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Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Gulnara’s Gamble

This is part of a series of alumni stories to highlight the role CEIBS has played, and will continue to play in the years ahead, as a role model of effective China-EU cooperation, a platform to further enhance China-EU communication and cooperation – both in business and culture – along with providing a window into China's reform and opening up in the education sector.

March 28, 2018. Bologna, Italy - Gulnara Abdullina has found a way to have it all. Her secret: setting herself daunting goals and being smart enough to accept help from her family and networks when she needs support. After graduating from the CEIBS MBA programme in 2009, a tough year to be job hunting as the effects of the global economic crisis were still being felt, the Russian national took a leap of faith by joining an unknown Chinese solar energy company, becoming Jinko Solar’s only foreign employee at the time. Eight years on, Jinko is the largest solar manufacturer in the world and from Italy Gulnara leads a team of 20, spread across nine countries. “I’ve come a long way during my journey with Jinko, starting well below my level of expectations, working very hard to earn the trust of the Chairman and top management, growing together with the company, staying agile and resilient in a tough industry and during organisational storms. But in the end I’m reaping long-term rewards,” she says during our interview in 2017 as she begins maternity leave. She knows a second child will mean adjusting her lifestyle yet again; but she’s no stranger to leaps of faith. She gave up plans of doing an MBA in the US after her then boyfriend – now her husband – suggested she take a look at China. After her CEIBS MBA, she switched to a completely new industry and function, and she’s carved out a niche for herself at Jinko Solar, and in the wider industry. Read on for Gulnara’s inspirational story:-

TheLINK: You’re a great example of today’s global business executive, you’re from Russia, you did your MBA at CEIBS in China, before that you lived in the US and now you’re working for a Chinese firm in Italy. How did you initially land the job at Jinko Solar and what has it been like working for a Chinese company?

I think we were the least fortunate MBA class, having graduated in a post-crisis 2009 with very few job prospects and a hiring freeze which also touched, although to a lesser extent, China. It took us months – and some people over a year – to get a job we aspired for, or just any job. ‘Expensive’ expats were gradually sent back to their home countries, replaced by foreign-born or foreign-educated executives of Chinese origin. In addition, job-hunting westerners started flocking into China, hoping to try their chances in an emerging market.

I was looking to change both my industry and function post-MBA. As a foreigner in China, I had very few choices back then. I could not be of help to either international or local companies targeting the local market, and multinationals were mostly hiring local talent. So I decided to focus on Chinese companies going global. Back then this was seen as less prestigious than working for a renowned international corporation, but I knew this was the segment were I could add most value to the enterprise.

My MBA summer internship was at a renewable energy company in the fuel cells industry. This turned into a part-time job while I was finishing the second year of my CEIBS MBA. The company eventually offered me a full-time position, but ultimately we didn’t come to terms so I didn’t take the job. But this exposure to renewables made me take a closer look at the solar industry. It also helped that my then-boyfriend-now-husband had been working in the solar industry, so I had a mentor at home. Being industry-illiterate, I began learning everything I could about the sector from reading industry magazines, talking to people in the industry, attending exhibitions and going booth-by-booth, trying to speak with executives. This approach reaffirmed my interest in the industry and landed me a few interviews – all with Chinese solar firms, some listed in the US.

A couple months later, I had two offers on the table. One was with a US-listed company, the then industry leader and a well-run organisation. They were offering a good package with perks – but for a boring, well-defined role with little growth prospects. The other offer was from Jinko, a three-year-old, small but ambitious company with no foreigners at all. They were offering me a bilingual labour contract, with the Chinese version prevailing in case of any dispute; I was going to be employed under local standards, there were no benefits, and the salary was lower than that of my pre-MBA job as a Department head at Macy’s, once the US’ largest department store. But it was an exciting and promising role leading international sales. I took my husband’s advice, took a risk and picked Jinko. A year later the company was publicly listed in New York, and I was rewarded for my early entry, both in terms of growth opportunities and remuneration. Eight years later, Jinko is the largest solar manufacturer in the world.

TheLINK: You’ve been promoted four times during your eight years and obviously your early gamble on an unknown company paid off. Tell us a bit more about your Jinko journey and the most important lessons you’ve learned along the way?

I was hired in the summer of 2009 as Senior International Sales Manager, as part of a new company initiative to go international. I was based in the company HQ in Shanghai for three years, then in 2012 I was given the opportunity to transfer to our location in Italy as my husband was moving there for his business.

For some time, when I was in Shanghai, I was the only foreigner working at Jinko. My experience with Chinese classmates at CEIBS minimised the cultural gap of working with an all-Chinese team, but I still faced quite a few struggles. It helped that at that time I could just pop into the office of the Board Chairman (who is still the largest individual shareholder of the company) and discuss current opportunities and challenges – this was all in Chinese, as he did not speak English. Along with feedback, he would always tell me: “Show me your value!” Those months of building trust and demonstrating results were some of the most challenging ones in my professional life.

In 2010, as Jinko was preparing to list in the US, they hired a well-known industry executive, Arturo Herrero from Spain, for the role of Chief Commercial Officer. He became my new boss and a good mentor for a number of years. With the listing, and the expertise of my new boss, the company needed a new department: Business Development. I had to create that from scratch. From 2011, I served as Global Business Development Director, with a team around the world, which also included setting up a manufacturing facility in South Africa.

As the industry progressed and grew, penetrating more countries on each continent, it became literally impossible to have a good grip on the global market, so we regionalised offices and roles to stay closer to our end markets. In 2013, just back from maternity leave when I had my daughter Sofia, I stepped straight into a Business Development Director role responsible for the emerging markets of Africa, Middle East and Latin America.

