Who would have thought that TikTok’s CEO’s job was on the line during a congressional hearing in the United States, but he emerged unscathed.
Despite media outlets questioning “Who is Shou Zi Chew?” The Economist wrote:
“Over a billion TikTok users crave their fifteen seconds of fame. But the social media company’s CEO has no desire to be the center of attention. Few of TikTok’s users would recognize this 40-year-old Singaporean, whose personal TikTok account has only 13 videos from last year. He rarely gives interviews, and his personal Wikipedia page is just 150 words long.”
However, during TikTok’s congressional hearing on March 23, this young CEO, who had always tried to keep a low profile, suddenly became the focus of attention for half the world.
Usually, upon encountering such an elite, the first reaction is for “mommy fans” to try to learn from them. But this time, the excitement transformed them into “girlfriend fans”: Some described him as the real-life “Ji Chong-ryang” (a handsome chaebol in the popular Korean drama “Dark Glory”); others joked, “If there’s no result from the conversation, being handsome is enough”; even many American netizens made short videos mocking the congressmen’s questions.
During the five-hour hearing, he remained calm and focused, facing tough questions from U.S. lawmakers with poise and charm. Coupled with his handsome appearance, he quickly won over countless fans.
As more of his personal story was uncovered, Shou Zi Chew’s image has become synonymous with the “elite template” and “business male god.” With an education from top universities and an international background, coupled with an enviable career path, he has created a nearly perfect resume, leaving many ordinary families in awe.
However, in our opinion, the story of the top-notch Asian elite, Shou Zi Chew, gives us the greatest inspiration. In today’s increasingly globalized education, combined with the strengths of the East and the West, how many possibilities can be unleashed in one person?
Journey of an Ordinary Man: Hard Work is just the Entry Ticket
Among the various evaluations of Zhou Shouzi, the former Google executive, Hugo Barra, who worked with Zhou at Xiaomi, left a deep impression on him. “He is a perfectly bicultural person. Objectively speaking, he is better suited to be a bilingual executive of a Chinese company that wants to become a global giant than anyone I have met in the Chinese business world, taking into account both domestic and international aspects.”
Zhou Shouzi’s high praise is thanks to his truly international growth experience, combining the strengths of the East and the West.
Born in Singapore in 1983, Zhou Shouzi’s starting point was not high. His father worked in the construction industry, and his mother worked as an accountant. Despite his ordinary upbringing, Zhou Shouzi had a strong sense of “progression.”
At the age of 12, he entered the Hwa Chong Institution, a prestigious Chinese school in Singapore, with high scores. This school is highly renowned in Singapore and has become one of the top five secondary schools in Singapore.
Independence, self-reliance, and hard work have almost become the common belief of Singaporeans. At the same time, they firmly believe that education is the most important way to achieve upward mobility and self-realization.
This is not unfamiliar to children in China. The old saying “studying can change one’s fate” is still the main theme of Asian education today. However, for Zhou Shouzi, the most profound influence on his character was not only from this highly selective elite Chinese school, but also from the two years he spent in the military.
Reflecting on his own growth journey, Zhou Shouzi said that 18 years old is an age when it’s difficult to focus on doing things. However, his military life made him think a lot, and the most important and impactful thought he had was “do not waste time.”
He learned to make the most of every minute and put effort into everything he did. From then on, his life was like being on a fast track, constantly jumping levels:
After retiring from the army with the rank of lieutenant, and completing his national service in Singapore, he entered the prestigious University College London (UCL) and joined Goldman Sachs after graduation.
Two years later, he quit his job to pursue an MBA at Harvard Business School. During that time, he interned at Facebook, which was still a start-up, and started to get involved in the tech industry.
At the age of 27, he joined Russian fund DST as a partner and moved alone from Singapore to Beijing, completing investments for DST in JD.com, Xiaomi, Alibaba, Didi, and ByteDance.
From then on, he continued to advance in his career, serving as CFO, President of Xiaomi International, and Partner of Xiaomi. In 2021, he left Xiaomi and joined ByteDance as CFO and was appointed as CEO of TikTok in the same year.
And he achieved all of this by the age of 40.
What’s even more terrifying than his career progression speed is his decades of hard work.
