Edited by Rana Wehbe Watson
n a year defined by a global pandemic that has challenged almost every aspect of life, leadership is being constantly tested. The 25 business leaders on the 2020 Forbes Asia’s Power Businesswomen list have risen to that challenge and are demonstrating their mettle in these difficult times. Our listees this year represent a wide range of industries—from biotech, fintech and edtech to more traditional sectors such as retail, logistics and law. Each has a track record of success either running a company with sizable revenues or founding a start-up valued at over $1 billion.
Research and Reporting: Megha Bahree, Karsha Green, Jane Ho, John Kang, Danielle Keeton-Olsen, Pudji Lestari, Suzanne Nam, Lan Anh Nguyen, Jihyun Park, Anuradha Raghunathan, James Simms, Yue Wang and Jennifer Wells.
Perkins, an alum of the 2016 Forbes 30 Under 30 Asia, cofounded Canva with Cameron Adams and Cliff Obrecht (now her fiancé) in 2013 while an undergrad at the University of Western Australia. The graphic design software company has raised more than $300 million since, with the latest round ($60 million) in June valuing it at $6 billion. Canva started out as a free-to-use website offering design tools enabling amateur designers to turn out professional-looking graphics, from party invites and posters to corporate brochures. It has since expanded to offer paid, premium packages for professionals and enterprises, helping it turn profitable in mid-2017 and putting it in competition with the likes of Adobe. Now available in more than 100 languages, Canva has more than 700 employees and over 30 million active monthly users in 190 countries.
Since Zhao bought Bloomage BioTechnology in 2001, it has become the world’s largest maker of hyaluronic acid—used in pharmaceuticals, cosmetics and food supplements—with a third of global market share. The company went public on Shanghai’s Sci-Tech Innovation Board in 2019 after delisting in Hong Kong two years earlier. Since then, its share price has climbed by nearly two-thirds, making Zhao one of China’s richest women, worth $6.4 billion. In 2019, net profit rose 38% to 586 million yuan ($84 million) year on year on a 49% jump in revenue to 1.9 billion yuan. Zhao also chairs Bloomage International Investments Group, with interests in real estate, finance and sports. Her first job was selling refrigerators and later she ran a clothing factory.
Kong is the fifth president of Singapore Management University and the first woman to lead one of the island-state’s top universities. A geography professor who in 2011 helped set up the Yale-NUS College between Yale University and the National University of Singapore, Kong took the helm of SMU in January 2019. Since then, she has continued to expand SMU’s entrepreneurship capacity for students. In February, SMU opened a new building that includes 700sqm of incubation space designed to foster innovation and entrepreneurship among students, alumni and local businesses. “Innovation and entrepreneurship are something that we have greatly invested in, and the new building is a big part of it,” says Kong. “Just in the last 20 months, we had very good success.”
Russell is the third generation to lead Malaysia’s largest tea producer by output, BOH Plantations, founded by her grandfather in 1929 (BOH stands for “best of highlands,” a reference to Malaysia’s tea-growing highlands). The family-owned business has four plantations spread over 1,200ha that annually produce about 4.5 million kilograms of tea—about 70% of Malaysia’s tea output. Russell joined BOH’s marketing department in 1988 after getting a commerce degree with honors from University of Edinburgh. Taking the helm as CEO in 2003, Russell has expanded BOH’s range of teas and international sales. She also focuses on sustainable growth, including biodegradable products, recyclable packaging and partnering with environmental NGOs. Russell was named executive chairman after her father retired last year.
Over the past two decades, Preeyanart has grown the power unit of Thai conglomerate B.Grimm into a $3.7 billion company that operates 47 power plants in Thailand, Laos and Vietnam, with five more in development; and oversaw its IPO in 2017. B.Grimm Power has been unfazed by Covid-19, with net profit surging more than 60% in the second quarter ending in June year-on-year, on increases in production capacity and industrial customers. Its portfolio combines conventional and renewable projects, including gas, solar, hydro and wind power generation. Preeyanart started at B.Grimm 28 years ago as chief financial officer, and was named to lead B.Grimm Power when it was established in 1996.
