Sometime in the Fall of 2017, against a jet-black background at Bloomberg Network’s studio, Liu Qing walked in wearing a crew-neck t-shirt covered with an off-white softly-fitting blazer.
Her bangs were swept to one side and blended into the loose curls around her jawline, gently touching her shoulders.
She is the President of Didi Chuxing, the world’s largest ride-hailing and mobile transportation platform based in Beijing, China. Also known as Jean Liu, Liu has always set some pretty ambitious goals and challenges:
“I joined the company three years ago…to solve the world-class dilemma of moving 800 million urban Chinese”, Liu says.
Speaking in a surprisingly soft tone, Liu describes the growing megacities of China and how Didi’s mobile transportation platform had improved the lives of everyday commuters.
There is a relatively high accident rate but having the ride-sharing program is incredibly helpful for China. Jean Liu knew things could be done to improve the platform.
Liu is so passionate that it’s easy to forget patriarchal China and its history of unbridled gender bias. This bias started early, when Liu was forn in Beijing to parents who gave her the name Qing Liu. This translates to “green willow,” and was inspired by a well-known Chinese classical poem called “A Love Song” by Liu Yuxi:
“The willows are green,
The rivers smoothly flow;
Singing over there on the waters,
Is the girl I love.”
Traditionally, Chinese parents choose names that bring success in in the future and this was certainly true for Jean Liu who brought happiness to her parents.
Indeed, Jean Liu grew up to be a lovely young lady and excellent student. She was enrollied in the best high school in Beijing, and went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in Computer Science from Peking University. Upon graduation, she headed overseas to earn a master’s degree from Harvard in the same discipline.
Looking back on her education, Liu believes her drive for perfection and discipline are the reason for her success. To this day, she still remembers the number of squat jumps she did every day in high school to get full marks in class.
Armed with a strong work ethic and a perfectionist attitude, Liu landed her first job as a Junior Analyst at Goldman Sachs, a top tier investment bank notorious for its rigorous recruiting process. Working 18 hours a day, seven days a week, she felt stuck on the corporate ladder despite producing high-quality work.
“I usually sat in the corner and didn’t want to speak up just in case I said something stupid,” she lamented. Liu later learned that success in Corporate America comes from speaking up and fighting for your place where corporate decisions are made.
By pursuing a professional career with such fervor, Jean Liu soon learned the toll it would take on her personal life. Liu grew up during a transitional era in China even though monumental economic transformations were taking place. Moreover, the cultural nuances and social expectations around women in business were particularly slow to change.
“Persistent stereotypes suggest women should act more gently, speak more softly, and carry most of the family responsibilities; I constantly felt regret when it came to my family, especially after I had children.”
Liu felt she had betrayed her loved ones and was selfish for putting her personal aspirations ahead of family obligations. “The guilt was the biggest obstacle I needed to overcome in my career.”
So, she adapted, little by little, overcoming her guilt and the rigors to be perfect. Eight years after joining the investment bank, Liu became a highly respected industry professional and one of the youngest Managing Directors in Goldman Sachs’ history.
However, her journey was only just beginning.
In the summer of 2014, Liu sat down for lunch with Didi’s founder Wei Cheng and had a conversation that changed her life. Liu managed the Goldman Sachs account and was keen to invest in the up-and-coming ride-hailing company. But she disagreed with Cheng on the valuation of the business.
Amid this stalemate, Liu jokingly said she would not leave their meeting unless they reached an agreement. Seizing the moment, Cheng responded, “then don’t leave. Join Didi and work with us.” Awed by Liu’s industry insight and character, Cheng had been waiting a long time for the opportune moment to recruit Liu.
Understandably, Liu was caught off-guard: “I had a successful career so joining a mobile internet company would be a huge transition with no guarantee for success. But I also knew life was about experiences and Didi meant unlimited possibility.” So Liu left Goldman Sachs and followed the call to adventure.
In the three subsequent years that followed, Liu was instrumental in cementing Didi’s position as a market leader. Liu joined Didi in the fall of 2014, when the company was in the midst of a head-to-head battle with domestic rival Kuai Di; it was a company backed by the deep-pocketed Alibaba.
In the realm of online platforms, market leaders benefit tremendously from network effects. This is a phenomenon where a growing user base is accompanied by decreasing operational costs, with the two trends reinforcing each other and creating a monopolistic market structure. Essentially, it’s a winner takes all dynamic.
So in December 2014, Liu raised USD 700M from four global investors, including Singapore’s sovereign wealth fund Temasek and venture capital firm DST Global. The capital ensured Didi’s ability to attract more users through subsidies and expand the network effect, shifting market share toward Didi. Two months later, Didi merged with Kuai Di, with Didi management taking over.
Almost immediately, this was followed by Uber announcing an aggressive venture into China, hoping to dominate the market. Liu didn’t hesitate to fight back, bringing her management team to Apple’s headquarters in April 2015. A month later, Apple made its most substantial investment in China, USD 1B in Didi. Eleven months later, after incurring more than USD 1B in losses, Uber sold its China business to Didi and exited the market. Didi now owns the ride-hailing market in China.
By 2018, Didi grew to be the largest ride-hailing and mobile transportation platform in the world, carrying 450 million passengers and routing 25 million rides daily.
However, as the platform expanded to an unprecedented scale, so did the complexity of the business. In August 2018, a young woman was raped and murdered by a Didi driver.
Similar incidents had occurred before, but that culminated in massive public outrage. Didi was accused of negligence, having not scrutinized their recruitment and onboarding processes enough to protect its customers. Overnight, as the face of Didi changed, Liu was no longer a celebrated business leader.
It was a dark time for Liu. But together, Liu and CEO Wei Cheng assumed responsibility and publicly apologized. Despite providing financial assistance to the victim’s family, this incident revealed a more pressing and perplexing issue. What social responsibilities existed? What are the responsibilities today’s of today’s tech giants?
As the market leader, how can Didi achieve its financial targets while still ensuring fairness and protection to their user base? Moreover, Didi had revolutionized the way people transit by connecting millions of strangers on its platform that matched ride requests. There are inherent risks in managing this business and protecting users’ privacy and safety.
In the aftermath, Didi prioritized safety over growth and launched several safety initiatives. Liu sent out an open letter via Weibo, inviting the public to provide feedback on Didi’s safety reform. Tens of thousands commented. In 2019, Didi started to release quarterly safety reports on all complaints and criminal acts that occurred on their platform.
In the first such report for the first quarter of 2019, 111 criminal charges were filed to the authorities, and the police solved all the cases with the help of Didi’s support. Frequent updates now appear on Weibo (a blogging site in China) about safety and direct dialogue with the public has demonstrated Liu’s determination to change the public’s perception of Didi.
Recently, Liu arranged a unique corporate off-site in a TV studio. The event mimicked “Comedy Central Roast,” where Didi employees were invited to go on stage to offer their humorous criticism of senior management. On the show, Didi staff gave entertaining and honest feedback to Liu and CEO Wei Cheng, critiquing them for everything from lengthy meetings to personnel redundancy to managerial inefficiency. It is Liu’s way to promote transparency and encourage self-improvement: “We roast with love, we confront obstacles with love.”
It has been five years since Liu embarked on this unusual journey, The road has been far from smooth. Despite enjoying a successful career, her personal life has also been turbulent. During Jean Liu’s time at Didi, she fought off early-stage breast cancer, suffered a divorce, and became a single mother of three young children. Yet, Liu emerged stronger than ever. Embracing a more profound sense of life, she marches on with love and determination.
Jean Liu once said, “Besides death, everything else is a gravy; being real is better than being perfect.”