Lili Luo

“I sold everything and came back to China immediately.”

Date: October 31, 2016
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It was a Sunday evening in the ballroom of the Grand Hyatt Resort in Sanya, the southernmost city on the coast of mainland China’s Hawaii-esque tropical paradise, Hainan. Out the front door and down the winding path, surrounded by fresh, towering bamboo, adventurous souls dipped their toes in the South China Sea. At center stage stood Lili Luo, founder of the Seoul-based startup accelerator TriBeluga, delivering an emphatic speech in her native Mandarin. Her audience, a few hundred international businesspeople and various other TriBeluga supporters, gathered here to witness the third anniversary of the organization, many making the trip from the US, Europe, and beyond. With Typhoon Sarika promising to rear its ugly head in the following 48 hours, some wondered how long they would be calling the island home.

Lili Luo is a bubbling cauldron of enthusiasm. She has high cheekbones, a noticeable golden glow, and thin, pointed brows sitting above two deep, inquisitive eyes. She speaks with an incredible range of pace, her words sometimes flowing like machine-gun fire, and other times slowed right down to a crawl to accentuate every last syllable. She’s the kind of person who walks into a room and receives every set of eyes on her at once, whether the crowd knows her or not. When she laughs, she hits volumes that few people reach when shouting. On the day that she and I sat down to speak, she wears a lustrous white pantsuit; two days thereafter, it was her thirtieth birthday.

"I sold everything and came back to China immediately." Lili Luo
"I sold everything and came back to China immediately." Photo: TriBeluga

Born in Chengdu, Luo spent her early years between China, Hong Kong, and Australia, later attending Malibu’s Pepperdine University – one of the most expensive private academies in the world – and continuing on to study hospitality at Switzerland’s prestigious Glion Hotel School. However, after returning to her Swiss studies following a school break in Hong Kong, she recalls a particularly pivotal realization. “I wasn’t being challenged in school, but I still had eight months remaining in my program before I finished. So, assuming I would live until 80, I calculated how many eight-month periods I had left in my life. The answer was only double digits. I sold everything and came back to China immediately.”

While the decision to leave school may have seemed rash at the time, it’s precisely this no-looking-back level of decisiveness that gives Luo an edge in running TriBeluga, which is focused exclusively on developing companies who can penetrate, and dominate, the Chinese market in their respective fields. Right now, the accelerator has just two startups in its portfolio – VTOUCH, a developer of gesture-control technology that enables users to control both smart (speakers, televisions, etc.) and non-smart devices (non-connected lighting fixtures, desk fans, etc.) using their finger as a pointing device, and nthing, a developer of next-generation smart agriculture productsbut Luo knows better than anyone that Chinese consumer preferences are changing at an unprecedented rate. She’s certainly not the type to let such a vast opportunity to impress her own mark on the world pass by.

One challenge for Luo, though, is navigating both cultural and gender differences in the startup world, one that’s long been dominated by white males. “You see how tough life is for me!” she exclaims, only half-jokingly. Yet things are changing. On the gender side of things, China’s longstanding one-child policy, an issue notorious for its ability to create tension in the population, was abolished as of January 1st of this year, an encouraging indicator that the nation is adopting more progressive values. On the cultural side, Luo has an answer of her own.

“Let me show you the real side of second-generation Chinese businesspeople,” she says, opening up a private WhatsApp thread where a friend had posted a photo of an advertisement displayed on a jumbotron in Times Square, New York. In the ad, you see ten Chinese entrepreneurs, all male, overlaid with a single message: ‘We’re the generation that will lead the world.’ Pointing at the men in the photo, Luo states plainly, “Four of them are here tonight.”

Lack of discretion aside, this is a promising sign for Chinese entrepreneurs. Just a few years ago, China was little more than a manufacturing afterthought for many American firms. Today, in Luo’s words, “America is the R&D headquarters, but China is where you sell. China is the market.” A deep, inherent understanding of that market will be key, which means companies like TriBeluga, which is already working hard to strengthen connections between China, South Korea, and Silicon Valley, will be placed firmly in the spotlight. “The bridge. The glue. The cultural translator,” is how Luo explains her role through such a transitory period. “That’s who I am.”

When I ask Luo how she personally feels connected to China’s own cultural history, she thinks about it for a moment before saying, with a hand placed gently over her heart, “I have qíng.” Qíng (pronounced ching), the Mandarin root word, appears in many other words describing affection and compassion; ‘àiqíng’ means love, while ‘gănqíng’ means feeling. So when she says she has qíng, Luo really means she embodies the longstanding Chinese values of loyalty, friendship, and integrity, that she’s someone who puts more faith in a well-intentioned handshake than a watertight contract.

That’s when it hits home for me: on top of everything else she’s doing for the Chinese business environment, qíng is perhaps her most noble contribution to the startup climate here. In the midst of cultural collisions, business model pivots and high-stakes expansions, she’s much more than just a cultural translator. Lili Luo provides a deep-rooted reminder of what traditional Chinese values are all about, and that’s something any startup in the world can learn from.

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