Future 50
A New Generation of Leaders Arrives

For putting China’s largest ride-sharing service on the map 

China’s largest ride-hailing company has been expanding across the world—with Jia Song driving that change. When she joined DiDi Chuxing in 2017, it had yet to venture outside the country. Now the mobility service spans eight countries across Asia Pacific and Latin America. Song was in the middle of it all, leading the launch into Brazil as her first major project for DiDi. 

“In an international rollout, the first country is always a big challenge,” Song says. “We had no idea what was going to happen.” 

Among the obstacles: Her team faced an 11-hour time difference, language barriers, and lack of knowledge about Brazil’s culture and politics. On top of that, DiDi had no brand awareness in Brazil, and powerful competition. At the time, Uber owned more than 90 percent of the market, Song says. 

She didn’t flinch.

“Even if you’re doing something nobody has tried before, if you have the courage to move forward and share your vision, people will follow you,” Song says.

She broke the Brazil rollout into 10 projects that spanned more than 30 departments across the company. To build buy-in, she reviewed the plan with each department team, gathered feedback and used that info to fine-tune the plan. By kickoff, all the stakeholders were in lockstep. “Everyone knew what we were going to do, and they knew their role in it,” Song says. 

To create a new identity and a hometown advantage, DiDi bought Brazilian tech startup 99 and made it the service’s namesake in Brazil. It also leaned on existing 99 team members and other specialists to conduct surveys of passengers and drivers—and then used that data to create features that would separate DiDi from the pack. For example, she says Uber paid drivers only once a week, so DiDi allowed drivers to collect their earnings daily. “It helped us gain an edge in the marketplace,” Song says. “It’s still their favorite feature.”

Iterating elements to meet local user preferences and translating the app from Chinese to Portuguese was time-consuming. No local team members spoke Chinese, and none of Song’s team spoke Portuguese, so all change requests were translated through English, their shared language. “We’d spend three hours working on a single page,” she says.

The hard work paid off. In the first two years after the company launched 99 in 2017, it’s racked up 1 billion trips in Brazil. The company has 600,000 drivers in the country and serves 18 million passengers. With Song leading other launches in Mexico, Chile and Colombia, the Latin America markets now account for 90 percent of DiDi’s international revenue.

Ready for Next

Jia Song’s three tips for next-gen project leaders:

  1. Show a confident, clear vision: “You need the team to believe in you if they’re going to believe in themselves.”
  2. Don’t be afraid of global projects: “Persistence and effective communication will help you get over the barriers and find common ground.”
  3. Big project? All aboard. “Make sure you have strong organizational support and a strong team in place before the kickoff. Otherwise it will be very hard to achieve success.”

Q&A: Jia Song on urgency, learning and leadership

What skill is most important to have in The Project Economy?

Experience really matters. At DiDi, projects have a sense of urgency. An experienced team member can identify the significant challenges in the very beginning even when evaluation time is limited.

What professional accomplishment are you most proud of?

I’m most proud of my abilities to prioritize and learn quickly. On complex projects, I can identify the critical path and key points to try to resolve the most important things, especially when there’s limited resources.

What’s your philosophy for leading projects?

Lead by example. When you earn the trust of team members, they are willing to do whatever it takes for project success—no matter how difficult or complex.