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.
Q: 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.
Q: 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.
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Q: 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.
Q: 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.
Q: 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:
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