Mert: Hello Jill, I would like to thank you on behalf of the ACYD team for making the time for this interview on your personal achievements and how ACYD might have helped you along the way. You were recently listed Forbes 30 under 30, a very significant achievement and many congratulations. Your online profile mentions that you studied finance at Peking University and later at Harvard Business School (HBS). Professionally you have worked in UBS in Hong Kong and Beijing, after several other professional stints, you are currently working at Greystar Europe managing a portfolio around 1Bn Pounds. Could you please share with us your Forbes 30 under 30 journey and how you got to your current position?
Jill: Thank you and ACYD for interviewing me! It would perhaps be best to start off with my personal background. I was born in China, and when I was in high school I had the opportunity to go to Germany for exchange. It would be fair to say the experience in Germany was a turning point in my life. There were so many advantages to this experience. After some initial culture shocks, I was like a sponge absorbing German cultures and embracing it. Everything was so different from what I had experienced in China. The single best thing I have learnt during these days is that being different doesn’t equal to being wrong.
I completed the majority of my education in China. I was admitted to Peking University and graduated with a bachelor in finance. I was fortunate enough to be admitted to Harvard Business School’s 2+2 program, so my initial job search focused on finding a position that will teach me the most in 2 years. That led me to a position in investment banking, working in UBS’ cross border M&A team in Beijing and Hong Kong. Investment banking had a very steep learning curve, and as it turned out, those two years were invaluable preparing me for the time at Harvard.
Like many of my classmates at Harvard, I always had one question in the back of my mind. What should we do with the one wild and precious life? How do we find a sense of fulfillment in the work that we do, that satisfies one’s own curiosity and generates enough impact to create meaningful changes in one’s chosen field?
Mert: So what exactly was your passion and interest, was Harvard an opportunity for you to identify what you wanted to accomplish?
Jill: My intuition came from an early age. As I mentioned earlier, the time I spent being an exchange student in Germany has shaped me in many ways. I was excited to be able to understand both worlds, and in a way, become a global citizen. I knew that whatever I did in my life, I would need to be connected to different parts of the world, no matter through the work I do or the people I meet. My work at UBS was exemplary of this; working on deals between different countries with multi-national corporations was something that I was passionate about and really enjoyed.
Mert: I take it that’s the reason Greystar, your current employer, was an ideal company for you?
Jill: The turn of events was actually quite interesting. I got into private equity by accident! Before I go on with the story, I should mention that Greystar is a multifamily residential real estate service provider. What this means is that we invest, build and manage blocks of residential rental apartments. Our investors are often insurance companies, pension funds, and sovereign wealth funds.
Greystar came to HBS to recruit for a Director position supporting the firm’s global expansion initiatives. It wasn’t a finance position to start with, but soon after joining the firm, the company and I both realized that an investment role would be a great fit for me, and I would still have plenty of opportunities to join the company’s global journey in that function!
What was important to me was that I got the opportunity to work on an international platform, and support Greystar to grow from a mainly US-centric firm to now a firm operating on 4 different continents. I am currently focused on scaling the firm’s investment business in Europe, and working closely with the APAC team, managing investor relations in the region. I am very grateful to my colleagues who have supported and mentored me, and it was a true honor being nominated by them for Forbes!
Mert: It seems that you have quite an entrepreneurial side, you have worked at a Boston startup and also Fab.com. Could you tell us a little bit more about how you got started in this field, was this your MBA being put into action?
Jill: My interest in entrepreneurship stems from a simple wish, which is to maximize impact on a cause that I truly believe in. I have always been very good at execution, trained from my M&A days. I joined Fab Europe, an e-commerce company in Berlin for a summer, and later bootstrapped a wearable device start-up during my studies in Boston. Fab was a great experience watching and learning from a fast scaling company, and getting my hands dirty bootstrapping my own company was a real attempt to understand the startup world. It was both extremely challenging and rewarding.
From these experiences, I understood more of myself as well. To me, entrepreneurship is not necessarily starting your own company, but to take initiatives and to have a great team alongside you. I have had a lot of freedom in Greystar working on the Asia Pac initiatives and introducing multifamily sector to the investors in the region.
Of course, I still think the startup space an exciting one to watch. I currently sit on UK ULI’s Tech Forum committee to help connect prop tech companies with the traditional real estate sector.
