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Leading Women: Interview with Grace Zhou

As part of our Leading Women series, we highlight the professional challenges and career aspirations of the women we work with. 

In this story, Grace Zhou, Founder and CEO of biotech company Immvira, shares her experience running and managing a successful startup, an arena that’s dominated by her male peers, as well as her journey thus far as a career woman leader.  

 


Most board members today are male, and many industries and enterprises are dominated by them as well. As a female founder, how do you think women can stand out? 

That’s an interesting question. I noticed an interesting phenomenon when recruiting students, be it those with Master’s, Doctorate or Post-Doctoral degrees, many of them are women. However, once you return to the industry after 10 or 20 years, you notice that there are very few women as leaders. It saddens me to think that many of them must have lagged or dropped out of the industry altogether.  

On a personal level, I rarely looked at myself and said: “You are a woman and a female entrepreneur”. Once your female identity becomes less of a focus, you become just ‘one of the boys’ at work. The times when my female identity comes to the fore are when I am face-to-face with the employees at work, and I am there as their female boss. When you have a certain sensitivity to things, that’s when I feel the most female. As for success, and it doesn’t matter if you are a male or female, the key is to be quick to learn and adapt. If you can do that, then you will naturally succeed. 
 

As a leader, how do you become more self-confident?  

I think the most important thing is to be true to yourself. You need to accumulate a lot of knowledge inside your head. That way, when you are expressing this knowledge, you are not doing it for the sake of doing it, but you are embodying that knowledge. This is how you embody your confidence. As they say in English: ‘You are not doing. You are being’.  

Secondly, I think confidence does not mean that I am showing off what I know to people. In fact, confidence sometimes means that you lack certain knowledge, but you can express yourself truthfully regardless of whether you have all the answers or not. That’s true confidence.  

Another thing is that I have a specific personality trait. Every time I encounter a difficulty, my first response is never: ‘Oh, I am so confused, what should I do now?’ I do not let myself linger in bewilderment for a long time. Instead, my immediate response is to look at what things can be solved first. What are the available solutions? Once you have even parts of a solution, even though the difficulty is still there, the fear goes away.  

 

Have you ever encountered prejudice at the workplace? If so, how did you solve and face those problems? 

I’m not very sensitive to prejudices. I feel I did not experience such prejudices. In fact, as a woman surrounded by so many brilliant entrepreneurs and scientists, I feel that I have many advantages. I often tell others that a woman, especially a strong woman, is welcomed by others. If you are smart, responsive and a sense of humour about things, people embrace you — unless you are too aggressive. When you possess such personality traits among equally successful entrepreneurs, you are more than welcomed even if your peers happen to be mostly men.  

So, contrary to the question, I did not encounter any prejudices. Maybe it’s because I am less sensitive about such things. I feel that I have met many friends along the way, each of them proving to be invaluable to my life and career. They provided a lot of help, and I feel that my achievements today are due in large parts to these lucky stars.  

 

What was the biggest challenge you have ever faced in life? 

As a leader, when you are facing your staff who are mostly men, how do you convince them to stay on the same boat with you? This is very important, especially for those that are very capable and wise. You want them to stay with you for the long haul. I believe that, as a leader, you need to lead the entire company, and it doesn’t matter if you are male or female. The requirement for leadership is more or less the same, though slightly more demanding as a woman.  

The second point is that you need to admit that you are not capable in everything. You need to ask for help. I also want to emphasise the fact that, as a female boss, you cannot afford to be too aggressive. Creating positive motivation is a lot more effective and meaningful than forcing your team to do something.  

Personally, I did not deliberately prepare my career path to reach the position as a CEO or General Manager. In fact, it was never about becoming a boss. Rather, it was about knowledge and capability.  

When you have these elements in place, you will find that, once the opportunity presents itself to you, you will be able to seize it. It is hard to say how to prepare ourselves to be a female leader, but I think developing your capabilities is something we all need to do.  

 

You seem to have gathered a lot of business wisdom over the years. How much of that is attributable to your role as a business leader? 

Do I see Immvira, first and foremost, as a business venture? Absolutely not. Since the very beginning, Immvira’s mission was to serve its patients. This is very important. I think it’s been a real privilege to have such an opportunity. That’s because many people who want to do it may not necessarily have the capability to do so. As such, I do think that it is less about the business.  