Komaki’s career has been a long round-trip. After joining Sanrio (of Hello Kitty fame) from Japan’s prestigious Tokyo University, where she earned a master’s in education, she quit in 1984 to raise a family. But in 2003, after the loss of one of her children and a divorce, she returned to the company. Once back, she survived breast cancer and a hysterectomy to become a board director in 2015 at Sanrio’s amusement subsidiary, Sanrio Entertainment, and the next year was put in charge of its Puroland theme park. Komaki led a turnaround of both Puroland and a second Sanrio park, Harmonyland, by creating Instagram-worthy entertainment and food at the parks that didn’t require big outlays or new technology. By early 2018, the park operations were back in the black. Even after a five-week pandemic shutdown, they posted higher per-customer revenue in the latest fiscal year (ended March 31).
With India’s school-age children stuck at home because of the pandemic, Gokulnath has had her hands full. “We’ve added 20 million students just in the last four months,” says Gokulnath, who heads content, user experience and brand marketing at edtech company Byju’s, which offers online courses for K-12 students. Gokulnath and her husband Byju Raveendran saw the need for an app to educate high school-age students almost a decade ago while tutoring business school applicants struggling with math and science. The firm, which counts 64 million active users across 1,700 cities in India and overseas, recently added live tutoring and Indian-language modules to its program lineup. “Every student has a front row seat” with the platform, says Gokulnath. Byju’s has raised $1.6 billion in investment funding so far and is valued at $10 billion.
Yang realized umbilical cord blood’s potential in 2000 while a doctor at a prominent Seoul hospital. Umbilical cord blood contains stem cells useful in treating illnesses and injuries. Yang quit her job to launch Medipost that year, offering cord blood research, therapy and storage. In 2005, Medipost raised 16.5 billion won ($14 million) in an IPO on Korea’s Kosdaq exchange. It is now valued at roughly 470 billion won, with 46 billion won in sales last year. Medipost runs Korea’s largest cord-blood bank, storing 43% of the country’s cord blood, according to government data. Medipost is now working on a treatment for damaged joint cartilage. “The new treatment will play a significant role in achieving Medipost’s goal of helping more people age well,” says Yang.
Over the past 23 years, Khanh has built her listed company into Vietnam’s largest seafood firm by market capitalization. Last year the firm was also the best performer in the country’s seafood industry, with $50 million net profit on $340 million revenue. Khanh spent a decade working at state-owned companies before launching Vinh Hoan in 1997. Today she has more than 6,000 employees and six processing plants. As most sales are international, Khanh says the global downturn in the F&B industry will cause a 20% revenue drop this year. To find new growth, Khanh aims to expand locally and through partnerships in Europe.
Muliaty was studying for a pharmacist’s license when her professor, Andi Wijaya, cofounder of Indonesia’s largest (sales) clinical laboratory operator, hired her in 1988 as assistant manager. Two decades later she became President Director and led a national expansion that boosted the number of clinics from 107 in 2010 to 285 today. She also ramped up testing for autoimmune disorders and other diseases, which made up nearly a fifth of last year’s revenue. After a drop-off in demand pushed first-half sales down 18% to 657 billion rupiah ($44 million), Muliaty switched gears to offer rapid Covid-19 testing that can be administered in a drive-through, clinic or at home, with results posted online.
Best known as Madame Pang, Nualphan became president and CEO of Muang Thai Insurance in 2014, and became the literal face of the company last year in its ad campaign, “Trust Pang.” Muang Thai Insurance is countering pandemic-pinched profits by offering flexible “mini” insurance plans. Nualphan hails from one of Thailand’s wealthiest families. Her cousin Banthoon Lamsam ran Kasikornbank, Thailand’s largest (assets) commercial bank for 28 years before stepping down earlier this year. Her brother Sara Lamsam heads Muang Thai Life Assurance. Nualphan also chairs a Thai soccer team and was general manager of the Thai national women’s soccer team, gaining international attention at the 2019 World Cup by crying tears of pride when Thailand scored its single goal during its 1-5 loss to host Sweden.
