We all need “more female” attributes to seize the opportunities of today’s rapidly changing business world.
Making sense of relentless change and complexity requires us to rise above the data points and short-term priorities, to see a bigger picture – to make sense of a new emerging world. That requires intuition more than logic (intuition is more forwards looking, whilst logic tends to look back).
To add value beyond machines and AI, we need to unlock our humanity, our creativity. That requires us to be more empathetic, to make new connections. Ideas, design, relationships are most valued in today’s business world.
And to solve the big problems of our world, we need to be more thoughtful – to find more responsible, caring and creative, intuitive and inspiring solutions.
You could say “the future is female”
It’s not just about getting to a level playing field in diversity and inclusion, which matters … but even more, its about taking those attributes, those qualities, which are typically “more female” and to embrace them … both for men and women.
We could go into a biological and neurological discussion at this point, but I think the point is clear. Women therefore can have an advantage, whilst for men it might require some unlearning.
The future is not like the future used to be. Being a leader of the future, is not achieved by following the traits of the past success. It’s time to look forwards, together, with a positive mindset, to embrace the opportunities of an incredible new world.
So here are 10 incredible female business leaders, stepping up to disrupt and reinvent our world and our lives:
Kathy Hannun, Cofounder and CEO of Dandelion
Kathy Hannun was at Google X when she became obsessed with geothermal energy for home heating and cooling. It drastically cuts the eco footprint compared with diesel or propane-powered furnaces — but a system typically cost $80,000 or more to install in a private house. Hannun cofounded Dandelion in 2017 to bring down the expense. Already, the company’s innovative equipment means that homeowners can either pay $18,500 up front and recoup the costs over about five years or put no money down and pay $135 a month, less than most diesel heating bills. So far Dandelion has raised $23.5 million and is growing 20 percent month over month; its waitlist is in the thousands. “My goal is to make this the mainstream option,” says Hannun. “And advance the way society heats and cools indoor spaces.”
Cristina Junqueira, Cofounder and VP of Nubank
Cristina Junqueira was working at a traditional bank in Brazil, and in 2013 she scored the largest bonus of her career. She quit immediately. Junqueira realized she wanted to change people’s lives, not just make money. Within months, she helped launch Nubank, a Brazilian fintech company that aims to make banking accessible to everyone via tools like low-interest credit cards, high-interest savings accounts, and an app-based credit system. In the early days, it was all hands on deck for Nubank’s tiny team. “You would call our customer service line and it would ring on my cellphone,” Junqueira says. But today, she’s having the impact she hoped for: Her company is valued at $10 billion, recently announced plans to move into Mexico and Argentina, and is exploring new products like personal loans, investment products, and accounts for small and medium-size businesses.
Payal Kadakia, Founder and executive chairman of ClassPass
Back in 2010, Payal Kadakia gave herself two weeks to come up with a viable business idea — time enough, she thought, to know whether she was cut out to be an entrepreneur. It worked. That experiment evolved into ClassPass, the subscription-based service that now helps users in 2,500-plus cities in more than 20 countries discover and book exercise classes. This year, Kadakia expanded into corporate wellness with a service that gives employees access to classes with 22,000 studio partners; clients include Google, Facebook, and Morgan Stanley. But the company, which has raised $255 million, is approaching the milestone of 100 million class reservations, a figure that keeps the founder motivated. “Our ultimate success metric is when someone goes to class,” Kadakia says.
Andrea and Robin McBride, Founders of McBride Sisters Wine
Sometimes a founding story is so good, you just want to bottle it. And these sisters did. Andrea McBride was 12 and living with her foster mom in New Zealand when the phone rang. “Hey, Andrea; it’s your dad,” a man said. He told her he had terminal stomach cancer and she had a big sister named Robin (left) on the opposite side of the world. Andrea set out to find her. It took a few years, but she did. Andrea was 16 and Robin was 25 when the two first met, in New York’s LaGuardia airport. “When I got off the plane,” says Robin, who’d been brought up by her mom in California, “she was standing at the end of the jetway. I thought I was seeing my own reflection.” In 2005, the sisters ended up in California concocting a plan to squeeze into the very male, very white, very old-school wine industry. First they became importers, then distributors, and in 2009 they produced their first vintage. Many followed, including a Black Girl Magic collection, from New Zealand and California. Today the McBride Sisters Wine Collection sells 80,000 cases a year, landing it in the top 3 percent of wineries by size. But the sisters want to see more women there. On March 8, International Women’s Day, they debuted She Can — a New Zealand sauvignon blanc and a California rosé in cans — along with a fund to advance the careers of women in the wine industry. “It’s better than when we started,” says Robin. Andrea finishes the sentence: “But there’s still a lot more work to be done.”