The work intesity at Goldman Sachs is well-known, working until one or two in the morning was common, and working overnight was not rare. During the two years that Zhou worked there, he “basically didn’t have weekends.”
In the year he was preparing for Xiaomi’s IPO, he also shared a picture on Weibo, which said, “Sleeping is a waste of time for the next year.”
Similarly known for his hard work, Lei Jun said that Zhou Shouzi has a kind of diligence that seeks revenge against the world. Zhou himself said, “Many people underestimate the importance of working hard.”
Indeed, when “hard work” has almost become a stereotype for Asians, many children may aspire to the carefree and casual feeling of Western children. But in real life, there are not so many colorful legends. Outstanding achievements are bound to require more effort and sacrifice. Smart people know how to work hard, and that is what it means.
The Planning Mindset and Networking Skills that Pave the Way for Success
If diligence is the most fundamental and common trait rooted in Asians under the Asian education system, then Zhou Shouzi’s two other remarkable ability characteristics should be said to come more from the part of the Western education that is often praised by people. These are the key factors that have propelled him to great heights in his career.
1. Long-term Planning
It is hard to say it’s a coincidence, but almost every job Zhou Shouzi has taken has become a springboard for his next job. This “take one step and look three steps ahead” planning mindset seems simple, but few people can truly achieve it.
When Zhou worked at Goldman Sachs, he met Yuri Milner, the head of DST, and later a legendary investor. Yuri’s investment record includes Alibaba and Facebook, both of which are valued at billions of dollars, as well as well-known companies such as JD.com, Didi, and, of course, Xiaomi and Bytedance, which Zhou Shouzi later joined.
Zhou Shouzi thought “Yuri is extremely intelligent and does things differently.” So when Yuri invited Zhou Shouzi to join DST, he did not hesitate to accept the offer. At that time, the DST Fund had not yet been established and did not have the status of the “universe-class investment institution” it has today.
The book “The Nature of Poverty,” which won the Nobel Prize in Economics, mentions that the most typical “poverty thinking” is short-sightedness, only focusing on visible and tangible benefits in the present, and not paying much attention to future returns. People always make choices that are beneficial in the short term but harmful in the long run, thereby extinguishing future opportunities.
This long-term planning mindset often requires parents’ instruction by example. The most typical and daily example is why children who are always stared at by their scores are more difficult to achieve significant success? Parents are always nervous about the current exam, so the child often doesn’t think much about their future goals, and gradually, self-planning becomes unimportant.
The principle that Zhou Shouzi believes in is precisely the opposite. “If you are told to board a rocket, don’t ask which seat to sit in. Just get on board first.” This quote from Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, has become his guiding advice when he faced difficult decisions.
2. Proactively Expanding Networks
At that time, Zhou Shouzi represented DST to open up the Chinese market, and quickly opened the situation under the circumstances where nobody knew him. Forbes praised him, saying, “a Harvard MBA graduate who speaks fast and thinks on his feet, he met the main partners of more than 20 top financial consulting firms in just one year.”
Besides diligence mentioned above, his attitude and skills for expanding networks are equally important.
As a VC, Zhou Shouzi must not have been fully familiar with technology products right away. Similarly, managing a technology company also requires learning. So he “desperately learned from experts,” observing them up close, then continuously absorbing and adapting their skills.
When Zhou Shouzi first arrived in Beijing as the representative of DST, he had almost zero resources. To quickly open up the situation, he frequently asked friends to help him introduce others and participated in as many activities as possible. He could schedule up to ten meetings a day…
The same story happened between Zhou Shouzi and ByteDance’s Zhang Yiming. It is said that as early as 2012, Zhou Shouzi met Zhang Yiming when visiting an apartment at Peking University known as “China’s Silicon Valley Garage.”
Zhou Shouzi saw the idea behind ByteDance’s “pushing messages based on past article reading time” as simple yet powerful, and decisively represented DST to exclusively invest tens of millions of dollars in ByteDance’s Series B financing.
In 2022, Zhou Shouzi was invited to give a speech at the graduation ceremony of UCL. He told the graduates that he had also been lost and did not know what he wanted to do or where life would take him. In retrospect, there was no grand plan… He put himself out there, and when opportunities came, he seized them.
