that they must cherish life and stay resolutely independent.
Below is an excerpt from our conversation with her.
In 1993 you left Hong Kong for Shanghai to start a clothing company from scratch. The company was successful. What made you decide to sell it and become a stay-at-home mother? Do you have any regrets?
I decided to return to the family because my daughter was going to enter junior high school and my son was going to primary school. I really wanted to get more involved in their development and be present for them. I didn't want to miss their formative years.
If I hadn’t sold the company, it would have gone from strength to strength. However, people have different priorities at each stage of their lives. There is no need to be too concerned about gains and losses. Making a choice requires courage. But what takes more courage is facing all the chain reactions that follow your decision.
I felt quite lost at first and needed constant comfort. Going from businesswoman to mother, I started by relearning grocery shopping. After 10 years, of course, these life skills have been mastered. I’m grateful for having learned tolerance and patience. It looks like I am the children’s support, but in fact, they have inspired and changed me a lot. Adults are generally vague about their experiences before elementary school, but raising children can bring lots of wonderful memories back.
You returned to the workplace three years ago. Has your mindset changed?
Having left the workplace 10 years ago, I was out of touch in the beginning. But I believe that I have the ability to learn, and learning is for a lifetime. I think I'm doing fine now. I will tell my children that suppose you can live up to 75 years, you usually enjoy, learn, and absorb knowledge in the first 20 years. The middle 25 years are the hardest part when you need to develop a career, build a family, and raise children. After 50 years of age, people will have a different state of mind. We might still work, but we are enjoying different life experiences, thinking more about how to give back to the society and family, and how to take better care of our aging parents. This is a fulfilling life for me.
My children can also see that there are many roles in life, and you don’t have to stick to one. Stopping and not doing one thing does not mean you are a failure in life.
Your daughter has just graduated from Oxford University and joined the workplace. Do you still give her advice like you did when she was a child? What kind of woman do you want her to become?
I feel comforted that even as an adult, she is still willing to share her thoughts and life with us. For instance, she says that she also wants to have a family and children. That means we’ve created a happy family for her, so she would long for such a life.
Since she was a child, I have encouraged her to try more, anything except for drugs. I would like to inspire her to analyse, judge, choose, and learn to take responsibility for her choices.
When a child grows up, her life is hers, and the road is her own. She has to walk her own way to have new experiences. If I tell her everything, it will not be her life. So I’m content with being a listener now.
What do you think are the qualities of female power? Are there any women who have influenced you profoundly?
In my early twenties, I worked in the marketing department of a clothing company. At that time, I made a mistake in my work. Our client, a German lady, had every reason to scold us. However, she negotiated with us in extremely calm, restrained, gentle, but firm language. That scene shocked me. It strikes me that women can show their strength without being noisy or confrontational. We can be calm and flexible, which is a more powerful force.
Unice Zeng is chairwoman of BELLO—Aoli Fashion Limited and the founder of the Unice Foundation, which is dedicated to helping poor children and disadvantaged women. She is a parent of YCIS Shanghai Puxi Campus and a mother of four children.
In 1994, Unice, who had recently graduated from Fuzhou University, decided to start a business. She plunged into clothing, wholesale and retail. Given her business acumen and courage, she soon opened more than a dozen retail stores in Fujian, Jiangsu, Zhejiang and Shanghai.
In 2000, building on her retail track record, she founded Fanqi International, which became the most influential international brand agency in Fujian at that time. In 2007, she began to engage with various designers and artists, and launched several life aesthetics stores in the country.
Behind her seemingly smooth progress, her journey has been full of challenges. Yet, Unice seldom had any ‘hesitation or fear'. She knows where her responsibilities lie. She has made clear choices at every intersection.
In 2005, at the peak of her career, Unice began to make donations in her own name to poor children in Jiangxi, Gansu, Yunnan and other places each year until their graduation from high school. In 2017, Unice Foundation was established in Shanghai. Since then, philanthropy has become one of the most important drivers in her life.
She turned her focus on women's and girls' education into tangible action. Last year, the Unice Foundation cooperated with the Shanghai Children's Fund to launch the ‘PinkGirl Adolescent Girls Care Project’. They visited rural areas in Yunnan, Qinghai, Xinjiang, and Fujian to help rural girls understand their own bodies, reject menstrual shame, and grow with health, freedom and confidence.