Mariam Naficy, Founder and CEO of Minted
Minted, which transformed over 11 years from selling stationery to being a massive marketplace for indie artists, inked a big deal this summer: Samsung and Method will now license work from Minted’s community, giving newfound exposure to independent designers. “We’re a source for companies that understand the value of one-of-a-kind design but may not have the scale or merchandising bandwidth to develop it internally,” says founder and CEO Mariam Naficy. And Minted doesn’t just have scale; it has crowd buy-in. Back when the company focused solely on greeting cards and wedding invitations, Naficy devised a crowdsourcing model for up-voting the art potential shoppers liked best. Fast-forward to today, and that means big brands can tap into a decade of data on design that inspires both fandom and sales—Naficy even says that by now, Minted can predict which designs will ultimately become best-sellers.
Neha Narkhede, Cofounder and chief product officer of Confluent
Next time you swipe a credit card or call a Lyft, thank Neha Narkhede, who is building what she calls a “central nervous system” for companies’ data. It started while she was working as an engineer at LinkedIn, where she helped create Apache Kafka, an open-source software system that processes the deluge of data flowing through the platform — clicks, messages, and news-feed updates — and makes it available to users in real time. “We said, ‘This is not just a LinkedIn problem; this is part of a broader trend that’s happening in the world where businesses are going to become more digital,’ ” Narkhede says. So she and two colleagues left to start Confluent, a software system that turbocharges Apache Kafka’s capabilities for startups, financial institutions, and Fortune 500 companies. Confluent enables its customers to process trillions of event streams every day, integrating data across apps and platforms and making all that information available centrally to analyze in real time. The service has quickly become an integral tool for businesses looking to leverage their digital footprint, and it shows in Confluent’s growth: The company recently raised $125 million in Series D funding, catapulting it to unicorn status with a $2.5 billion valuation. Next year, Confluent will focus on international business while increasing its 800-person workforce. “The market is as big as what the relational database market will be,” Narkhede says. “That’s on the order of tens of billions of dollars—that’s what we’re looking at in terms of total market potential.”
Melanie Perkins, Cofounder and CEO of Canva
Canva, the Australia-based graphic design platform, was created in 2013 to help anyone, anywhere — with any level of design knowledge — create and publish beautiful, professional materials. Six years later, CEO Melanie Perkins and her cofounders have made strides. Canva has raised more than $140 million, is valued at $2.5 billion, and has 15 million active monthly users around the globe. “We’re now in 100 languages, and a goal for the year ahead is to bring access to every single market,” Perkins says. “We’ve done less than 1 percent of what we think is possible — we’ve got .56 percent of the world’s population on the platform, but we want to empower the entire world.”
Kendra Scott, Founder and CEO of Kendra Scott
As she designed her first jewelry collection out of her home in 2002, Kendra Scott never dreamed it would become a $1 billion brand. But today, her eponymous company has a unicorn valuation, 100 stores, and shows no signs of slowing down — though Scott’s main focus is about more than baubles. Of the Austin-based brand’s 2,000 employees, more than 90 percent are women, many of whom are mothers. Nursing rooms are commonplace at HQ and distribution centers, Kendra Scott Kids provides a children’s playroom, and once a year Camp Kendra invites in employees’ kids for a day of activities, in which office employees become camp counselors. “If we can support our staff, these women, at this very special time in their lives, we’ll have an employee who is incredibly loyal to our brand,” says Scott. “We believe in their future.” In September, that support expanded beyond the walls of Scott’s company, when she announced the Kendra Scott Women’s Entrepreneurial Leadership Program in partnership with the University of Texas. The programming will feature speaker series and courses on everything from building a business to advocating for equal pay and will be available to University of Texas students. “We want women to be able to access this information,” Scott says.
