She and her husband, who was trained as a dentist, had formed a company in the 1990s to collect paper for recycling and ship it to China. It was a step up from life back in Hong Kong, where she had opened a paper trading company with $3,800 to cash in on China’s chronic paper shortages.
“I remember what a man in the business told me back then,” Yin said. “He said, ‘Wastepaper is like a forest. Paper recycles itself, generation after generation.’ “
Yin took that memory all the way to the bank. As a result of her entrepreneurship, Zhang Yin is now among the richest women anywhere in the world, including Oprah Winfrey, Martha Stewart and eBay’s chief executive, Meg Whitman. Her personal wealth is estimated at $1.5 billion or more, with members of her family worth billions more.
Her companies take heaps of waste paper from the US and Europe, ship it to China and recycle it into corrugated cardboard, which is then used for boxes that are packed with toys, electronics and furniture that is stamped “Made in China” and often shipped right back across the ocean to American consumers. After the boxes are thrown away, the cycle starts all over again.
Late last year, Forbes magazine named Yin the wealthiest woman in China. She may even be the richest self-made woman in the world, challenging a handful of others, like Giuliana Benetton, who started the clothing company with her brothers, and Rosalia Mera, who co-founded Zara, the Spanish clothing retailer, with her former husband.
Yin Zhang is a petite 49-year-old woman with a cherubic smile and a fancy for diamonds, she started out from a modest background, the daughter of a military officer. Now she dominates the world’s paper trade through her giant companies, one centered in Dongguan just outside Hong Kong and the other based in Los Angeles.
Yin’s another company, Nine Dragons Paper, is China’s biggest papermaker and raised nearly $500 million when it went public last March with Merrill Lynch.