Unice deeply understands woman power. She is creating more choices for women through her own boundless energy.
Here is our conversation with her.
After graduating from university, you started your own wholesale clothing business. You became an agent for domestic and international designer brands (as well as sports labels) and then went on to create your own lines. Have you always been clear about what you wanted to do?
I grew up in a traditional family, but I was quite rebellious as a child. After graduating from college, I didn't follow my parents' idea of a stable job. I've always been interested in fashion, so I decided to try it out myself.
It was 1994 when I first started my business. At that time, China was going through a period of rapid development. Meanwhile, there was no successful experience for reference, so I had to find my way completely on my own.
Interest was just a starting point. It took resilience and sensitivity to establish a long-term career. You need to learn to take on various responsibilities and risks. For example, every time you innovate, you are challenging the customers’ perception of you. To win their trust, you need to constantly improve quality.
In 2017, you launched the Unice Foundation. Where did your interest in public welfare originate?
In 2017, motivated by the prospect of long-term involvement in public welfare as well as the birth of my daughter, I officially launched the Unice Foundation. Initially we planned to do two things: first, to help poor children with burns and scalds and, second, to help teenage mothers.
The focus on teenage mothers began two years earlier. At that time, we got in touch with a reporter who privately funded unmarried mothers. We talked about whether we could provide more systematic support through non-profit organisations.
The project was not implemented due to some resistance. But it reminded me of another problem facing adolescent women: menstrual shame. In many poverty-stricken areas, girls usually fail to develop good hygiene because of "menstrual shame". This is due to poverty, being left-behind by parents, and a lack of physical hygiene education.
During the period 2019 to 2020, we set up the "Yi Rui Project" in Xianyou County, Fujian Province, and cooperated with local schools to fund hygiene products for impoverished girls. This was to help them develop good physical hygiene habits, and to establish a sense of self-protection.
In 2021, we began to expand our network and cooperated with women's federations, schools and other institutions in Yunnan, Qinghai, Xinjiang and Fujian to launch the “PinkGirl Adolescent Girls Care Project”. We distributed ‘adolescent care packs’ to girls from primary and secondary schools in remote areas. The care package included not only sanitary pads, but also a women's health booklet that we put together especially for them.
Do you think the lives of girls have changed since then?
In the past, the topic of menstruation could only be whispered among the girls. Now, the schools have officially introduced this as a topic for education. You can see the girls becoming more confident and optimistic.
We are considering working with mental health centres to introduce the subject of physical hygiene in the classroom. This gives the girls greater support both physically and psychologically.
What expectations do you have for your work? What impact do you expect it to have on women?
In 2019, I launched the Zeng Yirong Scholarship Program at my alma mater, Fuzhou University. In the selection of applicants, we will focus on females to create more opportunities for women.
We are also considering providing support for women’s career planning. From adolescence, college, to the workplace, women face different issues at each stage of life. If we want to see them make independent life choices, there should be enough options available to them.
I hope all women can have their own personalities and ideas. I also hope what I do can empower more women, inspire them to love themselves more in every stage of their lives and, if possible, influence more people.
How do you see ‘female power’ today? In your opinion, what qualities should a truly powerful woman possess?
I have always presented a relatively tough image at the workplace. After becoming a mother, I started to realise that social status does not equate to power. To "moisten things silently like the spring rain" is also a manifestation of women's power in a family.
When I would have a serious talk with my daughter about study problems, she would say, "Mum, can you give me a hug? Can you talk to me gently?" She makes me realise that I’m not just a strong woman. I can also be a gentle mother.
Jessica Zha is YCIS-Shanghai Puxi mother. She is the founder of a clothing trading company, who also designs and develops fabrics.
In 2005, Jessica, who studied business management in Canada, entered the fashion industry by sheer accident to open up the US market for a trading company.
Two years later, the New York office was established. As the person in charge, Jessica frequently travelled between the two countries. From fabric development, design and communication, to procurement, she was entirely hands-on. She worked with a group of young designers and became friends with them. This helped her enjoy the job even more although her introduction to the industry was a happy accident. "They're all very interesting people and can inspire you a lot," she says.
