Entrepreneur Middle East's Achieving Women 2018: Jean Liu, President, Didi Chuxing
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When Jean Liu, President at Didi Chuxing, a global mobile transportation platform, took off, there were still frames of perception in the Chinese society that were peculiar to women.
Although communist China spurred ambition in women to achieve academic success, the still prevalent patriarchal culture would cause a rampant and systematic gender bias in their professional lives later on. This scenario escalated further by the country embracing free market principles a few decades ago, ushering in opportunities but also setbacks for those who could not (or were perceived as not being able to) keep the pace with the now world’s second largest economy powering ahead.
Born and raised in Beijing in the midst of this transition from a planned to a market economy, Liu earned her B.A. from Peking University and her M.S. from Harvard University, both in computer science, and spent a decade climbing up the corporate ladder to the position of Managing Director at Goldman Sachs (Asia), before joining Didi in July 2014, two years after its foundation. However, it was obviously inevitable for her to experience hurdles, and describes her early career along the following lines. “There are some stereotypes, like women should act more gently, speak more softly and take on more family responsibilities. This is not unique to China. It is totally universal. Because of such stereotypes, more women than men tend to be quiet in the decision making situations- I was like that when I started my career: I usually sat in a corner, didn’t want to raise my hand and join the discussion. I worried so much about how other people who looked at me would judge me,” she says.
Her mindset is now irrevocably altered, to say the least, as she leads the company of an unprecedented scale- it boasts 450 million passengers, 25 million rides per day, and 9,000 employees, and is reportedly valued at US$56 billion, with a backing by Chinese internet giants Alibaba and Tencent and Japan’s SoftBank, among others. Furthermore, the woman, once afraid to make her voice heard, in 2016, had the last say in a years-long market battle with Travis Kalanick, former CEO of Uber, which ended with Uber taking a 18% stake in Didi Chuxing, but also handing over its China operations to Didi Chuxing, and Kalanick heading back to California, defeated. The same year, Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, looking for a strategic ally in the Chinese market, invested $1 billion in Didi Chuxing, which has remained the single largest investment it has ever received.
Jean Liu, President of Didi Chuxing, a global mobile transportation platform. Source: Didi Chuxing.
When asked what she considers crucial for concluding deals of this size and importance, Liu tackles the subjects of empathy, cooperation and emotional intelligence as the main drivers of her approach to both partners and opponents in business. “The most critical thing for any deal is building a common ground and making sure that the deal sticks, and to do this, we try to develop a ‘global’ view, an empathy and understanding of every stakeholder’s priorities and concerns,” she says. “I learned a lot from my father and from my own professional experience before joining Didi about the need to have a global perspective. What this means to me is being able to look at things from different standpoints and being sensitive and empathetic to political, cultural and linguistic nuances. Today, with advanced technology and innovation, so many companies have an enormous impact on people’s daily lives, often across multiple geographies. Executives frequently have to manage internal teams as well as external stakeholders, not only at home but in many different markets. In these situations, the need for empathy and emotional intelligence are more pronounced than ever before.”
This global perspective is no doubt informed by her family background. With a father who played a pivotal role in the IT revolution in China -Liu Chuanzhi is best known as the founder of Lenovo, one the world’s largest computer makers- Liu’s upbringing afforded her a privileged insight into what goes into the building of now one of the largest privately owned industrial and investment conglomerates in China, Legend Holdings, parent of Lenovo. “I also learned about courage from my father, who was among China’s early tech entrepreneurs, and took significant risks to start Lenovo more than 30 years ago, when he was 40 and I was six years old, way before China became known for its innovative technology solutions. Challenges are the best opportunities to grow: this is a lesson I learned through the world’s toughest competition, enormous personal health challenges, but also through building some great partnerships and experiments that we hadn’t dreamt of five years ago when we started.”
In fact, this series of triumphs actually started soon after she joined Didi Chuxing in 2014, taking up the newly created position of company president, with her first order of business being engineering a merger between two fierce competitors -Didi Dache and Kuaidi Dache- to create today’s Didi Chuxing. Since then, Liu has laid out her ambition for the company to become a global leader in smart transportation and automotive technology and the world’s largest operator of vehicle networks. However, it is just a stepping stone to achieving her vision of a pollution-free Beijing, currently one of world’s most congested metropolis.
