As strategy lead in the International Business Group at China’s leading ride-hailing company, DiDi, Ariel Cai spent months living in Brazil, Mexico, Chile, and Colombia collaborating with local teams to launch new products.
Strolling around Mexico City, she saw people lined up outside banks on payday to cash their checks. It’s not uncommon for locals not to have a bank account, her Mexican colleagues told her, and trust in the banking system is low. The image stuck with Cai, who thought about the services and the benefits that residents were missing out on and how technology might help.
Originally an English literature major in college, Cai has worked in consulting helping top tech companies solve pivotal problems. She co-created a consulting startup to advise non-profits, and, most recently, she did a stint at TikTok in Beijing. Now, as an MSx student at Stanford GSB, she wants to deepen her portfolio of skills and build connections that will help her help others.
Cai has a special interest in emerging markets — Latin America and China — and how consumer tech can tackle big problems. “I think technology should take the role of serving the needs of people in underdeveloped regions,” she says. “That’s my mission.”
You’ve had experiences living among people from different cultures and backgrounds. How has that shaped who you are today?
I was born and raised in a small city in northwestern China, Yinchuan, which is primarily Muslim. I noticed from early on that my family was a little bit different. My grandparents and my mum were from Jiangsu, a large metropolitan region, and at home, they spoke a different dialect and ate their hometown food. From early on, I understood how it feels to be different, how to embrace it, and how to understand people from a variety of backgrounds and perspectives. Those experiences helped greatly when, in college, I learned Spanish for two years and participated in an exchange program abroad. I now have a deeper understanding of how to use language to break down barriers and forge connections with people.
Your path into consumer tech has been a circuitous one. How did you settle on technology?
When I started my career most of the smart young people were in consulting or banking. I followed their path and became a management consultant at KPMG, helping tech companies to solve their various business requests.
While I enjoyed working with and helping my clients, I felt my skills and passion were underutilized, and wanted to figure out what my strengths really are. So, I pivoted from consulting to B2B startups in consumer tech. Almost immediately I felt more fulfilled in my work, and that fueled my success, passion, and motivation. I’m glad to have started in a different industry as I believe every experience, whether successful or not, builds expertise, resilience, and more dots to connect. Sometimes the best way to discover where your passion lies is to know where it is not.
Tell us about your subsequent foray into entrepreneurship.
Many people talk about successful startup experiences, and I wasn’t a part of one. In fact, I worked at two that failed.
I was with two early-stage B2B startups before joining big tech. One failed to scale efficiently and the other went bankrupt, lacking a strong product-market fit. Those years were very tough on me, mentally. It was difficult missing revenue goals and witnessing people sitting next to you getting laid off.
But they helped me to identify my strengths as well as shortcomings. I learned to launch a product, scale it, and find the product-market fit in different regions. Perhaps most importantly I learned that simply “having a vision and a solution in mind” are not a guarantee for success. Real success takes time, and those years helped me develop the emotional endurance and toughness to weather the ups, downs, and uncertainties of business moving forward. I wouldn’t have achieved that expertise if not for those hard times.
This isn’t your first GSB experience. In 2016, you participated in Stanford Ignite, a two-month certificate program to train entrepreneurs. What was that like?
I studied at the Stanford Center in Peking University, with GSB professors flying all the way to teach business fundamentals and tools for developing and commercializing startup ideas.
The program provided answers to my questions regarding startups and being a more mature business leader and effective problem-solver. One highlight I remember vividly was the business plan we created for a company that used algorithm models to generate tailored apparel recommendations for individual users. I feel really grateful to have been part of such an impactful program.
At DiDi you spent a lot of time working in Latin America. What challenges did you face there?
I loved my time working in Latin America and look forward to going back there at some point.
I lived in four Latin American countries: Brazil, Mexico, Chile, and Colombia. Every day brought something new, from personal experiences of food, language, and cultural differences, to achieving milestones at work.
The markets appeared to be integrated yet there were specific, diverse challenges from one country to another. For example, in Mexico, there was aggressive competition from other industry players. Together with a local team, we formulated and implemented a plan to gain deeper market penetration. In Colombia and Chile where DiDi had not launched yet, I worked closely with the GM within those countries to determine the go-to-market plan with a clear allocation of resources and team effort.
DiDi is now a very strong brand in Latin America. I’m incredibly proud to be part of that journey.
What was your role at TikTok?
I did go-to-market strategy and helped TikTok gain a stronger presence to users. Given its scale, TikTok is a larger arena for me. Not only did I focus on familiar markets like Latin America, but I also got the opportunity to cooperate with teams from Southeast Asia, U.K., U.S., and the Middle East. Due to Covid, even though I couldn’t travel and work in those markets myself, I gained a lot of new learnings from my interactions with local colleagues and users online. I missed those lovely faces behind the screen.
Also, with more flexibility, I led several innovative projects to better connect with users. One project I led is to help small brands who are struggling by launching short-video ad campaigns on TikTok. I learned about their situations and unique challenges and initiated the campaign to help them better promote their products on TikTok to local customers, enabling them to compete with large brands on a similar playing field.
How is the MSx program suiting you, and where do you see yourself after graduation?
My goal is to join an early-stage startup focusing on consumer technology solutions that provide genuine value to users.
What I love most about the MSx program is how it provides the same top-notch leadership training as the two-year program, but in a compressed time. This better suits the needs and demands of mid-career leaders like me.
Additionally, MSx has a very strong community; my class is composed of individuals from more than 40 countries and unique industries, with an average of 13 years of working experience. Each person brings a different perspective and life experience. When we are discussing a case about a company, from any place in the world, we have someone who has direct experience in it. I love the conversations and am learning so much from my classmates.
Photos by Elena Zhukova