In 2015, Jessica started her own business and prepared to set up branches in Shanghai and Hong Kong. Just the year before, she had become a mother with the arrival of a daughter. Like many, she was at once troubled by how to strike a balance between work and family.
But gradually, she began to see it as a journey. Along the way she has gained a deeper understanding about who she is as a woman.
The following is our conversation.
For over a decade you have fought limitations and challenges in your career path. How did you to where you are today?
The fabric itself is actually very interesting. It is the soul of clothing and can have many forms.
The biggest challenge in this industry is that you need to be innovative, willing to make breakthroughs, and sell your ideas to customers. In many cases, we need to integrate industry resources from various channels and take the initiative to innovate even before customers put forward their needs.
For example, last year we developed a fabric that can be recycled. The concept of recycled fabric was actually very popular in Europe over the past few years. The idea is to extract fibre from waste fabrics and spin it into reusable yarn. The concept was relatively new for the domestic market at that time. Battling technical difficulties and cost control, we tried many times before finally developing it.
Fashion is the embodiment of the social and cultural thoughts of an era. Feminism has had a profound impact on current fashion design. Does your experience in the fashion industry affect your understanding of your own female identity?
I think the changes are quite obvious. In the past, the starting point of women's clothing design was more about pleasing others. Just like the earliest cheongsams. These were actually a restraint on the female body.
Gradually, we began to consciously liberate our bodies to focus on comfort and the emphasis on our own autonomy. Now we can see that many women's fabrics have incorporated the needs of yoga, which enables an easy switch from work to sports at any time.
During the epidemic period, all walks of life faced many difficulties, especially the trading industry. Many factories stopped production and orders were cancelled.
Fortunately, I received an order of masks from Japan at that time and was not forced to stop. I could not take this good fortune as my own. I wanted to give it back to society. The mask resources were very tight at that time, so I took the initiative to contact schools, churches, and my customers in the United States, and donated a large part of the masks made at that time.
After this incident, I realised that I can use my resources to do something positive. For example, now I’m cooperating with some organisations to regularly donate clothes from the factory to children in need.
But one's resources are still limited. I hope to have the opportunity to work with other female parents to promote more public welfare projects in the future.
In addition to being a professional woman, you are also a mother. How often do you get asked about balancing family and career? Are you bothered by this?
After becoming a mother, I started to think more about who I am as a woman. At the beginning I felt that I couldn't strike a balance between my career and family. I couldn't leave things at work aside, but I needed to be present for my daughter at the same time. Then, I calmed down and said to myself, you have to make a trade-off.
The trade-off does not mean to give up on one side, but to find a balance between the two. It's always been clear to me that I needed a career of my own. It's a spiritual support for me. I certainlyneeded to get involved in the education of my child. Now, for example, if I want to participate in my daughter's activities today, I will arrange my work in advance.
How do you understand ‘female power’ today? In your opinion, what qualities should a truly powerful woman possess?
A truly powerful woman should first see herself as an independent individual. You need to understand yourself, think about what you want, and find the social and family roles you wish to play.
Even if you're a stay-at-home mum, you can reinterpret the power of being a mother. I think the strength of a fulltime mother is that she can take good care of the family and participate in the growth of the child. However, she is not completely dependent on the family. She can find her own space within the family.
As a mother, what expectations do you have for your daughter? What kind of woman do you want her to become? How do you inspire and guide her?
My request to my daughter is that I don't want her to live according to my ideas. I’m happier to see that she has her own ideas and can arrange her own study and life. I’ll respect and support her.
Now, she writes down each day what she plans to do and in what order. She will stick the note on the door and tick the tasks one by one after finishing them.
Other than that, I have no specific requirements. It’s enough for me to see that she can grow up healthy, independent and free.
There are several outstanding women who shine through their thoughts and actions. We see women becoming a leading force in area of public welfare.The inspiring careers and life experiences of these five YCIS mothers are in many ways a microcosm of the broader YCIS community. YCYW is proud to have dedicated female parents who tirelessly invest their time and resources to support the school and the community while acting as great role models for their children.