If you ask a Chinese person who the most successful businesswoman in China is, many will say Dong Mingzhu.
Dong is a popular yet complicated figure in the public eye. She started at the bottom and become the head of a multibillion dollar corporation. Outspoken and assertive, the media dubbed her “iron woman.”
Dong has served as the president of the Gree Electric Appliance, a $22 billion manufacturing company, since 2001. Gree is best known for its global leading status in air-conditioning technology. As of 2019, Gree’s residential air conditioner sales have been the largest in China for 25 years. The entire company generated over $12 billion in revenue that year.
On December 8, 2020, Forbes released its annual “The World’s 100 Most Powerful Women” list. Dong ranked 47th. She is one of only six women from Mainland China who made it on the list. She is undoubtedly the most famous one due to her legendary life story.
Dong’s Rise to the Top
Dong seized business opportunities in the 90s with the marketization of China. After her husband died, Dong quit her administrative job at a chemistry lab. She then joined Gree as an entry-level saleswomen in 1990.
The new job at Gree required Dong to move to the southern city of Zhuhai. Thus, Dong had to leave her three-year-old son with his grandmother in her hometown of Nanjing.
Dong’s bold choice proved to be ingenious. Upon joining Gree, she quickly showed enormous competence in her work. Gree assigned her to Anhui, a much poorer province compared to the coastal ones.
Despite this, her team managed to produce one-eighth of Gree’s annual sales.
She went on to defend the business interests of her own company. In the 90s, manufacturers commonly outsourced product sales to professional sales agents.
Those agents often withheld payments, resulting in a lack of cash flow. Dong confronted this unfair market practice by refusing to supply products to agents who couldn’t adhere to the contract.
Initiatives like these earned her the title “iron woman” within the industry. This competence, toughness, and loyalty paved the way for her rapid promotion.
Within years, she became a key figure in Gree’s senior management team. In 2001, she became the president of the manufacturing giant.
Dong’s story represents the dream of any person to achieve success in contemporary China. She was born in a working-class family, didn’t receive good education, and went through traumas in life. But she never gave up and eventually climbed from the bottom to the top with her own efforts.
Unafraid to Speak Out
Though an established entrepreneur, Dong has recently gained popularity among Chinese youth. This young generation admires her extreme outspokenness.
Quotes from Dong are widely circulated online. For example, her recent assertion, “I never admit my wrongdoings because I’m always right”.
One of the best known stories of Dong is her bet with Lei Jun, the chairman of Xiaomi.
In 2013, the chairman publicly challenged the chairwoman. They bet that “if the annual revenue of Xiaomi surpassed that of Gree in five years, Dong needs to pay Lei a billion yuan, and vice versa.” It turned out that Dong won the game.
As a state delegate, Dong is also vocal on public affairs. Just days ago, in the 2021 Two Sessions, Dong co-sponsored two bills on tax reform and technological investment. At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Gree manufactured urgently-needed medical equipment.
Controversies surrounding Dong
Tough, powerful and assertive, Dong represents the Chinese definition of an “iron woman.”
However, the powerful businesswoman has faced controversies over the years. She receives criticism from both conservatives and feminists.
Conservatives accuse her of being a bad mother, to which Dong fiercely objects. Feminists show discontent with her authoritarian, “male-like” leading style. They think Dong’s success reinforces the stereotypical assumptions of successful women.
In my opinion, these critics are problematic. No one has the authority to define what a successful woman looks like. Women should pursue their professional careers in diverse ways without limitations.
“Iron woman” or not, Dong’s story is undoubtedly a triumph. Originally underprivileged, she claimed her power.