Taking Flight: CEO Jane Sun on China’s Reopening and Campaigning for Equality

By Norris Tangen

Jane Sun, the CEO of Group, has defied gender stereotypes to become a leader in the male-dominated tech and tourism industries. In an interview with the AmCham China Quarterly, Sun shares her advocacy journey and efforts to promote gender equality, women’s empowerment, leadership principles, and shares her forecasts for the domestic and international travel markets in 2023.

Jane Sun is the Chief Executive Officer and a member of the board of directors of Group Limited, a leading global travel services company that provides seamless travel experiences for millions of global travelers. She first joined the company as Chief Financial Officer in 2005, later serving as Chief Operating Officer and Co-President, before becoming CEO in 2016. Founded in 1999, the Group effectively adapted to the rise of mobile Internet, growing from a small tech company into a one-stop-shop for travel services for millions of users worldwide. In 2019, Ms. Sun was awarded an Asia Society Asia Game Changer Award and was also one of Fortune’s Most Powerful Women in Business for six consecutive years. Forbes also recognized her as Most Influential and Outstanding Businesswomen. Before joining Group, Ms. Sun was head of the SEC and External Reporting Division of Applied Materials, Inc. since 1997. Prior to that, she was an audit manager at KPMG LLP in Silicon Valley, California. Sun is a vocal advocate for gender equality and empowering women, with female employees representing over half of the workforce and a third of senior management She earned a Bachelor’s degree from the business school of the University of Florida and graduated with high distinction. She also attended Peking University Law School, where she obtained her LLM degree.

Photo courtesy of Group Group’s CEO, Jane Sun, knows what it’s like to be underestimated. In the face of obstacles throughout her career, Sun has defied gender stereotypes to reach the top in the male-dominated technology and tourism industries. “When I first came back from the USA to China, we led a team to visit other countries. There was the Chairman, another male executive, and me. I was ranked number three. So, when it was my turn to go into the office, the other counterpart didn’t even shake my hand. They thought I was just their secretary. They turned around and walked away,” she recalls. “Later on, when we sat down and I was introduced as the CFO of the company, they felt terrible because they didn’t imagine a female could hold such an important position in their culture. Constantly, there is bias from the male-dominated industry.”

Despite encountering bias and discrimination, Sun’s determination, commitment, and hard work have led to her taking on added responsibilities over the years. Today, she is the global head of one of the world’s largest global travel service providers. Group operates the sub-brands Ctrip, Skyscanner, Qunar, along with its global brand, which serves as a one-stop booking platform for everything from flights and hotels to car rentals and tickets to tourist attractions. While Sun is heartened by the great progress made in recent years towards gender equality, she emphasizes that there is still work to be done. “I am confident,” she says, “that female and male leaders will be able to drive more equality going forward.”

Fair Competition

As one of the few woman leaders in the tech industry, Sun has embraced the mission to advocate for gender equality and women’s empowerment. She shares that one of the most significant initiatives taken by the company is the adoption of fair competition and selection based on merit, without any discrimination. “In 2021, half of the new employees joining Group were women, and an equal number of women and men were promoted. As a result, women in the Group now make up 43% of staff above middle and senior levels and almost one-third of executive positions at the VP (Vice President) level and above, which is significantly higher than the industry level,” she notes.

Sun believes that every company should take concrete actions to break the bias and empower women with the resources and opportunities to succeed. To do this, she says reforming unfair practices and stopping the perpetuation of biases in society and work is crucial. One recent example of the Group’s initiatives is the implementation of a pioneering hybrid work model and flexible working hours, enabling all employees to spend more time with their families without compromising efficiency.

The company’s efforts in this area have not gone unnoticed. Group was recognized by UN Women and received a Women’s Empowerment Principles (WEPs) Award in the Gender-inclusive Workplace category for its outstanding performance in empowering women and promoting gender equality. Sun says she is proud of the fact that Group has a strong, diversified workforce that drives growth and development. “This is crucial for all companies to adopt since strong female representation and gender-inclusive environments help to drive continuous change and add much-needed value, not only for our company, but for society at large,” she shares.

Additionally, Group has taken further action to support women in travel, with the Group jointly launching an initiative to provide women with 20,000 jobs in travel by the end of 2023. Sun says she believes that the travel industry should assume more social responsibility, and that the development of the industry needs more women to provide practical actions for the recovery going forward.

“Through hard work, perseverance, and innovation during the past few years, we have every reason to be optimistic about the outlook of our business and the travel and tourism industry in general.”

Fostering Female Leaders

Sun has undoubtedly been a strong advocate for empowering and promoting women leaders within her organization and the industry. When asked about how she plays a direct role in fostering a positive and inclusive work environment, she highlighted the importance of mentoring, inspiring and creating an open space for conversation.

“Mentoring is very important. Mentoring not to support and guide but also create an open space for conversation so we can work things out together,” says Sun. “Through communications and sharing sessions with colleagues from various business units, I will always encourage them to discuss the challenges we face, and also how we can address them collectively. Men and women alike must look to raise up the pursuit of equality, not feel targeted or side-lined but understand this is a journey that will empower all staff. We have employees from diverse backgrounds and with different experiences and views, and it is important for us to foster and promote inclusiveness and diversity.”

