The rest of the 100 (in alphabetical order): Qing (Jean) Liu, Didi Chuxing

Didi Chuxing, a China-based ride-hailing application, last year raised more than $9bn from a consortium including SoftBank, Tencent, Alibaba and Apple.

They were the largest rounds of funding yet for a technology company, and could reportedly value the company at $50bn. This valuation would make Didi Chuxing the second-most valuable startup in the world behind US-based peer Uber but one it is swiftly looking to surpass after reportedly being in talks to issue an initial public offering which will bring the company up to a value of $70-80bn, according to news provider Wall Street Journal.

Qing (Jean) Liu, president of Didi Chuxing, has been behind much of Didi’s rise and was reportedly behind US-listed technology firm Apple’s decision to invest $1bn in Uber. She joined Didi in July 2014 as chief operating officer when the company was two years old and was instrumental in last year’s $7bn takeover of Uber’s Chinese operation in return for the US company taking a 20% stake in the merged business. Didi also invested $1bn in Uber.

Earlier, in 2015, she led the strategic merger of Didi Dache and its main competitor Kuaidi Dache to form Didi Chuxing. Now, she has been preparing its shift towards autonomous driving and artificial intelligence and machine learning, plus international expansion with corporate venturing an important tool.

With Stephen Zhu, vice-president of strategy at Didi Chuxing and ranked first for the GCV Rising Stars 2018 awards, they have had an impressive few years.

Didi Chuxing was formed out of the merger in 2015 of two Chinese ride-hailing platforms – Tencent-backed Didi Dache, and Kuadi Dache, which had received early-stage funding from Alibaba. Didi is now the world’s largest online transportation platform with more than 450 million users and 21 million drivers and has a traffic management system to reduce congestion through machine learning.

With Zhu on board and after its merger, Didi set out a clear strategy in 2015 in an interview with Tech In Asia: “From the lowest price point – the bus – to Hitch, to Didi Express, to taxis, to Didi Black and our then upcoming luxury brand, all of these product lines can already solve 70% of consumer transportation within cities.

“So a lot of the focus now is vertically. How can we make the service cheaper, more efficient, faster, and better?”

Didi’s meteoric rise has been fuelled by nearly $20bn of funding since it was founded, including $9.5bn across two rounds last year, led by Japan’s SoftBank.

Alongside SoftBank, Didi’s backers include Chinese tech giants Alibaba, Baidu and Tencent, as well as corporations Apple and Foxconn and state investor Mubadala. The company said the latest round of funding would be used to invest in artificial intelligence technology as well as expansion into new territories.

To develop its international strategy, Zhu used corporate venturing. In his Tech in Asia interview in November 2015 he said: “In each region, you have different users, different drivers, a different regulatory regime. So, we go with a local champion that knows the market much better.”

Didi had invested in Uber’s main US peer, Lyft, through a series of corporate venturing rounds from 2015, and also, often alongside Tencent or SoftBank or both, has investments in Taxify which operates in Europe and Africa, Careem in the Middle East, Ola in India, Grab in southeast Asia and Brazil’s 99 before turning it into a majority stake at an about $1bn valuation.

Didi’s investments in these companies involve sharing technological and logistical data between the companies rather than private user data.

Zhu told Tech In Asia: “We work together and we can share experiences in terms of technology, deep learning, product innovation, and operations. We can speed each other up.

“We are thinking about sharing a lot of the learnings we have in China to other markets like southeast Asia and India.

“When you think of the dynamics of the cities, it is quite similar – you have high population density, and you have various price points.

“The bus service we have could potentially work out in southeast Asia or India as well. We think collaboration works perfectly.”

But with market share in China and billions in the bank allowing it to develop its service and pricing strategy, Didi has indicated its move into the next stage of its strategy – direct operations in overseas countries, after its acquisition of 99, and said it would set up operations in Mexico this year in competition to Uber in the region.

Didi has also continued to use corporate venturing to expand after investing in China-based bike-sharing service Ofo, while its most recent corporate venturing deal was in Renrenche, a China-based peer-to-peer second-hand car trading platform’s, $200m round in September.

Didi is also setting up vehicle management companies and partnering automakers to design and build cars for ridesharing purposes, according to Zhu in an interview with Abu Dhabi-based newspaper National in November last year.

Through its operations in China and its investment portfolio, Didi reaches 60% of the global population in 1,000 cities across the world, the National reported. Zhu’s strategy is talking it towards 100% and once you can move all the people around you can start on moving all the things around, too.

The crossholdings between Didi and Uber could prove influential if it leads to consolidation as the two also share external shareholders. Last month, SoftBank completed its acquisition of up to 20% of Uber at about $48bn in value, down from $68bn in its previous round and less than Didi in its latest round, which could encourage consolidation around one global champion.

This is a far cry from when, in May 2013, Tencent invested $15m for a 20% stake in Beijing-based Didi Taxi’s series B round, at an estimated $60m valuation. Back then, the Didi Taxi mobile phone app had just entered the Shanghai market with 5,000 new orders from the city every day.

Liu’s Beijing office is in Zhongguancun, China’s answer to California’s Silicon Valley. In a profile for news provider Financial Times, Liu, who is still under 40, “has spent her life bouncing from elite institution to elite institution in a dizzying spiral of success”.

Liu was born in 1978 into what the Financial Times referred to as “Chinese tech royalty”, as the daughter of Liu Chuanzhi, who founded Lenovo, the computer maker that bought IBM’s personal computer (PC) business in 2005 and subsequently became the largest PC maker in the world. She told Financial Times: “My father said one thing that has stayed with me: ‘It is supposed to be hard.’ When you have that mentality, you find nothing is so difficult. Then you actually start to enjoy it and have fun.”

Graduating from Peking University with a degree in computer science, she went on to do a master’s at Harvard, followed by 12 years at Goldman Sachs, mostly in Hong Kong, where she worked with Martin Lau and James Mitchell, senior executives at another of Didi’s investors, Tencent.

But while gender discrimination remains generally common in China, Liu told Financial Times she had never experienced discrimination while at Goldman Sachs nor at Didi and “my feeling is that there are more women in China in tech than in other industries”.

A study by the Cyberspace Administration of China quoted by Financial Times estimated women started 55% of internet companies in the country, compared with 22% of startups in the US, according to research by Vivek Wadhwa and Farai Chideya, authors of Innovating Women.

Liu added: “In the internet era, the key to a successful business is understanding the customers’ expectations – and half the customers are women.”

And she told Financial Times her own observations had helped. Cheng Wei might have recruited her by taking her and other senior executives on a road trip to Tibet but navigating Chinese streets with small children she had found the state-regulated taxi services maddening.

She said: “When I first moved back to China from Hong Kong, I often found myself stuck with my kids trying to hail a taxi. At that time, in 2012, obviously, there were no choices for people like us.”

While there might be further headwinds and hard work ahead with government regulations potentially affecting Didi’s army of drivers, now there are choices.