NYU Tandon alum named to Forbes “30 under 30” list

Meng Ai

Alum Meng Ai ('16)

What do traditional Chinese dry-pot cooking and a master’s degree in Finance and Risk Engineering have to do with each other? Not much on the surface, but that combination has propelled Meng Ai ('16) to a spot in the “Food and Drink” category on the prestigious “30 under 30” list published annually by Forbes magazine. 

While restaurants often tout their star chefs, they also need solid financial oversight, and that’s where Ai comes in. Along with Culinary Institute of America grad Ning (Amelie) Kang, she helped found MáLà Project, the first Chinese restaurant in Manhattan to focus on the distinctive dry-pot style of cooking, which calls for a mélange of meats and vegetables to be prepared with spice-infused oil and served communally. The restaurant, launched in late 2015, has since become a fixture on New York's increasingly more inventive Chinese food scene, and in 2018 the partners opened a second location in Midtown. (They are now planning to open their third Manhattan location in Spring 2020.)

Ai, who also works at a top-tier Chinese venture-capital firm, now oversees the business aspects of the restaurants from her home in Shanghai. “I can't express how valuable my education at NYU Tandon has been to my career and life,” she said in a note to Dean Jelena Kovačević. “I hope to continue to make you proud.”

That seems like a certainty. Proving that Ai received not just stellar financial training at NYU Tandon but a strong sense of social mission, MáLà Project is dedicated to diversity and equity: 50% of the employees are immigrants, and 60% of the management team members are female. 

Ai and her colleagues are not only focusing on building a financially sustainable business, but a platform of opportunities for their employees and other entrepreneurs who want to pursue their restaurant dreams. Since its founding, five of the original employees (four of whom are women) became leaders and managers at the company, and now — in a model example of a virtuous circle — two of those women have founded their own enterprises and developed partnerships with MáLà Project.