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Jenny Zeng

Jenny was born in the fifth largest city in China: Guangzhou, population: 15 million. When she was three, she moved to the fifth largest city in Sweden: Linköping, population: 120,000.

“My father managed a laboratory in China. He wanted to pursue a PhD in
Material Engineering, so he sent out handwritten letters to professors all over
the world. One response came: from a professor in LinkoĢˆping who offered him a doctoral position.”

“It was too risky to bring all of us to Sweden, so my mother and I stayed behind until he got settled. Dad left China with 800 US dollars in his pocket.”

Jenny’s mother joined him a year later, leaving two-year old Jenny in China with her grandparents then returning to collect her the following year.

“When you’re so young and you move to a new country, it’s easy to fit in. I learned the language quickly. There was no difference between me and my friends, except that I became the family interpreter at a very young age because my parents did not speak Swedish: handling the administration with doctors, schools, or the tax authorities. At home, I was one person; at school, I showed a different side of myself. I became very adaptable to different environments.”

Jenny’s mom also had a great career in China in international relations for the city government.

“When we moved, Mom made learning Swedish a priority while taking care of me. She later found work in procurement handling Chinese suppliers. The hardest part for my parents was moving from an upper-middle class family to starting all over again from the bottom in a completely new world. They sacrificed their careers for a better life here. I think that jump and starting from scratch was even tougher than the cultural dimension.”

Jenny credits her parents with building their future. They always prioritized her, her education, and the numerous extra-curricular activities.

“They always found the resources to enable that and I’m so grateful. I’m also thankful for the Swedish society because children can do a lot of activities that are not that costly. And education is free, which is an amazing gift.”

Table tennis was the one activity that took most of Jenny’s attention: playing four times a week and competing on the weekends. She competed nationally and claimed the provincial title several times. Jenny believes there is power in doing competitive sports as a child and acknowledges its connection to success as an adult.

“I was one of the only girls out of a group of 20 guys. I learned very early that I had to blend in; If I don’t speak my mind, I’m not going to get any airtime. If I didn’t shower fast enough, no one would wait for me. You always learn things with sports that are not only related to the sport itself, but to the surroundings, the team, and the community. I am a quite straightforward person and I think it may come from that.”

Jenny says you learn to lose in competition. You may win a lot, but you also learn how to lose, and you realize that losing is not that bad.

“I think I got my competitive spirit from my parents who are my biggest role models, as they dared to move to a completely new country without even knowing the language.”

“I have a whole new respect for what they went through. They just never, ever, give up. They told me very early on: ‘You will have to work harder than everyone else, because we cannot help you.’ I never forgot that.”

Jenny is visibly moved thinking of those hand-written letters and that one professor who answered.

“I never talk about this. I have tears because I am so grateful for what they did for me. Dad made a big move and Mom did as well. He left in search of something better in Sweden; and, for a Chinese woman to be okay with that choice, it must have been extremely tough for her too. Still, she always encouraged him.”

Jenny was always an excellent student; it was important for her to do well and to live up to her parents’ very high expectations.

“I had good grades, but I never knew what I wanted to become. I thought perhaps a physician; but after interning at the hospital, I realized it wasn’t for me.”

The guidance counsellor at Jenny’s high school saw her impressive marks and encouraged her to apply to the Stockholm School of Economics.

“There was a program called Shadowing a Student, which my best friend and I used as an excuse because we wanted to go to Stockholm for the weekend. In the end, it was brilliant because an SSE student showed us around the school and discussed an international program where you could even do a project in China. It sounded amazing and I was very interested in what the school had to offer. I applied immediately.”

However, Jenny did not get in.

“I think that was one of the biggest disappointments. Everything had been smooth sailing up to that point. I finally made a decision but was rejected.”

After spending weeks wrestling with what to do for the rest of her life, 18-year-old Jenny picked herself up off the ground, upgraded the only course that she was lacking, and decided to move to France.

