Qunar founder Fritz Demopoulos at Silicon Dragon Beijing 2011 >
Fritz Demopoulos, 43, a Southern Californian and MBA grad from UCLA’s Anderson School of Management hasn’t mastered Mandarin, but has scored two Chinese Internet successes over the past decade. In June 2011, Baidu invested $306 million in the travel search engine Qunar he formed in 2005 and he stepped down as CEO, turning management over to Chinese staff. Demopoulos, who was born in the U.S. to a Greek dad and Austrian mother, got his start in China as business development manager for Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., working alongside Wendi Deng in the late 1990s in Hong Kong and mainland China, and running information technology portal Chinabyte.com. He next joined NASDAQ-listed Chinese portal and gaming company Netease and worked closely with the CEO on a two-year turnaround. In 2001, his first China startup, sports portal Shawei, was bought by Hong Kong-based Tom Group for $15 million.
With his credentials, Demopoulos could write his ticket. He’s exploring opportunities to start another business or become an active investor, and plans to continue working in either Hong Kong or Beijing. “I don’t think I will be based at the debtor to China, ie the U.S.,” he says.
Richard Robinson, 43, hails from Boston and still drops the “r’s” with his accent though he’s long ago broken through the language and cultural barrier on a whirlwind tech startup career in China. His journey has led from helping to jumpstart the original Rupert Murdoch-funded Renren to a VP at wireless and entertainment player Linktone to spearheading seven startups in wireless technologies – and even running his Beijinger wife’s venture, Kooky Panda, a mini-Zynga mobile social gaming business, on a miniscule $40,000 budget before Infinity Ventures funded it. “In China, you can live on a penny and a big dream,” notes Robinson, who points out that burn rates or monthly costs to ramp up a business in China are about one-tenth of those in Silicon Valley.
The latest gig for the hyperkinetic Robinson is heading up international for Beijing startup Youlu, a mobile phone address book that leverages social network connections. Youlu’s CEO is rock star Zany Zeng, the former chief technology officer at China’s Facebook-plus site, Oak Pacific Interactive . “I really feel we have lightning in a bottle with this one,” he says.
Spurred on by seeing his friends and colleagues venture over to China and succeed, Silicon Valley tech executive Elliott Ng found he could not resist the lure to go eastward. In early 2011, the overachiever ‒ Harvard MBA grad, ex- Microsoft product manager, McKinsey associate, co-founder or director of four tech startups, and angel investor – joined Google to lead product management for Greater China. He’d lived in the Bay Area for 14 years, his wife had a full-time job as a pediatrician, and their three young boys were pretty happy where they were.
But in July, he and his family relocated to Beijing. “Silicon Valley is still the best, most open startup/tech ecosystem in the world,” says Ng. “Beijing is the center of Chinese culture, government and information technology.” The one drawback? Polluted Beijing air.
Family reasons have kept social media goddess and Taiwanese native Christine Lu from making the break herself. The 35-year-old single mother has her support network in Los Angeles for her six-year-old son, and she’s managing to stay very involved as an entrepreneur at the intersection connecting China and the U.S.
Her latest adventure is Affinity China, a private network that provides members access to unique luxury, lifestyle and travel experiences – an area that matches her interests well as a shareholder in two swanky Shanghai cocktail bars, CVRVE and M1NT. She’s had some grass-roots experience in China as well, designing and launching two clothing lines for her family’s apparel business in the Mainland, launching an e-commerce site for women during the dotcom days, and working in Shanghai for five years from 1999 to 2004 as head of marketing for TV Shopping Network.
Her conversational Mandarin is a plus and quarterly trips to Shanghai keep her plugged into what’s happening. “If it wasn’t for my parents forcing me to visit China for the first time in 1995 as a freshman in college, I would be late to the China game today playing catch up. That trip changed everything. The entire city was under construction. There was no skyline in Pudong. There was no expressway to the airport,” recalls Lu. “But there was an energy, a feeling that in ten years, things were going to be much different . . . and I wanted to be part of it.”
Since moving to China in 1997 to study Chinese at Shanghai’s East China Normal University and marrying a Chinese woman he’d met on campus, suave Parisian native Bruno Bensaid, 39, has not looked in the rear view mirror. After working in finance for Cisco Systems from Singapore, he moved back to Shanghai and managed a tech accelerator that launched several venture-backed mobile startups from France in China, then joined French venture firm Ventech to do China deals, and in 2008, started his financial advisory group ShanghaiVest in 2008.
He’s well rooted in the tech community as a founder of the Shanghai chapter of industry networking group MobileMonday and an angel investor with Shanghai’s tuned-in AngelVest. “I’m very involved in business development with the startups I invest in,” says Bensaid, who’s recently backed a luxury travel network, a mobile apps engine for kids and a social marketing company with an all-star team.
Robert Strawbridge, 42, grew up on Long Island’s North Shore and spent summers in Newport, Rhode Island and Maine, later moving to San Francisco in time to ride the dotcom boom as IPOs were soaring. In 2008, he left behind his Cape Cod style home overlooking the Bay and rented an apartment in Beijing to catch the next big trend. A Hambrecht & Quist alum from the mid-1990s who later co-founded a sportswear manufacturer and worked as a VP at a Zurich investment bank, Strawbridge launched Beijing-anchored Sea Cliff Capital International in 2008.
The boutique merchant banking firm specializes in cross-border transactions with a focus on assisting clean tech and energy-related companies expand into China and raise capital. Strawbridge, who served in the U.S. Marine Corps for five years and was a combat diver, likens his China experience to “deployment” and says he’s in Beijing for the long haul.