Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Lessons from a self-made billionaire

By Pauline Chiou, CNN
updated 7:32 AM EDT, Thu July 11, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Worth $3.6 billion, Zhang Xin is the world's seventh richest self-made woman
  • Xin runs China's largest real estate developer
  • She rose from assembly line of a Beijing factory to property magnate
  • Her family partly owns a 40% stake in NYC's GM building

Leading Women connects you to extraordinary women of our time -- remarkable professionals who have made it to the top in all areas of business, the arts, sport, culture, science and more.

(CNN) -- Zhang Xin is an example of true grit success. She rose from the faceless assembly line of a Beijing factory to a property magnate richer than Donald Trump and Oprah.

Her company, SOHO China, literally changed the landscape of Beijing and Shanghai over the past two decades. Forbes magazine has listed her family's net worth at $3.6 billion.

And she's not stopping there. In a private transaction (not related to her company business), her family and the Safra banking family of Brazil just bought a 40% stake in the iconic GM building in New York City -- the building that houses the flagship Apple store on Fifth Avenue.

Richer than Trump or Oprah
Banking boss: Nothing scares me
Tina Brown: 'Taking risks comes easily'
Galaxy SOHO, designed by Pritzker Prize winning architect Zaha Hadid for Zhang' SOHO China, was built in 2012 on a 50,000 square meter plot in central Beijing. It was Hadid's first building in Beijing. Galaxy SOHO, designed by Pritzker Prize winning architect Zaha Hadid for Zhang' SOHO China, was built in 2012 on a 50,000 square meter plot in central Beijing. It was Hadid's first building in Beijing.
China's changing skyline
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
>
>>
China\'s changing skyline China's changing skyline

Zhang recently sat down with CNN's Pauline Chiou to talk about everything from her Beijing childhood to the volatile property market and how her 14-year old son tried to get a job at McDonald's.

Failure is part of the puzzle

CNN: Did you come across a lot of bumps in the road and a lot of failures?

Zhang Xin: Every day. I mean, I think that's just life. You will always bump into difficulties, challenges and problems. It appears to be that we seem to be doing quite well, but as it is now, we're still having challenges every day. So I think that's just nothing unique. That's just life.

Read: Tina Brown on taking risks

Pivot and dribble around politics

CNN: You moved from residential real estate to commercial and now you're focusing on commercial. Why did you do that, especially when we see new home prices still rising?

ZX: Residential development has become very political. Government policies ...are against any prices going up because this is a very social issue.

The government comes out with policies that deal one day with this side [of the issue] another day with this side [of the issue]. We said, "Let's get out of this area. Yeah, let's move on to somewhere we can really exercise our skills as a developer."

I think the policies are so distorted. Like someone who's sick, you've taken so much medicine that you've lost the sense of which one works and which one doesn't. That's a little bit like the real estate market in China.

Grab the opportunities

CNN: On the Forbes' recent list of 24 self-made female billionaires, there are five women from China, one from Hong Kong. What is it about China and the women of your generation that allows them to achieve that highest level?

I think in terms of coming from a low base, coming from nowhere, we're all equal.
Zhang Xin

ZX: Women of our generation went through the Cultural Revolution, went through hardship, went through coming from nowhere. Suddenly, we see China's been given so many amazing opportunities. So women just seized the opportunity. I think in terms of coming from a low base, coming from nowhere, we're all equal.

Read: In search of the female Indiana Jones

In China, there are a lot of problems but also there are a lot of opportunities. Precisely because there are so many problems, things are not established; therefore, there are opportunities.

Have a life outside of work

CNN: You're a mother of two boys. You're a wife. How do you do the work-life balance?

ZX: I'm very, very focused on my children. In fact, I'm very religious about having breakfast with them every morning, having dinner with them every evening, and spend all the weekends with them that I don't work. So as long as I'm not traveling, I'm always with them and I go to their soccer and tennis matches. After dinner we'd just sit together and do homework with my children because they need help. I love doing that. It also makes me realize the world is so much wider than just your business world.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 12:19 PM EDT, Tue April 1, 2014
In 2007, Arianna Huffington collapsed at her desk. Suffering from a broken cheekbone, the editor-in-chief decided to change her workaholic ways.
updated 12:23 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Meet Mo Abudu, the talk show host portraying a very different Africa. As a glamorous presenter, she also heads up Ebony Life TV network, based in Nigeria.
updated 8:16 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Their job is capturing the most horrifying images on Earth -- keeping their eyes open, where others must look away. Meet Kate Brooks and Gerda Taro, the war photographers of today and yesterday.
updated 2:19 PM EDT, Tue March 25, 2014
Gloria Steinem speaks onstage during Equality Now presents 'Make Equality Reality' at Montage Hotel on November 4, 2013 in Los Angeles, California.
As Gloria Steinem turns 80, Kathleen McCartney highlights the remarkable life of the feminist so far.
updated 11:32 AM EST, Sat March 8, 2014
CNN hosted a Tweetchat on gender equality with special guests including Nobel Peace prize laureate Tawakkol Karman. Here's what you missed.
updated 6:59 AM EDT, Thu March 13, 2014
From shaving her head for climate change to opting for a sustainable business model, Vivienne Westwood is simply unstoppable.
updated 11:02 AM EDT, Wed April 2, 2014
In what would be a dream come true for her alter ego, Carrie Bradshaw -- Sarah Jessica Parker has turned her love of fashion into a new shoe range with Manolo Blahnik.
updated 10:39 AM EDT, Wed March 12, 2014
The Facebook COO's latest headline-making action is a new "Ban Bossy" campaign, which aims at getting rid of the word "bossy."
updated 10:17 AM EDT, Tue March 18, 2014
Meet Gail Kelly, the woman who started as a bank teller -- and now runs the banks.
updated 12:46 AM EST, Thu March 6, 2014
What kind of politician is slashed in the face with a knife, and upon waking up in hospital the first thing they ask about is the election campaign?
updated 11:50 AM EST, Wed February 26, 2014
Former U.S. State Deparment Anne-Marie Slaughter says Brad Pitt is 'posterchild for engaged fatherhood'.
updated 10:25 AM EST, Tue February 25, 2014
Cast your eye across a line-up of world leaders and it might look a little something like this: Man in dark suit, man in dark suit, man in dark suit, Angela Merkel in fire engine red two-piece.
updated 8:21 AM EST, Tue February 18, 2014
Meet Margarita Louis-Dreyfus, the chairperson of French commodities giant Louis Dreyfus Holdings, with a net worth estimated at an eye-watering $6 billion.
updated 6:38 AM EST, Mon February 17, 2014
YouTube has a new boss and she has a "healthy disregard for the impossible" -- according to Google CEO Larry Page. Here are five things you didn't know about her.
ADVERTISEMENT