Bloomberg TV’s Susan Li is creating quite a success story
Not many jobs allow you to wake up the American financier Jim Rogers at five in the morning, grill the billionaire LVMH CEO Bernard Arnault on his business strategy, or sit face-to-face with some of the most powerful political figures on the planet.
“I find it amazing that I get to talk to and learn from these people every day,” says Susan Li, presenter of Bloomberg TV’s weekday show, First Up with Susan Li.
Wearing a fashionable magenta wrapped “bodycon” dress, Li looks every inch the celebrity news presenter. Her daily schedule, however, is anything but glamorous.
“I get up at 4.15 every morning,” she says. “I get to work around 5am, then read for a few hours before I have my make-up and hair [done] quickly. And then the show starts.”
Born in China, Li moved to Hong Kong when she was two, before emigrating with her family to Canada a year later. It was as a young girl in Canada that she decided she wanted to go into broadcasting after watching an unexpected event on TV.
“The reason why I went into broadcasting was because of watching the events in Tiananmen Square when I was a little girl,” she says. “I thought I really wanted to do that one day, to be in the field and cover big events for the world, the things that change history. I thought it was very meaningful.”
After graduating from university in Toronto, she immediately set out to achieve her aim and secured her first job on a graduate programme at the country’s national TV network, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC).
Like many fresh graduates in the industry, she started out at the bottom. “I worked the scrolling teleprompter, did the photocopying and answered the phones,” she says. “But that’s what you do to get a foot in the door.” Unlike other fresh graduates who might have snubbed these tedious tasks, Li says the experience helped her learn about newsroom operations and provided a launch pad for her career.
The turning point in her career came three years later when she left CBC and moved to Beijing. “I love Asia so much. I was excited about what was happening in Asia, what is still happening in Asia. I always wanted to be a Beijing correspondent and get some international experience,” she says.
She started working as an anchor and editor at China Central Television (CCTV) International. Being trilingual – English, Cantonese and Mandarin – gave her an advantage when it came to communicating with the locals. “Though culturally very different, CCTV was burgeoning at that time,” she says. “China was still developing, but it was a very exciting time. I think people need to be adventurous to be journalists.”
It was during this period that she had the most memorable adventure of her career. “It was Christmas Day in 2004 and I was going to Diaoyutai, the diplomatic compound [in Beijing], to interview [the late president of Venezuela] Hugo Chávez,” she says. “It was a long process. I had to chase his people and his consulate. I was excited, a bit intimidated and a bit scared. I had read a lot about him and watched a lot of his interviews. He was very different from what I had expected. He was very warm, very passionate, very smart and not very combative.”
After working for CCTV for about two and a half years, Li moved to Bloomberg, and to Hong Kong, seven years ago. Her career has since gone from strength to strength, culminating in last year’s “Highly Commended” runner’s up award for Best News Anchor at the Asian Television Awards, while the First Up show she hosts was awarded Best News Programme.
Contrary to popular opinion, Li says there is nothing glamorous about the broadcasting industry. “People might think it looks like it’s all lip gloss, but it’s not glamorous when you’re reading in your pyjamas at 11pm and then getting up at 4am,” she says. “You’re running from here to there. You’re sweating in the heat to get the story, the shot, the interview.” Most work nights she doesn’t go out and is in bed by around 9pm.
Li says a lot of hard work goes on behind the screen and those who want to work in the industry should be prepared for sacrifice. “You have to be really willing to put in the long hours,” she says. “Early wake-up calls and strange working hours are the downs of this industry. The ups, though, are that you get to talk to such amazing people every day and you get to learn so much. I think there are so many more ups than downs.”
Li thinks TV journalism attracts certain types of personalities. “It attracts those who are energetic and passionate about what they do, people who give it their all. It’s an industry that requires people to have energy, a passion for people and who want to learn.”
Though the fast-paced, high-stress environment is extremely demanding, she says the key is to stay calm when things get crazy. “You need to be cool under pressure because you never know what will happen,” she says. “You can only be so prepared. Sometimes there are days when there are no scripts at all. Things can break down and you just have to go with it.”
She recalls one time when she was on air and her producer whispered in her ear: “We’ve got breaking news. Steve Jobs has just died.” Suddenly, newsrooms worldwide had to write and broadcast the biography and obituary of the late Apple CEO. “That day, everything that we had planned, all the stories that we were going to cover, just went to the garbage can,” Li says.
Contrary to what many female leaders think, Li says a little bit of self-doubt drives her to learn and better herself. “I feel it when we’re showing something new, but I think a healthy dose of self-doubt isn’t a bad thing – it keeps you in check,” she says.
Li says live broadcasting is a challenging field, especially in this new age of scrutiny, where just one mistake can find itself plastered across internet sites and social media.
“You get one take and there’s no going back. Once it’s on tape, it’s on tape,” she says. This makes the biggest challenge getting the story right and not making any mistakes. “You don’t want to misrepresent what’s actually happening, because that can have an impact on share prices.”
To relieve stress, Li goes to the gym after work, plays tennis and sees friends. She admits, however, that it is sometimes hard to maintain a good work-life balance in such an intense industry. While she used to spend all her time working, she says she now takes a better approach and saves some of the day for herself. In the future, she hopes to achieve an even better balance. “When I have a family, I’ll definitely re-arrange things so there’s more of a work-life balance,” she says.
Even with her hectic schedule, Li still finds the time to raise funds for charities such as SOS Children, an international NGO for children and orphans. She has also made a resolution for the coming year – to become a mentor. “I’ve been asked to speak at a lot of women’s events,” she says. “I’ve made it a point this year that these are something in which I’m definitely going to participate.”
LI’S LESSONS FOR ASPIRING ANCHORS
BE AMBITIOUS “You have to want it because it’s a tough business.”
BE REALISTIC “Understand that the industry is not glamorous.”
BE COOL “You have to stay calm under pressure.”
BE PERSONABLE “People have to want to talk to you.”
BE DEDICATED “You have to be really willing to put in the long hours.”
BE CURIOUS “Ask questions and find out the reason behind stories.”
BE ENERGETIC “Have the motivation to get the story across.”
BE PREPARED “You have to read a lot and have imperative analysis skills.”
BE ADVENTUROUS “The industry attracts people who give it their all.”