Since she was a girl, Angela Lee pictured herself as a businesswoman, briefcase and all. But that’s not to say her career path was straight and narrow. Despite having no traditional plan (or maybe because of it?), Angela has forged a career that combines education, technology, and investing in a way that’s uniquely her own.
Do you remember your first week in New York?
It was 2005, and I moved from San Francisco to attend Columbia Business School in New York. I remember I was scared and very flustered. I didn’t have anywhere to stay, or even a checking account, so I subletted a room in a stranger’s apartment. This was in the days before AirBnB! It was strange sharing an apartment with people I didn’t know. I slept on a sleeping bag because the bed skeeved me out. I just remember feeling like my life was in disarray. I was very overwhelmed because everyone, in my mind, was so brilliant and accomplished. Before I went to business school, I thought trying hard wasn’t cool. I was never an amazing student but good grades came fairly easy to me.
I made a very big switch once I arrived in New York. I grew up and became a hardworking student. It also helped that I was paying a lot of money to attend the school! All of a sudden, I was going to be somebody who gives a crap about stuff.
What drew you to business school?
Honestly, my parents really wanted me to go. I caved, and on a whim I applied to Columbia just to see what would happen. I got in! Looking back, another reason was that I had gone through a bad breakup and was looking for a reason to get away from San Francisco. A lot of the time people ask me how I made big life decisions, and honestly at that time I didn’t think about it to much. I had a good friend in college who used to call my hobbies and interests the ‘flavor of the week’.
Let's go back a little bit. Where were you born?
I was born in Akron, Ohio, the same city as Lebron James… a fact my dad loves to share! But I spent a lot of my early childhood living with my grandparents in Taipei, Taiwan. So my first language is Chinese. I came back to the US to attend kindergarten, so I was an American citizen learning English as a second language, which I found confusing. I’ve lived in so many cities: Phoenix, Arizona, and Baten Rouge, Louisiana. I also lived in a couple places in New Jersey. I was usually the only Asian kid in school and got teased mercilessly for being Asian.
Why did you move around so much?
My dad had to move around for work, so every couple of years we moved. I actually spent my last years of high school in China. I guess there was a lot of transition in my life, and this has continued into my career path.
You studied economics at UC Berkeley before coming to New York?
I did—it was very boring. I didn't know what I wanted to do and it was a fairly easy major to complete. [Laughs] To be honest, I really wanted to graduate and start working, so I graduated in three years. I've always wanted to work. From a very young age, I really remember wanted to wear a black suit, carry a briefcase and a latte.
The businesswoman! So, what was your first job after you left Berkeley?
I went to a recruiting agency to get advice on interviewing and they offered me a job to work there! This was in 1998 or 1999, so they wanted to build up the technical recruiting aspect of their company. I felt so grown up working there—I had a cubical and everything! [Laughs] I'm really glad I had that role, because I learned sales skills, tech skills, and people skills. Working in recruitment, you do dozens of interviews a day.
My next role ended up being in financial planning, helping people manage their retirement accounts. Again, it was a sales job. But it also helped me learn personal finance, which is obviously a very good life skill.
And something most people are never taught.
It was an interesting time during the dot-com boom. I remember telling all of my clients to buy stock in a [grocery delivery] company called Webvan, which was the predecessor for FreshDirect. They raised a billion dollars of funding and then lost all of their money! They were too early for their time. So, a lot of my clients lost money in that time, not necessarily because it was my fault. Everyone lost 40 percent of their portfolio. I learned how to make those really tough phone calls, learned some resilience, learned that the stock market doesn't always go up—which are good lessons to learn when you're 21. Then I realized I didn't love sales, so I went on to work in product management. I basically did marketing product management at a financial-services firm for four years. Then I went to business school.
I feel like I'm gonna come across in this interview as incredible unthoughtful, which I suppose is very true up until the age of 26. I visited New York before school started, and I found an apartment on Craigslist that was only 230 square feet. I thought it would be hilarious to visit, but I ended up making an offer on it! I bought it for $197,000. My apartment was so tiny, it was on Good Morning America! Diane Sawyer was like, “This is what $200,000 can buy in Rhode Island, a beautiful home with four bedrooms, a swimming pool, and a tennis court. And this is what it can buy in Manhattan!” [Laughs] What idiot would live in this apartment? And I was like, “That's me. I'm that idiot!”
So what happened after you graduated?
I fell into consulting, so I spent three years at McKinsey doing lots of different projects in lots of different industries. After about year, I realized that I most loved training the incoming consultants. It was called “basic consulting readiness.” My favorite part of the project was when we handed it over to the people who would own it after we left.
A friend said to me, "The thing you love to do is 10 percent of your job. Why not get a job where it's 100 percent of the job?" So I started exploring teaching. I banged on a lot of doors, and got laughed at a lot because I was 30 and hadn't really done much. People were like, “You want to teach at a tier 1 business school? Who are you?” I got very lucky when a marketing professor at NYU bailed on a course, and they reached out to me in desperation! I worked my butt off, built a course on consumer behavior in two and a half weeks and luckily it went really well.
