Work from Hometown: How a college graduate found rewarding AI work that let her return to her village in China

Ant Group
Alipay and the World
5 min readSep 10, 2021

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The pandemic has dramatically transformed the way people around the world think about their work. WFH (or “Working from Home”) is an increasingly common online status update, while millions of workers have fled major U.S. cities to do their jobs from uncrowded small towns or rural communities.

Zhao Yangjuan, a college graduate in English from Shaanxi Province in Northwest China, was also pondering her future after losing her teaching job due to the pandemic. Hailing from a remote village more than 200 kilometers (120 miles) from the provincial capital Xi’an, with mainly small-scale farms producing beets, zucchini, and other vegetables, Zhao never thought going back to her hometown was a viable career option.

Zhao Yangjuan sharing her story of returning to her hometown and working in AI at the 2021 World Artificial Intelligence Conference

An outstanding student, Zhao had been selected for a one-year volunteer teaching program in Singapore after graduating from Xi’an International University in 2018, but gave up the opportunity when a family member was diagnosed with cancer. Since then, the 26-year-old worked as an English teacher in the city, a three-hour bus-ride from her hometown.

In mid-2020, with the outbreak of COVID-19, many training institutions including the one where Zhao worked at stopped operating because of the quarantines. Lacking a stable income to pay for rent, she had no choice but to consider returning to her home village in Yijun county.

Zhao’s hometown in Yijun County, Shaanxi Province

Yijun county, located in the north of Tongchuan City, is approximately 120 kilometers away from the capital city Xi’an.

The county’s per capita disposable annual income was about 16,800 yuan ($2,600) in 2019, slightly below the average of rural households in China, and many young people have left Yijun for better livelihood in bigger Chinese cities.

“At first, I felt very anxious and frustrated. Compare to Xi’an, I can’t find a promising job here in my hometown,” said Zhao. In November 2020, the A-Idol Initiative was launched in Yijun. One of Zhao’s friends saw the information and shared it with her.

Co-developed by Ant Group, Alibaba Group, and the China Women’s Development Foundation (CWDF), the A-Idol Initiative launched in late 2019 aims to bring employment opportunities in the field of artificial intelligence to underdeveloped areas in China, with a focus on prioritizing these opportunities for women. The Initiative also helps to incubate AI-related companies in rural areas, which helps create much-needed local employment opportunities.

“I don’t know anything about artificial intelligence at that time, but I felt excited that there is a technology company in my hometown. I don’t want to miss that opportunity,” said Zhao. She sent her resume to the A-Idol Initiative quickly.

After finishing training courses about data labeling and passing the final exam, she took on the role of AI trainer and obtained a job in Yijun A-Idol Company.

AI trainers help computers and machines “understand” the human world by categorizing and labeling text, pictures, and videos, which are then analyzed by the devices, leading to smarter AI algorithms. In 2020, AI trainer has been officially recognized as a new profession by the Chinese government.

Zhao put her heart into this new area and soon she was named an outstanding AI Trainer in the company. Now she can earn about RMB 3,000 monthly, which is the same salary as when she was working in Xi’an.

What’s more, she has more time to spend with her family now.

“My parents are all farmers. We have a small fruit garden and mainly grow apples. Now I can often have dinner with them and help them in the orchard during the weekend,” said Zhao.

Zhao’s grandmother, Zhao, and her parents (L-R)

“Yangjuan is an outstanding employee. She is well-educated, learned fast, and works hard. I hope our company can attract more young people like her to return home,” said Zhang Rui, General Manager of Yijun A-Idol Company.

On July 14th, Zhao Yangjuan stood on the stage of the 2021 World Artificial Intelligence Conference (WAIC), one of the most influential tech forums globally.

Zhao shared her own story of transforming from an English teacher to an AI Trainer with the help of the A-Idol initiative.

She drew a lot of attention to the situation of rural women like her in domestic media, with posts about her on the Chinese social media platform Weibo receiving over 9 million views.

Zhao’s hashtag #A rural girl who was invited to WAIC# has received over 9million views

“I hope my story can encourage more investments and resources came to rural areas, and help the rural area to embrace modern industry and technology, as well as creating more jobs so that more people like me can have “a new stage” in their hometown,” said Zhao.

A year ago, Zhao was feeling anxious about losing her job and worried about the future. Now she has embarked on a new career and hopes to bring a more positive impact to her hometown.

Zhao is giving training courses to new employees

“I don’t have a specific long-term plan. As one of my favorite lines in Shawshank’s Redemption says, ‘get busy living or get busy dying. I will keep learning and I believe there will be more opportunities.” said Zhao.

As of August 2021, the “A-Idol Initiative” has established nine industrial poverty alleviation incubation spaces in Guizhou, Shaanxi, Shanxi, Gansu, and other places, and incubated a number of poverty alleviation social enterprises, helping more than 800 people become employed, with over 60% of them are women.

Going forward, the A-Idol Initiative is expected to be rolled out in more places across China and further helping poverty-stricken areas develop their digital industry.

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Ant Group
Alipay and the World

Ant Group is a tech company dedicated to bringing inclusive finance to the world, through Alipay and its global partners.