Gloria Ai, one of the most famous bilingual anchors in China, is admired for her stage manners, quick wit, and composure to host high-level economic forums for government leaders and top figures in the private sector. With such a glamorous role, her entrepreneurial spirit is often overlooked, although it has created the country’s No.1 independent media that produces exclusive interviews of industry figures.
Gloria Ai, Founder & CEO of iAsk Media, 2017 New Year Photo Credit: iAsk Media
Three years ago, the then 27-year-old Ai started up iAsk Media. “At the beginning, I didn’t want it to be a company, but something more like a studio or workshop, because I merely enjoy interviewing people and writing articles, nothing else,” she told Sino-US.com. With no high expectations, iAsk has risen to prominence unexpectedly by telling stories about people.
One of a kind
Over the years, Ai has been invited to anchor dozens of economic events including Boao Forum for Asia and World Internet Conference’s Wuzhen Summit, but things that really make her proud are what she did for iAsk. As a reporter, Ai has talked with over 1000 industry figures, investors and entrepreneurs. Among them, there are Zhou Hongyi, chairman and CEO of the Internet security company Qihoo 360, Dong Mingzhu, chairwoman of Gree Electric, Yu Minhong, founder of New Oriental Education, Liu Yonghao, founder and chairman of New Hope, China’s biggest animal feed producer, Wang Zhongjun, one of China’s richest movie moguls and chairman of Shenzhen-listed Huayi Brothers Media, to name a few.
Gloria Ai's program: iAsk Leaders 1st Season (Business Leaders) went online in 2015 to multiple video streaming platforms and attracted millions of viewers. Image Credit: iAsk Media
The Sino-US.com reporter met Ai in her company situated in a high-rise in the capital city’s Central Business District. Without high-heels, wearing no make-up, and free from all her well-ironed costume, the 30-year-old female entrepreneur looked like a common office girl. It was hard to relate her with the person who shines in front of cameras.
“I am the same person,” she joked, adding that as a professional reporter, she usually would not pay too much attention to herself, “We’re supposed to focus on our interviewees, listen attentively, try to catch and record what they say or mean to say.”
When asked how iAsk could gain exclusive interview opportunities with so many magnates in China’s business scene, Ai emphasized that she would not resort to guanxi or connections. “I would not find any middleman. I just try to talk to the one I want to interview directly by writing a formal letter or give him a call,” she said.
Gloria Ai hosts BOAO Forum for Asia 2016 Photo Credit: iAsk Media
“We’re not a state-run media, but I guess they realize we’re providing something unique, an intellectual property (IP) product that’s one of a kind,” said Ai, while playing some of her favorite episodes on a projector. “I feel proud that we could have all these done,” she said, noting their “products” have been broadcast by almost all major media platforms specializing in finance and economics news.
The entrepreneur noted that iAsk has a well-defined target audience, which are entrepreneurs that are “on their way to success”, and that’s the reason why people could also watch iAsk interviews on over 2,000 big screens at the country’s national airports.
The ultimate goal of iAsk is to forge China’s all-media equivalent of Forbes. While producing videos and publishing books about the top interviews, the startup has also issued a set of data-based lists to rank China’s top industry figures, investors and entrepreneurs. “Now, the title sponsors of the lists have made our business profitable enough,” the founder confirmed.
Meanwhile she noted that all the efforts are not made merely to cash in on the country’s booming new media industry. “I felt lost once when a company approached me with a large amount of money. They wanted to buy out iAsk and make it a public relations department,” Ai said, “But I realized that’s not what I want. I want to stick to the enterprise.”
iAsk Media records thousands of people’s stories each year.iAsk Leaders Summit 2016, Beijing Photo Credit: iAsk Media
We’re building a “library”, Ai explained. In her belief, a smaller group of elites are pushing the world forward. She hopes to find the people who are capable of bringing good changes and record their stories. “At the current stage, I just take my time and have my job done which is to set standards for iAsk products. I may leave the company some day, but I hope it will go on and live longer than me,” she said.
iAsk for you
Ai has got a graceful and composed presence under the spotlight, which reminds people that she was formerly a China Central Television (CCTV) anchor. While interviewing for iAsk, she seems more relaxed, brisk and spontaneous. “Our interviews are different. We know what our audience would want to know and we ask for them,” she said, adding there are no right questions for interviewees, but only right questions for audience. The idea occurred to her when she was still working for CCTV, the country’s state-run television broadcaster.
Gloria Ai graduates from Harvard University John F Kennedy School of Government Photo Credit: iAsk Media
Ai had not chosen to work in the media industry initially. After graduating from the Harvard Kennedy School three months ahead of time, she was recruited by the World Bank as an investment consultant. In 2011, the annual meeting of World Bank was held in Washington. The CCTV anchorman invited to cover the event failed to make there as planned. So, Ai, who was then a World Bank staff, filled the vacancy and anchor an event participated by central bank governors from 20 countries.
“After that, CCTV extended me a job offer and I took it,” she said. Ai became the broadcaster’s financial commentator in New York, and was soon assigned to anchor a program titled Leaders, partnering with Rui Chenggang, the most famous CCTV bilingual anchor back then. And her job is to travel around the world to interview high-ranking officials.
