Five in Five with Lucy Liu
Alumni Rising Star Award 2021

By Tessa Shaw

Start-up advisor, Lucy Liu, says that people and timing are the key ingredients to success.

Shanghai-based Lucy Liu (BCom 2010; MFinMgt 2012) has been awarded the 2021 Faculty of Business and Economics Alumni of Distinction Rising Star Award for her outstanding level of professional achievement and community involvement since graduating from the University of Melbourne.

According to Lucy, her interest in financial markets and the start-up sector started early. In fact, she was inspired by her father.

“My dad is an entrepreneur, too, so I definitely get this spirit from him,” she says.

Lucy decided to study commerce and has never looked back.

How has your degree helped define your decision to further explore the financial sector?

I was exposed to the ins and outs of the financial markets at a young age, because my dad worked in the industry. This motivated me to eventually pursue a Bachelor of Commerce at the University of Melbourne.

Although the Global Financial Crisis hit in the first semester of my degree, I learnt a lot from having my own stock account at that time. The combination of my degree and background experience helped crystallise that I wanted a career in finance.

When I turned 18 and in my second year of University, the markets started to recover. I saw this as a great opportunity to secure internships at banks and deepen my experience in finance – I remember being excited to apply what I’d learnt in macro-economic subjects to the real world.

However, I was always interested in becoming an entrepreneur. I considered a number of business ideas with friends, which included a real estate firm, however, none truly appealed to me until the idea of Airwallex came along.

Can you tell us more about Airwallex?

For many businesses, international payments are expensive, time-consuming and confusing. This pain point is exactly why our business was founded.

Lucy Liu
Lucy Liu

Two of my co-founders, Jack Zhang (CEO) and Max Li (Head of Design), are former small-business owners themselves. After running a cafĂ© in Melbourne’s Docklands, they recognised first-hand the impact of high foreign exchange fees and banking costs on their profit margins.

In 2015, I teamed up with Jack, Max and another friend, Xijing Dai, to remove the constraints of the current global financial system and help businesses operating cross-border. Airwallex was born.

Like any typical start-up, we began with a business plan, mission and vision to help overcome the challenges of building a business. Then came the process of seeking investment, timing being a key ingredient. We raised money at a time when interest in enterprise-focused solutions was high.

People are so relevant to the success of a business.

Investor and founder chemistry is very important, so we focused on finding the right fit in our investors.

In the early days, we didn’t have the perfect numbers or a proven track record behind us but we scaled by building a great product and assembling a talented team that could problem-solve as challenges arose.

Nowadays, my role focuses more on supporting the brand and communications function and helping to build the company’s profile through events and conferences, which has ultimately improved our hiring process. I also strive to be a leader for women across the fintech and wider technology sectors.

Yes, it is clear that you are passionate about embracing opportunities that allow you to encourage and support other women. You are an advisor for the University’s Melbourne Accelerator Program, and also StartupVic. How do you ensure that your views on supporting women in the workplace are endorsed?

Personally, this involves embracing every opportunity that comes my way in my professional life, and being an active member of the fintech community. The reality is that there aren’t enough women in tech. This is a bigger problem than the hiring process itself. However, I like to think that having a female founder at Airwallex helps women feel more comfortable and empowered about applying to work with us.

I’m passionate about creating more equality for women, and I hope women founders and industry leaders continue to bring each other up by sharing their experiences and challenges.

The focus should simply be on equal treatment and encouraging a diverse culture in the organisation.

I also believe that it all comes down to interest. People have to be given the choice, and know that no matter who they are, they can choose a career in tech. To attract talent, organisations must make it clear that opportunities are equal, regardless of gender.

At the end of the day, I truly care about my global team. Although managing an international team can have its challenges, I ensure that I am always accessible and available. Before the pandemic, it was not unheard of for me to fly 80-90 times a year. I did this to maintain a presence with our global offices and to ensure that I could embrace every opportunity to speak and to be a role model. Today, I maintain the same accessibility through communications tools like Zoom, Slack and WeChat.

What motivates you to do what you do?

From day one, we set out with a purpose: to empower businesses of all sizes, in all places, to grow beyond borders, and across all markets.

We seek to address the pain points of our customers in their global expansion quest, working with them to solve their business operating issues and providing them with a solution that is transparent, cost effective and efficient. It is this purpose to help businesses scale globally – especially critical in today’s digital economy brought on by the pandemic – that motivates and drives me every day.

On a more personal note, my daughter (who is two and a half now) helps keep me motivated. People are often surprised by my ability to integrate being a mum and President of Airwallex. But continuing to be a role model for other female employees encourages me to keep going as a working mother.

With such a full schedule between running a company, acting as an advisor and being a mum, what do you do to find balance in your life?

lucy liu latte art
Lucy's latte art

I typically start each day at 7am with a workout, before reading the news and feeding my daughter. Then I head to the office (or join virtual meetings) from 9am until dinnertime, which is around 7pm. I then try to be offline to spend quality time with my family, and log back on once my daughter is asleep at around 8.30pm to complete any unfinished work or catch up with colleagues in different time zones.

Prioritising fitness doesn’t only help me improve my physical health, but also my ability to be a good leader, because I believe that a healthy lifestyle helps leaders better cope with the stresses and demands of their positions.

I also take time out for my interests, such as coffee! Pre-pandemic, when I used to travel for work, I would seek out specialty coffee roasters wherever I was. I love drinking and making coffee, and during lockdown, my latte art really improved for the better!

Learn more about the Faculty of Business and Economics Alumni of Distinction Awards.