Zhang, a Chinese real estate developer, is the seventh richest self-made women in the world, worth $3.6bn, according to Forbes. She’s worth $800million more than Oprah Winfrey, the world’s best known self-made female billionaire.
Not only does Zhang’s rags-to-riches story mirror that of China itself, but it is Zhang who has shaped much of the country’s modern urban landscape, with the logo of her company SOHO China on the side of buildings wherever you turn in Beijing.
SOHO China has 18 developments in Beijing, many of them landmark buildings, and has recently expanded to Shanghai, where it has bought or built 11 properties.
Two of her Beijing projects — one completed last year and another under construction — are designed by the Pritzker Prize winning architect Zaha Hadid.
Zhang, 47, was born in Beijing just before Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, when educated people like her parents were sent to the fields for “re-education”. She returned to Beijing with her mother, but they endured poverty and hardship.
“I was born and grew up when the city was very quiet: no cars, no shops, no lights, no machines. People were just on bicycles,” she said.
At 14, she and her mother moved to Hong Kong, where she spent five years in low paid factory jobs, manufacturing toys, clothes and electronics, trying to save enough to go to England for an education.
“As a new immigrant to Hong Kong with no education, no background, didn’t even speak the local language or dialect, Cantonese, and it was just a hard way to live in Hong Kong,” said Zhang.
It took Zhang five years to save enough for a plane ticket to London and an English language course. She won a scholarship to university, studied for a Masters degree in economics at Cambridge University and landed her first job for Goldman Sachs in New York.
Instead of remaining in her comfortable life in Wall Street, Zhang returned to Beijing, where she met her husband, and together they started SOHO China.
“There was excitement of people talking about how to change China, and it was a very intellectually vibrant time,” she said. “I felt that this country was really making a transition and I wanted to be a part of that.”
Since Zhang and her husband Pan Shiyi formed SOHO China in 1995, it has become China’s largest commercial real estate developer, owning 56 million square feet in prime developments in Beijing and Shanghai.
While Zhang’s story is incredible — giving her celebrity status in China — it is not unique. Of Forbes’ 2013 list of 24 self-made female billionaires, six are from China (including one from Hong Kong), more than any other country outside the United States.
“I think women of our generation went through Cultural Revolution, went through hardship, coming from nowhere, and suddenly see China’s amazing opportunity,” said Zhang. “So women just seized the opportunity.”
Zhang has a following of more than five million on Weibo, the Chinese social media site often compared with Twitter, where she shares her views on business, current affairs and architecture.
But despite her financial success, Zhang, who practices the Baha’i faith, avoids excessive trappings of wealth, even suggesting her 14-year-old son find a job in McDonand’s or KFC. He tried, but was too young to be accepted.
“It’s not easy to be my sons because we’re very high profile. We try so hard to give them a normal life,” she said.
“I’m very, very tight with them about money. I don’t give that money until they ask, ‘I need 100 yuan for my lunch card,’ and so on. So they never have extra money. But I think that still cannot compare to how we came, where we came (from).”
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