DiDi Chuxing headquarters in Beijing, China. Source: Didi Chuxing.
At the moment, Didi Chuxing offers 11 transportation services from one mobile app, from Didi Premier to bike-sharing, a stark difference from the period before its foundation when it was very hard to get a cab in China, Liu explains. With the business already making money in China, she is optimistic about the space to further drive profitability in the future, but not without overcoming current and future hurdles on the road.
“We see the great potential of the ride-sharing market because even at 25 million rides a day, Didi’s penetration rate in China is less than 4%,” she says. “We are witnessing the transformation of the broader transportation industry right in front of our eyes. The race to develop self-driving, smart transportation, car-sharing and bike-sharing technologies is getting started. We currently and continue to actively invest in technology, team and products to support continued and sustainable growth. It is because we realize that to provide secured, convenient and high-quality services for hundreds of millions of drivers and passengers, we need to have diverse capacities ranging from AI, fine management, and online and offline services, to public-private collaborations. As a five-and-a-half-year-old company, we are facing unprecedented challenges. For instance, many people join the Didi platform with their own cars as independent driver partners. So, one of the challenging tasks for Didi is to build effective, fair and transparent mechanisms to incentivize drivers to improve quality and safety. We have launched several safety initiatives, including a Safe Driving system added to the driver’s app to alert dangerous driving behavior, and put in place a safety and insurance fund to cope with medical and other emergency needs for drivers. We also rolled out a Service Credit Scores system, to link measurements of service quality with differentiated driver assignments and income. Thanks to these measures, we saw a 21% reduction in the traffic accident rate on Didi’s platform and to a level much lower than that seen in the traditional transportation industry last year.”
In addition, she has kept her finger firmly on the organizational challenges arising from the business quickly expanding from taxi-haling to multiple mobility services, while the number of its employees has increased from 700 to nearly 9,000 people. One example is the introduction of an HR Business Partner (HRBP) system to align development objectives with employees and management, and the Didi Culture Committee, to help everyone to speak up, Liu explains. “For a large scale startup like Didi, it is very important to keep relatively agile and flat operations while maintaining efficiency and structure,” she adds.
“We need to encourage experimental and innovative approaches but ensure very close monitoring, as well as checks and reviews, so that the right solutions are quickly identified and replicated. Culturally, the importance of listening and inclusiveness cannot be overemphasized. With an acquisition overseas and a diversified workforce from the US, Latin America, Asia and beyond, diversity and inclusion are core to our values. Every month we hold an all-hands meeting during which Didi’s founder and CEO, Cheng Wei, and I both sit with employees, sharing our plans for the company and answering employees’ questions face-to-face. But real changes have to start at very small places: for instance, our HR team has a project to help managers design a meeting agenda and processes -like the guide from Robert’s Rules of Order- so that all voices right across the organization are heard in very concrete decision-making situations.”
About 50% of Didi Chuxing’s employees are engineers, currently focused on using big data-driven deep learning algorithms to optimize resource allocation and continuously improve user experience. From this, Liu aims to shift the company’s attention to electric and autonomous vehicles. In 2017, Didi Chuxing opened a research lab in Mountain View, California, housing 100 researchers out of its global team of more than 500 AI experts, to accelerate its self-driving plans.
The company’s global expansion, topping Liu’s agenda at present, has been that of strategic alliances and investments in ridesharing companies such as Malaysia’s Grab, US’ Lyft, India’s Ola, Estonia’s Taxify, Brazil’s 99, and MENA’s very own Careem. “We were very lucky to have grown up in China– the world’s toughest market to crack- but our vision is going global,” Liu says. “We believe it is possible to take the expertise and technologies we developed for China to benefit other communities around the world. Didi’s global strategy is a little bit different from others. In fact, mobility is a market that we should adapt our products and services to in order to meet the language, cultural and other requirements of local communities. So, we don’t always enter a market directly. We sometimes cooperate with local partners. If there’s already an excellent local leader who deeply understands the local market, we will work together. But, if there’s no clear company that we could partner with in the local market, then we will consider moving in and developing business on our own.”
