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INSIGHTS / MOVERS AND SHAKERS

Trudy Dai: Alibaba’s jane of all trades

China · Jun 05, 2019· By Li Yuan

Copyright: CompassList

Dai has played a pivotal role in the success of the world’s biggest e-commerce platform; now the tech giant is trusting her to run its VC arm

Trudy Dai (Dai Shan) is no stranger to incubating startups. In 2010, as head of human resources at Alibaba’s B2C unit Taobao, she introduced the concept of "horse racing," an intrapreneurship program that invited employees to come up with innovative projects. Alibaba provided office space, funding and manpower to the winning teams to help them turn their ideas into reality.

Over the next three years, Taobao employees proposed 350 projects, 10 of which were approved by the company and bore fruit. The iOS version of the Taobao app, direct industry web guide tao123.com and e-commerce platform book.taobao.com all came out of Dai’s horse racing program.

In March 2019, Alibaba chose Dai, 43, to succeed Daniel Zhang as chairperson of Hangzhou Alibaba Venture Capital Management Corporation (Alibaba VC). The tech giant has entrusted the veteran executive with many challenging jobs, so her latest appointment came as no surprise.

One of the most active VC investors in China, Alibaba accounts for nearly 20% of China’s domestic VC investment. In the first 11 months of 2018, it invested a total of RMB 180 million in around 160 startups, including unicorns AI chipmaker Cambricon Technologies, EV manufacturer Xpeng Motors and social e-commerce platform Xiaohongshu.

Founded in 2018, Alibaba VC holds a 100% stake in the food delivery platform Ele.me, which is valued at US$9.5 billion. Its portfolio also includes companies from the sectors of new retail, logistics and new media. 

Faith in tech

After Yahoo China was acquired by Alibaba in 2005, Dai was assigned to work as vice president of human resources at the tech firm for one year. “After talking to the guys there, I had a strong faith that tech is the future,” said Dai. She has applied that faith to her work.

In 2014, when Dai was appointed Chief Customer Officer, Alibaba Group had already integrated multiple B2C businesses, e.g., Taobao and Tmall, into its ecosystem. Each of the business units had hundreds of millions of customers, but Alibaba’s customer service system hadn’t changed much since 1999, when it was just a group of four people answering calls and replying to messages day and night.

The customer service staff were overwhelmed by inquiries from hundreds of millions of buyers and tens of millions of sellers on the platforms.

Instead of hiring more employees, Dai merged all the separate customer service teams and used tech to provide automated customer service.

In 2015, Alimi, an AI-powered chatbot, started handling customer queries and complaints. The move was one of the first AI use cases in customer service. Alibaba claims Alimi can handle more than 90% of customer inquiries without human input and serves more than 3.5 million users a day.

Dai also recognized early the value of big data in customer service and began applying it at the company in 2014. “Alibaba has accumulated a vast quantity of data that can be used to help us improve our customer service capability and efficiency,” she said.

Under Dai’s stewardship, Alibaba started to utilize its massive bulk of data on users’ shopping behaviors, which enabled the company to create precise customer profiles and provide targeted services like personalized recommendations and speedy returns.

Trailblazer

A Jack Ma protégée, being one of his students when Ma was still a teacher, Dai was one of the 18 original founding members of Alibaba. The Hainan native is an engineering graduate from the Hangzhou Institute of Electricial Engineering. 

“In 1999 when the company was founded, each one of us was actually customer service staff,” she recalled. Working 16–18 hours a day, Dai and her colleagues answered emails so quickly customers began to doubt they were real people.

Alibaba started out as a B2B e-commerce platform and, despite diversification by the company, still holds a 45% share of China’s B2B e-commerce market. Dai’s work has been key to the tech giant’s dominance.

From 2003 to 2005, long before Dai was made president of Alibaba B2B Business Group in 2017, she set up a brand new telephone sales team for Alibaba.com's B2B marketplace division. The team Dai built contributed 60% to Alibaba's revenue every year until 2010.

Because of her warm smile, most people expect Dai to be more easy going than aggressive. But when CEO Daniel Zhang referred to her as a “battle-hardened leader” in a letter announcing Dai’s appointment as head of Alibaba’s B2B business, he was not exaggerating. Dai herself has joked, “Whenever my department is on the right track, I know I’m about to be assigned to a new position.”

Edited by Wendy Lovinger and Wang Xiao'e