In the fifth episode of Gen.T's Crazy Smart Asia podcast, Airwallex co-founder Lucy Liu talks sticking to your vision and why people still don’t believe she’s a tech founder

Like most successful startup stories, Lucy Liu’s fintech company Airwallex was created to solve a problem.

In this case, Lucy’s friends and eventual co-founders, Jack Zhang and Max Li, realised that high foreign exchange rates were damaging the profit margins of a small café they ran in Melbourne back in 2015.

The idea was simple enough—to use technology to make B2B cross-border payments simpler and cheaper. The execution? Not so straightforward.

But they made it happen. And in just a few years, the team went from café owners to the founders of a fintech giant with the potential to disrupt the global financial system.

See also: 5 Women Entrepreneurs You Need To Know In China

Airwallex's meteoric ascent has put Liu firmly in the spotlight, with the startup reaching unicorn status when she was just 28. The media are keen to paint her as a "female" fintech founder or a "young" unicorn founder. And while she admits that she's a "rare species", Liu eschews this characterisation, focusing on her work while quietly disproving the stereotypes .

In this fifth episode of Crazy Smart Asia, which chronicles the unexpected stories of Asia's disruptors, Liu talks to Gen.T editor Lee Williamson about vision, prejudice and values.

Here are a few excerpts from the conversation. Click the audio player below to listen to the episode or subscribe via Apple, Spotify, Google or wherever you get your podcasts

On age as a perceived barrier

"Jack [Zhang] used to tell me I need to look more mature. I'm like, ‘Jack, this is just how I look. I can put on make-up, I can dress more formally, but I'm still going to look like I'm in my mid-20s.'"

On knowing when to pivot

"The most important decision we made was to throw that [first] product in the bin and start over. This was around nine or 12 months into the inception of Airwallex. It was a very hard decision, but we thought, 'This is something we have to do in order to survive and make it work.'"

On vision

"We had a vision and we stuck to it. I think we are still the same company we were five years ago, in terms of goals and ambition. Even back then, when we were a four- or five-person team, we had very ambitious goals. We were sitting in a bank and telling them we're going to be trading US$1 billion in a year. We've had a whole bunch of crises and difficulties along the way, but we came out stronger at the other end. That vision was really what made us stick through the whole process."

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Above Lucy Liu

And sticking to that vision

"I've met quite a few founders who decided to change their direction based on what's popular in the market, or what the VCs are looking for, to get the right investments or to appear more attractive in the media and draw attention to their business. I think that strategically, that's always temporary. Whatever you do has to be longer-term than that."

On fundraising 

"People think there is some sort of secret to fundraising. I don't think there is. It's really about what you're doing and how well you know your stuff, as well as the chemistry between investors and founders. I think confidence makes so much difference, too. But at the end of the day, investors look for returns, so how quickly you can grow and how big you can grow will make a lot of difference. Really thinking from the investor's perspective is helpful—they have to be interested in the industry before they will talk to you. If they're not interested in the industry to start with, the conversation isn’t going to go anywhere, even if you spend hours telling them that it’s something with a lot of potential."

On navigating a male-dominated industry

"I want to inspire other women in my business, and others in the industry, to not always think that as females we have to live up to any male standards or anything like that. I mean, it's always a complementary skill set that females bring to startups."

On not fitting the stereotype

"A lot of times when people meet me, they don't think I’m a tech founder. I wonder why? Do all tech founders have to look a certain way or do they have to be like Steve Jobs? I’m a rare species, apparently."

Listen to all released episodes and subscribe using your preferred podcast platform on the Crazy Smart Asia hub page

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