Australia’s top muesli brand by market share got a bump in March as stockpiling shoppers snapped up boxes of Carman’s Fine Foods porridge, protein bars and snack foods. The company ramped up production in response, but Creswell says it’s now back to business as usual. She’s been in cereals since 1992, when at age 18 she paid A$1,000 ($1,350) for 50% of a muesli-making company where she worked part-time. Creswell bought out her partner two years later, finished university with an arts degree and started shopping her brand to supermarket chains. Today, Carman’s sells more than 80 products in 36 countries. Its 5,000sqm Melbourne office boasts a yoga studio, massage room, garden and a dining table big enough for staff to lunch together every day.
Shah was at home caring for her newborn son in March when the pandemic hit India. She swung into action, and her diagnostics firm was the first private-sector company to win government approval to offer Covid-19 testing. Metropolis labs operated around the clock meeting demand for tests, with staff working overtime amid a nationwide lockdown. Since taking over her father’s pathology lab in 2000, Shah has grown Metropolis into one of India’s biggest listed diagnostics services operators, with 125 clinical labs across 210 cities nationwide. She led the purchase of 22 labs before Metropolis went public in 2019. The company’s shares have climbed nearly 60% over the past 12 months, pushing her family’s fortune over $600 million.
Eng is a trailblazer in Singapore’s traditionally male-dominated legal profession. In 2010, she became the first woman to lead one of the largest law firms (by number of lawyers) in Singapore, WongPartnership. And in 2018, Eng shook the city-state’s conservative legal circles when she jumped to global professional services firm PwC, becoming the highest-profile lawyer in Asia to leave a traditional firm to join the increasing number of integrated legal services that combine legal services with related advice in areas such as cybersecurity and regulatory issues. Less than a year after joining, she was appointed to PwC’s global legal leadership team—the only woman in the nine-member team—helping oversee the network’s 3,600 lawyers across roughly 100 countries. Eng now heads PwC’s Singapore member firm, which now bears her name, Eng and Co. Her advice for women in business: “We sometimes doubt our own capability, so believe in yourself. That will go very, very far.”
Limpe-Aw is the fifth-generation head of the Philippines’ oldest distiller, which her great-great granduncle founded in 1852. An immigrant from China, he brought with him a family recipe for herbal wine sold as “Vino de Chino.” Since taking the helm in 2004, she has added new products and focused on growing overseas. The company now sells more than 40 spirits, wines and liqueurs, including tropical-fruit blends, and exports within Asia and to the U.S. When some cities in the Philippines earlier this year banned booze amid quarantine restrictions, Destileria Limtuaco switched to making hand sanitizer and disinfectants. The fifth of seven daughters, Limpe-Aw is also president of a book publishing company.
Jang is one of the few women worldwide to run a gaming company. Joining Smilegate Entertainment as a game developer in 2007 when it had just 20 employees, she rose through the ranks to become CEO in 2015. She now heads one of South Korea’s largest gaming companies (sales), with $451 million in revenue last year and about 600 game developers. Under Jang, Smilegate Entertainment’s flagship Crossfire has become one of the world’s most popular first-person shooter games, with the company claiming a billion registered players in 80 countries. She also broke Crossfire into the lucrative yet competitive China market, making it one of the most popular first-person shooter games there by number of players—a distinction Crossfire also enjoys in the Philippines and Vietnam.
