Gigi Jia EMBAL2021, Head of Modelling Services at NN Group, is one of London Business School’s first Laidlaw Foundation scholars. Here she tells us why she strongly believes that women shouldn’t be held back by culture, background or financial circumstance
I grew up in a small village in the Jingtai county of Gansu province, the poorest province in China. My family come from a long line of farmers, but my father was the first to leave agriculture and start a business selling small toys and electronic accessories at a local night market. Like many women in China, my mother was a full-time housewife.
My parents desperately wanted a boy – having a son in China means the possibility of your family escaping poverty. In Gansu, it’s predominantly boys who are sent to school and encouraged to finish their education – and boys who therefore land stable jobs. When my older sister was born in the late 1980s, my family couldn’t hide their disappointment.
When I was born, three years later, my father was disappointed once again. I’d been his last chance of a son. But it turned out that his desire for a boy was so strong that all the expectations he’d had for a son were put onto me. When I was little, I was even dressed like a boy and had short hair. In the early years of my life, I thought of myself as a boy. It wasn’t until I went to school that I realised I was actually a girl.
Believing I was a boy in my formative years had a big impact on me. During my high school years, I was having dinner with some classmates, and one of the boys told me I was being rude. “Didn’t your parents teach you any manners?” he asked. I didn’t know what he was talking about. And then I realised – I’d stayed with the boys and had dinner in the living room rather than going to the kitchen with the girls. I hadn’t realised I’d done anything wrong, because my dad had always encouraged me to behave more like a boy than a girl.
My father treating me like a boy – like an equal – benefited me in so many ways, but also gave me a lifetime of guilt. Despite my sister being equally capable, the focus was on me and my education. My father was strict with me about getting good grades. Meanwhile, my sister dropped out of school, which was – and still sadly is – common for girls from my village. She worked to pay for my further education and support the family.
In my final year of high school, we had greater access to international books and European volunteers who’d come to China to teach and travel. Conversations with them had a huge impact on me. They seemed so free and happy, and that was when I first realised that I wanted to leave Gansu and explore the world. With no role models to speak of, I thought the first step must be to study English. This is what I studied for my first degree in Lanzhou at the Gansu Agricultural University.
My parents thought I’d go on to get a job as a public servant back in Jingtai after my studies. But I had other plans. I wanted to go to a country where everything was different. After doing some research, I decided that the Netherlands looked interesting (and unimaginably open when compared to China.)
Leiden University is the oldest university in the Netherlands and its humanities faculty was ranked highly in Europe. I applied there for a Masters in English Literature and Culture. My parents didn’t know anything about it – I had to travel to another province to complete the entrance exam, using my own savings to do so. At the time, I didn’t know how I’d pay for the deposit to hold my place and was even considering getting a loan. On the day the deposit was due, I came home crying and told my parents what I wanted to do. I asked them for the money that I needed – they were surprised but supportive and gave me their financial backing.
When I got to Leiden, life wasn’t easy and I had to work a number of jobs to pay my bills while studying. Rich Chinese people love fancy European brands, so I set up an online shop on Taobao, owned by Alibaba, selling products I’d bought from supermarkets or beauty shops.
After graduating, I worked for a Dutch NGO, which offered training in international relations, diplomacy and public speaking. It wanted to create a platform where talented, ambitious and motivated young people challenge each other to develop their own perspectives on social responsibility. I went to Oxford to lead a group of students for the Oxford Model United Nations Conference. It was inspiring to visit such a historic location, somewhere so famous for its contribution to education. It made me realise that I wanted to continue learning, so I applied to do an International Finance Masters at the University of Amsterdam.
I’ve never let lack of funds hold me back from achieving my goals, so secured a loan to study. Education has been the only way for me to escape poverty and create a different life, so I’ve always prioritised it. It was a financial struggle to get through the International Finance Masters, but it allowed me to interview for a graduate trainee programme with one of the largest insurance firms in the Netherlands, NN Group, which was at the time part of ING.
Early on in my career, I attended a student recruiting event for junior financial modellers and quantitative analysts – of about 30 applicants, only two were women. That really shocked me and drove home the fact that I wanted to see the pipeline of female talent in the financial sector grow. I spoke to the company’s Global Head of HR and she gave me €50,000 to create the first female leadership network in the business. We called it SHE, which stands for strong, happy, electric, and we set up reverse mentoring for young, ambitious women, who we paired with senior managers.
SHE was one way of making an impact but it left me wanting more – and that’s where the Executive MBA came in. As a top business school in Europe, I only wanted to attend London Business School. During the admissions process, my admissions contact suggested I look into applying for a Laidlaw scholarship. The work and purpose of the Laidlaw Foundation is so inspiring, and when I was successful in my application, I couldn’t believe it. It’s such an honour – and from a financial perspective is so helpful, because I also send money home to my parents every month.
When I started the EMBA at London Business School, I was focused on individual growth – but what I’ve realised is that leadership is much bigger than one person alone. I’m particularly inspired by two women in my class, both of whom are immigrants from Nigeria. One of them, as part of an exercise in class to write our own eulogy, said she’d like it to say she helped 1,000 people change their lives. That’s the legacy I’d like to leave behind. I truly believe in the value of diversity and it was one of the draws to the EMBA programme. I know the School is known for its diversity but I was still surprised when the diversity stats turned into real people and real stories.
Are my parents proud of me? I’m now Head of Modelling Services at NN Group, lead a team of 20 and manage liability cash flow models of about €10bn. But my father still thinks I knock on doors and sell insurance policies. It’s beyond their understanding. My sister is definitely proud of me, although she’s still very traditional.
One day, I’d like to go back to Gansu province and show young girls that they don’t have to live the life mapped out for them. They can change their story just like I did. This is a long-term goal – and perhaps one that the Laidlaw network and EMBA will help make a reality.
Gigi Jia was a recipient of the EMBAL Laidlaw Women's Leadership Fund