Employee Number One: Facebook’s Jayne Leung on a Decade of Tech Teachings
By Mark Dreyer
Having opened the company’s first office in the region more than a decade ago, Facebook’s Greater China chief Jayne Leung has seen some dramatic changes as the social network giant has expanded. Leung spoke to the AmCham China Quarterly about how the company is positioned to help Chinese companies go global and the lessons she’s learned from building businesses from scratch.
Entrepreneurial tech companies have a tradition of numbering their earliest employees – articles and even books have been written profiling the first few professionals at some of the best-known companies – but being there at the start isn’t always as glamorous as it sounds. When Jayne Leung was approached by Facebook to become “Employee Number One” in Hong Kong back in 2010, that meant – initially – working in coffee shops or even in the back of taxis, renting serviced office space, and shopping in supermarkets for the most basic supplies.
Fast forward a decade and Leung – now a Vice President and Head of Greater China at the company – leads a sizable operation and multi functional team in the region, but still remembers those early days fondly. “Facebook was a much smaller company back then and had just started to expand in Asia,” Leung says. “There were certainly challenges, but thinking back, I enjoyed tackling them nonetheless. I was fortunate to have had wonderful colleagues since the early days – we were a very small team and it was so rewarding to be working together towards a common goal, learning and growing together.”
Interviews and Attributes
Leung professes to have been a “big fan” of Facebook even before she joined the company, adding that the opportunity to hire a team and build up Facebook’s business in Hong Kong was one she couldn’t turn down. “I went through a regular interview process where I met with the global leaders and cross functional team leaders to learn more about Facebook, and their expectations. One thing I truly believe is that interviews are a mutual process. It was an excellent opportunity for me to ask questions of the various leaders to understand Facebook’s mission, vision, scope, teams, and so on. I’ve been with the company for more than a decade and my days are never boring. It’s always exciting to see how much we’ve grown as a team since the early days and how much we have achieved in the region.”
After reflecting on her own hiring experience, Leung also shares two key attributes that the company looks for in potential recruits. The first is agility, since employees, she says, often need to move fast with the company, and be resilient to both changes and challenges. The second attribute she highlights is curiosity and the ability to learn. “Facebook is a constantly evolving and innovating company, and you need to be able to catch up with that by learning constantly,” she says.
Throughout her career, Leung has specialized in bringing international brands and companies to Asia. She began her career during the dot-com boom in the late 1990s, setting up the digital department for the ad agency at which she worked – her first experience of the digital world. Then, at online ad tech company DoubleClick, which was later acquired by Google, she built the business from scratch. During her post-acquisition stint at Google, Leung worked on the “New Media” business for the Asia Pacific region, which “basically meant anything that’s non-search”, according to Leung. Prior to Facebook, she again navigated through a number of unknowns, with a healthy dose of improvisation added into the mix, while helping another US start-up, The Rubicon Project, to enter Asia. Leung says that building things from scratch has not only been a recurring theme in her career, but has helped her to learn about her strengths and what truly motivates and drives her.
Adapting to the Chinese Market
With Facebook’s main social media application being no longer accessible on the Chinese mainland since 2009, the company’s primary business there nowadays is to support businesses exploring new opportunities across borders. “For China, we focus on helping Chinese brands to go global and we want to put more local brands on the world stage and connect them with global consumers,” says Leung. “The most fortunate part of my job, I feel, is to witness so many successful stories of Chinese brands and see how they grow from local to global.”
Leung explains how Facebook helps Chinese businesses to leverage the scale of its platforms to go global, thereby contributing to China’s export economy. One example she cites is that of the eco-friendly fashion brand VIVAIA, which aims to align itself along the principles of an environmentally friendly lifestyle, through its design principles and concepts. The Chinese company uses recycled eco-yarn from plastic bottles and other natural materials to create different styles of footwear.
“Our mission has always been building community and bringing the world closer together,” says Leung, “And this community not only connects people with people, but people with businesses. Using Facebook’s tools and solutions, VIVAIA was able to connect with global consumers, gain insights into overseas markets and consumer characteristics, and comprehensively create a rewarding consumer shopping experience. We are looking forward to connecting more local brands with a global audience in the future.”
Evolving Technologies Across Cultures
“I see our focus here as a continuation of our work to build technology that brings people together. In many ways, the metaverse is the ultimate expression of social technology,” says Leung, referring to a visionary concept raised by Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerburg earlier in the year. In Facebook’s world, the “metaverse” is a set of virtual spaces where you can create and explore with other people who aren’t in the same physical space as you. The idea is to hang out with friends, work, play, learn, shop, and create, and Leung stresses that it’s not necessarily about spending more time online, but about making the time you do spend online more meaningful. “The metaverse isn’t a single product one company can build alone,” she says. “Just like the internet, the metaverse exists whether Facebook is there or not – and it won’t be built overnight. We are excited about the work that we’re doing across that apps that people use today contribute directly to this vision.”
The ongoing – and global – development of the metaverse concept runs parallel to Facebook’s primary focus in China of helping Chinese brands go overseas, something Leung grew to understand from her previous experiences of introducing international brands to the continent. “Bringing a foreign brand to Asia always requires lots of education and understanding of the local environment, the culture, and familiarity with the local nuances,” Leung explains.
