Powerful Women in E-Commerce | Q&A with Maggie Zhou

Ally Feiam By Ally Feiam | 09 Mar 2021

Maggie Zhou, Managing Director of Australia and New Zealand at Alibaba Group, was Jack Ma’s 48th hire. To celebrate International Women’s Day, we sat down with her to discuss her career with Alibaba and how women can feel empowered in the business industry.

Happy International Women’s Day! How will you be celebrating this year?

This year I am speaking at a number of events including one organised by fashion brand White Story and another organised by the Australia China Business Council.  We have also recently launched Alibaba’s The Build Up podcast which profiles many young millennial entrepreneurs and their journeys building start-ups, with many of these founders being women.  It’s an important time for many women to network, share their experiences and also discuss what we can do to mentor the next generation of women.

Looking back at your initial start at Alibaba, what have been the biggest challenges for women in business, and how can they overcome these challenges? 

I was lucky enough to join a forward-thinking tech company that placed merit above gender. I was Jack Ma’s 48th employee and had the opportunity to work alongside the best in the business. 

Alibaba started as an internet company and, at that time in 1999, there were very few women with strong IT skills. However, women had their own advantages in communication and marketing skills, high levels of empathy, and the ability to understand the needs of our customers and products. In these early days, Alibaba overcame these challenges by leveraging the strengths of women to make our marketing, communications and customer engagement more powerful. 

via Alibaba Group

You were Jack Ma’s 48th hire for Alibaba. What was it like to work with the Alibaba team and help build the business from the ground up? 

I feel very proud to this day to be a part of this company. Right from the moment this company was established, our mission has been to make it easy to do business anywhere and that is something that hasn’t changed throughout all of these years. Alibaba was built to be a dream driven company. I like that and it is one of the reasons I have been able to work and keep my passion in this company for such a long time. 

Alibaba.com, our B2B platform, started in 1999 and was built to help a lot of small and medium-sized companies in China who lacked the resources and networks to thrive. Now, we help companies to sell their products all over the world and have a range of other businesses including B2B, C2C, B2C as well as businesses in cloud computing, entertainment, local services and more. 

Alibaba continues to be one of the leading e-commerce platforms on the planet. What is your advice for other businesses that wish to grow following a post-pandemic world, and navigate through times of uncertainty and crises? 

Something I have learnt over the years is that a crisis is an opportunity. This doesn’t mean that the crisis itself is an opportunity, but rather how we can convert it into one. While Alibaba provided many relief measures for merchants outside of China, including Australia, who were selling via Alibaba’s team or global platform throughout the pandemic, on the other hand, we were uncovering the opportunities. Something we noticed was that the coronavirus outbreak was shifting consumer behaviour with many consumers staying indoors, meaning more people were getting used to the convenience and comfort of taking care of their daily living needs digitally. This was, and continues to be relevant when it comes to online grocery shopping. 

What are some of the biggest challenges facing women in the professional business industry in 2021, and what can they do to help other women along the way? 

The importance of mentorship cannot be underestimated in promoting diversity in the workplace. An important part of my career has been having mentors. It doesn’t necessarily need to be someone in the same industry, as long as they can help coach and guide you, and provide support when needed. Mentorship enables connection, guidance, advice and career progression. This is particularly important for those working from home or offsite, to ensure they have the support to reach leadership positions. 

Why is it important for women to support other women in business? 

Women are the foundation of so many Australian and New Zealand businesses. Especially during challenging times like these, it is through the support of other women that many entrepreneurs and professionals have been able to continue to thrive. In an effort to help more women, Alibaba Group is hosting an upcoming virtual ‘The Women Entrepreneurs’ Hub’ One-on-one workshops. This will be held exclusively for women around Australia and New Zealand who are interested in learning directly from strong female leaders from both Alibaba and leading brands around two countries.  

On a personal note, what are some of the proudest achievements you have made in your life for Alibaba or your own professional growth? 

In my early days at Alibaba, I was awarded the first ‘Top Salesperson’ in Alibaba’s history. Working as one of the nine founders of Alibaba’s C2C marketplace Taobao was also a highlight. More recently, being appointed the Managing Director for Australia and New Zealand was a very proud moment in my career.  This role has been a little bit like working for Alibaba in its early start-up days exploring what globalisation looks like for Alibaba.  In this role, I have had the opportunity to work with thousands of Australian and New Zealand businesses with many inspiring company founders in their journey to sell products internationally.

Empowering women to succeed is essential for a modern business to expand and grow. What is some advice you would offer women that are starting their careers in tech or the e-commerce field? 

Globally, we know that there is a significant gender gap in the tech/e-commerce industries, but I believe Alibaba is a great place for women to have a career. My advice to young women who are just starting in the industry is to find where your passion lies and understand your own strengths.

If you have the drive and the willingness, you’re already halfway there. Finally, always keep learning. It can be easy to get complacent, but you need to keep looking for ways to develop your leadership and management skills.

Looking back on your expansive career, is there anything you would change? Why/why not? 

In hindsight, especially as a younger woman in my career, I think I could have been bolder to express my views and opinions particularly in rooms with my superiors. Over the years, I have more confidence to express myself.

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