I believe that his self-centered, vertically planned and horizontally expanded “coordinate axis” thinking, accumulated over time, is precisely the key to his ability to seize opportunities.
These two qualities are precisely the shortcomings of many Chinese children, especially in building networks. Children raised under the “helicopter-style parenting” lack the experience of dealing with people in social situations, and rarely have the consciousness to actively use their personal networks. This educational deficiency will directly expose problems for children when they step out of campus and into the workplace.
Even in an ordinary workplace, consciously building personal networks and seeking help from predecessors can often achieve twice the results with half the effort and make it easier to adapt to social life.
Breaking the Asian Glass Ceiling Requires a Strong Heart
To become an elite among Asian elites and a globally-oriented talent, Zhou Shouzi has many experiences that can be explored.
For example, his almost perfect bilingual and bicultural background has made him the biggest beneficiary of globalization and the Internet dividend. He is also agile at quickly grasping the essentials and adjusting strategies when entering a new role, such as becoming the CEO of TikTok and deleting all his social media accounts except for TikTok, where he publishes life-style short videos and creates an approachable image.
However, what impresses me the most as an Asian is his “strong heart” that is always willing to take responsibility and accept challenges.
Buck Gee, former vice president of Cisco and an Asian himself, once said, “In general, Asian employees are seen as smart, hardworking, and easy to manage.” Therefore, Asians are generally regarded as good employees but cannot become good leaders.
Whether it is objective racial prejudice or the lack of cultivation of the adventurous spirit in Asian education, this has already erected a barrier for Asians in the American workplace and even in society and culture.
Headline: From “China’s Silicon Valley Garage” to the Global Stage: The Story of Zhang Yiming’s Investor Zhou Shouzi
65% of Asian Pacific American managers consider the “Bamboo Ceiling,” which refers to discrimination and limits against Asian Pacific Americans in the workplace, to be a moderate or severe problem for their careers, according to the survey data from the US Association of Asian American Investment Managers.
In the context of US college applications, many Chinese applicants know that top schools not only require excellent grades but also highly value leadership skills. However, the lack of leadership experience and understanding leaves many Chinese students with only the options of listing community service activities or writing about the clubs they founded at school, with little substantive experience to show for the ability.
John Hennessy, former president of Stanford University and Chairman of Alphabet, Google’s parent company, summarized “leadership” into eight aspects in “The Essentials”:
1. Humility: the foundation of effective leadership;
2. Authenticity and trust: the core elements of effective leadership
3. Servant leadership: understanding who works for whom
4. Empathy: the key to shaping leaders and organizations
5. Courage: being willing to stand up for organizations and communities
6. Collaboration and teamwork: building efficient teams
7. Innovation: opening the door to success
8. Curiosity: learning to learn for life.
Hennessy especially emphasized humility and explained, “True humility is a skillful and assertive approach that successful leaders should possess, just like the courage and decisiveness that we often talk about.”
From this perspective, Zhou Shouzi’s support in the hearing controversy comes from this rare leadership quality he possesses.
Due to various challenges that TikTok faces in the US, Kevin Mayer, a former Disney executive, resigned as TikTok CEO after just 100 days. Zhou Shouzi, who was appointed in a critical situation, stated before the life-or-death hearing that it was “an opportunity rather than an impossible situation.”
The last time a hearing attracted such attention was Mark Zuckerberg, who performed poorly and is still referred to as “rigid as a robot.” In a later interview, Zuckerberg also lamented, “The Senate hearing is not an environment that emphasizes humanity. If you stay there for six or seven hours, it’s hard to control your expression.”
Due to some well-known reasons, TikTok’s hearing will only be “crazier.” Objectively speaking, Zhou Shouzi’s performance at the hearing did not truly stem the tide of TikTok’s current crisis. He was bombarded with tricky questions and frequently interrupted when he tried to answer. A US congressman even teased Zhou Shouzi by saying, “Thank you for bringing the two parties together.”
However, it was precisely this elegant and stable demeanor under pressure that won him the hearts of many viewers. When American netizens could not help but feel sorry for the “misfortune” Zhou Shouzi encountered, he officially sent an internal letter calmly explaining the situation at the hearing, saying it was “full of challenges and, as expected, did not leave us much to clarify the facts.”