In her twenties, Anna Fang spent two high-stress years as an investment banker for J.P. Morgan, helped start a school in rural China, and organized a Chinese cultural festival. Those experiences left her disliking finance but uncommitted to the nonprofit sector.
A graduate of the Westtown School in West Chester, Pennsylvania, and Columbia University, Fang credits Stanford GSB with awakening her to new career options — and teaching her to trust her own instincts. “It was two years of accelerated personal growth” that made her “more confident and better in believing in myself and my decisions,” she says. “GSB was my angel investor.”
Today, Fang, founding partner and CEO of ZhenFund, is considered one of the world’s leading early-stage venture capitalists, earning the rank of #1 on Forbes’ 2022 Midas Seed list. She also is #12 (and the highest-ranked woman) on the magazine’s broader Midas List of top venture capitalists.
Among her finds was RED (Xiaohongshu), a social media and e-commerce site often compared to Instagram and now worth an estimated $20 billion. Its founder and CEO is Charlwin Mao, MBA ’13, whom Fang met on a trip back to the GSB. “He was the one in the front row always raising his hand and asking questions,” she recalls. Other ZhenFund investments have included Huobi, China’s first cryptocurrency exchange, and Yatsen (Perfect Diary), China’s largest beauty-products company. “No one was doing consumer companies then in China,” she says. “I felt there was a real opportunity.”
Fang says she finds the process of sensing potential in a startup, and then watching it grow, thrilling. “When I’m investing in it,” Fang says, “it’s just an idea and a team, there’s nothing to show. As the product goes online, as the idea is validated, after millions of people start using the products, there’s an immense sense of pride. Every step along the way is a little goalpost that is really exciting.”
You received much of your early education in the United States. How did that happen?
My mother did her master’s in environmental science in the U.S. in the 1980s, and she lived in Delaware after receiving her degree. When I was six, I flew by myself from Beijing to New York to see my mom, someone I hadn’t seen for two years. The airline flight attendant took me through customs. I didn’t know any English. My name was Ai, but when I got into the car in New York, my mother said, “Your name is now Anna.” I used to watch The Sound of Music on repeat — that was the only movie we had — and I learned English that way. I came back to China for middle school because my dad never lived in the States and wanted us to go back to China.
Your father, Fang Fenglei, is a prominent Chinese financier. Did you think that would be your career as well?
My dad said, “Your first job is going to be investment banking.” And I always said no. I didn’t want to do it because my dad did it. During college summers I tried working in law, accounting, and investment banking, at the recommendation of my father. I didn’t want to do finance, but ultimately ended up there because it was considered the best job an economics major could have at the time.
Yet after Columbia you ended up in investment banking for J.P. Morgan.
The memory that comes to mind is sitting in front of the computer with five people around me on a deadline, legs twitching as I edit the powerpoint. There was so much pressure to produce flawless work, which involved triple-checking every number and a level of perfection I didn’t know was possible. Of course there were also the 8 p.m. phone calls to turn this in by tomorrow morning and pulling all-nighters. I didn’t have a day off for two years. There was one day the office building was closed because the power was out, so I took everything and worked from home.
You stayed for two years to complete the analyst program. What kept you there?
There were several times I was so stressed that I did want to quit, but I knew I had to stick through it. Looking back, I think what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. I felt after J.P. Morgan, I could do any job.
What drew you back to China?
All the news was about China. And I used to think, “Why I am reading about China? I could be in China.” I wanted to find meaning in my career, and it wasn’t manifesting through investment banking. My father always thought pretty big in wanting to change China. I think I was influenced by him in that way, in wanting to be part of change.
How did you get involved with a school in rural Gansu Province?
I was interested in educational change in China and wanted to find a community where I could be helpful. I identified the rural province of Gansu as one most in need. It turned out my dad had a college classmate who was living there trying to reform a local school. I went on an 18-hour overnight train ride to find him. Then my boyfriend, now husband, Gunther Hamm, and I moved there for a few months and lived in the local village. There wasn’t even a toilet — just a hole in the ground. I wanted to experience and give back to the real China, and not the urban metropolis I grew up in.
