Women are supposed to hold up half the sky in China, but Jane Sun Jie is one of very few to have reached the stratosphere.
“My career is a reflection of China’s 40 years of development and opening up,” says Shanghai-born Sun, who is one of the few female chief executives in the country.
Born during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) – she won’t say exactly when – Sun was fortunate to receive a good education.
“When I was a student at Peking University, China had just opened its doors and Deng Xiaoping allowed students to go abroad,” recalls Sun, who departed for the University of Florida on a scholarship. “I was among the first [mainland Chinese students] to go to the United States to study.
“After I graduated, I went to Silicon Valley, which was booming thanks to the AOLs and Netscapes. I started to work closely with internet companies because my husband [John Wu Jiong] joined Yahoo in 1996, as the chief engineer who developed the search engine.”
In 2000, when the dotcom bubble burst, Wu received a call from a friend of the couple, Jack Ma, who offered her the role of first chief technology officer at Alibaba.
“We had a debate about whether I should stay in the USA to let my career grow or return to China,” Sun says. “China was growing at 8 to 10 per cent, while the US’ economy expanded 3 to 4 per cent. Obviously, China was crying out for talent that could connect it with the world.”
The couple decided to return, and never looked back.
“In 2005, Ctrip was looking for a new chief financial officer and I was very blessed with the opportunity to lead this company,” says Sun.
Ctrip now has a 60 per cent market share in China and is ranked second in the world by gross merchandise volume, with more than 150 million monthly active users. The company posted a 39 per cent rise in revenues to 26.8 billion yuan (HK$30.3 billion) in 2017, when its market value reached US$20 billion, or 40 times its market cap in 2003, the year it was listed on the Nasdaq.
“Every step I took has a historical reason behind it,” Sun says. “China opened the doors and I had the opportunity to go abroad to study; the internet took off and I got an interest in the new economy; and finally China started to shine, and we came back to complete our circle. I’ve learned from this that following the trend is very important.”
But now that she herself is the trendsetter, empowerment is at the top of her agenda.
“The first time I went to Japan as chief financial officer of the company, our counterparts bowed at our chairman but they didn’t even shake my hand, because they assumed I was the assistant. I don’t think they were trying to hurt my feelings, they just thought being a young female chief financial officer is sort of unthinkable,” recalls Sun, with a forgiving smile. “Something similar happened when I joined a delegation of entrepreneurs to Silicon Valley. At the dinner, many asked me where my husband was, assuming I was just the spouse of someone in the delegation.”
Sun gives two reasons for women struggling to reach top positions in business.
“First, as mothers we take a lot of responsibility for raising children. And, being a wife, caring for the home is naturally on your shoulders. So lots of women wonder whether they can balance work and family, and they give up on [their careers].
“Second, society still has a lot of bias against women. We must fight for equality.”
Sun leads by example, having introduced progressive incentives at Ctrip.
“Instead of firing women when they get pregnant, we will provide them a taxi service for free. And when the baby is born, we give them 800 yuan as a welcome gift, and 3,000 yuan as an education subsidy. Also, we are hiring more female students with advanced degrees. We found that some can’t decide whether they want to have a child before starting their career or after. So, rather than asking them to make a rushed decision, we offer to freeze their eggs at no cost.”
Employees with infants can use Ctrip’s kindergartens.
But there is still some way to go. Although more than 50 per cent of Ctrip’s employees are women, they account for only 40 per cent of middle management and 30 per cent of executives.
“Because men and women have different strengths and weaknesses, they are created to complement each other,” Sun says. “Women are very good at team building, communication and empathy, which is very important to reach a deal.”
Sun hopes more companies will learn to appreciate female talent.
“I have faced these obstacles before,” she says. “That’s why I know what has to be done to eliminate unnecessary barriers.”