How a Poor Village Girl Became One of the Richest Self-Made Billionaires in China

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A Chinese girl who grew up in poverty working in a lens manufacturing factory is now one of the world’s wealthiest self-made women.

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Her company, Lens Technology, is a multi-billion-dollar operation that manufactures cover glass for laptops, tablets and cell phones. Zhou Qunfei, who once labored making watch lenses for less than a $1 a day as a young girl, now supplies cover glass for clients including Apple and Samsung and is worth an estimated $6.9 billion, making her the richest self-made woman in China.

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Zhou, 45, comes from a country known for producing self-made female billionaires. Under the ruling Communist Party, China’s commitment to gender equality along with capitalism’s influence gave way to a new class of women entrepreneurs.

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The company, which went public in March of this year, is valued at $8 billion with the majority stakes being held by Zhou and her husband.

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In an interview with the New York Times, she recounted:

“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. I chose to be in business, and I don’t regret it.”

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Born into a rural village in Hunan Province in central China, Zhou raised ducks and pigs in order to support her family. Her mother passed when Zhou was 5-years-old, and her father lost most of his eyesight during an industrial accident.

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She later moved in with her uncle’s family in southern China’s Guangdong province where she found a job in a factory making watch lenses. Restless and bored at her job, Zhou sent in a letter of resignation after three months on the factory floor.

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Impressed by her skills, her boss promoted Zhou into a newly created department where she would stay for another three years. At 22, with $3,000 in savings, Zhou opened her own watch lenses shop with a few of her family relatives.

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Zhou was a skilled tradeswoman who knew the ins and outs of glass-processing. Her cousin, Zhou Xinyi, who serves on the Lens board, told the Times:

“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.”

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In 2003, Zhou’s big break came when Motorola came knocking and asked her to develop a glass screen for their mobile phone, the Razr V3.

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Her steady rise to success continued with new clients including HTC, Nokia and Samsung. In 2007, Lens became the supplier for Apple’s glass touch screen iPhone.

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Len’s Technology’s patented invention of the scratch-resistant coating on glass for Apple devices was inspired by Zhou’s rural background. As a child, she was in awe of her natural surroundings and how rain droplets fell on lotus leaves without leaving a trace.

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Zhou oversees three main manufacturing facilities that employ about 75,000 workers. Lens Technology pulled in an estimated revenue of $2.4 billion last year.

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