“My job was to find people with a ranking no lower than central bank governor or finance ministers. Back then, that’s how I defined top figures. I had got no clear directions in mind and I just took assignments,” said Ai.
Rui Chenggang was well known for hosting economy and finance related shows, while in July 2014, he was detained for investigation by Chinese prosecution organs, suspected of corruption.
“CCTV-2, the finance and economics news channel that we worked for had gone through a turmoil period, with several of my colleagues being put under investigation,” Ai explained. The experience affected her to some extent and she began to think about the true meaning of her work.
Gloria Ai hosts a session of Forbes 30 Under 30 Asia in which she was also listed Forbes 30 Under 30 Asia 2016, Singapore Photo Credit: iAsk Media
She would not forget her first important TV interview, in which Christine Lagarde, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), was her subject. In 2012, the annual meeting of the World Bank was held in Japan when China-Japan relations had gone into a deep freeze. “I was assigned to cover the event that our country’s central bank governor and finance minister had refused to attend,” Ai recalled.
In the morning meeting, many Chinese reporters raised doubts about China’s absence in a press conference, and then in the afternoon, Ai was asked at short notice to do an exclusive interview with Lagarde. “The World Bank asked for an interview in which Lagarde could explain that although China had not sent any top officials, they still expect friendly relations with China,” Ai said. In her perspective, arrangements like this are for political purposes. “Common people would not understand what’s happening and the contents have no meaning to them,” Ai said.
Gloria Ai in her work reviewing iAsk Leaders 3rd Season, the topic of which is how start-ups would not die Late 2016, Beijing Photo Credit: iAsk Media
She said iAsk is not the same, and that’s the reason she finally chose to leave the much bigger platform of CCTV. “I need a freer environment to talk with people in a more honest and pure way, but big platforms often have their own vested appeals and interests,” she said. She expects to explore into every person she interviews and find out the most recent and craziest engagements with them. So, in March 2014, she founded iAsk Media.
Now, her team has 30 people. “I'm the one that sets the standards for our products, although I often tell them that I’m not an expert in what you do, so I trust you in accomplishing it,” the boss said. In her view, the biggest challenge for iAsk is to find talent and grow with the talents.
Rising from obscurity
Gloria Ai once said it took her 13 years to “go from a small town where she was born to where she is now.” Considering all the achievements she’s made at such a young age, people may guess that top-notch universities she has attended must have played a big role.
Ai hails from Huangshan, a mountainous area in east China’s Anhui province well known for its scenic beauty and hot springs. “I had never left my hometown till 2004 when I was admitted by the Communication University of China,” said Ai.
At 17, she arrived in Beijing, and for the first time stepped into a college campus. The university known for cultivating the country’s many popular anchors became Ai’s debut stage. After that, she studied at Peking University, American Academy of Dramatic Arts and Harvard Kennedy School successively.
Despite that, Ai never thinks the academic background is of significance. “If you only learn at school, you’ll get nowhere,” she said, believing the most valued experience could only come from work.
Gloria Ai hosts Cannes Lions Session about Chinese New Media Innovations, Cannes Lions Festival 2016 in Cannes, France Photo Credit: iAsk Media
She began to do part-time work since her first year in college. “My first job was to sell newspapers on the street, second one was to work as Miss Etiquette and wear Cheongsam in the winter, and third one was to tutor a high-school student preparing for her college entrance exam,” she recalled. By the last year of college, Ai finally became an editor for Time Warner Inc’s Chinese website. And when she was learning for a Master’s degree at Peking University, she gained the chance to intern at the United Nations; while at Harvard, she got the opportunity to work for the World Bank.
“Good schools do give me confidence, a sense of direction and responsibility,” the entrepreneur said, recalling her teacher at Peking University as once saying that young people should be down-to-earth while looking up to the starry sky.
“Now, I would not think too much about what benefits I could gain, but what services I could provide. I’m just doing what I’m capable of doing. And I’m learning how to lead a team and do something helpful to the society,” she said.
Ai gave an example. Several days ago, she was approached by the Development Research Center of the State Council. “I was told they are going to invite business leaders from around the world to China now when relations between the two biggest economies are going through tough times and China needs more external support,” said Ai. These assignments fill her with a sense of duty.
GloriaAi interviews Lorenzo Bini Smaghi, Chairman of French bank Société Générale, at the China Development Forum 2017, Beijing Photo Credit: iAsk Media
“Most of the time, I need to handle the situation—like in this one, I’m supposed to let these people voice their support to China—and I don’t have time to think about what this may bring me, be it vanity or money.
In the young entrepreneur’s mind, owners of startups should always “stay hungry and stay foolish”, like Steve Jobs once said to Stanford graduates. “If you’re an actor, you just need to act well before becoming a star; if you’re running a company, all you need is to produce good products,” she concluded.
Gloria Ai receives training to improve her physical and mental strength in her spare time in 2016 in Thailand Photo Credit: iAsk Media