Talking specifically about technological innovation in the MENA/GCC region, Liu lists three things redefining its perception in the world’s eyes. “First, the GCC has become a global investment powerhouse leading the revolution from manufacturing to internet and bio-med,” she says. “Didi is one of so many young tech companies who benefit from the insights of the incredibly visionary investors from MENA, such as Public Investment Fund (PIF), Mubadala, and others. Second, in this decade many governments in the region are embracing new long-term development plans that are unrivalled in their ambition to integrate the most advanced AI technology with real social and economic projects, such as smart cities and new energies- all very inspiring to Didi’s vision. I believe MENA will be home to some of the world’s most advanced smart cities in the next decade. Last but not least, I am equally impressed by the vitality and atmosphere of innovation in the GCC during my trip to the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. Large young populations are being motivated and the world is paying attention to the region’s buzzing startup scene. 42% of MENA’s startups are from the UAE, including our partner Careem. With a young demographic structure and concepts, the region is positioning itself as an inclusive and thriving innovation hub for the world, just like China. The organic social policy changes are also very exciting more cultural diversity and youth development programs will help enormously. We also learnt that women are not a stark minority in the technology sector- they play important roles in supporting innovation and economic development in the country.”
The personal empowerment Liu today feels is being filtered through to her female employees- overall, 40% of Didi’s employees are women and women make up 37% of tech roles. Recently, the company launched DiDi Women’s Network (DDWN) to enhance the personal growth of high-potential female professionals within the company, and partnered with the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) to advance careers of women engineers. “Cheng Wei and I started the DiDi Women’s Network to advance the career development and personal growth of female employees last year. We also launched a child day care center in summer/ winter vacations and carried out a policy that enables mothers with young children and pregnant employees to work from home one day every week. The two methods were received well. If you are asking whether there are any glass ceilings for female leaders, indeed, [I believe] both women and men may face such a challenge. I found the easiest solution to break through the glass ceiling is just to focus on being my best possible self, and to create more trust and support through good communication. DiDi Women’s Network is also helping women break the mid-career bottleneck, for example, we selected 24 outstanding female employees to participate in the program where they would receive intensive tutoring from senior executives.”
Source: Didi Chuxing.
Liu also credits the help she received throughout her career for making her what she is today- and she’s eager to pay it forward. “I was fortunate to have extremely capable and encouraging female mentors, and it is important for all women to have that kind of support,” Liu concludes. “We also need to design environments and frameworks that encourage open communication and ensure every voice is heard. While the situation for women is far better today than in the past, there are still more men in senior roles as women often prioritize family and children over career. Many women take a break, and then find it difficult to catch up. What we are trying to create at Didi is an environment where young women do not have to view career and family as mutually exclusive and have the freedom and the flexibility to flourish both personally and professionally.”
Jean Liu shares a moment with her father Lenovo founder Liu Chuanzhi that left a lasting impression on her
“From a very young age, my father taught me how important credibility and integrity are, and this has had a great impact on my development. If my father promised to do anything, he would never go back on his word. He was not only strict with himself, but also strict with his children, my brother and I. I still remember this story from my first semester in grade three of junior high school. In the morning before I went to school, I asked my father whether he could buy a set of studying materials for me on his way back from work when he passed a bookstore. He agreed, but I was a little worried that he would forget because he might be busy. So, I said: “Dad, if you are busy, I will buy it myself.” But my father insisted he would keep this in mind. However, in the evening, when he returned home, I found that he had actually forgotten about it, and didn’t bring back the studying materials. I was so disappointed, even though I understood that he must be very busy. Seeing my anxious face, my father suddenly remembered that he hadn’t bought the books, and explained that he did not deliberately break his promise, but he had been busy dealing with the company. He then immediately proposed to go out again to buy the studying materials. At that time, it was already getting dark, so my mother suggested that if the learning materials were really in urgent need, the driver could help buy them and deliver them to our home. But my father felt that it was a matter of keeping his own promise to me. On top of that, the driver had worked for a whole day, so he also needed to spend the time with his family. So, again, he went out immediately. The traffic was very bad on that day, and it took my father nearly two hours to get the books and return home.”