Where is China's Sheryl Sandberg?

A BLOG POST BY WENCHI YU The Facebook COO has become a star, and it's only a matter of time before a female Chinese executive puts together the skills to reach that level

At the recent inaugural Fortune Most Powerful Women Asia meeting in Hong Kong, prominent female Asian business leaders discussed economic issues ranging from financial reforms in China and beyond, innovation, technology and corporate philanthropy to board diversity and the next generation of leaders in the region.

It is not unusual to have conferences with the theme of women and gender, but the gathering of such a high-caliber group of female corporate leaders in Asia without focusing on gender issues was one of the first. Perhaps because it was held in Hong Kong, the crowd was primarily from the greater China region and was representative of today's business leadership: Chinese women who have made it to leadership positions in global companies; self-made entrepreneurs or female Chinese leaders in top Chinese companies; and influential Chinese or non-Chinese who move between Chinese and global business communities. Because there were so many prominent Chinese businesswomen, one could not help but comparing Chinese and American business leaders, especially women.

The question about whether China can foster innovative entrepreneurship has been around, and in recent years, Alibaba's Jack Ma and Baidu's Robin Li are often mentioned as the innovators and entrepreneurs of the country. The media's increasing interest in Chinese business leaders is due to their growing market in the country and the region, and the global, rising significance of Chinese corporations. While a few Chinese faces have been featured frequently in the international media as successful entrepreneurs, most corporate executives remain unknown to the world.

This is not a question about whether China has entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs or Bill Gates. This is about whether China has business leaders who can grow businesses like Sheryl Sandberg.

Entrepreneurs can be found everywhere in the world, but growing a business into a global corporation with a recognizable brand requires different skills. In addition to understanding business operations, skills such as being media savvy, engaging stakeholders, and showing knowledge about the political and social environments in which business operates are essential to success. Corporations are also increasingly smart about strategically exposing and branding their leaders to advance business interests.

In the case of Sandberg, she did not start Facebook, but she successfully grew the company into a global brand. She herself has also become a symbol of a "movement" that combines her identity as a professional woman and a mother of two children with what Facebook is about: a global community that connects everyone. As a woman who is passionate about gender equality, she smartly uses her charm, intelligence and excellent communications skills to promote the issue that touches not only women worldwide, but also their husbands, fathers, sons and brothers. As she creates a global community, her identity as the second commander-in-chief at Facebook, also helps the company become the platform.

This is simply a brilliant strategy. Essentially, Sandberg created a value and a brand for Facebook that is about empowering women – half of the world's population – and about growing the online cross-border market to include women of all ages and the male population who care about their mothers, daughters, wives and sisters.

So where is China's Sheryl Sandberg? Is there someone out there who understands the power of value creation, marketing and branding, and has the creativity to connect important dots and social elements for both business interests and social good?

The "branding" and "marketing" of Sandberg epitomizes the modern-day corporate strategy that Chinese firms have yet to excel in. In the past, public discussion of political and business leaders in China did not exist and only a few individuals, usually political leaders, were allowed to be promoted publically. The breaking down of barriers to information flows online has helped create personalities of business figures, hence Jack Ma and Robin Li.

But beyond the story of a self-made entrepreneur, as Chinese firms expand beyond borders, they need a more sophisticated strategy to help with the brands, and much of that branding is directly linked to the company's products, value and leadership. They need to do a better job in communicating with their customers about who they are, what their services or products are about, and why the customers need to spend money buying those products, especially when low quality is still the general perception of Made in China.

The encouraging news is there are plenty of capable and talented business leaders in China even though they have not surfaced to the international limelight. As Chinese companies plan to go abroad, their leaders will need to be more in tune with international issues, get the right exposure and be more creative about engaging new markets.

Looking at the Fortune crowd in Hong Kong, I know it will not be long before we start to hear more stories of successful Chinese businesswomen, such as Jennifer Li of Baidu, Shunee Yee of Csoft, or Yifei Li of the Man Group.

The author is founder and managing partner of The Banyan Advisory Group LLC and a former official in the US Department of State



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