Based in Beijing and Singapore, Elaine Zhou is a leadership development coach, inspirational speaker, and serial entrepreneur. She is passionate about the role of women in business and has been regularly featured on Global Times, Asia Entrepreneur Org, FOX, ABC, CBS, and NBC talking about female entrepreneurship and raising the awareness of the gender equality and challenges women professionals face in the workplace. In an interaction with People Matters, the CEO of CNEW talks about women empowerment and gender equality, the strategic role of HR in business, and more. Established in 2009 in Singapore, CNEW is an international company that provides leadership and personal development solutions.
Starting with CNEW International to being a certified leadership coach, how has the journey been so far?
I came to Singapore 13 years ago where I started my career as a human resource intern for a couple of years. Then, eventually, I worked as a Head HR APAC. This is something that I will always cherish. I was 23 years old when I started my first business and 25 Years with the second business. Unfortunately, those didn’t really work well. That was the turning point in my life and that marked the transformation of my life. I had learned the hard way and I had to start from the scratches. Language is a big barrier for me. I started to look for personal Investment through professional development and landed up a job in Maxwell. I did a certification program in leadership and became a certified coach, mentor, and speaker. That’s how I started my venture as a training and development organization.
The Journey has always been challenging. As a trainer, it is not only about the skill sets and framework but more about the experience which you garner and accordingly guide and mentor your clients. It took me about two years to develop a credible tracking record in Singapore and thereby provide leadership solutions to many.
During my venture, we realized there is a big gap between the East and the West. Singapore is indeed a westernized country in terms of cautious thinking. China is completely different. I got a chance to engage in different workshops and events and found out that there is a big gap in the development of women in the west and Singapore. China, of course, is an extremely fast-growing economy and people of China face tremendous pressure. This pressure is due to the transition from old society to the new especially for women who are taking up professional roles.
The gender equality gap is huge in China and that’s how I came up with a vision and mission to help and equip the local women and build a support system for them which aligns with the bigger policy introduced by the president of China, Xi Jinping, who had always advocated for the Nation and its people for an everlasting success and economic growth. This is how I started my journey in CNEW Women Equipping Centre in China.
Business in China is like swimming in the Ocean where you have to completely expose yourself. You never really know what kind of people will you be meeting. It is a huge market with a lot of temptations and opportunities. We have directly and indirectly reached out to more than 5000 women and equipped them through our workshops. So far we have 2000+ members. Other cities where we have our centers are Shanghai and many more. We are also partnering with Women Federation which is a govt body who have the same vision to develop and support women. That’s how we are planning to build our brand and increase our reach
What inspired you to start the initiative of empowering women?
As a woman, of course, I had to take years and years to figure out who I am and what I am. In my mission to nurture women, I relate it to my background and where I have come from. When I came to Singapore, I didn’t know a single word of English and had absolutely no one to communicate my thoughts except to my mentor. I was determined enough to start all over again from the scratches and establish myself in this foreign land. The burning desire should come from within us. China is a very male dominant country and with the economy growing so fast there are a lot of women who have stepped into the workforce as well. But gender bias is something that cannot be ignored. 10 years back, People were fighting for food and basic security and now people have a higher sense of fulfillment and security. Our foundation as a training company provides tools to develop the attitude and mindset thrive. The purpose of transformation has to start within yourself. I used to teach in China where people used to look at me with Blank faces as to what am I talking about. Slowly, people are now focusing on making a life and looking for a purpose. This is the best that we are dong in China.
What are the major trends that you see in the HR sector today?
While I was working as an HR assistant during the starting of my career, what I witnessed is that the role of HR has transformed drastically. HR is becoming more critical in terms of decision making and are now more involved in strategy making because in the end, it is about the people and HR is playing a passive role in supporting the business as a whole. It is becoming proactive in pushing the business and build a massive human talent. I was fortunate enough to have a mentor who had guided me during my job. He constantly reminded me that it is not merely a routine task and that I had to be more functional and proactive as an HR. I had to equip myself with the business acumen and develop a perspective as to how the role of HR is not just departmental but directly related to business growth.
No matter it is the east or the West, we are experiencing a shift from traditionally managing people to empowering the people. These are two completely different. We are not any more managing people but we are now empowering them irrespective of which generation they belong to. Keeping in mind the multi-generational dynamics of the organization, HR must focus on inspiring them and engage with them to bring out the true potential of an employee.
What is that one biggest challenge you had faced in the journey of unlocking leadership potential in Women?
The number one challenge and killer to women to rise up is self-confidence. This comes out naturally because of the biology in the Gender biological difference. I have come across many people in China and Singapore where women completely indifferent in terms of leadership.
For example, there is a man and a woman who are applying for the same job. The man who has only 50% of the competencies believes that he will get the job but the women who have a hundred percent competency had indifferent thoughts about getting the same job.
Another challenge that we have faced in Singapore, with most of our clients is that Men have a very traditional role to play in a family. He is the pillar of the family who has every right to be ambitious to pursue his career(Very normal for them), unlike a woman. They would be pinpointed at every step, therefore making her strangled between the thoughts whether to rise up or not. Women always have an extended responsibility to taking care of the domestic and family. Sometimes it does happen that if a woman is promoted in her organization, she denies fearing the that circumstances would become really stressful for her to manage.
Owing to the huge population of China where the female population is just 48.1%. Is gender equality gap narrowing down? If yes, then what is your take? What do you think about other Asian Countries?
There are about 1.4 billion people in China and female takes up about 48.1% of the entire population only. Among that 48.1 %, only 72% of women are working. It has two dynamics.
One is the big urban countries like China, Shanghai and another is the rural villages. China is a huge agricultural country where the gap between the rich and the poor is also very huge. There are only 5-10% of women who are making history in the corporate world and leadership. A middle-class woman who is working in an Industry has to face challenges in terms of family and work. China has introduced a second child policy which is helping a lot of women who are mothers and wives whether to have a second child or not because they won’t be paid for a year without working and eventually has to lose her job. Another set of women are a fresh graduate who would be starting their career and are either in engaged or in a relationship would not be offered a job easily as she will eventually get married and the company has to pay her without her working for a year. We need to change the mindset of society and give a fair chance to everyone and motivate them to pursue their dream career.
We have done two market pieces of research in China and Singapore about gender parity. Singapore is the top country in Asia who have done very well for gender equality even though there are family responsibilities as well. Both men and women have equal pay and chance as well. Rest of the Asian countries, Japan is still a very traditional norm which is more conservative than China and other south-east Asian countries, Like Indonesia, Vietanam. These countries in terms of gender parity , I believe there is a gap between gender equality in the family and in the workplace.
My vision is to make China, the headquarter from the eastern part. I really want to connect to SEA and west as well to advocate and encourage women voice.
What potential do you see in India in terms of Women Entrepreneurship? Any Expansion plans?
I believe India has more potential than China because people are well acquainted with the language i.e. English. For China, language is the big barrier to entry into the market for doing business. I believe women working professionals and entrepreneurs in India are developing more every day. In the next 3-5 years, India will be a huge and advantageous market economy.
There are people who have approached me in India who want to collaborate with us for women empowerment. In the next 2-3 years, we also have that global mission and plan where we can build a strong alliance in the journey of motivating women. But currently, our main focus is China market and we want to set up networks and connect to 1st tier cities and 2nd tier cities.