BEIJING—A former Goldman Sachs Group Inc. executive is emerging as a crucial asset for China’s homegrown ride-hailing service in its fundraising battle against Uber Technologies Inc.
Jean Liu, president of Didi Kuaidi Joint Co., has established herself as a top deal maker in China’s startup scene, courting hedge-fund titans in Silicon Valley one day and pitching her company to Chinese local governments as a friendly partner the next.
Ms. Liu—the daughter of Liu Chuanzhi, founder of personal-computer maker Lenovo Group Ltd.—helped Didi raise $2 billion in a funding round in July, one of the biggest ever globally.
In the year since she arrived from Goldman, the 37-year-old executive negotiated a merger with Didi’s rival, taking her company to a valuation of $15 billion from around $3 billion. That makes it second-most-valuable startup, behind smartphone maker Xiaomi Corp., with a $46 billion valuation.
Ms. Liu “brings definite capital-markets capability and investor, as well as government, relations,” said Bao Fan, chairman of China Renaissance, who brokered the February merger of Didi Dache and Kuaidi Dache.
The merged company’s massive war chest of $3.5 billion is a key advantage in its battle against Uber in China– which recently hired Ms. Liu’s cousin Liu Zhen as its China strategy chief. It has quickly raised more funds than Uber’s China business. Uber is close to raising $1 billion to fund its China expansion, according to people familiar with the matter.
“Fundraising is a real core competency in the ride-hailing industry,” said one investor in Didi. “Capital is the biggest barrier to entry.”
Beyond the extra financial muscle, Ms. Liu’s fundraising efforts won the imprimatur of China’s government with a commitment from China’s $740 billion sovereign-wealth fund.
With a master’s degree from Harvard and experience investing Goldman’s own money, Ms. Liu serves as a bridge for the fast-growing Chinese tech firm and Western investors, such as U.S. hedge fund Coatue Management LLC.
Ms. Liu said in a recent interview that she saw herself bringing financial and international experience to the Didi team, which was strong in engineering and execution.
Investors cite her ability to navigate tricky relationships. She got a big test when one Didi investor, Beijing-based Hillhouse Capital Group, cut a deal to invest in convertible bonds of Uber’s global parent company. She has kept Hillhouse, a $20 billion fund, on Didi’s investor roster, despite concerns over whether the Chinese fund manager could back both companies. Hillhouse invested in Uber’s parent company, not its China unit.
“I’ve been in the investment field for 12 years, so all my life is to deal with companies,” Ms. Liu said. “I have a lot of friends who are entrepreneurs, so I’ve watched how they go from small to big. I’ve gone through a lot of issues or hiccups with them, trying to figure out what’s best for a company.”
She initially approached Didi Dache in September 2013, looking to invest Goldman’s money in the company. She was surprised when the startup refused her twice. “I was quite intrigued by the fact that they…had so many investors chasing them,” she said.
Didi Dache founder Cheng Wei, a former Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. manager, persuaded Ms. Liu to join the company in August 2014 after an impromptu road trip to remote Tibet with his team.
Ms. Liu said at a conference in May that adapting to a startup after spending her career at Goldman was stressful, and, despite the successes, she felt a “tremendous sense of crisis.”
“It’s like we’re on a pinnacle locked in a showdown, and our opponents are the world’s top companies,” she said.
–Gillian Wong contributed to this article.