Marjorie Yang has put together an admirable record in 35 years at the Esquel Group, her family’s textile firm in her native Hong Kong. She has helped build a $1.35 billion enterprise with a sterling environmental record and a reputation for creative business practices that benefit both the buyers of its high-end shirts and its more than 59,000 employees.
As the company’s chair after 12 years as CEO, she jokes, “Now I just think of interesting things for other people to do.”
But Yang, whose father and maternal grandfather preceded her in the textile business and as students in the United States, isn’t standing still. She is a member of the MIT Corporation, chairs the Hong Kong Polytechnic University’s governing council, and holds several corporate directorships.
In early 2014, she attended the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, where she spoke about how Esquel uses technology to transform its traditional industry while helping workers acquire skills that increase their productivity and raise living standards.
“Technology has emerged as an important tool across our facilities for collaboration, knowledge sharing, even teaching new processes and procedures via videos, which are accessible to workers from many educational backgrounds,” says Yang. “We’ve also developed a multilingual phone app so employees can track their pay without lining up to sign a slip.”
Esquel makes more than 100 million cotton shirts annually for customers like Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger, Nike, and Hugo Boss. To meet quality standards, Yang has invested in spinning and weaving innovations and the cultivation of high-grade cotton in remote areas of China. She has also continued her father’s green tradition by slashing use of water, chemicals, and energy.
At MIT, Yang majored in mathematics and minored in philosophy; her advisor, Professor Gian-Carlo Rota, taught in both departments. “He was inspiring; there was always a group of students in his office,” she recalls. “It was so important to have that sense of community, which I also got with my Chinese housemates at McCormick Hall.”
Yang went on to earn an MBA from Harvard Business School and returned to Hong Kong in 1977 when her father founded Esquel. Her daughter, Dee Poon, is now an executive there.
Yang enjoys yoga with her mother and is an avid Ping-Pong player; she says it’s both good for her eyesight and “a great way to connect with my younger colleagues.”