June 2019

Dora Liang Chai of Alipay US provides an example of cross-cultural connectivity in delivering financial inclusion through technology

Tell us how it all started...

I grew up in Hangzhou, in Zhejiang Province, and went to Hangzhou Foreign Language School, famous in Southern China for alumni that include diplomats and academics. Learning foreign languages is a core part of the curriculum and this made us far more aware of the world outside our immediate environment. It included an intensive six-year course in English. I saw my destiny as somehow providing a bridge between Mainland China and the international markets.

This was why I decided to do a degree in international journalism, and went on to PricewaterhouseCoopers to train as an internal auditor. By 2006, I was working for a range of Chinese internet companies at a time when Chinese stocks were doing well on the NASDAQ, so I got to see internet technology from a financial perspective. I joined Alibaba in 2009 as an internal auditor, as the role was based at the headquarters in Hangzhou and I wanted to spend more time with my family.

What made you move from internal controls to corporate affairs?

After 10 months of analysing fixed assets and internal control documents, I volunteered to be a Special Assistant to the Head of Public Relations for Alifest. This was a one-week customer event initiated by [Alibaba founder] Jack Ma where our customers and partners came to Hangzhou from all over the world to witness our progress, celebrate our success and exchange ideas. I dealt with reporters from all regions, and my journalist training helped me see the company from an external perspective. I worked with senior management and remained in corporate affairs for a further 2.5 years, getting involved in a lot of regional partnership launches in Hong Kong and Taiwan.

And then you gave it all up to go to business school?

This was actually a very difficult decision, but I wanted to further my own personal development and was accepted by the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley on a full-time MBA programme. I knew the group was planning to go public and it would have been very exciting to have been part of the PR team during one of the largest IPOs.1 But I made the right decision – I wanted to work in technology and Berkeley is perfect preparation for Silicon Valley. During the two-year course I stayed in touch with Alibaba because I had trained as a simultaneous interpreter. While the IPO was going on, I provided translation support for the Alibaba senior management team.

Did you notice a difference in attitudes to Alibaba after the IPO?

Yes. Before we went public, when I told my business school classmates that I worked for Alibaba, they didn’t really get what it was or what we were, guessing at something along the lines of Amazon with PayPal and a bit of eBay. By the second year of the course, I was recognised as the Alibaba person. It was at an all-hands meeting with US staff celebrating the successful New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) IPO that our Chairman and then CEO, Eric Jing of Ant Financial, invited me to return to the company in a US-based role.

Back to bridge-building, then?

Absolutely. I landed a business development role at Alipay to connect the company with external partners and merchants, and started in May 2015, once I had finished my MBA. Having studied in the US I had a better understanding of how the Western business world operates. It is hard for Chinese companies to globalise, as they have to deal with a lot of cultural differences. I saw myself as helping US companies to access China and Chinese companies to explore international opportunities.

What is your impression of how the payments market – and Alipay – has changed since you returned?

When I first joined Alipay, we were just doing online payments. But in China everyone pays with phones now – to the point where, if I couldn’t pay with my digital wallet when I go home, I don’t know what I would do! Now we provide offline payments, money market funds and the means to earn interest from balances, however small. I am really impressed with the company’s speed of innovation and product development, widening offerings into adjacent product lines and leveraging the payment infrastructure. Before, we did online payments so that Chinese consumers could buy from overseas merchants. Now we are working on getting Alipay enabled by stores such as Michael Kors and Coach, as well as the shopping malls.

You talk about being a bridge between East and West. How do you navigate the business culture differences?

A lot of this is about being tactical in each situation. One difference is the way business meetings are handled. In China, people hold meetings to improvise and explore ideas in more of a free-flow structure. We diverge and then converge. In Western culture the structure is usually clear in advance, with bullet-pointed agendas and action points arising. At Alipay I have status review meetings with our merchants and acquirers (partners who help Alipay source merchants) to touch base on the pipeline. Some pipelines are mature and healthy, others are new and need to build.

You mentioned financial inclusion and a level playing field. How does Alipay deliver this?

Our CEO has said he wants to make sure that a 70-year-old grandma can get the same level of service as a premium bank customer. We are dedicated to bringing small and beautiful changes to the world. So we offer a utility payment service. Before, if you wanted to pay your gas, water or electricity bill, for example, you had to get a slip of paper, go to a bank and queue up. So our users can connect their digital wallets with different sources – we provide convenience so that everyone can access payment services. We are not about disruption but financial inclusion – and helping people to invest as well.

Does this translate into the B2B arena?

Yes, through our responsible technology we are here to provide consumers and small businesses with safe and convenient inclusive financial services. We do this via our MYbank offering.

Profile: Dora Liang Chai
Current role: Business Development Manager, Alipay US
Former roles: Head of Overseas PR, Alipay; Senior Auditor, PricewaterhouseCoopers
Studied at: Haas School of Business, University of California, Berkeley (MBA), Beijing Foreign Studies University (BA, International Journalism)
Recent highlights: Selected for the Money20/20 Rise Up programme 2018;2 launched Alipay’s first partnership in Canada, and in 15,000 taxis in North America

Key facts: Alipay

Established:
2004. Alibaba established Alipay to address the issue of trust between online buyers and sellers. Buyers were unwilling to make payments before receiving and inspecting their purchases, and sellers were unwilling to ship the products until they were assured that payment was forthcoming. The lack of trust posed a major challenge for the development of e-commerce in China. Alipay introduced its escrow service as a solution to this problem

 

Company structure:
Alipay was spun off from Alibaba Group in 2011 and Ant Financial was established in October 2014 as Alipay’s parent company. Ant Financial is an independently-managed and operated business and a related company of Alibaba Group

 

Business model:
Ant Financial has developed online platforms to provide a wide range of products and services that cover payments; loans; third-party insurance and wealth management focussing on the financial needs of small businesses and individuals; and technologies and services meeting financial institutions’ digital needs

 

Holding company:
Ant Financial, founded in 2014 (a related company of Alibaba). The company website says: “The ant is a symbol of a small but tenacious force in the natural world. Ants may be small, but they have limitless strength when they work together. The ant also symbolises our trust in and reliance on small and microenterprises.” It handles more than half of China’s US$15.5trn payments market

 

Registered users (along with global partners):
One billion

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Sources

1 Alibaba’s IPO on the NYSE in September 2014 resulted in market capitalisation of US$230bn
2 See https://bit.ly/2E830aQ at us.money2020.com. For more about the Rise Up program, see the flow article ‘Balancing the board’ at https://bit.ly/2tWouja, cib.db.com

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