Founded during the pandemic, UK Chinese Women Connect links women in Cambridge, London and beyond including Cambridge Judge Business School alumnae.
Three years after its founding at the height of the pandemic, the charity UK Chinese Women Connect (UKCWC) has honoured women in 10 categories ranging from technology to entrepreneurship at a recent ceremony whose guests include the Mayor of Cambridge.
The charity was founded and is chaired by a Cambridge Judge Business School alumna, Qun Yang (PGDE 2015), and the innaugural Chinese Woman in Business Award went to Janet Mui (MBA 2010), who is now Head of Market Analysis at investment management firm RBC Brewin Dolphin in London.
The pandemic may have sparked the founding of the charity in 2020, but Qun says the seeds of the organisation were planted just before the COVID-19 crisis engulfed the planet.
Why the pandemic exacerbated cultural barriers
“I participated in a panel organised by a student at St Catherine’s College, Cambridge, and he asked why Chinese students are so quiet in the classroom, and I said, ‘We’re not quiet, but there’s a cultural barrier in that Chinese people might be afraid of saying things in the wrong way.’”
The pandemic then hit, and Qun said a combination of anti-Asian sentiment triggered by the crisis’s early days in China and a sense of social isolation due to lockdown led to online seminars to provide peer-to-peer support for Chinese women living in the UK.
Unconscious bias one of the topics discussed in seminars
“It really snowballed from there,” she says. “We were getting 150 people on the online seminars, and now we’re doing hybrid events in both Cambridge and London on topics like unconscious bias”. A popular series called “Girls in Tech” has featured talks focused on areas such as The Future of Medicine and Step into the World of 5G.
Financial support to the charity has come from organisations ranging from Cambridge-based chip designer ARM (where quite a few members work) to food delivery company Deliveroo.
Qun says UKCWC now has 600 active members, mostly in London and Cambridge (including several current or former Cambridge Judge students), but some scattered as far afield as Scotland and Wales.
Helping Chinese women meet new contacts in Britain
“Since I joined the charity, I have made a lot of good friends,” says alumna Jennifer Wan (MPhil Management 2006), a business development manager for Conker of Cambridge, a firm that designs products to improve safety for carrying children on bicycles. “I no longer feel I am alone living in a foreign country. I have a network of friends, who have similar cultural background and are there to give me a hug whenever I need!”
Among the 20 different charity interest groups she has participated in include those for dancing and “Chinese women’s movie nights” – whose members attended the Cambridge premiere of the Chinese-language sci-fi film The Wandering Earth II, which features a current Cambridge Executive MBA student, Tony Nicholson, as the bad guy.
Cinney Zhang, an EMBA alumna of Cambridge Judge (EMBA 2019), says events organised by the charity are “wonderful opportunities to raise our profile, drive appreciation for Chinese heritage, and leverage and share the sources we have”.
Mentoring is a key aspect of the charity
Cinney, now a portfolio manager for AXA Investment Managers in London, adds: “For young women who are studying and climbing the corporate ladder, you learn from talented, strong-minded, and experienced mentors to better navigate through the increasingly challenging business environment. For senior women with established career, it’s a community where they can continue to expand their network and further enhance their profile.”
Current Cambridge MBA student Esther Yuhan Luo (MBA 2022), who worked in finance in China before starting her MBA degree, says the charity helped her to adjust to life in the UK. “I thought that it was a great opportunity to support women in the UK society and build the bridge among women from different backgrounds”, adding that the charity’s events have also attracted women from other countries beyond China.
Cambridge Judge helped charity founder grow her business
Qun Yang is a native of Jingdezhen in central China, a city famous for ceramics including ancient Ming vases. She moved to the UK in 1999 to study in Southampton before moving to Cambridge, where in 2011 she founded bioscience company Biorbyt (which focuses on antibodies) with her husband. Four years later she enrolled in the Postgraduate Diploma in Entrepreneurship programme at Cambridge Judge, a forerunner of the School’s current Master of Studies in Entrepreneurship programme.
“I had studied economics but felt that I needed to know more to grow the business,” she said of her time at Cambridge Judge, which included work with the Wo+Men’s Leadership Centre at the School. “You never know what you don’t know.”
The company employs people in Cambridge, China and a just-opened US office in North Carolina.
While there are many Chinese professional women in Cambridge and throughout the UK, Qun says that many people “don’t have a good idea of modern Chinese women” owing in part to stereotypes such as the 2018 movie Crazy Rich Asians.
“We wanted people to understand the impact Chinese women are having on British society.”