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Ji Gu leaves nothing to chance. The 34-year-old technology entrepreneur from Beijing copes with uncertainty by holding herself to the highest standards.
“My résumé had to be impeccable, very few people can replicate something like that,” she says, as she outlines her career. “My personality drives me to do the thing that fewer people do.”
It drove her, for instance, to leave her home city of Suzhou, eastern China, to study and work in the US, before moving back. Three years ago she co-founded Zhulilaiye, a Chinese digital concierge company that uses artificial intelligence. She also teaches other entrepreneurs — usually men, and often older than her.
As chief operating officer, Ms Gu has built Zhulilaiye to its current valuation of $54m, attracting seed investment from Sequoia Capital and Microsoft, and serving about 2m users who subscribe to its virtual personal assistant services.
With a neat bob and wearing a white sweatshirt, she explains over a modest lunch of risotto at a restaurant in Beijing’s business district how she learnt at a young age to take charge and take care of others.
When her father fell victim to a long-term illness that left the family with crippling medical bills, Ms Gu, then in her first year at Cornell University in New York, took it upon herself to pay them. She expedited her course load and graduated in less than three years.
Number of users who subscribe to thevirtual personal assistant services of Zhulilaiye
Next, she worked as a financial analyst, at UBS and BlackRock, jobs she chose because of their lucrative salaries, which helped pay for her father’s treatment.
She felt that her Chinese heritage rather than her gender was the biggest hurdle. Her tried-and-tested strategy of simply outworking the competition and giving nobody an opportunity to criticise her pulled her through three years. Only last year did Ms Gu feel she could take time to pause. Looking back, she realises she was depressed. After a period of deep reflection, she reaffirmed her passion for education. “What is important in my life [are] two things. I always wanted to be a teacher. And the second is I want to write a book on history after I retire,” she says.
Although she is a fixture in the Beijing tech start-up scene, Ms Gu’s focus on the Stem disciplines — science, technology, engineering and maths — began when, at school, she won a scholarship to study in Singapore. The curriculum put people not fluent in English at a disadvantage, so Ms Gu focused on maths and sciences because they involved less use of the English language.
She speaks with a quiet intensity, choosing her words deliberately while switching comfortably now between English and Chinese. In the classroom, her mix of empathy and firmness, she says, has made her a popular sounding board for some of Beijing’s leading early-stage entrepreneurs. This may involve advice on resolving differences between co-founders, or identifying priorities for running a business.
Ms Gu spends most of her time designing courses and teaching a “corporate university” at ZhenFund, a prominent seed-stage venture capital firm in Beijing and an investor in Zhulilaiye.
Her “start-up therapy”, as she calls it, enrols predominantly older men, some of whom initially balk at her youthful appearance. “Yes, I am young, but once you hear me speak and hear my thoughts and insights, you will know I am much better than you,” she says, explaining the inner voice that helps her stay confident when teaching.
Ms Gu says she is used to proving herself after being one of a small minority of women in several places where she has worked. After leaving finance, she earned a business degree at Stanford University in California and stayed in the San Francisco Bay Area as a product manager at a hardcore-gaming start-up.
Back in China, her CV and her age have made her a target for criticism in some male-dominated business circles.
A single woman in her early thirties is regarded as middle-aged by many people in China, an opinion that is often made plain to her in meetings with Chinese executives and investors. A vice-president of an internet finance company once took her aside and told her: “A woman like you should just give up. You are too old, too smart, and too powerful. No man will ever love you.”
“Right in front of [my] face,” she says.
Ms Gu has learnt to be flexible. After noticing how people responded quickly to posts using female, rather than just general, pictures on WeChat, the Chinese messaging app, for example, Ms Gu swapped a landscape image for a smiling headshot of herself.
She will only be so accommodating, however.
“Once I am confident, I find myself not caring about negative comments any more,” she says. “Luckily, I’m in a position where others now have to adapt to me.”