What attracted you to the GSB?
Stanford GSB had a session in Beijing. I just fell in love with the idea. I realized business school wasn’t about finance, it was about reaching your potential and leadership and making change.
What were your key takeaways from Stanford?
It sounds simple, but learning to speak up and formulate my own thoughts was a big change for me. I wasn’t used to talking in class. I never felt like I was smart enough. In the beginning, I pushed myself to raise my hand once per class. And then we had that class “Touchy Feely” [Interpersonal Dynamics]. You learn to engage with your feelings and express your point of view with a group. I worked through a lot of my personal insecurities in that class. By the end of the GSB, I was easily raising my hand five times per class.
And you landed at ZhenFund through a Stanford connection?
At the GSB, I was the head of the Greater China Business Club, and Dan Hu [MBA ’11] was the president the year after me. I guess he had a good impression of me because he thought I was really organized and a good leader. He got a job at Sequoia Capital China, and he worked on a deal with China’s leading angel investor, Bob Xu. Sequoia China helped Bob institutionalize personal angel investing into a fund, which became ZhenFund. Dan said, “Would you be interested in doing this incubator with Bob?” And I said, “I don’t even know what an incubator is.” But then I thought, Bob Xu is kind of famous. He’s a visionary, full of ideas. I met him, and he really liked me. I took the job at the age of 29, which is now the final job I’ll ever have.
What made you know it was the right fit for you?
My first day on the job, we met with a backpack travel company startup, and I just loved it — it was just so interesting: Do we invest? Do we not invest? For the first few years on the job, I couldn’t believe someone was paying me to do this thing that I love, which is talking to all these startups about their ideas. It connected with what I was looking for because I always wanted to help people. There’s a certain altruistic part of investing in startups that I liked. People need help to get their startup off the ground, and you’re really the first person to believe in them.
What are your strengths as an investor?
For me, it’s always about meeting interesting people who want to make change. The ideas range from consumer to AI to biotech. I can fall in love with any idea because I’m moved by the founder. Some say I have a good instinct about founders, which I learned from Bob. We try to institutionalize those instincts into a science that we can teach the team. We used to run a regression formula to test our views.
Any distinct challenges to being a woman VC?
I’m really lucky. China actually has a lot of female role models in investing, especially in venture capital. Some of the best are women, like Annabelle Long [MBA ’05], Kathy Xu, Xiaohong Chen, Ruby Lu, and Joan Wang. I sought them out early in my career as informal mentors. When I was starting a family, I looked to other female role models who managed an intense work life while being mothers.
Were there advantages to working in China as opposed to the United States?
I would never have had this opportunity if I was in the U.S. If Sequoia U.S. was trying to start an angel fund, would they pick 29-year-old Anna Fang to run their partnership? Of course not. Back then angel investing in China was still pretty new.
What do you think lies around the bend?
A lot of low-hanging fruit ideas have happened over the last decade of fast-paced tech growth in China. But what’s next? Is there going to be a paradigm shift that creates the next generation of consumer tech companies? It could be in AI-generated content, virtual reality, augmented reality, anything that’s next-level experience. We witnessed a lot of technology breakthroughs just this past year in AI with ChatGPT, satellites like Starlink, nuclear fusion, and mRNA medicine. I think we’ll see a lot of deep tech-driven changes in the next decade. But I don’t predict the future — I just follow what the entrepreneurs do. When you find them, you’re usually one to three years ahead of when something becomes popular. If something becomes popular, and I don’t have something in that space, then I’m too late.
Any advice for students or graduates who want to pursue a similar career?
My general advice is that your career should be something that you really love. I think the GSB allows you to keep that idealistic part alive.
Photos by Chloe Jackman