Reshma Shetty, Cofounder of Ginkgo Bioworks
A biological engineer who can synthesize bacteria to smell like bananas, Reshma Shetty never intended to be an entrepreneur. But as a graduate student at MIT, she became passionate about designing biology-based products the way an architect designs a house. To make her vision a reality, in 2008 she cofounded Ginkgo Bioworks. Eleven years later, Shetty and her 250-person team are known for cutting-edge biotech and valued at $1.4 billion. Ginkgo’s work has spanned various industries, from healthcare to agriculture, with products like synthetic probiotics that reduce gastrointestinal problems in soldiers and (in progress with Synlogic) medicines that program the body’s cells to treat complex diseases. Earlier this year, Ginkgo spun out a separate company called Motif Ingredients to engineer sustainable alternative proteins that taste like the real thing. “Although we’re going after these radically different markets,” says Shetty, “the common thread is biology.”
Alli Webb, Founder of Drybar
Drybar founder Alli Webb has a new company, Squeeze, that aims to do for massages what she did for blowouts: Make the experience easy and affordable. The chain launched in March; customers book appointments via an app and can select from a menu of treatments and preferences, from pressure type to areas to avoid. But unlike Drybar (which has 130 locations and 4,000 employees), Squeeze will scale as a franchise, and Webb’s team is creating a two-year blueprint for its future partners, detailing how to greet customers and market locally. “We love the idea of enabling other people to become entrepreneurs themselves,” Webb says.
What are the successful traits?
Fortune Magazine recently asked a range of female leaders about the personality trait they credit for helping launching them into their leadership positions of today:
Ginni Rometty, Chairman, President, and CEO, IBM … “Be curious. A constant thirst to learn has served me well my entire career, especially in the tech industry. We’ve always hired for curiosity at IBM. We receive 7,000 job applications a day, and our managers and HR teams are geared to look for people who are curious and committed to constantly advancing what they know.”
Gail Boudreaux, President and CEO, Anthem … “My strong focus on leadership has been a large part of my success to date. I believe the ability to build and inspire teams is critical and that individuals and organizations can accomplish extraordinary results when they leverage the power of their collective strength working together.”
Julie Sweet, CEO, Accenture … “Openness: starting with my decision to learn Chinese and live in Taiwan and China in 1987 and 1988, before it was commonplace. I have often pursued paths that were not well-trodden. It has helped me become a continuous learner and to understand that it is often from unexpected sources and places that you learn the most.”
Judith McKenna, President and CEO, Walmart International … “It must be somewhere between curiosity and always focusing on people. Both are really important, and I really believe that if we always keep our associates, our people, at the heart of everything we do, and build out strong teams, then we’ll continue to make our business successful.”
Amy Hood, EVP and CFO, Microsoft … “I’m pretty gritty. I can work through most things and come out on the other side feeling like I’ve learned a good lesson and I’ll get better.”
Leanne Caret, President and CEO, Defense, Space & Security, and EVP, Boeing … “I love being authentic and letting people see the real me. That hopefully creates an environment where we are all in it together.”
Jennifer Taubert, EVP, Worldwide Chairman, Pharmaceuticals, Johnson & Johnson … “I think two qualities have been critical in my career: optimism and perseverance. Optimism because I believe in stretching and redefining the boundaries of what’s possible. Perseverance because, with determination, you can overcome any obstacle to do the right thing for patients. ”
Michele Buck, President and CEO, Hershey … “Being a great listener has long been one of my hallmark leadership qualities. I find immense value in seeking diverse perspectives when I’m making an important business decision. I want to hear from people who are deep in the organization, closest to the work, as well as those outside the decision domain who may see things a bit differently. As a leader, it’s important to set direction and impart your knowledge to others; but, you have to balance that with listening to the expertise and point of views of those around you. Intentional listening, and the learning associated with that, has undoubtedly been key to my success. One of the most important lessons I’ve learned is to weigh the perspectives of those around me with my north star. Then, I listen to my gut, which to me isn’t just natural instinct, it’s been built through years of experience, successes, failures, and everything in between.”
Mary Dillon, CEO, Ulta Beauty … “Curiosity and empathy. I told my children as they were growing up to always ask other people about themselves, to be curious to learn about others and to respect their journey. At Ulta Beauty, this is the way we do business. We have a deep curiosity about our guests and their needs, and we treat associates with the respect they deserve. We believe these values are helping us win customer loyalty.”