With that said, as the CEO, I do have to think about the business perspective from time to time. The key is to always put the ultimate mission — that is, to serve our patients — as the priority. When I first considered doing something meaningful to everyday folks — that is, to do translational research and produce drugs in the future — many of my best friends were diagnosed, one after the other, with different forms of cancers. These stories have truly motivated me along the journey. It has given me a mission and meaning for the work that I do, and it’s more important than the amount of money we earn or how much we raise via IPO. This is a road with no return. You must do it and complete it, no matter the difficulties ahead.  

Many people have asked me in the past what it is like to switch from being a scientist to becoming an entrepreneur. There certainly have been many obstacles that I have had to overcome. However, instead of seeing them as obstacles, you need to see them as challenges. As for the rest, leave nature to its course.  

 

This is one of the many stories in our Leading Women series. For more inspiring stories of women breaking conventions and taking the lead in Asia Pacific, visit the official Page Executive blog below: 

 

在这个世界上董事会的成员里面绝大部分都是男性,无论是女性的高管还是女性的创始人都非常的少。其实您作为一个创始人,您如何在这样竞争中脱颖而出? 

这是一个很有意思的问题。我同时也带博士、硕士、博士后。一个非常奇怪的现象,其实当我们在招收学生的时候,不管是硕士也好,博士也好,考试考得非常好的,或者来考你这个专业的,绝大部分都是女孩子。但是过10年20年以后,你再到这个行业,你再看这些行业领袖的时候,很惊讶,很多的时候你发现女生又非常的少。所以其实我也蛮感慨,觉得什么东西让女生丢了,落后了,甚至消失了。 

但是我自己觉得走到今天,我很少去看自己说:“你是一个女性,女生,你是一个女性企业家”。因为当你弱化女生身份,你就是和男生是一样一起工作。什么时候我觉得女性的成分会多一点?当你面对很多的员工,你作为一个女性老板,你有自己独特的敏感细腻的那个时候,你会体会到是个女性。我觉得人不管是男性女性你要能够快速学习,快速响应。你好好的把自己的事情做好,就能成功。  

 

其实作为领导者,我也有一个问题,如何让自己更加自信呢?  

其实我觉得有一个比较重要的一点,你要非常的真实。真实意味着你的内心必须要有很多的积累。你的脑子里有很多的知识积累。其实你不是去做到自信。我们经常用英文说“You are not doing,you are being”。  

第二个我觉得自信其实不仅是表现在我知道什么。自信其实也表现在当你缺乏某些知识的时候,你可以非常大胆的去承认,说这部分我不知道,能不能请你告诉我。我觉得这也是自信。其实当你特别真实地来表现你自己的时候,不管你知道还是不知道,你的自信已经在了。  

另外就是我刚好有一个有个特点。我每次碰到困难的时候,我第一个反应一定不是好不知所措怎么办?我不会让自己在不知所措里边呆太长的时间。我基本上最快的反应就是来看看,有什么东西可以解决吗?解决方法是什么?那么当你一知道有解决方法的时候,其实这个困难还在那里,但你已经不怕了。 

 

您是否遇到过一些职场偏见呢?你怎么去解决和面对这些问题呢? 

我心比较大,我不是特别敏感于那些偏见。我觉得我不仅没有感受到了这种偏见。我甚至觉得女性身处这么多优秀的企业家科学家中,其实应该是有很多的优势。因为我经常跟大家分享,说女性尤其是非常强大的女生,其实只要你不是强势的,你会是一个很受欢迎的人。如果你是足够聪明的一个人,足够反应快的一个人,甚至有一些幽默感的。当你有这种特质的时候,你跟男生那些特别成功的企业家在一起的时候,你会是一个受欢迎的人。 

所以我反而觉得我应该没有碰到,也许是因为我不是特别敏感,我觉得我没有碰到我所意识到的这些所谓的偏见,反而我觉得我周围的朋友贵人很多,在每一个我特别重要的时刻都会有贵人自己来帮助我。所以我觉得我还是蛮幸运的,老实讲,走到今天幸运的成分很多。  

 

您觉得包括现在您所遇到最大的挑战是什么? 

