Uber founder Travis Kalanick makes for a tough opponent. But Jean Liu, head of the Chinese ride-sharing company Didi Chuxing, is even more formidable.
Liu beat Kalanick in a years-long battle over the massive Chinese ride-sharing market, which ended with Uber taking a stake in Didi in 2016 and backing out of China. The merger was a testament to the wisdom of Liu’s approach to business, characterized by “dealmaking acumen and a collaborative approach to competition,” as Quartz wrote last year. In contrast to some of her more reactionary competitors, Liu keeps a cool head and plays the long game.
Liu is now leading Didi Chuxing’s charge toward global expansion, investing in ride-sharing companies like India’s Ola Cabs, Brazil’s 99, and Careem, which operates in the Middle East and South Asia. Liu’s pledge to use the company as a way to address Chinese cities’ pollution and traffic congestion has also won her the admiration of Apple chief Tim Cook, who sang her praises when she was placed on Time’s 2017 “100 Most Influential People” list. She’s also been a strong advocate for gender diversity at the company: Women occupied 37% of its tech positions in 2017. What’s more, a recently instated women’s leadership program aims to ensure that female employees able to climb the career ladder into executive positions.
In an interview with Quartz, Liu talks about the importance of empathy, what her battle with cancer taught her about motivation, and how she’s pushing for equal opportunities in the workplace so that everyone, including minorities, has a chance to get in on the fun.
1. What’s your big idea that other people aren’t thinking about or wouldn’t agree with? Why is it so important?
There seems to be an overly simplified debate between those who believe technology is automatically a force for good, and those who fear a future where machines dominate human beings. Didi is a tech company that invests a lot in our AI capacities; we believe in the power of innovation to change the world for the better—but only with the guidance of clear human values. There is so much we can do—and need to do—to make sure technology works for ordinary people and cities both large and small. That more nuanced dialogue, rather than the current, binary argument, has to begin now.
2. What behavior or personality trait do you most attribute to your success?
The tech world—and indeed all of humanity—is going further and further into unchartered waters. What companies do has an ever-greater impact on people’s lives. Therefore, the capacity for empathy and corporations’ and their executives’ emotional intelligence is becoming even more important. I feel very humbled when I see top data scientists working at Didi display an amazing capacity to put themselves in the shoes of drivers and riders, and I try to learn from their self-awareness as we make operational decisions.
3. If you could make one change to help women at work, what would it be?
A female colleague once said to me that her male peers plan careers in terms of decades, but she was not able to do so because she has to factor in family, children, and the sacrifices women are expected to make along the same timeline. Hearing that made my heart ache.
Cheng Wei (our founder) and I started the Didi Women’s Network to help women break exactly that kind of mid-career bottleneck. I want to help create an environment where young woman can afford to view a family and a career as mutually reinforcing blessings, not some kind of “handicap” or “challenge.” To me, personally, motherhood actually opens up a new phase of enhanced motivation and broadened thinking, and develops one’s emotional intelligence, which I believe is critical in modern business.
4. At the start of your career, what do you wish you had known? What, if anything, do you wish you had not believed?
I am lucky that at a very early stage of my life, I came to realize that you don’t need to set any limits for yourself just because you are a woman, or a computer scientist, or a banker. Stay curious, stay open, and never stop growing—that way we are always ready when new opportunities arise. We live in a multi-disciplinary world, and our different skills and passions make us richer humans and more effective leaders and employees.
5. When in your career did you feel most despondent, and what did you do to turn it around?
I wouldn’t use the word despondent, but it was a huge challenge for me and my family when I was diagnosed with cancer in 2015. My children are very young, and our team at Didi were bracing for some difficult battles. I thought about whether I should give up.
What pulled me through, first and foremost, is the incredible support and warmth my family and team gave me throughout this challenging time. This personal challenge helped me see, in a sharper and clearer light, that this is exactly my life’s passion, and this is exactly the team I had dreamt to have and the work I was meant to do. When I returned full-time, I was more motivated and focused than ever, because life is short, and we need to be our true selves as much as possible.
6. What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
My father said one thing that has stayed with me: “It’s supposed to be hard. When you have that mentality, you find nothing is so difficult. It’s supposed to be hard. Then you actually start to enjoy it and have fun.”
7. If there’s one thing men can do to improve women’s life at work, it would be…
To be precise, this is not only men’s jobs or women’s challenges. But it is true that because of the stereotypes out there, more women than men tend to be the quiet ones in decision-making situations.
I was like that when I started my career: sitting in the corner, not wanting to raise my hand, even when I knew my input could help the group. It is very important for us to design rules and environments that promote open communication (down to such little things like how meetings are structured) to ensure the shy ones, or the voices that might represent minority interests or opinions, get heard. In today’s world, there are still many more men in managerial jobs than women, so the role of these managers in fostering that pro-inclusion environment is very important.
This interview is part of How We’ll Win, a project exploring the fight for gender equality at work. Read more interviews with industry-leading women here.