“I’ve always been curious to get to know new places, and I love languages. I think the background of growing up with two different cultures inspired me to find out more about the world. I wanted to work abroad, and the easiest way to do that was as an au pair. I didn’t like kids at all, at that point. But I found a family that I loved in the South of France, took care of their children, and really formed a bond with them. I love kids now. France did that.”

Jenny applied to the Stockholm School of Economics again and was accepted.

“I remember my first day: coming up the stairs and shaking hands with people on the Student 45 Association board. We were then divided into groups. You meet all these new people and make new friends. They have been my friends ever since.”

“I remember thinking I didn’t want to be put in a Chinese box of only Chinese students; I was always a bit afraid of that growing up. But I was so drawn to Project China, which aimed to bring China and Sweden closer together. I became the project manager: quite rare for a first-year student. Some of my best friends today, I also met on that project.”

The project was very successful, with an annual turnover of 80,000 euros: purely from corporate sponsorships.

“We were featured in CNN and in Svenska Dagbladet. We arranged corporate fairs, and I went to China twice in a year. We also invited students from Beijing to come visit us.”

“Everything was possible! This is the beauty of having that kind of responsibility as a young student. I would naively pick up the phone and call a major corporation, introduce myself and the project, then ask if the company would like to sponsor us. Many did. In fact, we had four major sponsors that contributed a total of 10,000 euros each. If you never try, you will never succeed.”

Jenny says the most valuable takeaway from Project China had nothing to do with money.

“I always ask people the question of what the best investment they’ve ever made. I hear a lot of different answers from many different perspectives. For me, Project China was probably the very best investment of time, opening my mind to the world’s possibilities. I was 19 years old and was handling about 80,000 euros. What I learned about daring to take responsibility, I will have with me forever.”

The project and the people she met really opened Jenny’s mind to the possibilities that are out there in the world.

Jenny soon decided she would focus more on her schoolwork and not do any more pro bono work. But, as she says, this just kick-started everything else.

“We were working 20-30 hours per week on Project China while maintaining a full course load. But the SSE Student board election was coming up and everyone kept saying that I should run.”

And she did. Jenny was elected the Head of the International Committee.

“I learned so much about leadership and how important it is to build a team that is different from you. Everyone can complement each other. I wasn’t the coolest person, so I got cool people to join the committee; and they made it the coolest committee in the school. I focused on setting the goals and building the project’s infrastructure.”

Jenny was 23 when she was offered a job at Google but wanted to do her master’s instead. The best advice Jenny received came from an SSE graduate who reassured her that she had a lifetime of work ahead of her; she could afford the time to go to graduate school. Jenny completed her graduate studies at the Stockholm School of Economics, receiving double degrees in Accounting and International Management.

“I really focused on my studies. Then, in December, a group of us had just pulled an all-nighter in the computer lab and decided to go to the pub, where I met an SSE student from Switzerland. Marco and I have been together ever since.”

During their master’s degrees, Jenny and Marco went overseas where she did an internship at Google in Dublin, and he did one at an investment bank in London.

After graduate school, Jenny then started working with Ericsson Management Consulting.

“I had written my master’s thesis with Ericsson and was fond of telecommunications and Ericsson’s international presence. The internal consulting setup suited me well as you’re always working within the company, so you see more continuity and progress. I loved all the travelling: I went to Chile, Ireland and Brazil.”

“Marco and I soon became restless though. Our friends started talking about moving to the suburbs, getting engaged, and planning their weddings. I panicked a bit because, if I continued on this trajectory, I could see where my life would be in ten years.”

Jenny and Marco were not ready to settle down completely yet and always wanted to try living in Asia.

“Our first stop was Switzerland where I joined Education First with the vision of relocating to Asia.”

A year later, Marco was hired to work in Hong Kong. Education First was not able to offer Jenny a position in Hong Kong; however, she moved there anyway.

“Moving to Hong Kong without a job was one of the scariest things I have ever done. But then, I thought to myself: ‘What is the worst thing that could happen? The beginning was rough. I still remember one of the headhunters taking a red marker and crossing out everything on my CV except for my Google internship – she had never heard of SSE or Ericsson.”