Marillyn Hewson, Chairman, President, and CEO, Lockheed Martin … “A focus on effective communication—and it all starts with the ability to really listen. Listening to your customers leads to a customer-focused vision. And listening to those you lead creates a climate of understanding and trust. By focusing on consistent and effective communication, leaders can also more quickly identify those times when it is critical to step forward and reach out directly to customers, shareholders, or employees. Simply put, effective communication is the engine for effective leadership and effective decision making at every level.”
Download a summary of my keynote: The Future is Female
Peter Fisk’s new book Business Recoded is out in September 2020.
Zhang Ruimin is Chairman and CEO of Haier, the world’s leading white goods business.
From his base in Qingdao, Haier has revolutionised the world of refrigerators, washing machines, air conditioning, and many other home appliances. Not just in China, but increasingly as a global brand. Zhang has become a world-renowned entrepreneur, creating a unique, innovative, evolving business model that fuses management philosophies of east and west.
In 1984 Zhang became director of the Qingdao Refrigerator Factory, the predecessor of Haier. Over 30 years, he turned a small, collectively-owned factory with a 1.47 milion yuan loss into a global enterprise, with a turnover of 188.7 billion yuan (2015). In 2016, he sealed a $5.4 billion deal with GE to buy GE Appliances (GEA).
Zhang’s innovative management philosophy blends the essence of traditional Chinese culture with modern western business concepts. Once a devotee of the “six sigma” approach, Zhang has developed his own management ideology: rendanheyi. By dividing a company up into micro-enterprises on an open platform and dismantling the traditional “empire” system of management, rendanheyi creates “zero distance” between employee and the needs of the customer.
At the heart of rendanheyi is the cultivation of entrepreneurship – by removing the costly level of middle management (Zhang famously eliminated the positions of 10,000 employees), you encourage innovation, flexibility and risk-taking.
The physics of business
Today we’re in London for the Thinkers50 Global Summit, a meeting of enlightened mind, celebrating the best ideas in business thinking, including the biennial ranking of the top 50 gurus. Zhang was the winner of the 2015 “Ideas into Action” award, and has now risen to 15th in the global ranking. He also hosts Thinkers50 regional hub in China, as a way to help encourage more entrepreneurs, more new thinking, and more innovation across Asia.
I’ve met Zhang before, but I hadn’t previously had the opportunity to explore our common background, both as physicists. I was curious about how he had embraced the ideas of physical science into his vision of how Haier should work as an organisation. He was delighted, and quickly got into a passionate, and somewhat technical discussions about atomic structure and wave theory. Whilst I’m not sure atomic physics would be many business people’s ideal topic, I was intrigued.
Atomic theory and self-organising teams
Zhang Ruimin: “When I first studied physics I was amazed by the perpetual motion of sub atomic particles. Electrons and protons coexist in a dynamic equilibrium, created by their equal and opposite charges. This sustains a continual existence, it enables atoms to come together in many different formats as molecules, each with their own unique properties, and within these atomic structures is huge amounts of energy”.
The application to business becomes clear, and also much of the founding ideas behind why and how he has developed his rendanheyi model of entrepreneurial micro businesses.
Zhang Ruimin: “Applying this idea from physics to business, small teams of people with different backgrounds, skills, and ideas, can co-exist incredibly effectively. It is the ability to create small diverse teams where ideas and actions are equally dynamic, that enables a business to sustain over time. They become self-organising and mutually enabling. Ideas, innovation and implementation are continuous. And they can easily link with other teams, like atoms coming together as molecules, for collaborative projects and to create new solutions.”
As a result, he challenges the old supremacy of shareholders in the value equation, putting a premium on employees, and the value created by them and for them. However at the same time, he recognises the need to empower employees to be more customer intimate. As a result the rate of growth has risen from 8% to 30% in recent years.
Zhang Ruimin: “People are not a means to an end, but an end in themselves. We took away all of our middle management. Now things are working much better. Zero signature, zero approval. Now we have only one supervisor, which is the customer.”
