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Jean Liu: The engine behind China's ride-hailing superpower

Former investment banker is at the heart of 'Team Didi's' huge success

Didi Chuxing President Jean Liu

BEIJING   Jean Liu, the 38-year-old Harvard-educated president of China's Didi Chuxing, the world's largest mobile transport platform, was driving a Didi taxi recently as part of her company's "leadership training."

One passenger was a 20-year-old student. When Liu mentioned that she was actually the president of Didi, the passenger, showing more interest in his iPhone 7 than in Liu's credentials, complained that she was taking too long to reach his destination.

Later, Liu asked why he used Didi. "How else can I get around? I don't want to waste time in buses and subways," he told her.

"This is the new generation of China," Liu said when she appeared at Vanity Fair magazine's New Establishment Summit in San Francisco in October. "He spends all of his money on Taobao, Alibaba's retail app."

Such people, said Liu, "don't think they can save up enough to buy property in Beijing anyway, so why not just spend?"

It is the resulting surge in consumption and services on which Didi thrives, offering up to 20 million rides a day across 400 Chinese cities through taxi-hailing, ride-sharing and car-rental services.

"One of the misperceptions about China is that there is no real innovation," Liu said. "'Aren't they all copycats?' people say. It is absolutely not true. Innovation is everything in China right now."

Didi started out in taxi dispatching, originally as Didi Dache, in 2012 and expanded into ride sharing and related fields. It rebranded itself as Didi Chuxing in late 2015. It was founded by entrepreneur Cheng Wei, but Liu's contributions to its growth have put her at the heart of "Team Didi."

She joined as chief operating officer in 2014 and was promoted to president the following year. Liu's leadership saw the company secure generous funding from the likes of Apple and Alibaba. Didi also reached a merger agreement with compatriot Kuaidi Dache in 2015. In August, the company announced it would buy the Chinese operations of U.S. group Uber Technologies. Didi could not have pulled off the fundraising and acquisition streak without Liu, say analysts.

In China's male-dominated tech field -- the country's big three internet services companies, Baidu, Alibaba Group Holding and Tencent Holdings, were all founded by men -- Liu represents a new era of leadership.

LIKE FATHER, LIKE DAUGHTER A Beijing native, Liu was born in 1978. Her father, Liu Chuanzhi, founded Lenovo Group and built it into one of the world's biggest PC manufacturers. "He gave me a global perspective," she told the Nikkei Asian Review. He also instilled in her a fighting spirit, not least of all by insisting that he would not allow his children to inherit Lenovo. Her career has been driven by a desire to surpass her father's achievements.

That spirit is perhaps evident in the fact that she interned at Lenovo rival Compaq. And as president of Didi, she calls the shots at a company that towers over rival CAR Inc., a car-rental business in which Lenovo's parent company has a stake.

After graduating from Peking University, Liu earned a master's degree in computer science at Harvard University. She joined investment bank Goldman Sachs in 2002, becoming an executive director at Goldman Sachs Asia in 2008 and managing director in 2012.

Liu has spoken about the impact of Goldman's culture of teamwork, recalling how a colleague in New York responded nonchalantly to her 3 a.m. phone call requesting emergency help.

A turning point came in 2014. Liu recounted how hard it was to find taxis in Beijing, particularly with her three children in tow. She then came across Didi as an investment target and saw potential for strong growth.

"I was impressed with the founder's convictions, wisdom and perceptiveness. Leaving Goldman was the hardest decision in my life, but I did not want to miss the opportunity of joining Didi," she said.

Didi wasted no time in putting Liu's talents to work, winning investments from Alibaba and SoftBank Group in 2016. Liu also negotiated directly with Apple CEO Tim Cook, securing $1 billion in funding in less than a month.

PRESIDENT AND MOM Looking ahead, Didi will raise the efficiency of car hailing and transportation by tapping big-data analysis and artificial intelligence. "Half of Didi's 6,000 employees are engineers and data scientists," she said. The company set up a research institute in 2015, collaborating with hundreds of top scientists inside and outside China.

Liu has an exhausting schedule, juggling work and motherhood. "Quality time is my trick," she said. "Every day I go home and spend a happy hour with my kids after dinner before they go to sleep, and it is really rewarding."

Liu was treated for breast cancer in 2015 but made a full return to work in January 2016. Whether she is talking about health or business, Liu's determination to create a better future for her children make it clear that she will keep up the fight.

Nikkei deputy editor Ken Moriyasu in Tokyo contributed to this report.

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