Money & Me: ‘I like to invest in my mind rather than buy fancy things’

Rita Huang, chief executive of last-mile delivery start-up iMile, quit a high-paying corporate job to become an entrepreneur

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES. 29 MARCH 2021. Rita Huang is the founder of iMile, a solution to digitalise last mile delivery services in order to address key challenges in the logistics industry. (Photo: Antonie Robertson/The National) Journalist: David Dunn. Section: Business.
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Rita Huang is chief executive of Dubai company iMile, a digital solution for last-mile delivery services.

Born in China, she worked in the medical equipment industry before becoming Huawei’s Middle East and Africa country manager.

Ms Huang settled in Dubai in 2014 as chief technology officer of e-commerce company Alibaba’s joint cloud computing venture.

After witnessing the e-commerce boom in the UAE, she founded iMile in 2017 to address key logistics industry challenges and also launched ePanda, a non-profit communication platform that connects Chinese investors with opportunities in the Middle East.

Ms Huang, 38, lives in Mirdif with her husband and three young children.

What was your money relationship while growing up?

My family life was very basic, simple. My father was poor when I was small and life was difficult for my parents, but they never let me feel I was lacking (something) because of money. They had nine children, so my father worked hard. I saw him building something, his entrepreneurship, having nothing to becoming mayor of our village. He got people’s respect.

I’m on an entrepreneurship journey because of him. I was confident that if I studied well, I would be in a good position (to earn) money. If I worked hard, money would come.

How much were you paid in your first job?

I was a hardware engineer in a medical manufacturing company in Shenzhen in 2005. I studied medical engineering – the company owner graduated from the same school. I was earning Dh2,000 ($544.58). The majority of my money went to pay back a loan for my tuition.

What prompted you to start iMile?

Alibaba paid me significantly, so becoming an entrepreneur was not because I needed money. I felt that I wanted to do something. I knew I could do a lot to solve last-mile delivery [issues]. In China, the last-mile delivery industry is the most advanced … low-cost, very fast, extremely good customer experience. Here, I didn’t see that.

Money alone cannot make me happy. It is a resource for you to mobilise to do something

I know China, I know the Middle East, I know technology. I said to my husband: “Give me two years, if it doesn’t work, I close and go back to work.” We raised $10 million [funding] and the company was profitable. Initially, it was difficult, but the technology made us different. Now we have 700 employees in the UAE, Saudi Arabia, China and Egypt.

What are your spending priorities?

I don’t have fancy things. I’m not interested in walking into The Dubai Mall. I prefer to learn, so I pay for online classes, books, develop myself – I like to invest in my mind because I know it is going to do a great job. I listen to audiobooks when I drive to work. When I became a chief executive, I learned how to be a leader, develop certain types of strategy, financing, how to control costs and manage a very diverse team.

Also, if I can do something good for my children, I will pay more. During the Covid-19 pandemic, I paid a lot to get the best online classes.

And people who were supporting me earlier – my former boss, ex-managers – when they come to Dubai, I pay for a luxury service to say “thank you” as I learned a lot from them.

Do you save?

I keep it simple; in the bank. I give money to my husband and he takes care of the family. My salary is paid to my account, but I don’t really look at it. I feel I can utilise money to do big things. I bought some real estate in China when I was at Huawei – but I don’t care how much is in my account.

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES. 29 MARCH 2021. Rita Huang is the founder of iMile, a solution to digitalise last mile delivery services in order to address key challenges in the logistics industry. (Photo: Antonie Robertson/The National) Journalist: David Dunn. Section: Business.
The only luxury items Ms Huang spends on are the best iPhone, an Apple MacBook and her Volvo car. Photo: Antonie Robertson / The National

What are you most proud to have paid for?

When I relocated to the Middle East, my salary trebled. I paid Dh200,000 and built my family a villa. It made me very proud to be able to work hard and pay them back (for supporting me). The home had become old. In China, when children grow up, we support family as they cannot earn such money to build a villa.

Does money bring happiness?

Money alone cannot make me happy. It is a resource for you to mobilise to do something. If I didn’t have my angel investors, I could not have created iMile, to start a business from scratch. Now, money is a case of cash flow or profit that I can distribute to my team to motivate them into the direction we want to go. It’s fuel in the tank. But you have to spend smartly. Invest in the right technology team … the return is really surprising.

When I was young, in my second job, money got me really excited because in one month’s pay, I could get to six months of what my parents could earn. Later on … I didn’t feel that.

Now, it’s more important [that] I motivate a strong team to do something great. The social value, the value it’s bringing to the industry … this makes me excited. Impacting people’s lifestyle. We have 700 people on our payroll, more than 3,000 relying on us in that ecosystem. We see money can build, support families and do something long term.

Would you change the spending habits of your younger self?

I’d spend more money on education to develop myself earlier. I feel my learning at that time was not enough, that’s why I continue – 38 years old, still studying.

When I look back, I also should have invested more in travelling. Maybe I was too busy, I never stopped working. Too much focus on my career. I would suggest at least to travel to different places, experience different cultures once a year. It’s about balance.

What are you happy spending on now?

My only luxury is the best iPhone, buying a very stable computer, my Apple MacBook. And the car; I spend 40 minutes driving, so I need an easy driving car. I’ve got a Volvo. If I need to spend to get a better car, I will.

And I’d rather Cafu come and fill it. I pay to buy time; I don’t want to spend an hour going to the petrol station. I also buy everything online now. I don’t want to spend time driving to a mall, I don’t see the value.

How has the pandemic impacted iMile?

Initially when China started having this issue, factories closed and supply chains were interrupted, so there were no shipments coming. They disconnected the flights. We were in a difficult situation as more than 50 per cent of our business comes from China.

Later, when China started opening up and the Middle East (movement restrictions) started happening, everybody was home, they couldn’t go to the mall, so e-commerce boomed and there were too many orders.

It accelerated the penetration of e-commerce, which means more business. We have had 100 per cent growth since last year.

Do you plan for the future?

I want to spend time with my children, take them to Europe. Being the chief executive of iMile, I want someone stronger than me to be my replacement. I don’t want to spend my life only working. Before having my children, I didn’t realise it. That changed my mindset. Now I see that in life, the balance can be different.