I said yes

Rags to riches, smartphones, Mother's Day, and 7 other things worth your time.

Her mom died when she was just five years old. Her father was nearly blind after a factory accident.

So at age 16, she dropped out of school and went to work in a factory, making lenses for watches.

“I worked from 8 a.m. to 12 a.m., and sometimes until 2 a.m.,” she later recalled. “There were no shifts, just a few dozen people, and we all polished glass. I didn't enjoy it.”

She needed the money, and there were many others lining up to replace her. But, she wanted something more out of life. So, the teen-aged girl went to her boss after only three months, thanked him for the opportunity, but said she planned to leave.

Instead of letting her go, her boss promoted her. And, this brave move turned out to be Step 1 on the girl’s long road to immense wealth.

Let me introduce you, if you don’t already know her, to Zhou Quenfei, the world’s wealthiest self-made woman, with a fortune hovering somewhere around $12.6 billion.

She’s the founder and chairwoman of Lens Technology Co., which is one of the world’s biggest manufacturers of touch screens for companies like Apple and Samsung.

Zhou is fairly reclusive, although she sat down for lengthy profiles and interviews back in 2015 or so, just before her company went public. Both the The South China Morning Post and The New York Times covered her; I picked up on the story.

But I have to admit, afterward I kind of forgot about her, until—of all things—I was putting together the fifth monthly installment of the year-long “best inspirational quotes” feature I’ve been writing for Inc.com.

For May, since Sunday is Mother’s Day (how many readers did I just save with that reminder?), I wanted to compile quotes from working moms who became very successful in business.

Zhou is a mom; she has two children, so I was happy to include her. Granted, her quote isn’t the most inspiring thing ever (although of course I was limited to things that have been translated into English):

"When you have the ability to learn, you have the ability to continue to grow. ... The clients won't give you a better price for your products simply because you have a higher degree, but your knowledge of the business will help maintain the competitiveness of your company."

Still, I liked that it’s very direct and pragmatic, which is how she’s come across in interviews.

Now 50 years old, Zhou reportedly turned that first promotion into a string of different businesses, all manufacturing lenses — 11 by my count — most of which failed or struggled.

"Twice I had to sell my house to pay my employees' salary," she said in the 2015 interviews. But, in 2003, a major mobile phone company (I think it was Motorola; not 100 percent clear from the accounts), called out of the blue to ask if she could retool her factory to make screens for mobile phones.

"They said, 'Just answer yes or no, and if the answer's yes, we'll help you set up the process,'" Zhou recalled. "I said yes."

Business soared. Then, it went into the stratosphere when Steve Jobs and Apple introduced the iPhone in 2007, and Lens Technology Co. got the first big contract to make its screens. Now, the company is worth the equivalent of about $19 billion in U.S. dollars.

This is the part of this feel-good, rags-to-richest story where I have to include an asterisk.

It’s that the last time Zhou and Lens Technology Co. made headlines, it was in December, when the company was accused of “using forced Muslim labor in its factories,” as part of Apple’s supply chain, according to a human rights group.

The Washington Post reported the allegations, and quoted an Apple spokesman saying it had investigated and was satisfied that they weren’t accurate. (“Apple has zero tolerance for forced labor,” the spokesman said.)

I also can’t find any follow-up reporting by the Post or other media since December. Since I can’t exactly go to China myself and follow up with original reporting, for now, I’ll just be grateful for the chance to remember the good lessons of Zhou’s story.

As Pascal famously said, “Chance favors only the prepared mind.“ But when chance does come your way, and somebody offers you what could be a fantastic opportunity, have the courage to say yes.

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Happy Mother’s Day to my mom, my wife, my godmother (who is also my aunt), my sisters, my mother-in-law, my sisters-in-law, my friends who are moms, my friends’ moms—basically, all the moms out there. Have a great weekend!

7 other things worth your time

  • Millions of Americans are unemployed. So, why can’t companies find workers? (Some answers: fear of Covid, lack of child care, and enhanced unemployment benefits.) (WSJ, $)

  • Literally yesterday, I was telling everybody, "don't worry." Today, there is an out of control Chinese rocket that is going to crash into the earth somewhere — and we can't really predict where. The White House is weighing in; I suppose at last resort we send fighter jets up to destroy it or something. (Space.com)

  • After the subway collapse in Mexico City Monday that killed 25 and injured 80, a 34-year-old man is reflecting on what saved him. Erik Bravo, a financial adviser, said his decision to walk from toward the front of the train to be closer to his stop, just minutes before the crash, turned out to be the difference between life and death. (AP)

  • New York City has a new idea for tourists: free vaccines for out-of-towners. It’s not yet approved by the state, but the city says it’s working on it, as part of a drive to get visitors to return. (NBC New York)

  • In other vacation news: free cruises! But with a catch. Under CDC guidelines, cruise lines have to run two to seven-day practice voyages, with volunteer passengers making up at least 10 percent of the normal capacity. “The ship operator must tell passengers that they are simulating untested safety measures ‘and that sailing during a pandemic is an inherently risky activity,’ the CDC guidelines state.” (SF Gate)

  • Bit of a warning: Add up everything from the last 15 months or so, and we now apparently have a shortage of pool chlorine and propane tanks for gas grills in the USA. (CBS Local)

  • See fewer people? Take fewer showers. (This is your New York Times trend story of the day.) (NYT, $)

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Thanks for reading. Photo courtesy of Pixabay. I wrote about Zhou way back in 2015 on Inc.com. Want to see all my mistakes? Click here.

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