As the industry evolved, further localisation was needed, and since 2015 I’ve been General Manager for the Middle East and Africa, one of the company’s eight regions and with revenue of $270 million, leading a cross-functional team of 20 professionals, spread across nine countries.

The biggest lesson I learned working for a Chinese company is to stay flexible and open minded, not to shoot back immediately but to pick your battles. I learned to step back and see an opportunity in every challenge. This was not easy coming out of the US’ straight-forward, to-the-point corporate culture. I am, by nature, not political, so it took me a while to develop my diplomatic skills, pay attention to guanxi, build strategic alliances, and so on. But I learned that if you have the right approach, management will listen; so you need to build a strong argument around your idea and chances are it will be considered.

TheLINK: You’re now expecting your second child. How do you expect being the mother of two will impact your professional life?

I had my first child four years ago, when I was already living in Italy. My job requires a lot of travelling. Prior to becoming a mother, I was travelling 75% of my time.

I don’t want to deceive myself or anyone: it’s not easy, and I’m not perfect in any sense. I’m trying to have it all – but by prioritising and cutting out what’s not important. Both roles, a mother and an executive, are important for me. Having just one, I would not feel as fulfilled.

When I got back from maternity leave four years ago I jumped right into a new role and new markets, which required my full attention and a considerable amount of intercontinental travelling. My priorities shifted; so instead of spending a weekend somewhere in Brazil or Kenya, I would rush back home on a Friday night flight after being away from my family for a week.

I could only do it because I have a proper support structure in place. My husband is an entrepreneur in the solar industry. His company is based in Italy, and he works extensively with Asia so he travels a lot as well. Without his continuous support and encouragement, I would not be where I am right now. When I was doing my MBA at CEIBS, he worked outside of Shanghai most of the week. But he still became part of an extended CEIBS family, making friends of his own in the CEIBS community.

In 2012, after a year-and-a-half in a long distance relationship, I followed him once again, from China to his native Italy. I had gained the trust of Jinko’s management, so they finally gave me the green light for a transfer to Europe. Through it all, my husband has always been the one holding me accountable and pushing me to reach new heights, to stay focused and persevere. In Europe we don’t have live-in help, so we rely on babysitters, day care and grandparents.

It took me a while to overcome a sense of guilt for not being there for my daughter full-time. But then I realised that if I had to give up my career to be a full-time mom, she would have an unhappy mother who would project her sense of unfulfilled expectations onto the whole family. I’ve found a balance by spending quality time while with her, where I am fully present and engaged. I try to lead by example, as I want my daughter to grow up to be self-confident, independent; someone who dares to dream, who dares to try.

In my GM role, I’ve been able to keep my travels under 30%, which I’ve found manageable. The dynamics will change for sure with two children, so I will have to find a new equilibrium and make new arrangements.

TheLINK: What do you remember most about your time at CEIBS and about your time in China in general? How has CEIBS benefited/shaped your life?

CEIBS is a great brand, particularly well-recognised in China, and a good starting point to create a professional platform, especially if you intend to work with or in China.

For me, it was a life-changing experience; it broadened my horizons, took me to a different level of thinking and a whole new way of seeing things. I don’t think I would have thrived in a Chinese company without having had my time at CEIBS. I’ve made lasting friendships and I keep in touch with former classmates. It was a great time, a blend of learning and fun.

Having a CEIBS MBA was an advantage at Jinko Solar where it was highly regarded. A few of the company’s top executives also did their MBA or EMBA at CEIBS, and it was nice hearing our CEO address me as tongxue, which means classmate. It also opened doors in other countries. Once when I was in Ghana, I ran into a Nigerian gentleman with a CEIBS pin on his suit, we immediately bonded as fellow alumni, and it was a great ice breaker in establishing a business relationship.

China, particularly Shanghai, is a melting pot, where you can meet people from all walks of life, also where you’re able to mingle and engage with business executives who’re more approachable than they would normally be in the West. I get to China four to five times a year and I’m there for a week each time, but sometimes I miss living there. I don’t miss the pollution, the comparative lack of greenery and outdoor activities, or the growing consumerism. But I do miss the internationalism and dynamics, the pace of growth and development, as well as the Chinese people’s competitive spirit.

Lessons for Laowai

  1. If you’re looking to build a career with Chinese companies – either in or outside of China – talk to a foreigner who works for the company you’re targeting. I’ve seen too many cases where an exceptional professional, who’s done extremely well in a Western company, could not fit culturally in a Chinese corporation.

  2. Once in the job, the first thing you need to do is observe the “not so obvious”, figure out how things are really run and build relationships with key people and departments at all levels.

  3. If you’re working outside of HQ, make sure you spend a lot of time there in the beginning. Go back regularly to keep all rapports warm, to make sure your opinions are being heard and your influence is strong. As in any enterprise, Chinese companies are very result-oriented, but you can’t get results as a solo flier, you need the support of the company and your colleagues.

  4. Be respectful and remember the ancient concept of “saving face”. When it comes to things you don’t like about China, unless asked by very close friends, keep your opinion to yourself.

  5. These days, speaking Mandarin is not mandatory; but if you do, you will earn a great deal of respect from your peers and superiors – it’s an ice breaker. They’ll always praise you and encourage you to learn more.

  6. For women, don’t hesitate to apply for a job in a Chinese company. I’ve never felt that I’ve had fewer opportunities or was discriminated against in any way.

Charmaine N. Clarke