When China’s Uber-beating ride-hailing giant Didi expanded into Mexico in 2018, Aurora Morales Sánchez was part of the launch team. Morales, a marketing manager, was recruited through LinkedIn. She had lived in China for six months as a student, and although she doesn’t speak Mandarin, she told Rest of World that she believed the experience was decisive for her career.
“It is super important for the company to hire people that understand Chinese culture,” Morales said.
After almost three years covering the Latin American and Russian markets in Didi’s marketing team, Morales went on to work for another Chinese firm, Kuaishou, which operates TikTok’s main global competitor, Kwai. There, she ran marketing for Spanish-speaking Latin America. Her experience with Didi served as a springboard into the broader world of Chinese corporations in the region. “I got into Kwai because people at Didi that had moved to Kwai knew me and my work,” she said.
As companies like Didi, Kuaishou, Huawei, and TikTok expand across Latin America, they are hiring young, local tech professionals and accelerating their corporate careers. In return, Chinese companies are forming a specialized talent pool to gain an edge in a region where roles at American and European companies have long held prestige. Rest of World spoke with nine employees at Chinese tech companies in Argentina, Mexico, Brazil, and Colombia — Latin America’s largest markets — and found that these firms commonly serve as young corporate employees’ gateway into the region’s coveted tech cohort. Employees’ positions ranged broadly from mid to high-level management roles in marketing, operations, and compliance, among others.
As these workers quickly become specialized in translating Chinese firms’ goals into Latin American markets, their expertise has become too tempting to resist for other Chinese companies arriving in the region. The result has been a competition as Chinese firms poach local talent from each other. “When we launched Kwai, we brought along plenty of people from TikTok — then Snapchat started poaching people from Kwai,” said Morales, the former marketing manager at Didi. “Despite [their] non-compete agreements, there’s plenty of knowledge theft between competitors.”
For years, many of China’s biggest tech companies did not look far beyond the country’s borders for growth. With a large and increasingly affluent market at home, companies like Didi and Kuaishou could rely on the bulk of their expansion happening inside China. But, the market for digital services consolidated as the Chinese government ratched up scrutiny on tech companies’ power and influence. When the Covid-19 pandemic intensified competition for everything from food delivery to short video e-commerce, Chinese firms stepped up their focus on global business as a foundation for their future growth.
For tech giants like Didi, Kuaishou, Huawei, and TikTok, Latin America has been a priority growth region over the past five years. Since 2012, Chinese firms have invested over $120 billion in Latin America — from port projects in Peru to acquisitions of local startups. That number is likely to grow in the next few years, according to Daniel Lau, lead partner at the São Paulo branch of KPMG’s China Practice. For Didi, successfully gaining traction in Mexico — where it controls nearly 60% of the ride-hailing market — has been a rare bright spot, compared to its otherwise beleaguered attempts to reach foreign markets like South Africa, Kazakhstan, and Russia.
In targeting the Latin American market, Chinese companies have followed a playbook that has already served them well, proving effective in markets from Indonesia to Pakistan. Joey Ding, a Shanghai-based corporate recruiter for Chinese and international tech companies, told Rest of World that Chinese companies have, in turn, adopted a version of the strategy of “product localization” — the practice of adapting a product to the needs and interests of the local market — used by American companies in China. Especially when launching products new to a market, such as Kwai’s short-video format telenovelas, it is key to hire locals who understand what consumers are looking for, Ding said.
“Of course there’s a language component, but a lot of times, it’s a management culture difference,” Wenyi Cai, CEO of Bogotá-based Polymath Ventures, which publishes information in Chinese to encourage investors to the region, told Rest of World. “Very few people can be that cultural translator.”
In turn, mid-career professionals in marketing, business development, and operations roles at these Chinese firms told Rest of World that, rather than the American and European companies that had previously scooped up local talent, they and their peers are looking to Chinese companies for their future professional and career advancement. Huawei, Didi, Kuaishou, and TikTok did not respond to requests for comment before publication.
Creator and audiovisual designer Cecilia Velazquez Traut, 38, led the team that helped Kwai break out in Latin America by adapting the telenovela format to short video in the wildly popular TeleKwai format. The Buenos Aires-based video content consultant told Rest of World she had felt constrained at her previous job on Meta’s video team. She said she’d found little room for creativity, describing the growth trajectory as rigid and prescribed. When Kwai offered her the chance to develop fictional content that would make the Chinese short-video giant catch on in her home market, Velazquez Traut jumped at it.
José Ancona, 26, is the digital marketing director at Nanopay, a fintech company backed by Chinese investors that focuses on small personal loans in emerging markets. He was poached from Nu, the Mexican subsidiary of Brazilian competitor Nubank, the first company he worked for after graduating. Nanopay, which has over 1.5 million credit cards in Mexico, seemed willing to trade Ancona’s scant experience for the knowledge he might bring in from the competition. “If I had stayed at my previous job, it would have probably taken me at least two years to be promoted to a director’s role,” he told Rest of World, adding that Nanopay offered him three times the salary he had earned at Nu.
Some Chinese companies also offer something that most Western companies in Latin America don’t: higher pay, sometimes in U.S. dollars. Velazquez Traut, whose native Argentina has been wracked by inflation for decades, not only valued getting paid in a more stable currency, but also felt that her company respected her labor, despite working from abroad. Jorge Reyes, an ad operations manager for Huawei who previously worked at TikTok, also considers that the salary he’s had at both TikTok and Huawei is higher than at similar Western companies in the region. “TikTok definitely offers a higher salary than other regional companies with similar roles,” he told Rest of World.
“We want to be paid the same as someone working in the U.S. or China or any other country,” Velazquez Traut said. “Working at a Chinese company really did impact my career because I learned how to scale and scale fast and work with really big goals,” she added. “I felt more powerful after working at a Chinese tech company. This was something different from the experiences I had with American companies.”