Ex-Twitter boss Kathy Chen blames cultural differences for hiring backlash

The former Greater China managing director opens up about the controversy surrounding her PLA past, and her recent switch into the film industry.

Kathy Chen at the Global Conference on Women and Entrepreneurship
Kathy Chen at the Global Conference on Women and Entrepreneurship

Despite a rather short-lived stint at Twitter as managing director of Greater China, Kathy Chen had her share of the limelight during the nine months that she was with the social media firm. News of her initial hiring stirred up controversy and protest from Chinese dissident and pro-democracy groups who objected to her employment history with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA); she later became part of the high profile APAC exodus when Twitter downsized its operation in the region last year.

Campaign Asia-Pacific caught up with Chen on Tuesday in Hangzhou, where she was speaking at the Global Conference on Women and Entrepreneurship organised by the Alibaba Group. Her comments have been translated from Mandarin and edited for clarity.

Tell us what have you been up to since leaving Twitter.

I took a break for about three months and then started work on setting up Waterwood Pictures in March. It is a consolidation of two entities, one being a film production company (光延时代文化传媒) and the other a data analysis firm. The team wants to build the company to be a B2B platform for the mainland film industry, something that is currently lacking. With such a proposition, we can evaluate future film projects…scripts based on data before making capital investment. We hope to take the company public in Hong Kong eventually.

Why the film industry?

It was quite related to what I was doing at Twitter, which was essentially about storytelling. My job at Twitter was to help Chinese enterprises reach out to the wider world. [In a series of tweets announcing her departure, Chen stated that the Greater China advertiser base grew by nearly 400 per cent from 2014 to 2016.]

Twitter is a suitable platform for Chinese brands such as Huawei and Alibaba to build a global branding. Through Twitter, they can communicate with their peers, let other people learn about their culture and participate in global events. Before my previous position was created, the work was carried out by the team from Hong Kong and Singapore. Language was not a barrier; they could speak Mandarin but they didn’t really have deep insights into Chinese enterprises and the type of branding approach that would work for them.

So [Twitter] needed a native who had direct contact with the CMOs, someone who could coach the brands towards an audience oriented approach. My career had been aligned with the opening up of China; I knew the Chinese enterprises really well and I could be such a bridge for China because I had also spent a long time working with US firms. It wasn’t that easy, because being a cultural bridge needs an effective approach. It cannot be a one-way approach because you have to look from the audience's perspective."

Did you expect the backlash that followed after you were hired by Twitter?

I was completely shocked when I saw the news. You have to understand that people from my generation didn’t have much freedom in terms of career choices. I majored in computer science, and the good thing during those times was that we didn’t have to pay the tuition fees. After graduating, we were each assigned a job, and I went to work with the PLA. It was either that or for the government with my peers. It was not until 1993 that the policy was relaxed.

I left in 1993 to join the private sector, filling up job application forms and attending interviews just like everyone else. For most of my career, I have been with US companies and held high positions in Microsoft and Cisco, so my past wasn’t at issue. I think it was a matter of cultural differences that led to people reacting very strongly to my appointment at Twitter.

What did you learn from working at Twitter?

The experience opened up my mind. Twitter made me think about serving different needs because the markets covered are so diverse. I learned about leveraging on news and live events, the hashtags...From what I did at Twitter, I discovered that storytelling is meaningful and this is why I want to be in film.

China’s box office was rather lacklustre last year, what do you think are the prospects for your new company?

I think it presents a good opportunity. Like many things in China, the film industry is developing too fast, and it has come at the expense of quality for films. We lack quality content and talent. But the development phases come in waves and now we are diverging the focus to content and segmentation according to different audiences. If you look at the Hong Kong film industry, they started with the slapstick genre and later diversified into different genres. I am very positive of the outlook for the industry in the mainland.

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