After five months in Hong Kong, Jenny joined Lazada – the leading E-commerce market-place in Southeast Asia, which started as a Rocket internet company but was acquired in 2016 by the Alibaba Group.

“I was skeptical of joining a rocket internet company; however, it turned out to be one of the best experiences I’ve ever had. Working in the booming e-commerce sector in a high growth market such as Southeast Asia with Alibaba colleagues who were pioneers in the Chinese tech sector was absolutely thrilling. During my three years at Lazada, I changed roles seven

times and was constantly pushed out of my comfort zone. I still can’t believe I was doing presentations about our new API platform to Chinese developers in my then choppy Chinese.”

“The speed and complexity were on a different scale to what I experienced in Sweden: 30,000 cross-border sellers in my portfolio who were selling to 550 million customers in Singapore, Malaysia, the Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam, and Thailand.”

Jenny had never seen that kind of growth before.

“When I left Lazada six years after it was founded, we were already at 6,000 employees. Ali-baba brought in all the best practices from China; new tech features and business models were launched every week. I realized how far ahead e-commerce in Asia was compared to the West. I was so fortunate to learn from the experts.”

Jenny became the link between the Chinese, the Westerners, and the local teams in South-east Asia.

“When Alibaba started injecting its people into Lazada, the cultural clashes and language bar-riers became apparent. The ways of working were completely different: Western management

was used to devoting a lot of time to planning and aligning between the different countries before launching, and the new Alibaba employees just wanted to launch fast and then re-iterate. I could easily see both sides and facilitate the cooperation.”

Jenny speaks about her time with excitement but concludes there was a flip side as well.

“The speed was incredible, but it came at a price. When I started working with Alibaba employees, they introduced me to the term ‘9-9-6’: working 9 a.m.–9 p.m., six days a week. My Chinese colleagues, in fact, worked most days until midnight. When I was working from the Alibaba campus in Hangzhou, I remember returning from the canteen after a late dinner to an office that was still full of people. There were even tents with beds in the corridors.”

The pace was exhausting. Sweden, Switzerland, Hong Kong, and Singapore: Jenny and Marco had lived in four countries in five years.

“We came to a point where we said: ‘What do we want to do next?’ We made a list of 40 factors that we value in life: everything from financial freedom and proximity to friends and family to healthcare and values for our future children.”

“Sweden came out on top over Singapore every time. I like the fact that, despite what you earn, everyone is worth something.”

Jenny and Marco moved back to Stockholm in February 2020 – once again Jenny had to find a new job.

“I wanted to stay within digitalization and e-commerce to bring what I had learned in Asia and apply it in a Nordic context. During most interviews, I often heard that I had very relevant experience but was just too young. When the role as Country Manager for Sweden and Denmark at Komplett Group came up, I was unsure whether I should apply – after all, it was 10 million euro in Profit & Loss responsibility. But I applied and was hired. I am now focused on building that business.”

When asked what the future holds, Jenny smiles and says she doesn’t know.

“In the beginning, I tried to have more goals where I wanted to be, but I soon realized that you never know where you’re going to end up. So, I stopped planning a couple of years ago and started focusing on what I do well and learning as much as possible.”

Jenny has the incessant drive to try anything. She defines herself as an insecure overachiever who always wants to perform well. She has learned in life that failure is not something to fear, so she grasps every opportunity.

“I’ve built four new homes in five years. Having good people around me has always been important, and building relationships is something in which I’ve invested a lot of time. It’s important to always do your best and to never make promises that you cannot keep.”

Jenny is grateful for what she’s learned, for those who have helped, and for the experiences life has brought to her.

“My parents were really the beginning of all this. The expat life I have lived is completely different to the sort of immigrant challenges they faced 30 years ago. They have truly been my inspiration. From them, I’ve learned the importance of daring to try, of working very hard, and of building a family home.”

Eight months later, Jenny and Marco welcomed their first child into this world: a boy they called Timothy.


Text: Karyn McGettigan