In addition to mentoring, Sun stressed the need to spotlight female role models across all areas of the business. “Raising up female leaders and staff across our business is important. By spotlighting role models, we hope to show other female employees that whatever their interests, circumstances or skillset, they can succeed. We must constantly encourage, empower and inspire one another.” Moreover, Sun highlights that for women leaders, two values in particular stand out. “In order to lead your team out of darkness, women leaders must have endurance and tenacity. Group certainly had moments of highs and lows which reflect the vitality of the company. From 2003 SARs to successful IPO to leading the team out of financial crisis followed by M&A, all these are important for leadership. I hope that future leaders in the industry can demonstrate such qualities and values,” she says. To support Sun’s vision, Group encourages female employees to achieve more via its training platform, “Trip Growth Academy”. The platform provides employees with over 2,800 classes and other educational resources, covering topics including corporate strategy, professional skills, and team management.

When discussing the possible strategies to ensure that there are more women leaders in the future, Sun speaks about the benefits of having a diverse workforce and the importance of incorporating female voices in decision-making processes. “From our experience, women have played important roles driving good corporate governance and fostering a culture of teamwork. Decisions made by female leadership are more meticulous and often balance risk and reward better. Actions are executed with more communication, consideration, and organization. Fiscal policies are geared towards long-term sustainability,” Sun continues, “I feel it is critically important to encourage and incorporate the female voice and to promote a cooperative and supportive environment for all.”

Leadership Style

Sun describes her leadership style as simple and straightforward: “Leadership is about hard work and working well with all parties involved,” she says. “As a female leader, I have encountered prejudice at times over the course of my career. It’s important for me to be confident that my actions have the best impact for others; that’s always on my mind. I am constantly striving to ensure that my female colleagues will not have to go through the negative experiences I had encountered during the early stages of my career.”

Beyond striving to build a positive and inclusive company culture, Sun says that her lifelong commitment to learning is also vital to her leadership style. “As the leader of a tech company, I am always learning more about the newest technologies and the impacts of technological development on our industry and human society,” she explains.

Over the course of her career, Sun has established a reputation for successfully managing mergers and acquisitions. She discusses her approach to mergers and acquisitions, saying, “Organic growth is always our focus. Only when you can grow very strongly on your own will you then find good opportunities. For investment, we set a very high standard.” She lays out the three essential criteria the group adheres to when considering investment. Primarily, she says, the company must be closely related to Group’s core competence. Secondly, the target company must be a leader in its specialty and supply a complimentary foil to Group’s existing offerings. Finally, Sun says it is key to wait for the right time to invest to ensure an accurate and proper valuation of the company.

Jane Sun playing tug of war with teammates
Photo courtesy of Group

Travel Bounces Back Post-Pandemic

As the travel industry works to navigate the fallout and ongoing challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, Sun remains optimistic about the industry’s recovery and growth. In fact, she says, domestically, the Chinese travel industry has already recovered to normal levels and is significantly stronger than 2019 levels. She attributes this in part due to people accumulating savings during the pandemic and now looking to spend those savings on domestic travel. As for her 2023 predictions, Sun says she believes the first half of the year will see strong domestic travel, especially considering people do not have as many international options to choose from. However, as international travel becomes more accessible again, Sun says that Group and their partners are working to ensure demand is met. Overall, she says, she feels optimistic about the coming year, “I’m very excited for the potential opportunities. We have been working with our partners to prepare for the return of international travelers including tourists from mainland China. We have already collaborated with various destinations which have seen a surge in international tourists since early 2023,” she says.

Regarding the challenges and opportunities in the international tourism industry post-pandemic, Sun notes that actual travel spending in 2022 rose compared to the previous year, although it has not yet exceeded 2019 levels. “Average spending on flight bookings in 2022 was around 40% higher than in 2021 and 10% below pre-pandemic levels, according to data. Meanwhile, average spending on accommodation was up by 10% on 2021, and just 5% below 2019 levels,” she shares.

However, Sun also acknowledges that demand always recovers much faster than supply. She says that while there has been a surge in outbound travel in mainland China since the international borders re-opened, flight capacity has not fully recovered. Sun says that the biggest challenge facing the travel industry is rehiring and retraining new employees after three years of the COVID-19 pandemic. She recalls queuing for hours longer than usual at Heathrow airport in summer 2022 due to the “industry’s frozen state” during the pandemic.

Technology Enhances Customer Experience

New technology and innovation are constantly changing and enhancing Group’s customer experience. Naturally, Sun says, AI technology plays a crucial role in the company’s operations. “AI is essential for us in a few areas,” she says. “We use an AI chatbot to fulfill many basic customer service functions, providing immediate responses and supporting users when they are in need.”

Beyond customer service, Group has also invested heavily in automation services, accounting for 95% of their business processes. Sun notes that this has resulted in more intelligent and exact demand matching, customized services, and improved efficiency and cost reduction for partners.

Most recently, the company has implemented an exciting new function incorporating ChatGPT into their APP, known as TripGen. TripGen is an early stage chatbot that uses artificial intelligence (AI) technology to supply tailored travel routes, itineraries, and booking advice in real-time. Sun says that Group’s mission is to continue to improve efficiency and save consumers’ time. She adds that in the future, AI will play a critical role in achieving this goal. As the organization continues focusing on technological advancements, Sun is determined to stay ahead in providing customers with an exceptional travel experience. “Our mission is to pursue the perfect trip for a better world. Through hard work, perseverance, and innovation during the past few years, we have every reason to be optimistic about the outlook of our business and the travel and tourism industry in general,” Sun concludes.


This article is from the AmCham China Quarterly Magazine (Issue 1, 2023). To access the entire publication for free, sign up on our member portal here.