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Blending Algorithms and Botanicals

Meet alumna, Lu Sun (MSc Statistics, 2008), who's successfully juggling a career in AI with her newfound passion for gin. We caught up with Lu to learn more about her unique career journey from an early start in cognitive AI to launching her own gin brand inspired by her family’s roots.

Why did you choose to study at Warwick?
I grew up in China and had never considered studying abroad before. When I had an opportunity to see what the top universities around the world had to offer, I did a lot of research. I looked at university rankings and talked about options with friends as well as in online discussion forums in China that all talked very highly of Warwick. There were certain universities that stood out for their Statistics courses and Warwick was one of those. It was considered very prestigious, from the university itself to the career progression for graduates. Warwick was a no brainer for me!

What were your first impressions of Warwick?
I used to live in Shanghai, which is super busy with something going on 24/7. When I got off the plane in Heathrow and took a cab to campus, the first thing I saw was fields, cows, and geese. I was shocked at how quiet it was, but it was beautiful too. I fell in love with the place.

What did you like most about studying statistics at Warwick?
Statistics is a very theoretical area of study, but the structure of the course made it more interactive. The teachers really encouraged us to do our own research and gave us the opportunity to attend different conferences and learn about developments in the field. We got to go to a conference at Cambridge and that was a great opportunity to see what other people were doing.

Can you tell me about your journey from studying at Warwick to working in cognitive AI and what inspired you to pursue this career path?
It was a very natural journey for me. I started my career right before the financial crash in 2008 and I got to see how the financial industry coped from both a small business and a corporate banking perspective. I saw firsthand how data and analytics can help businesses and bring benefits to clients and employers. I started working in cognitive AI about a year and a half ago with my current employer, AIA. Working in insurance there are relatively less stringent regulations than in the banking industry so we can try different things and innovate. This is where I progressed from working with machine learning into cognitive and generative AI.

How did your time at Warwick help you in your career?
Being a Warwick graduate was also a real door-opener and created so many opportunities for me. I applied for jobs and because there were Warwick alumni working in the company, they would give me an opportunity to interview for the role. I have also tapped into the Warwick alumni community to build my professional network.

Hong Kong is a busy hub for technology and innovation. How has living and working there influenced your career?
Hong Kong is in one of the fastest regions of economics growth and therefore there's more room for career development and people are a lot more ambitious. For areas like AI, the appetite to try and adopt new technologies is a lot greater than elsewhere. They are more eager to try new things and take on risk. Hong Kong is also right next to China and very conveniently connected to the surrounding SE Asian countries so we can connect and learn from the talent in the wider region.

Are there any particular skills or experiences that have given you an edge in your career?
Ohh the secret sauce! At the beginning of my career, it was extremely important to have a good foundation of technical knowledge. As I progressed in my career, I realised that in the workplace there would on the one hand really good analysts or data scientists, and on the other there would be people who only knew business, and not about numbers or models. To get these two groups to speak a common language is more difficult than you think. So, what helped me to be where I am today, is to be able to speak both the technical and the business languages and bridge the two worlds.

Alongside your career in AI, you also launched a gin brand in 2020. What inspired you to launch ‘Porcelain’?
It was a happy accident really. Before we moved to Asia, my husband and I were living in London and one weekend we went on a gin distillery tour in Oxfordshire. We stumbled upon something that was transformational for us. At the distillery I saw similar processes to those in my father's factory and it got me thinking about my family background in food production. We saw a gap in the market for a Chinese gin brand and we just thought, let’s try it! We knew absolutely nothing about alcohol, but we started from scratch, sourcing the factory and equipment and hiring people. We are very lucky to have the support of our extended family who all basically jumped into this with us. My son and my dad are even featured on the website!

How do you find time for your day job and the gin brand?
I don't! My work is very demanding, so I try to dedicate as much time as possible to the business after work and during the weekend. The number of times my husband and mum have had to chase me for things is countless.

What advice would you give to someone looking to start their own business?
My best advice is to look around you. What can you leverage? What resources do you have access to? What networks are you connected to? And what are your own strengths and passions? Start from there rather than looking too far afield.
Founding Porcelain worked for us because we loved food and drink to start with, we had the support of our family, and a good friend designed the amazing packaging for the bottle. This is the support and resources we had close to us, without which we would not have been able to succeed.

Looking ahead, what are your aspirations for both your career and for Porcelain?
The answer is I don't know. I'm not the type of person who likes to plan 5-10 years ahead of time, I try to focus on what's immediately ahead. What I can confidently say is that I would like Porcelain to grow because that's my first baby.

What's been the proudest moment of your career so far?
We went on a trip to Shanghai recently and we were dining at a random restaurant in a shopping mall. When I opened the menu, I saw Porcelain on the menu. I was like, ‘That's us!’, we were so happy when we saw that.

Lu Sun sat in front of a wall