“I’m basically the janitor,” Maria Li says laughingly when asked what being the chief operating officer of Tech In Asia (TIA) entails. The former Asia-Pacific regional lead for Apple joined the start-up in January 2019 when it was going through a tumultuous period and managed to right the ship, thanks to a successful internal reorganisation and the creation of popular tentpole events, notably Sync Summit as well as TIA’s annual conference.
Li still oversees daily operations and finances while constantly brainstorming how the Singapore-based technology website and media and events company can continue to evolve into a better platform for its readers and clients.
It’s no surprise then to hear that she’s been rolling out of bed when her alarm rings and heading straight to her desk during this pandemic. “I’m in my workout clothes a lot of the time during the workday, and even while on Zoom calls where clients have seen me with my hair in a lopsided ponytail and wearing an old workout T-shirt I’ve probably had for the last seven years,” the 32-year-old reveals with a smile.
When she does have to dress up, usually for TIA’s events (which have become virtual affairs during this period), Li has a soft spot for bright power suits. Not only do the bold colours add a bit of pizzazz to the occasion, but for the American-born Chinese, they act as armour.
“When I’m uncomfortable, I tend to go for vibrant hues to help me build confidence. I think that’s the great thing about style. Even when I don’t feel great inside, I can just put on some of my brighter outfits and immediately feel like I’m ready to take on the world,” says Li.
Not surprisingly, Li opted for the red Bottega Veneta number for the shoot. “Like every good Asian daughter,” she jokes, “I love red. It’s a beautiful shade that pops. It’s also such a power colour and this outfit is particularly great because it takes the classic pantsuit and updates it with modern feminine details.”
Power is a recurring theme for Li. She considers the late Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, more popularly known as Jackie O, as one of her style icons. The former US First Lady was responsible for many global trends, including the clean-cut, knee-length skirt suits she paired with low-heel pumps. She wasn’t just a mannequin either. During her husband’s presidency, Jackie made multiple official solo visits to countries and more than held her own among the foreign dignitaries and officials.
Just as Jackie O did in her time, Li has become a lot more confident in her own skin now – a far cry from when she was a child growing up in Texas and hated anything feminine, shunning dresses for T-shirts and shorts to hang out with the boys. “I’m at a stage in my life now when I’m the most confident and it shows in my dressing,” she says.
Li purchased this red robe with the dragon motif a week before her wedding. “I love how this simple piece of fabric, which probably came from Southern China, ended up on a rack in a vintage shop in Tokyo, and has travelled with me to San Francisco and now Singapore. It represents me so well because, just like this robe, I don’t define myself by where I’m originally from, but where I’ve been.”