Asia

Meet the Woman Who Holds the Key to Asian Money in Silicon Valley

This week, Uber made headlines after selling its Chinese operations to rival Didi Chuxing, just a few days after becoming officially legal in the country.

The $1 billion deal appears like an easy purchase to relax the struggling business, but behind scenes like this are people who navigate the challenging terrain of deal-closing and cultural-advising.

They are the “whisperers” between China and Silicon Valley — experts who help bring American businesses to the world’s most populous country.

One of them is Carmen Chang, a lawyer and investor, the Washington Post wrote. Uber CEO Travis Kalanick sought her advice for the company’s entry in China, and according to the outlet, she was a trusted confidante in the recent acquisition.

Chang has aided other tech companies looking to establish or maintain their presence in China. Among them is Cloudflare, a web security startup which she helped partner with search giant Baidu.

Cloudflare CEO Matthew Prince said of Chang:

“She is the whisperer between China and Silicon Valley. There’s very few that really understand both sides.”

Chang, who was born in Nanjing, China, originally came to the U.S. to get a doctorate in Modern Chinese History. However, she ended up graduating from Stanford Law School in the early 1990s and started working as an associate at Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, a prominent law firm in Silicon Valley.

Among her early clients was Japanese Billionaire Masayoshi Son. Back then, her bosses had never been to Asia and didn’t know how big Son was. They considered him not important enough to be represented by senior staff and gave him to Chang instead.

This moment helped Chang slowly build out her client roster of heavy hitters over the years and eventually became the go-to person for tech deals between Silicon Valley and Asia. She’s helped Hank Paulson, former chief executive of Goldman Sachs, break into China and helped Google acquire a stake in Baidu in 2004.

But it’s not always a smooth journey. Sometimes, Chinese investors think they are getting the short end of the deals.

To this, Chang pointed out:

“I wanted to make it clear to them that we would never treat them like dumb money or treat them differently from other investors. We would treat them fairly.”

China whisperers are more than just brokers — the adopt complex roles that include cultural translators. Another whisperer, Connie Chan, helps startups understand Chinese products so they can better fare in the competition. As a partner at the venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, she assisted ride-sharing platform Lyft in forming a partnership with Didi.

“I say, okay, here are the four companies you should track. This is their Chinese name. Go set a Google Alert. Have someone who understands Chinese in your company do a screenshot by screenshot walk-through… and repeat every six months,” she told the Washington Post.

As trends in the global market change, China whisperers are becoming more valuable, thanks to their expertise that cuts across borders. Their role sounds like a lucrative career, but then again, it’s no piece of cake.

Aside from doing business only with people she knows well, Chang attributes part of her effectiveness through restraint. She sees to it that she never questions anyone’s honesty or integrity.

“I’ve told U.S. companies, Chinese people have long memories and are the ultimate repeat players, so don’t play any games.”

She also has word for Chinese investors:

“I’ve tried to tell the Chinese investors coming to the Valley today that they are making their reputation as they go along, so they should be very thoughtful and careful about what they do.”

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