Ji Gu, Teacher-Entrepreneur of China’s Silicon Valley
As the dean of Zhen Academy, Ji Gu spends her time teaching “startup therapy.” She has a quiet, piercing composure and speaks a mix of English and Chinese, commanding the room of students — mostly older male entrepreneurs — but she is wise beyond her years.
A “Tomboy” from Suzhou
Gu always took the unconventional path growing up. Behind her father’s back, she loved playing Command & Conquer, Counterstrike and Chinese RPG games, contrary to what was expected of girls in China. She also enjoyed studying military strategy, geopolitics and philosophy, traditionally male-dominated subjects, with the encouragement of her father, to the point where she was very much perceived as a tomboy as a child. This penchant for taking the contrarian path, influence from her father and love for gaming was pervasive throughout her life, influencing her approach to her work at Zhulilaiye and Zhen Academy.
At 15 years old, she won a scholarship and left her hometown of Suzhou, China, to attend the prestigious Raffles Junior College in Singapore. Gu went on to study operations research at Cornell University. As the first ever non-Singaporean student to receive a scholarship from Singapore Press Holdings, Gu had planned to work in the media industry after graduation. She had worked with them for eight months between high school and college and was granted this scholarship to attend Cornell and, later, return to work for them. However, her father was diagnosed with lung cancer when Gu graduated from high school.
“The medicine was very expensive; it’s about $1,000 for a two-month dosage,” Gu said. The culminating stress pushed Gu to study harder than ever at Cornell, graduating in a mere two and a half years, and to give up her dream of becoming a journalist, as the salary for a journalist in Singapore was too meager to support her father’s medicine (ironically Gu would later on become a columnist for the Financial Times in China).
Ultimately Gu had to borrow money from a family’s friend to break her scholarship bond in Singapore and find a more lucrative career elsewhere — in Wall Street.
“Investment banking was the way to make the most money in 2006,” Gu said. “It was the hottest job then. Not because I liked it; it has nothing to do with my major.”
Working in Wall Street is no easy job, especially at top firms such as UBS Investment Bank and BlackRock.
“Wall Street was the longest hours I ever worked, being an investment banking analyst. I only took three days off in the entire year, including Christmas holiday and all the other holidays, three days off,” Gu said. “Every day I worked about 16-18 hours a day. It was excruciating, basically. I learned a lot, but I don’t think I would have learned a lot more continuing that path. At BlackRock, it was similar, 16 hours a day starting work at 6:30 AM, to start before the actual trading market starts and then leave around 8 or 9 o’ clock.”
She was accepted into Stanford and had two goals for her time there: one, for a career transition, and two, personal development
However, Gu soon realized that she enjoyed playing the role of product manager, whether this was talking to engineers about product specs or managing client relationships, much more than the analyst. It was time for a career transition, she decided, and applied to Stanford.
"Once I paid off the debt to Singapore and to my family’s friend, I didn’t want to waste my time anymore because I figured I lived my past 5 years for my family and I needed to live my own life," Gu said. "I did not know what I wanted at that time. I just knew that I didn’t want to do finance."
She was accepted into Stanford and had two goals for her time there: one, for a career transition, and two, personal development.
“I lost my meaning of life when my dad passed away suddenly, because I felt that all my struggles were a waste,” Gu said. “At the time I felt like that. So I did not know what my life was about, except to pay back the debt. Once I cleared the debt, I lost myself again. So I spent the two years at Stanford taking a lot of classes related to understanding myself better.”
Venturing into Silicon Valley and the World of Gaming
During her time at Stanford, Gu felt inspired by the energy of the people in Silicon Valley. The people there seemed genuinely driven to make an impact on the world, compared to the many she met in Wall Street who were often obsessed by money alone.
The values and culture around startups seemed like a natural fit and post-Stanford, Gu decided to plunge into the world of entrepreneurship. She chose to venture into gaming specifically, a space she felt very comfortable in as a gamer herself.
"It also comes back to this tendency I have — I want to do things that few people do and back then gaming wasn’t as hyped as it is today," Gu said. "I thought gaming was cool. I don’t want to sound like I’m very analytical and thought out all of my life plan — no, I did not until quite recently actually. I just figured it was something very cool and I liked it."
Gu joined FunPlus, a gaming startup, and was responsible for two teams of 90 people across four countries including the US and China. “How to make it work between our Chinese and American teams across different cultural environments was a big challenge” Gu said. “I was the only one in the entire company who could manage people this way, across teams and across cultures”. Things worked well, she tripled the startup’s revenue in three months.
“How do you allow them, on one hand, be able to realize their potential and, on the other hand, work together with the Chinese and US teams across the different cultural challenges?” Gu said. “I was still the only one in the entire company who could manage across teams across cultures, but that also limits my growing potential.”
Traveling approximately 14 international trips between China, Canada and the US a year, Gu was able to better understand the dynamics of business and startups in both China and North America. Having absorbed as much as she could in the gaming startups, Gu decided to switch paths again. She returned to China and ended up co-founding Zhulilaiye, an artificial intelligence startup.
The Call to AI
"I met the founder of Zhulilaiye through a common friend - Xiaoping Xu (the founder of the VC firm ZhenFund) - and was given the opportunity to join as a co-founding COO. This field - artificial intelligence - was something I didn’t see a clear path out—and that’s what interested me," Gu said. "I like intellectual challenges."
