After starting work in a hotel kitchen, Zhai Meiqin began selling furniture and built a billion-dollar conglomerate, but she took great pride in being recognized this week for driving a new phenomenon in China: philanthropy.

Zhai, one of China’s richest women and president of the privately owned HeungKong Group Ltd., said she never forgot her humble upbringing in Guangzhou in southern China, where her father was an architect and her mother worked in a store.

This made her determined to help others, and she started donating to charity shortly after setting up the business with her husband in 1990.

As their business grew, taking in real estate, financial investment and health care, Zhai broke new ground in 2005 by establishing China’s first nonprofit charitable foundation.

Since then, the HeungKong Charitable Foundation has helped an estimated 2 million people, by funding 1,500 libraries, providing loans for women to start businesses, and funding orphans, single mothers, handicapped children and the elderly.

“I realized there were a lot of poor people in China and this drove me to earn more money so I could help them,” said Zhai, 53, who was one of nine philanthropists named Thursday as winners of the 2017 Carnegie Medal of Philanthropy.

Zhai and her husband, Liu Zhiqiang, whose HeungKong Group with 20,000 staffers has made them worth about $1.4 billion, according to Forbes magazine, are known for being leaders of the culture of philanthropy in China.

Their foundation was listed as number 001 by the Ministry of Civil Affairs. Zhai said at the end of 2015 there were 3,300 registered nonprofit charitable foundations in China.

Next generation

“By setting up the foundation, I wanted to encourage other people, other entrepreneurs, to also donate to charity,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a phone interview from Guangzhou translated by her daughter.

“Now I want to make sure that the next generation continues this culture of philanthropy in China,” she added, with two of her four children taking an active role in her foundation.

The other philanthropists to win the Carnegie Medal — which was established in 2001 and is awarded every two years — came from around  the globe.

The list included India’s education-focused Azim Premji, Canadian-born social enterprise pioneer Jeff Skoll and American-Australian lawyer and former World Bank Group President James Wolfensohn.

The winners were chosen by a committee made up of seven people representing some of the 22 Carnegie institutions in the United States and Europe.

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