Lean In China champions mentorship, leadership, and mutual support for women across China. Co-founder Virginia Tan talks to Doyenne.sg about how Lean In helps Asian women take leaps of faith in their careers and lives.
Virginia Tan is a force to be reckoned with. She is the founder of Her Startup competition, the first global tech entrepreneurship competition for female founders, and the founding partner of Orenda Ventures, an early stage venture capital fund that invests in startups from Her Startup competition.
Most importantly, Virginia is the co-founder of Lean In China, a professional development platform that supports the goals and aspirations of women across Mainland China. Its Mandarin translation, 励媖, means encouraging women to be excellent.
At the mere age of seven, Virginia’s ambition was to go to England, become a lawyer, and join the United Nations. Today, she has fulfilled the first two by graduating with a law degree from King’s College London and working as a lawyer. She isn’t far off from the third either.
Lean In China has captured the attention of international organisations like UN Women and currently has more than 80,000 members across 20 cities and 50 universities in China. “Large MNCs and Chinese companies come to us in pursuit of partnerships. That’s when I realised that there was a huge need in the market which was unserved,” she says.
Every ounce of her words carries steadfastness and hopefulness for Asian women all over the world. Here’s what the zealous woman has to say about leaning in to lift women up in China.
Doyenne: What does “Lean In” mean to you?
Virginia: What would you do if you were not afraid?
In 2013, we started the first Lean In circle outside of the USA in Beijing, China. We never thought it would grow beyond 10 people. Then it grew to a hundred, a few thousands and then to 80,000 across China. We started spreading from Beijing to other first-tier cities, then second-tier cities, and third-tier cities. From two to 50 university chapters, we aim to reach 100 university chapters by end 2016.
D: Can women really have it all - work, family, professional success, and personal development?
V: I believe so – but perhaps not everything at the exact same time. Sheryl Sandberg said that leaning in doesn’t mean leaning into every moment in your life. There are times when you lean back and your personal life takes priority.
Freedom of choice is the code word for the woman of the 21st century. I think that young women should not have to choose between work and family. As a society, we should do our best to provide social security and support with affordable childcare, work flexibility, and the lack of labels. Society needs to adapt to the needs of women.
If you look closely, many societal norms, such as laws on murder and assault, as well as industries like venture capital and infrastructure, are based on male behaviour and needs. If we can adapt to what women want, I believe we can maximise our full potential for the benefit of society, like achieving greater labour productivity.
I also think it depends on knowing what you want in life and finding ways to make it happen. That includes finding the right life partner who is willing to support you. In many ways, the battle of women, especially in Asia, is in the home. It is where you need to find someone who wants to build an equal partnership.
In China, we see a lot of high-achieving and ambitious women in leadership positions across various industries. Although they are still a minority, it is still inspiring to see. Many companies who want to hire and retain the best talent cannot afford to consider gender as a factor. They simply want the top talent and this benefits women.
D: Tell us about your journey – you recently quit a full time job in finance and law to grow Lean In China.
V: One day, I heard Jack Ma speak at an event about combining a heart for social responsibility with a sustainable operational model. That was the day I decided to take my chances and build Lean In China full-time.
It is rare in life that you build something with your own hands, that has the potential to impact so many people, and get to watch it grow.
“I lean in for every woman who will come after me. Pushing more and more women to the top while trying to lift the rest of us up. This is something our generation needs to take the lead with.”
D: What has been your most satisfying experience at Lean In China?
V: Watching people transform in front of my eyes. Sometimes this transformation is staggering. To see young women who were once quiet, timid and shy transform into leaders who are encouraging and training others – it moves me every single time.
I have seen them give speeches, build their own communities, apply for new jobs, pursue MBAs, start businesses, change industries and always challenging themselves. It really keeps me going.
D: What drives you to achieve success?
V: Passion and responsibility. As an Asian woman, I feel a strong sense of responsibility to women in the region. I feel that those who have been blessed with every privilege and opportunity in our lives ought to help make things better for those who have less.
I lean in for every woman who will come after me. Pushing more and more women to the top while trying to lift the rest of us up. This is something our generation needs to take the lead with.
D: Who was or still is your mentor?
V: I have been very lucky to have many mentors. Some of them are people I’ve known for brief periods of time, as someone just passing through my life. But there is one person I credit with helping me grow professionally. He was a banker client of mine when I worked in the Middle East.
He helped me see what I was truly capable of. He encouraged and taught me a lot about strategy and negotiation. He also helped me make some major career decisions, like growing Lean In China.
D: If your 21-year-old self could see you now, what would she think?
V: She would smile, and heave a sigh of relief. She would think that it’s okay to be lost and restless, and to keep believing that she would find her way.