What also drawn Gu to Zhulilaiye was the strong team of experts with technical backgrounds, the immense potential of AI and the uncertainty and excitement of building out an AI company in such unchartered waters. China’s advancement in terms of artificial intelligence technology is outpacing the US, Gu said. In 2017, Chinese investments accounted for 48 percent of global AI startup funding, according to Adweek.
It’s all about data. In China, there are 1.4 billion people, and in the US, you have about 320 million.
Zhulilaiye started initially as an assistant application within WeChat that could aid people with simple everyday tasks, such as hailing cabs or purchasing coffee. With a simple voice or text command, people could book flights or order meals.
In China, Gu described the AI startups as much more practical, “closer to the money.” Compared to the US, where the emphasis is on the fundamentals of the technology and chatbots, Chinese AI startups focus on outsourcing AI to users and getting paid in return. Moreover, the Chinese government is aggressively promoting a future-facing plan for AI. This plan includes a push to cultivate a one trillion RMB AI industry by 2030. Employees in AI are better compensated thanks to government subsidies and benefits. And the country is taking the lead in visual recognition.
“It’s all about data. In China, there are 1.4 billion people, and in the US, you have about 320 million people.”
This reality means Chinese firms have the ability to feed their algorithms with massive amount and a great diversity of data. When Gu jumped into this industry in 2015, however, AI had yet to become mainstream, but she quickly became fascinated in the potential of this technology. “Our key technology was natural language processing tech that could understand the context of a multiple-dialogue session and transmit that information through APIs to the service provider to provide that service,” Gu said.
Zhulilaiye combined AI technology with human agents, a difficult hybrid to achieve in striking the right balance of providing good user experience as well as allowing for efficiency and low costs. As of 2016, the startup had accumulated over 4 million users in first and second-tier cities in China. They were also the first startup in China to receive investment from Microsoft, through the Microsoft Accelerator, a startup accelerator with activities in China powered by the American tech giant.
Gu said Microsoft had been extremely involved in AI since 2016, pushing out products such as Cortana, a personal assistant software, and Xiaobing, a "girlfriend bot" in WeChat. Zhulilaiye stepped in to complement their technology by providing both data from China and live assistant technology, areas Microsoft was lacking in.
Ultimately, Gu’s experience in gaming at FunPlus helped her better understand issues related to the user interface and customer incentives at Zhulilaiye. Externally, the concept of the daily login was something that was carried over from games. Internally, designing a gamified incentive system for employees to motivate them in their careers was another concept that was important. But personal life problems would constrain Gu to make a temporary stop in her entrepreneurial journey at Zhulilaiye.
Bringing Self-Awareness to the Classroom
Compared to making a product that benefits thousands of people, I’d rather make a huge impact on a few people … I only came to that realization after I made multiple million dollar games and an AI product that is used by over 4 million people. Those gave me some satisfaction, but they were nothing like teaching a student who would later tell me I had changed his life.
Gu had to leave her very intense role of COO at Zhulilaiye for personal reason and embraced teaching instead as the dean of ZhenFund’s Zhen Academy, to share her experience and learnings with promising entrepreneurs. “We really believe in investing in people at ZhenFund. And I wanted to give back,” Gu explained. Success depends on the individual doing what is the best fit for him or her and that necessitates an extremely high level of self-awareness. There are three major areas where one can run into issues:
“First, is their ability to understand how the outside world is changing and their ability to synthesize information,” Gu said. “Second is their understanding of their relationships with others, how trust is earned and broken. Third is awareness of themselves, how their personalities, past experiences, repetitive ways of thinking and actions are hindering their future development, or how they are even wearing filters when they are viewing the outside world.”
Gu advises those who are interested in entrepreneurship and tech to one, understand the reason why they are pursuing it — that might include to gain experience or exposure or even simply to test out a lifestyle; two, know their strengths and weaknesses and delve into areas where they can leverage their strengths to accelerate their growth trajectory; and finally, just do it.
A big takeaway from her days in gaming was the value of understanding how to capture users’ attention and understand their mentality, something that is critical when teaching.
Zhen Academy’s 200 alumni — which include both Chinese and Western entrepreneurs and investors — can attest to the difference it’s made in their lives. Participants have said the program has given them more confidence, improved their relationships with others and even helped them recover from minor depression. Besides the personal upgrades in their lives, alumni have gone on to raise $500 million in funding for their ventures.
Recently, Gu has managed to scale her passion for education and mentorship to impact millions more — all with the help of Douyin, the original Chinese version of the short-video app TikTok that topped Facebook, Instagram and YouTube on the the App Store rankings in the US App Store. Her account on Douyin has garnered more than 2.5 million fans, becoming the number one influencer in the career vertical.
Things were not always smooth though. Gu sometimes faced obstacles as a teacher of mostly older, male entrepreneur-students — once, a vice president of an internet finance company said to her face: “A woman like you should just give up. You are too old, too smart, and too powerful,” Gu reports. But she kept pushing because she knew she was making a difference.
"Compared to making a product that benefits thousands of people, I’d rather make a huge impact on a few people," Gu said. "That gave me a lot more satisfaction than anything else, but I had only come to that realization after I made multiple-million dollar games and an AI product that is used by over 4 million people. Those gave me some satisfaction, but they were nothing like teaching a student who would later tell me that I had changed his life."