This much I know
Sharon Wang, Director of Treasury at Alibaba, talks about her career path, inspiring younger generations and the importance of education.
Director of Treasury
Established in 1999, Alibaba is a Chinese multinational corporation and one of the world’s largest B2B wholesale ecommerce marketplaces. The company aims to serve two billion global consumers, enable ten million businesses to be profitable and create 100 million jobs by fiscal year 2036. In the fiscal year ended 31st March 2023, Alibaba’s revenue was RMB868bn (US$126bn).
Based in Hong Kong, Sharon Wang has spent over 20 years in banking and treasury, and previously worked for Intel, Honeywell and BASF. She has a Bachelor’s degree in International Finance from Nanjing University and a Master’s degree in Economics from Fudan University. She also holds a Chartered Accountancy with CICPA.
How did you arrive at your current role?
I started my career at Bank of China – I spent two years working as a relationship manager, and another two years in global markets sales. I then joined Intel for four years, followed by roles at Honeywell, BASF and Gibson. So I’ve worked at different MNCs with different cultures: Chinese, American and European.
In late March, Alibaba announced that the group was going to split its business into six separate units, which led to a change in my role. Previously, I was leading global cash management, treasury operations, treasury mid-office, treasury digital transformation and global bank relationship management. But since 1st May, I have been looking after cash investment, financial risk management, counterparty risk management and subsidiary financing.
Do you think it is more important to have a defined career path, or to be open or flexible?
I believe it is important to have a goal in our life, and a plan for how to make it happen, for example by joining workshops, attending forums and learning from others. I talk to my team members twice a year about their plans for the coming three to five years.
Of course, you don’t have to stick to your plan 100% – for example, if treasury is your ultimate goal but there is an opening as a financial controller, it may be advantageous to make that move for a couple of years to expand your horizons. So it’s important to be open and flexible too.
What can women do to make their voices heard within the organisation?
Women should stand up and speak up for themselves – if we see something that is not reasonable or not fair, it’s important to correct it. That said, in Chinese companies, the majority of finance professionals are women, so in fact I have to make sure that men’s voices are heard by team leaders.
What is your favourite motto or greatest inspiration?
Nelson Mandela said that “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” For every generation, it’s so important to understand what’s happened in the past, what’s happening now, and what could happen in the future. I continue to educate myself, and this is also how I engage with my daughter – I use education as a skill to guide her through life.
When I took responsibility for digital transformation at Alibaba, it was challenging but also fascinating.
Moving treasury forward
When Sharon Wang started her career in international finance, China was in the process of opening up its doors to overseas businesses. “As a young generation back then, we were wondering about what was happening in the world,” says Sharon. “So I chose international finance as my major in university.”
When she joined Bank of China, Sharon was working on the other side of the table from corporate treasury – “so we needed to understand all the financial-related issues, as well as financial instruments available for people to manage risk, enhance yield or reduce cost.”
Back then, says Sharon, the treasury profession in China was at a very early stage of development, meaning that she had to spend time educating her counterparties on financial risk and the instruments available. “And suddenly I wondered, why not just join the treasury profession? As a banker you offer solutions, but you’re not that close to the real business problems. As a treasurer, you can see the problems and you can be there for the business to tackle challenges in the real world.”
Twenty years on, Sharon is still working in the treasury profession – a career in which she says she never stops learning, not least because of new trends in the market such as emerging technologies. “When I took responsibility for digital transformation at Alibaba, it was challenging but also fascinating,” she recalls. “We’ve been enhancing and enriching our in-house treasury information system, and I was overseeing for the whole process. It required me to be ahead of the curve all the time to make sure we had the right functionality in the system.”
Since beginning her new role in May 2023, Sharon has broadened the idea of portfolio management as a means of seeking the optimal combination of risk and return. Her other goals include upgrading the company’s financial risk management framework and developing closer relationships with the business.
Inspiring younger generations
Where career development is concerned, Sharon is a firm believer in planning for success. “The advice I give to younger members of the team is to know who you are and what you want, because goal setting is very important,” she says. “Having a goal also means having a plan, and knowing which tasks you need to fulfil in the next three months, six months or two years in order to achieve that goal.”
Also key for younger generations, says Sharon, is valuing knowledge and making an effort to understand the language of work partners and stakeholders. “Without this common language, you can’t understand other people’s concerns, or influence them or engage with them. And if you’re knowledgeable enough, you will be able to see problems and identify solutions more clearly.”
Where diversity and inclusion is concerned, Sharon highlights the importance of promoting awareness of different cultures and nationalities within the team, noting that Alibaba’s treasury includes employees from mainland China, Hong Kong and Malaysia.
“Unconscious bias is not easy to identify – everyone needs to work on this,” she comments. “It’s also important for people to have self-confidence: you can’t be limited by others just because you think you are different, or are told you are different. Equally, it’s important to have empathy for people who struggle to understand difference due to their background or education.”
Sharon argues that team leaders should empower younger employees by creating a safe environment in which people can try, fail and speak up for themselves. “I hold a monthly sharing forum for my team members and others to share skills, experience and knowledge,” she comments. “This can also be an opportunity to review any confrontations that may have arisen and understand different people’s points of view.”
At the same time, she notes that junior employees do not have to hold a leadership position in order to lead a team or project, so her advice is to volunteer for any opportunities that may arise. “And finally, be yourself – I see a lot of junior members who try to pretend to be someone else. While role models can be helpful at the beginning, in the long run you have to be true to yourself.”