当你成为了领导,面对的绝大部分员工都是男生。作为一个女老板,你怎么样让他们口服心服地愿意跟着你在一条船上。我觉得下属的员工是不是心悦诚服的?尤其下属的员工也非常有能力有智慧的这样的员工能不能跟你一起前进。这一点来讲,作为女性的领导者,第一个还是那句话,她自己必须是一个永远走在整个公司或者我们的企业前面的,一个能够带领大家。我觉得对男生对女生一样的,但是对女生要求可能更高一些。  

第二个你必须要勇于承认,当你做不到的时候,你需要敢于求助她人。一个还是那句话,我觉得女生作为一个老板更不要去强势,你如果能够让大家激发起来动力,远远比你说你要迫使他们要走得快更有意义。  

我觉得我没有说刻意的去预备我走职场的这条路,一定要成为一个CEO,成为老总。但是事实上我们不是预备成为一个老总,而是我们的知识的储备,能力的积累。  

那么当你把这些事情做好的时候,一旦有机会,你把它好好的抓住。所以我很难说我们怎么样来预备自己做一个女性领导者,但是我觉得我们自己的能力的培养是永远是一个功课。 

 

从刚才您的回答当中,我觉得您是一个活得非常通透的人,不知道这个跟您现在所做的事业是直接相关吗? 

我看待亦诺微其实更多的是从商业的角度吗?绝对不是。因为亦诺微从第一天开始就确定了他的使命,一定是要去拯救我们的患者。我觉得这一辈子有机会参与这么一个伟大的事业,是很少有人真的是能够亲身想做又可以做的这个事情。我觉得太伟大美好了。所以从这个角度来讲,我可能就会更少的去想它的商业business part。  

然而作为 CEO我必须要去考虑,但是我依旧会把最终的使命放在第一位,这是很确定。自从我在认真地考虑说我们是不是能做一点对老百姓有意义的事情,做一些所谓的转化研究,能够真的是变成一个将来有可能做一个药的,从自从这个念头出来以后,就接二连三碰到我的好几个朋友,确诊了不同的癌症,最后都没有活过很久。那么在那个时候你就会知道你走上的是这条路,它意义本身远远超过了我们的公司融资融了多少,拿到了执照,最后IPO了。这个事业本身已经让你知道这是一条不归路,你必须要做,而且把它做成,不管有多少困难. 

那么也就是因为这样,我觉得我很多人问我,你从科学家现在转变到一个做企业家,会不会有很多的不适应什么,但是我觉得偶尔来讲,当然有很多各种各样大小的障碍,学要学习的很多挑战,但是总体来讲我觉得还是一个水到渠成的事情。  

 

Jesaline Huang

Jesaline Huang
Senior Partner
Asia Pacific, China

This interview was conducted by Jesaline Huang, Senior Partner of Page Executive in South China and Regional Director of Michael Page Shenzhen. She graduated from Guangdong University of Foreign Studies with a Bachelor’s Degree in International Trade and has worked within the senior recruitment industry for 15 years. She specialises in senior executive recruitment within commerce and financial institutions across four disciplines: Finance & Accounting, Financial Services, Human Resources, IT & Technology.

Jesaline has vast experience in both recruiting generalist management and niche technical areas. She has worked with Chinese companies, assisting them to build up their organisational framework with the ambition for capitalisation and globalisation. She is also an expert in recruiting talent for MNCs looking to further penetrate Southern China.

Jesaline has successfully placed diverse senior candidates not limited to CEO, CFO, CIO, M&A Director, HRVP, Risk Director, Vice President of Corporate Strategy, CFO, CRO, Internal Audit Director, Risk Director, Head of Institutional Sales. Her clients include MNCs, Chinese listed groups, Chinese state-owned conglomerate and local government organizations across consumer products & FMCG, Trading & Sourcing, Industrial, High-tech, IT&T, Retail, Electronic, Automotive, Property & Real Estate, Energy & Resources, global reputable investment banks, commercial banks, assets management, PE/VC, Securities and Futures and more.

Partner with Jesaline Huang to strengthen your senior leadership team.