Wave theory and entrepreneurial brands
Zhang Ruimin: “Additionally as we think more about quantum physics, it is wave theory that is responsible for how energy is transmitted – in forms such as light or heat, magnetism or sound. The idea of waves being a relentless force of progress, which can be reinforced when two waves come together and resonate with more than double their impact. The Doppler effect. Waves can be sustained over great distances, and with different frequencies, into what we know for example as pitch and volume”.
In this example the analogy to business can be taken in multiple ways, both in how organisations build a culture and sustain momentum, but also how innovations and brands are sustained in markets.
Zhang Ruimin: “First think of waves inside organisations. They are like ideas that spread between people and teams. Ideas that resonate together can be more powerful, and in time they characterise a culture, a common way of thinking and doing things. Haier is many businesses but one brand. In the same way, in the market, innovations can spread rapidly, and be reinforced by matching with customer needs, particularly as was create more products to improve people’s lives more holistically. As we do this, we create resonance with people, the solutions become more important, and the brand becomes more powerful.”
As a result, brands form a different type of relationship with organisations and brands, rather than transactional, they come relational or even partners.
Zhang Ruimin: “Sales used to be the end of the relationship. Now sales is the beginning of the relationship. We now work in a more connected way, with connected products, and connected partners, and connected customers. It is an ecosystem. ”
Technological innovation that improve people’s lives
Haier’s evolution has been rapid and relentless, as Zhang has driven the company from an old refridgerator factory – where indiscipline and poor quality was so rife that he took to shock tactics, taking a sledge hammer to some of the products to demonstrate that such mediocrity was no longer acceptable – to a pioneer of digital tech.
Zhang Ruimin: “We quickly realised in the early days, that high quality was very important. Approaches like six sigma were very important at the time, and we were one of the first Chinese companies to embrace such techniques. We didn’t just want to compete, we wanted to be the best company. And we needed to be if we were to build a brand recognised globally.”
Whilst Haier in the 1990’s was focused on the Chinese market, building a portfolio of high quality standardised products, the 2000’s was about internationalisation, reaching across the world but with localisation, and customisation. The 2010’s have been all about digitalisation, embracing the power of automation and data, to the point where Haier is now one of the world’s leading producers of “smart” products, embedded with IOT, and connected intelligently.
However the implications are profound. Today it is no longer about standardisation, and creating the best product. Haier’s brand purpose is all about making people’s lives better. Therefore Haier is looking beyond products to services, and how it can do more to help people live in their everyday lives, with a focus on the intelligent home.
Zhang Ruimin: “In a digital world of globalization, connectivity and personalization, there is no such thing as a perfect product. People will buy scenarios, or concepts, where the products might be free and just enablers of services. Haier’s products embrace the internet of things to ensure that they connect with other devices, with other partners in our ecosystems, and with people and their homes. In the future, maybe the product will be free, and people will pay for services – from food delivery, to home entertainment, security or maintenance.”
The ecosystem model is now core to Haier’s future, arguing that Haier is the first true ecosystem brand.
Zhang Ruimin: “We want to create a rainforest of perpetual life”.
From Aristotle’s philosophies to Asian leadership
Zhang is clearly an incredibly thoughtful and well-read leader. His ideas are regularly interspersed with quotes from Aristotle and Plato, Kant and Hemingway, Mintzberg and Drucker, and many others too. His desire to embrace western management techniques marked him out as a thought leader amongst Chinese leaders.
Zhang Ruimin: “I read two books every week, or more. Easy year more than a 100 books. I pay special attention to cutting edge ideas. I read philosophy books.”
Having spent much of my last year exploring Asian businesses and their leadership behaviours, I was intrigued by how far Zhang thought Asia had now come. Is Asia still learning from the west, or do the ideas now come from the east? Certainly, my experience in organising this year’s Thinkers50 European Business Forum, was that the best ideas, new innovations, and leadership inspiration come from Asia, rather than Europe or America.
Zhang Ruimin: “A true leader enables ordinary people to achieve extraordinary things.”
So finally an inspiration from Chinese culture, or Lao Tzu to be more precise. He went on.
Zhang Ruimin: “I believe everybody can learn from everywhere. Yes, Asian companies and their leaders have embraced new ways of working, and responding to their fast growth markets. I admire many of my Asian peers. But I also still admire other companies all around the world, and particularly in the applications of technology. For me it is about taking the best ideas from everybody, and combining them in the right way for your business, your market and your people.”
