In the traditionally male-dominated construction industry, Julia Zhang has broken new ground.

Zhang serves as president and CEO of J.D. Development Group, playing a proactive role with a clear understanding of her company’s needs to succeed.

Zhang has been developing luxury rental accommodations for students living away from home across southern Ontario for more than a decade. Zhang unlocked the potential of this underserved niche market and has created a new standard of excellence that has proven that even during the recent recession, occupancy remained at 97 percent.

Zhang is no stranger to challenge. Born and educated in China, Zhang has a bachelor’s degree in English and a master’s in law.

By 2002, Zhang was a mother of two and had established her own business importing and exporting heavy machinery. “It was difficult, but also a great experience as it taught me how to manage multiple aspects of my life and work.”

Zhang decided to immigrate to Canada in 2008 because she wanted a different environment to raise her children. Her company, J.D. Development Group, was born when she discovered a shortage of luxury housing for international students. “At that time, Canada was about a decade behind Europe, the U.K., and the U.S. in this area. I wanted to bring a different living style for those far away from home. To do it effectively meant listening to parents and students and incorporating their needs into our designs and services,” said Zhang.

But getting started wasn’t so simple; finding funding for a new business can be difficult. Due to the prospect of an untested market and student residents as the target audience, the venture was viewed with some skepticism. Zhang persevered, though, and the experience paid off. She raised funds necessary to complete her first two buildings, which opened in Waterloo in 2012 and 2013. Today, only eight years after the J.D. Development Group was founded, six buildings are a part of the J.D. Development Group portfolio in Waterloo.

With nearly half of its occupants being overseas students, J.D. Development Group was at risk when the pandemic hit. “COVID-19 taught us to be prepared at all times. It was testing us on our journey. I am a thinker and do a great deal of preparation for everything we do. All the hard work paid off and helped us work through the crisis. As I read in a book when making a choice, opt for the more difficult one because it will prepare you for now and prepare you for the future. That has proven very useful in my career.”

Despite the drop in occupancy rates in other residences in Ontario, J.D. Development Group’s numbers increased. 2020 was the organization’s best financial year yet. “We proved that safe, good-quality student residences have a great deal of resilience in a downturn,” notes Zhang.

Each year, J.D. Development Group’s student residence properties house 3,000 tenants from the University of Waterloo, Wilfrid Laurier University, and Conestoga College.

The organization’s success has allowed Zhang to expand into new markets. Nine new residential projects are currently under development across Ontario, selling out as they are listed for purchase. The most recent project coming to market is MW Condos, a contemporary 312-suite high-rise community located adjacent to the Cooksville Go station in Mississauga.

A choice of careers that go beyond gender norms comes naturally, says Zhang. “I have an active mind that wants to learn, and I love a challenge. To develop a strategy, negotiate the deal, break barriers and be successful in your enterprise is both interesting and rewarding,” she says.

In today’s changing world, full of new opportunities for women, Zhang advises aspiring young professionals to be open-minded and keep learning new things. “I am still taking e-Cornell courses to expand my mind and enrich my life by learning golf. Life must have balance.”

Zhang is a recipient of the WXN BMO Entrepreneurs Award. She is a role model for women everywhere and an inspiring leader to the construction industry.

She describes winning this award as one of the proudest moments of her life. “As a relative newcomer to Canada, I never expected to be recognized in this way so quickly. It is extremely exciting and a huge encouragement to other immigrant women who, like me, are working hard to achieve success. It shows that dreams can come true, and for that, I am very thankful.”

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