Born in 1970 in Hunan’s Changsha, Li began making headlines when he was 15. He was one of the 23 whiz kids to attend the Huazhong University of Science and Technology following a nationwide scouting exercise. In 1993, when Li had finished his post-graduate studies, he joined Huawei as a trainee. His talents led to a stellar rise: he was promoted to become an engineer on the second day and within two weeks he was the deputy general manager of the R&D department. Later he became the company’s youngest vice president at 27.
“Speculation has it that Ren Zhengfei [Huawei’s boss] sees Li Yinan as his future successor,” news portal Jiemian reported at the time.
However, in 2000 Li quit Huawei to set up his own firm, Harbour Networks. It became a rival of his former employer in the broadband field and in 2006 Huawei acquired it. Li returned to the telecoms equipment giant as chief communications scientist.
Li again left Huawei in 2008 and joined Baidu as chief technology officer. Inside two years he would resign and move to China Mobile to head the state firm’s wireless tech unit. A year after that he switched to GSR Ventures, a highly successful private equity firm, as a partner.
At the time GSR had begun investing in a number of promising start-ups such as Didi (see WiC396). But Li, at 45, wanted to be a boss himself. In 2015 he left GSR and founded Niu Technologies, an electric scooter maker which competed directly with some of GSR’s portfolio firms, such as bike-sharing firm Ofo.
Li had his biggest career setback a year after founding his own firm. In early 2016 he was accused of insider trading during his time at GSR. Prosecutors said Li and his relatives made about $1 million from trading shares in a tech company based on information from Li’s former colleagues at Huawei.
Li denied any wrongdoing but he was convicted and sentenced to 30 months in jail.
On this occasion, time was not on Li’s side. China’s sharing economy was experiencing explosive growth and Li was behind bars. Niu missed out on much of the action in the absence of its founder.
Li was recently released from jail. He swiftly resigned as boss of Niu but Chinese media suggests that this is because he is preparing the firm for its IPO – and as a former prisoner Li is barred from holding a leadership position at a listed firm for three years.
Li is still the biggest shareholder of Niu. At 48, he is older and wiser, and like Sun Hongbin – the formerly jailed boss of property giant Sunac – he might still make billions in his second act.
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