Higher, further, and faster …
You can read more of this interview, and “the physics of business”, in my forthcoming book, Business Recoded.
40 years ago, my father in law, who had grown up in the countryside north of Hong Kong, just over the border into mainland China, went back to the village of his birth. I remember him telling stories of a simple life, playing in the rice fields, and faded photographs of him riding water buffalo as a young boy.
Having moved to Europe he wanted to retain some presence in the small place. He bought some land, and built a small block of apartments which he hoped might grow in value and some day be a good pension for him and his family.
Over the past 30 years, the fishing village of Shenzhen has been reborn as a futuristic metropolis bursting with factories. It is the heartland of China’s tech revolution, dubbed the Silicon Valley of hardware. Now it is a boom town, the likes of which the world has never seen before.
In 1979, the Chinese government turned it into an experiment to grow capitalism in a test tube, designating it as the country’s first Special Economic Zone. The city is driven by an influx of workers from the countryside who make everything from real iPhones to fake Chanel bags. Shenzhen — and the surrounding Pearl River Delta — has become known as the world’s factory floor.
If you own a smartphone or computer, odds are parts of it came from here. It is now a megacity of over 12 million people. It has also become an incubator for cutting-edge design, a bastion of next-gen urbanism, and a leading cultural capital. Welcome to Shenzhen, the manifestation of China’s economic miracle.
To see why Shenzhen is called a rule-breaking tech hub, wander the endless wholesale kiosks of Huaqiangbei’s malls, where tech entrepreneurs, hackers, and makers gather. You will find every electronic component and gadget imaginable, laid out like so many spices in a bazaar.
This is ground zero for the production of shanzhai — “pirated” goods that are often less knockoffs than remixes, like an Apple Watch that runs on Android, has a removable battery, and is a quarter of the price. Naturally, the West frowns on shanzhai, but experts like David Li, a Taiwanese technologist and cofounder of Shenzhen Open Innovation Lab, argue that these bootlegs drive innovation. Hoverboards, he points out, evolved in the wilds of shanzhai production to become a global hit.
Meanwhile, the Chinese government is using Shenzhen as a showcase for its move from “Made in China” to “Designed in China” — a program to rebrand the country as a place that can invent, not just copy and mass-produce.
Another draw is Shenzhen’s distance from the capital. As the old Chinese saying goes: “The mountains are high and the emperor is far away.” Though the government engineered Shenzhen, its location in the Pearl River Delta, more than 1,300 miles from Beijing, gives it a more relaxed atmosphere. “Freedom is a really big word, but there is a sense of Shenzhen being more open in every way,” says Jason Hilgefort, an American architect and educator who leads the local urbanism academy Future+.
Schenzen is also home to some of China’s leading companies including the world’s leading electric car business BYD, and world’s leading drone maker DJI. And then add Huawei and Tencent.
Chinese tech infrastructure giant Huawei was founded in Schenzen in 1987 by Ren Zhengfei, a former engineer in the People’s Liberation Army. At the time of its establishment, Huawei focused on manufacturing phone switches, but has since expanded its business tremendously. It is the largest telecommunications equipment manufacturer in the world and the second largest smartphone manufacturer after Samsung.
Tencent is another leading business from Schenzen. QQ is a social media platform owned by Tencent with 850 million monthly users. WeChat even has 963 million monthly users. Tencent does not stop at these platforms. Their services include music, web portals, e-commerce, mobile games, internet services, payment systems, smartphones, and multiplayer online games All these services are among the world’s biggest and most successful in their respective categories.
More by Peter Fisk:
- Read my article The Future is Asia: 5 billion people is just a starting point
- Read my article Taming Tigers: Learning from Asian Business Leaders
- Read my article 17 Lessons from Asian Business: What we can learn from Alibaba to Softbank
- Read my article The I Ching, the oldest guide on how to deal with uncertainty
- Come to my event Learning from Asia in Oslo, Norway or in Copenhagen, Denmark
- Come to my event Peter Fisk Live in Seoul, South Korea exploring the future of business
- Come to my event Thinkers50 European Business Forum 2019 all about Learning from Asia
- Download my keynote “Learning from Asia: What can we learn from Alibaba to Bytedance, and 20 more Asian leaders”