“That experience helped me understand every step that is needed for a brand to go overseas. When helping Chinese brands go overseas, we see the biggest challenges are for them to learn about market specific insights, customer trends and behaviors, and best practices in order to build their brands in the overseas markets. That’s why we provide business insights and market trends to Chinese businesses for them to help navigate the foreign markets and understand how they can most effectively achieve their business results. We also have our cross-border solutions to help businesses more easily reach new customers, anywhere in the world.”
Having opened Facebook’s first office in Hong Kong, Leung’s responsibilities now extend far beyond the financial center to both the mainland market and Taiwan, with different focuses necessary for different parts of the vast and diverse region. But Leung says she tries to address the Greater China region as a whole, rather than as smaller sub-markets. “I always prioritize my time based on initiatives rather than by markets,” she says. “For example, in the last 12-18 months, I have spent a lot of my time on programs supporting our communities in managing the impact of COVID-19, from investing in new features and programs to supporting the economic recovery of businesses to promoting vaccines and building a resilient community. I’m so grateful that we have effective teams working together across this dynamic region to accelerate small and big businesses to build strong, effective business growth through Facebook’s innovative technologies.”
Leung acknowledges that the tech sector is very fast-moving in general – and even more so in the Greater China region – meaning that her team has been forced to learn and adapt quickly. She also admits that this has helped build up a knowledge base of learnings and strategies that the company is applying elsewhere. “You have to be bold and willing to take risks sometimes in order to achieve great results. When it comes to working with our clients and partners, we see they are also embracing this agile mindset and are willing to test and learn with our new tools and solutions, and this is beneficial for other parts of the business, too.”
Addressing Diversity in Tech
Tech is often a male-dominated space, which creates additional challenges for a senior female leader like Leung. But what changes would she like to see in this regard? “At Facebook, you’ll find women in various leadership roles from business, to legal, and to engineering and I’m proud to see our Facebook women keep advancing their careers,” Leung says. “We need an employee base that reflects a broad range of experiences, backgrounds, genders, and many other characteristics.”
Leung says that the company has been working hard to increase diversity over the past few years through a variety of internal and external programs and partnerships, including:
- Women@FB chapters around the world aim to support female colleagues to grow their leadership in global offices.
- The #SheMeansBusiness program empowers female entrepreneurs with business skills and the right mindset to strive through uncertainty.
- A Women’s Leadership Day focuses on strengthening the community of women at the company and building the capacity of Facebook women to positively impact the global Facebook community.
- Lean In Circles, inspired by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s best-selling book, are open to employees to share experiences about being a woman in the workplace, while also learning from one another.
- Women LEAD and LEAP are internal leadership programs to help women at Facebook build community and work on their most relevant challenges.
Leung says she would like to see more women leaders in the tech industry, but argues it cannot be the sole responsibility of any single company, and will take sector-wide participation to create a supportive workplace environment for women and underrepresented groups to advance and succeed. More specifically, hiring for diversity and inclusion is a long-term commitment the company made in APAC and globally by adopting what Leung terms “a multi-pronged approach of finding, growing, keeping, and applying that allows us to make an impact at various education and career milestones.” Since 2014, Leung says Facebook has seen consecutive year-on-year increases in the number of women working both at the company in general as well as in leadership positions. As of June 2021, women at Facebook made up 36.7% of the total workforce.
As the head of a strategically important regional hub for Facebook, Leung employs a mix of company culture and her own leadership style. “At Facebook, especially as a technology company, we are always trying to improve things and ‘hack things out’,” she says. “One of the things we’re constantly trying to improve is the way we help businesses grow. So, my past experiences have really helped me learn quickly and constantly reinvent the way we work. With my team, I always try to ‘walk the talk’ with Facebook’s core values.”
One of those values, Leung says, is being open. “Openness breeds a culture that is connected, where we support each other. I engage in regular Q&As with my team to give everybody the chance to ask whatever’s on their minds,” says Leung. Other core values are “believing in impact”, which encourages employees to find solutions autonomously and cross-functionally, and “leveraging strengths”, defined not just as what one is good at, but also what one is passionate about. “We try to manage people by strengths, rather than trying to ask them to improve on their weaknesses, because you can always get more out of people by leveraging their strengths,” Leung says.
Other core values are “believing in impact”, which encourage employees to find solutions autonomously and cross-functionally, as well as to be bold and move fast, in order to prioritize work on building social value and creating impact, and “leveraging strengths”, defined not just as what one is good at, but also what one is passionate about. “We try to manage people by strengths, rather than trying to ask them to improve on their weaknesses, because you can always get more out of people by leveraging their strengths,” Leung says.
Maintaining a work-life balance has become a hot topic in recent years, especially in China’s tech sector, where the 9-9-6 working environment has been heavily scrutinized, but Leung prefers to frame the conversation differently. “At Facebook, we emphasize work-life integration, meaning that we have full control and flexibility in terms of how we want to manage our work and life. We understand there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to doing one’s best work, so we offer flexibility to allow employees to shape their schedule and be present for the things that matter to them both in work and in life.”
In practice, that means that office-based employees can spend nearly half their work time working remotely, assuming their work can be done at home. “Globally, we also offer the option for some of the employees and teams to work remotely full time,” says Leung. “At the end of the day, we want our employees to have a fulfilling life and that’s only possible when it’s fulfilling both professionally and personally.”