Mert: Jill you have an extremely fascinating story, but I have to ask you, what made you interested in better understanding Australia-China relations, especially ACYD?
Jill: I have always liked the Aussies! They share my style of humor and they are easygoing. I have made a lot of Australian friends, and the fact that they love travelling made it just that much easier to get along. Most of the Australians I have met also looked at problems through different cultural lenses, a product of the multicultural lifestyle in the country. My fellow school mate, Henry Makeham, initially introduced me to ACYD and this initiative speaks so well to my passion in multiculturalism, so I sent my application through!
Mert: What was your experience like, your key conclusion?
Jill: ACYD conference was a fascinating experience. It was an intense week of seminars, lectures, discussions, and fun. As you know, my previous cultural experience was mainly in China, Europe and the U.S., but by the end of the week, it confirmed to me that it really doesn’t matter which cultures you have experienced, or where you come from, to form deep friendships among the “multiculturaler”. As long as you are willing to listen and acknowledge that different opinion isn’t necessarily a “wrong opinion”, you can easily make friends. I believe that this is something that can and should be replicated on a grander scale, by countries or regions.
Australia and China does not have a culturally homogeneous inter relationship so to speak. They are very different countries. But if you consider ACYD as a case in point, you can see that, with respect and empathy, we can understand each other’s opinions to form new ideas and go beyond zero sum negotiations. I formed close relationships with delegates from all kinds of backgrounds.
Mert: Do you still keep in touch with other ACYD delegates ? In what ways have you benefited from ACYD's network?
Jill: Absolutely! I try to catch up with other delegates as often as I can when I fly to a different city. It’s great that wherever I go, I can have an immediate connection through the ACYD alumni network. It’s always nice to find likeminded people to share ideas.
Mert: You work with Chinese and Asian clients that want to invest in Europe. How do you think your work nurtures the relationship between China and other countries?
Jill: Asian capital is not yet super active in the rental residential space. They are purpose built, service oriented, institutionally backed, and professionally managed residential units. This is a new concept in many regions, so part of my job is to introduce them to our investors in Asia. Understanding the local culture and language certainly comes in handy here, as it helps me to really understand what the investors want and how to provide the most relevant information. I am privileged to have the opportunity to work alongside some of China’s most sophisticated institutional capitals and explore a new sector with them together.
Mert: You are managing a portfolio in student housing in London. What role do you think education plays in creating mutual understanding between China and other regions?
Jill: I am a firm believer in education. I also believe strongly in having exposure to other cultures through education. Student housing is a secondary product to tuition, and I think it’s great to be able to help support international students, providing them a home away from home. London has a structural shortage in purpose built student housing, so building new ones is surely a meaningful way to increase supply.
Mert: It sounds to me like you are a strong supporter of globalisation. We have the World Economic Forum, a group that are strong supporters of globalisation and yet we have seen a rise in nationalism. It’s no secret that the landscape in America and Europe is tumultuous. Do you see organisations like ACYD playing a growing role in promoting better understanding between China and other countries?
Jill: What ACYD does is hugely important. It mitigates hostility between groups who lack cultural similarities or previous mutual understanding, and facilitates the human connection between delegates. You form genuine friendships during the week, and really get to know your fellow delegates.
I recall that we had an exercise at the ACYD, where we role played a fictional political scenario on international water rights. We were appointed different countries randomly and needed to represent our respective motherlands to resolve difficult situations. It was a great exercise to put you in other countries’ shoes to strategize, debate and eventually form a better understanding of our fellow delegates and the countries they represent.
I would think that the argument about global elites being the only ones benefiting from globalization not a fair one. Hundreds and millions of people in the developing countries have enjoyed an incredible lift in their standard of living thanks to globalization in the past 30 years, and nothing else could have achieved that in such a time frame. It’s one the greatest equalisers of our time, and this does benefit the world as a whole, not just the rich, even though the superrich has certainly benefited the most on an absolute scale.
Some people have undeniably experienced negative consequences, but millions more have benefited, being alleviated out of extreme poverty. An incredible number of people have gained access to food, clean water, and safety through this process. I think we need to focus our attention during the next phase on re-distributing wealth, instead of attacking globalization as an efficient way to create value.
Mert: Jill, on behalf of myself and the team at ACYD thank you so much for your time and your insights. I really enjoyed this conversation and hope to see your involvement with ACYD continue for the years to come.