An American Lean-In Guru in China

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Joy Chen became a star for telling young Chinese women to ignore their mothers’ advice. The best-selling author says many face fierce family pressure to get married young instead of pursuing careers. Photo/Video: Daniel Epstein and Sharon Shi

BEIJING—

Joy Chen

got a glimpse of the limelight as a Los Angeles deputy mayor two decades ago, but it was nothing like the fame she has found in China urging women to forget what they’ve been taught about matrimony.

Her 2012 best-seller, “Do Not Marry Before Age 30,” became a touchstone for young Chinese career women chafing under family pressure and age-old convention to find a husband, and launched Ms. Chen on an improbable journey as an American self-help guru in China.

At a women’s leadership forum in Beijing in March, young women who had sat texting idly during a venture capitalist’s presentation sprang to attention when Ms. Chen strode on stage in a red dress. Smartphones rose in unison above a sea of ponytails, “record” buttons switched on.

“She changed my life,” said Lingxiao He, 28. “Usually, women are encouraged to take responsibilities in the family—to be a good mom, a good wife,” Ms. He said. “Seldom do you get the education that you must be a leader.”

Joy Chen, center, is interviewed by Chinese reporters in Beijing, where she spoke at the China Women in Leadership forum in March.

Joy Chen, center, is interviewed by Chinese reporters in Beijing, where she spoke at the China Women in Leadership forum in March.


Photo:

John Corrigan/The Wall Street Journal

Ms. Chen, 48 years old, now derives most of her income from paid appearances in China, along with promotion of Procter & Gamble Inc. beauty products here. She loves to write, but finds herself at a crossroads. Her latest book, “How to Get Lucky in Your Career,” sold fewer than 10,000 copies. To remain a force in the world’s biggest consumer market, Ms. Chen is changing tactics.

So a day after her star turn before fans, Ms. Chen showed up in jeans and no makeup at the offices of a paid-content firm in Beijing, looking to turn “Get Lucky” into a 10-episode course to be sold on

WeChat
,

Tencent Holding Ltd.’s ubiquitous smartphone app, which has 1 billion users.

The daylong session at Xiamen Shidian Cultural Communication Co. turned into a bit of digital schooling for Ms. Chen.

While Ms. Chen charmed her fans with Oprah-like warmth,

Liao Shijian,

Shidian’s 28-year-old chief operations officer, wasn’t so easily dazzled.

When Ms. Chen said she wanted each video segment to be no more than 10 minutes. Mr. Liao shook his head, insisting on 25 minutes—as well as charts, graphs and practice assignments.

“No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no,” Ms. Chen said, lapsing into English. “I’d rather make it short and not boring.”

Mr. Liao was firm. “Every minute must have value to people,” he said. “It’s different from free video. It’s different if you pay vs. not pay.”

Ms. Chen also pushed back eight years ago when a Chinese publisher approached her to write a book for China’s “leftover women”—those who aren’t married by their late 20s. “I hadn’t spent much time in China,” she said. “I didn’t speak Chinese well at the time. I thought, how could somebody like me understand Chinese women’s lives?’”

Joy Chen became a celebrity in China after her 2012 book, “Do Not Marry Before Age 30.’

Joy Chen became a celebrity in China after her 2012 book, “Do Not Marry Before Age 30.’


Photo:

Giulia Marchi for The Wall Street Journal

An executive recruiter at the time, she had gained a following with a career-advice blog for Chinese college students studying abroad. She resisted the publisher’s overtures for a year, but after the birth of her second daughter, she agreed.

The book hit a zeitgeist moment, leading to TV appearances and magazine cover stories (and, for a time, a column by Ms. Chen in the Chinese edition of The Wall Street Journal).

“She’s achieved a level of recognition that no other woman as an American Chinese has achieved,” said

Virginia Tan,

34, president of Lean In China. “She’s an icon for them. They mob her.”

Born in the U.S. to Chinese immigrants, Ms. Chen lives with her husband and two daughters in the Los Angeles suburb of Altadena. She says her life experience—including marriage at age 38—serves as a role model for many young women in China.

They look at their mothers’ lives and they say, that’s not the kind of life that I want

—Joy Chen

“They don’t see women my age who have great careers and are in happy marriages,” she said. “They look at their mothers’ lives and they say, that’s not the kind of life that I want.”

At an informal gathering at a Beijing restaurant, fans talked about how Ms. Chen’s first book showed them a new path.

“Joy talks about herself. She shares problems,” Mi Lu, a 27-year-old financial analyst, said later. “I thought, ‘OK, I can think things like this. I can do things like that. Everything can be different.’”

Ms. Chen’s new book also draws on her life experience, including her appointment at age 31 as a deputy to Los Angeles’ then-mayor,

James Hahn.

“She always had a sense of what’s needed and what’s next,” said current Los Angeles Mayor

Eric Garcetti,

who worked with Ms. Chen when he was a City Councilman. “She always had a good story to tell.”

How to tell that story was the issue now at the Shidian offices in Beijing, where Ms. Chen and Mr. Liao moved from debating episode length to the content itself.

Mr. Liao said that some of the lessons are common sense, not the kind of career secrets people would pay to get.

“They know you have to read 30 minutes a day,” he said. “The course will have to show you how to find 30 minutes a day to read. There needs to be a daily checklist of things to do.” He reiterated: “Charts, graphs.”

Ms. Chen gradually came around. She wants to continue to help Chinese women grappling with life. She wants this course to be a hit.

She decided to hole herself up in her Beijing hotel room and spend the weekend rewriting the scripts.