An alum of the Forbes 30 Under 30 Asia class of 2017, Liu and her three cofounders have built a company valued at nearly $1.9 billion. The founders have raised $362 million in funding since Airwallex started in 2015, including $160 million in April from investors such as DST Global, Sequoia Capital China and Tencent. Airwallex helps customers conduct multi-currency cross-border transactions more cheaply than banks. Headquartered in Hong Kong, it has 440 staff in offices in 10 cities from Bangalore to Tokyo. Clients range from China’s JD.com to Australian startup Cosmetics Now. The digital payments market is booming, driven by pandemic demand, Liu says. This year Airwallex began offering payment acceptance solutions with Tencent’s WeChat Pay, bank feed integration from New Zealand cloud accounting firm Xero and virtual Visa debit cards in Australia.
Jareeporn and her husband Somyos Anantaprayoon started the WHA Group in 2003, growing it into Thailand’s leading industrial estate developer and services provider. After Somyos died in 2018, Jareeporn took the reins and pursued expansion across Southeast Asia and at home, including developing commercial districts for high-tech industries under Thailand’s Eastern Economic Corridor initiative. Normalized net profit fell 35% to 715 million baht ($23 million) in the first half from a year earlier, but Jareeporn is confident WHA will rebound from the pandemic-led downturn. She remains focused on an ambitious 52-billion-baht, five-year plan that sees the group adding its 11th industrial estate this year to its Thai portfolio and diversifying its power and utilities businesses.
Annabelle Long counts more than 20 unicorns in the $3 billion portfolio of startups she oversees at Bertelsmann Asia Investments, the investment arm of German media group Bertelsmann. She joined Bertelsmann in 2005 in New York after earning a Stanford M.B.A., then returned to Beijing in 2007 after convincing the company to set up a fund to invest in China’s burgeoning internet sector and let her run it. She has since taken more than 10 companies public, including Nasdaq-listed shopping site Mogu and online consumer lender Lexin. With more consumers going online during the pandemic, she’s now investing in everything from e-commerce to e-learning. “A lot of markets will be transformed this year,” she says.
Mutreja joined her father’s specialty chemicals company Vinati in 2006 as an executive director after earning a dual degree in engineering and finance from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. Since then she’s overseen a 170-fold improvement in Mumbai-based Vinati’s profits, a 16-fold increase in sales, and a 500-fold rise in market cap. Her family’s stake in Vinati—which her father named after her—is now worth nearly $1 billion. Mutreja grew the company from one selling just two products domestically into one with 20 products and three-quarters of its sales overseas. Vinati is also now one of the world’s largest producers of the raw material for ibuprofen. The pandemic hasn’t stopped Vinati. Despite India’s lockdown in late March and early April, its two plants are at 70% capacity.
In 2005, when Alsagoff started a website with Bali’s tourism board, she noticed local banks couldn’t process the online payments it attracted. So she and two friends cofounded Jakarta-based Nusa Satu Inti Artha, best known by its brand name Doku (local slang for “wallet”). Doku pioneered cashless transactions in Indonesia, leapfrogging domestic banks to offer e-wallet services. In 2016, Indonesia media group Elang Mahkota Teknologi bought a majority stake in Nusa Satu for an undisclosed sum, but Alsagoff remains Doku’s chief operating officer. Last year, Doku handled 63 trillion rupiah ($4.3 billion) in payments, 50% more than in 2018 and making it Indonesia’s leading e-payments service. Transactions are surging as homebodies shun the pandemic, and Doku has expanded into consulting to help more businesses transact online.
Since joining FPT Retail eight years ago and becoming chairwoman in 2017, Nguyen Bach Diep has helped build the company into Vietnam’s second-largest electronics retailer by number of outlets, with more than 630 stores nationwide. In 2017, she added pharmaceutical retailing with the purchase of a majority stake in the Long Chau drugstore chain, and expanded it from four stores to roughly 160. To capture rising demand during the pandemic, FPT Retail plans to open 60 more drugstores by the end of the year. In 1997, Diep started at FPT Retail’s parent company FPT, a leading IT provider, after getting a business administration degree from Ho Chi Minh City Open University.