Dandan Zhu found herself at age 22 managing her parents’ restaurant with no career and no prospects. She’d graduated from college with a degree in finance just a year after the financial crisis of 2008, and with no interest in the field, Zhu was lost.
Now, Zhu is an investor, entrepreneur, and the CEO of DG Recruit, a recruitment agency she founded with her business partner Victor Wong in 2018. Here’s how Zhu learned the ropes of headhunting and transitioned from sales to entrepreneurship.
Thinknum: So you graduated with a degree in finance right after the financial crisis. What was it like to enter the job market at that time, and why finance?
Zhu: I graduated with a degree in finance because my parents are very stereotypical. They’re from China, Communist China. I emigrated here when I was five. My family is highly educated. They really wanted me to pursue finance — [they thought] the only good degree was finance. I never liked it, was never good at it, didn't have a brain for numbers, so I did not like my academic career, because I was studying things I had zero interest in. So I graduated in the middle of a recession, with a degree I didn’t even like, in a field that was heavily impacted anyways.
It sounds like you were set up for disaster. Then you had to go back home and run your family’s restaurant. What was that like?
My mom went to China to open up her franchise, and my aunt left with her, my dad abandoned us too, so it was just me, the house, the dog, and the restaurant. I was 22, I had to manage an entire restaurant of people who knew me since I was 15. I had no passion for the restaurant business. I was just doing it as an obligation to my family.
How did you settle on the idea to work in sales after that?
Sales didn’t occur to me. I grew up in an immigrant family. We don’t have sales people in my family. We were never taught that sales was a good career. I was hateful and angry and bitter that whole year. I needed to find a way to change my mindset. So I just started reading lots of books. I started reading “The Law of Attraction,” “The Secret.” I thought, "You can really psychologically impact your life?" And it worked. I was trying to be a singer. Because my family had me run the restaurant, I actually missed out on an opportunity to be on television in China. I was supposed to go and perform in China, on a show like American Idol.
“The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” really changed my life, that book just hit me at the right time. “See You at the Top” by Zig Ziglar. A lot of these authors happen to be in sales. They first got their startup capital from sales.
So then you got your start in sales at a recruitment agency in New York.
I didn’t even plan on coming to the job because I thought it was a scam. I thought recruitment was a scam…It was such a great experience, learning how to become a sales person. I started off working a lot of hours.
I always thought, when I started as a worker, that working for a good company was my ticket out. I grew up in a decent neighborhood [near Boston], but I grew up in relative poverty. [I thought] “This is my ticket to ride. If I can just ride this company I will have everything I want in life.” I never felt like an employee. Sales is the most entrepreneurial job someone can have.
At a certain point, the veil was lifted. I began to understand sexual harassment. I saw a lot of that at work. I can write novels on that. I saw a lot of boys club behavior. I saw that my growth trajectory was going to be stopped by external forces. This place is not gonna make me CEO. And I was a top performer every single year.
"At a certain point, the veil was lifted. I began to understand sexual harassment. I saw a lot of that at work. I can write novels on that." - Zhu
I don’t pound shots on a Tuesday with the guys. I don’t go to football games on the weekends. I don’t follow sports teams. And it was a British company, so they followed soccer. All of that was not okay. The first day — they say the “c-word” pretty commonly in England. It’s a very casual word. Eventually I was the one female left on our team. You become complicit. You’re in an environment that’s completely unfriendly towards you. I didn’t feel comfortable — I felt bad telling them it wasn’t a good word.
We just had a crazy drinking culture. I would black out during Christmas parties. It was just very common. It was this unhealthy culture.
When you quit your sales job, did you already have your own business in mind?
No. I was completely winging it. Dandan Global was the first company I set up in 2016 when I quit. I thought, “I’m going to teach the general public how to be their own recruiter.” So that was the idea behind Dandan Global. So very quickly I started going into the red. All my money was stuck in real estate and I couldn’t get it out, because I lost my high-paying corporate job.
At my old firm, I was highly regarded, and so my colleague called me. She was like, “Hey, did you know that we as a recruitment firm would pay you to look for candidates for us.” Recruiting companies also need candidates. Somehow that never occurred to me. Recruitment firms are so isolated, that other than with a headhunter, how would you find [candidates]? Recruitment agencies use recruiters to hire recruiters.
I never would have guessed that.
Me neither. And I was like “how did I not think of this?”
And how did you transition to entrepreneurship?
I was studying a lot about social media, and getting really popular on LinkedIn, and writing all this content on Quora. I wanted to create a social media business that’s going to promote my career coaching business.
I then met my future business partner, Victor Wong, through LinkedIn. He became my coaching client first, and after just one or two coaching sessions, he was like, “Hey, you know what? We should start a recruiting business.” I barely knew him, but I was so desperate for money at that point, I thought “anything goes.” So that became DG Recruit. He left a six-figure finance job, just had a baby, and was about to get married. He had a natural gift for [business].
Immediately, we just got lots of business. Hiring managers and companies just started reaching out to me. We immediately started hiring because we were just so busy. We broke seven figures in revenue year two. This year we thought we’ll still be over seven, but not as good as we initially thought, obviously. So that’s where we are now. We have eight people, soon to be nine, and we’re totally dominating our space. It’s a very unique business.
What’s been your biggest challenge?
On a personal level, I could go on and on. As a woman, dealing with 2016. That’s when I quit my job. Seeing [Trump] win, that all bothered me immensely. We already have so much toxic masculinity in this culture. I was probably contributing to the problem. I was a bro-ey sales girl. As I got older, I read Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In,” and I was like “There actually is sexism!” I had no idea it existed until I was 26. That’s how privileged I was. I was making excuses for everything I was experiencing, like my CEO hitting on me.
Mind you, this is a man who brings his wife to work, with their baby. And he’s having sex with my colleagues. And I noticed that he and this woman were next to my bathroom stall and I saw them gyrating, their shadows gyrating and their shoes on the floor. And I come out of the stall, and I’m like, “I can’t believe this is happening.” It was fun and entertaining at the time. And when you get older, none of this is fun, none of this is good. I didn’t understand the power dynamic, it didn’t occur to me. We were right in that pre-Me Too time.
"I think a lot of people in sales have low self-worth, which is why we look for money as a validator." - Zhu
What advice would you give your 22-year-old self?
I think a lot of people in sales have low self-worth, which is why we look for money as a validator. I would have said to the 22-year-old me, “You are very, very loved, and you have so much potential, and you should never let anybody tell you otherwise. You don’t have to go out of your way and be exceptionally desperate for validation.” Post-20s, I think I did a lot of things right. [Now] money is not the goal. But when you’re young, there’s something important about setting yourself up [financially]. I think I have a head start right now.