He Qiaonv: The billionaire turning China green

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He Qiaonv © Panthera
He Qiaonv is leading China’s green revolution

A new “culture of environmental awareness is breaking through the smog” in China, says Bloomberg. Leading the charge is one of the country’s wealthiest women. He Qiaonv parlayed a small gardening business into a super-lucrative landscape architecture operation and has since emerged as one of the country’s “most ardent conservationists”.

Last week, she announced the first step in a $1.5bn plan “that may represent the largest-ever personal philanthropic commitment to wildlife conservation”. He’s seven-year pledge stands at more than a third of her current $3.6bn net worth, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. 

That could prove to be “a game-changer in the battle to save endangered wildlife”, agrees the South China Morning Post. It may also “help transform” perceptions of China’s green credentials globally. Under President Xi Jinping, the country has emerged as “an unlikely environmental leader” – all the more so since the US dropped out of the Paris climate accord. Much of the momentum is being driven by private-public partnerships. Ultra-rich entrepreneurs like He, who already has 79 projects underway in 26 Chinese provinces, are crucial to the process.

He Qiaonv’s Chinese name means “Lucky Lady”, and she has certainly lived up to the moniker, says NextInsight. Born in 1966, in a mountain village in Zhejiang, she grew up among plants – her father ran a successful business buying and selling seedlings. She had “an independent streak” and headed to Beijing Forestry University, emerging with a bachelors degree in 1988, before heading back to the family firm and spotting a gap in the market.

“Everyone I talked to loved plants, flowers and shrubbery. But there was a definitely a lack of greenery in people’s living and working spaces at the time,” she recalls. In 1992 she started her first landscaping firm – the forerunner to the current Beijing Orient Landscape – quickly progressing to marketing her bonsai trees and interior planting schemes to China’s mushrooming luxury-hotel sector. Before long, He launched into “large-scale property landscaping plans”, winning a series of lucrative contracts from both private and local-government contractors.

The event that really put her company on the map as “one of Asia’s largest landscape architecture companies” was the 2008 Beijing Olympics, says Forbes. A year later, the company floated. A separate line as a global leader in gardening supplies helped spur the company’s fortunes – making billionaires of He and her husband, Tang Kai, who together own a 65% stake.

It hasn’t always been plain sailing: in 2012, the company was feared by some investors “to be facing a cash crunch” after over-extending itself by signing a large number of contracts for public infrastructure projects. But He has never been overly afraid of occasional failure. Now she hopes to build one of the largest ecological foundations in the world. As she puts it: “We believe that protecting China is to protect the whole earth.”

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