Then, all of the schools that had said no to me were now interested because I had taught a full course at NYU. That spiraled into teaching at SUNY and Imperial College Business School in London. Actually, I did a couple guest lectures at Columbia Business School where I got ripped apart by the students because I didn't have the depth of knowledge they expected. It wasn't all roses; I definitely cried after a few sessions! You have to know five times what you're teaching—you can't just teach exactly what you know, because then somebody might ask a question you can't answer. But I'm really glad that I had those experiences, because you learn from the failures.
At what point was investing in startups coming into play?
I've always loved startups. I started my first company out of undergrad, and two when I was in business school. The thing is, I have my professional career, which is what you just heard about, and then I have my startup career.
What was the first startup you invested in?
A friend of mine had filmed a movie about promoting mental health awareness in the Asian American community. Mental health isn’t talked about much in our community, so I really wanted more people to see it. I invested in its distribution and promotional budget, and all of a sudden I was an “investor!” I dabbled around the next few years, looking at random deals and trying to assess if they were valuable or not. Then in 2012, I decided I wanted to more thoughtfully invest. After walking into lots of rooms with old white men, I decided to start my own investing network.
This is how you started your all-female investment group, 37 Angels?
Initially, I imagined there would be around ten of us who would get together like a club once a month. We would each bring a company we were interested in. Of course, I realized very quickly that you need structure for something like this, and that’s where my skill strength lies. It’s slowly become a “grown-up” business; now we look at 2,000 companies a year. I also realized that I wanted education to be at the core of it, so I created a curriculum around it: How do you become an angel investor? How do you source deal flow? How do you look at early stage companies? Legal stuff, math stuff, the stuff that most people don’t know.
That’s where our boot camp started. Fast-forward five years, and we've invested in 50 companies, our portfolio IRR [internal rate of return] in the top 20 percent. We have 70 investors, and we've trained 200 women on how to be angel investors.
Why female investors?
The practical reason is simply that there's a tremendous amount of focus already on the female founder, and there's just not that much focus on the female investor. The philosophical reason is there's so much dialogue right now about the “female founder.” I find that companies invest in female-founded companies with a sense of social responsibility, rather than the value they see in the company. I want to remove the asterisks that come with investing in companies with female founders. Our portfolio is about one-third women and two-thirds men. There's no doubt in anyone's minds that we invested in those women’s companies because they're awesome, not just because they were women.
But you don't show them preference because they're women?
Exactly. Sometimes I actually wrestle with that issue. Am I not enough of a feminist because we don't only invest in women? I think a lot about this.
Where did the name 37 Angels come from?
When we started, only 13 percent of investors were women, and we want to bring it up to 50 percent. We’re working on that 37 percent gap. It’s 18 percent now, so we’re slowly getting there.
Let’s talk about your other work as Chief Innovation Officer at Columbia Business School? What does that mean?
I work on three key pillars. The first is faculty development, making sure that your faculty are supported and able to be their most amazing selves in the classroom. The second pillar is curriculum planning, working with the faculty to figure out what we should be teaching now and in five years. The third pillar is teaching innovation and technology, both in the classroom and online. We study the changing landscape of education.
And how did this role come to be?
I've worked at Columbia for five years, but my role has morphed a lot over that time. It was a happy accident getting to work here. I was judging a business-plan competition and sat next to the Senior Vice Dean. I overheard that Columbia was hiring. I spoke up and said I’d love to chat more, and I went for an interview the next day!
Where do you see yourself in the next five years?
Honestly, I don't have any idea where I want to be! I have days when I definitely think I can be at Columbia for the rest of my life. The cool thing about being Chief Innovation Officer is that there is no job description, so I get to work on a lot of interesting projects. But I’m also a bit of flight risk! I realized that while I'm doing something that has a great social mission, a lot of the people I'm teaching are very privileged. They have to be by nature, to afford Columbia’s tuition. The women in 37 Angels are also a privileged bunch, because they also must have a high net worth to invest in startups. I've been thinking, “Is there a way for me to help a less privileged audience?” I haven’t figured it out yet.
What’s the best piece of advice you could give?
My professional advice is not original, but here it is: Learn how to say no. I read an article recently where Bill Gates and Warren Buffett were separately asked to name the one word that defines their success, and they both independently said “focus.” It’s something I try to work on all the time. Saying “no” helps you focus a lot and be efficient. I'm an efficiency junkie. Be laser-focused on what you will and won't do in a day. I have a note on my desk that says, "Delete, delegate, delay, diminish." Literally every time I feel overwhelmed, I look at it and ask: "What can I delete, just not do at all? What can I diminish, by doing it lazier, less well? What can I delegate to somebody else? And what can I delay until later?" Delay, diminish, delegate, delete.
My life advice: find a really good life partner. I have the world's most amazing husband. Sometimes I feel like it's not feminist of me to talk about love and relationships, but nothing matters without him. He's so supportive. I see the friction in people's lives when their significant others don't have the same values or aren’t supportive. I'm just so grateful every day for my husband.
I don't think it makes you less feminist; it's a huge part of people's lives! Last question: What does New York mean to you?
“Opportunity” is the first word that comes to mind. But maybe the word I would actually use is “collision rate.” With networking and jobs, you have to increase your collision rate. Living in New York does that for you. I think about the people that I've met in elevators, walking out of buildings, at events. New York is such a unique place because of its physicality and public transportation—you almost have to avoid opportunities to meet new people!
To learn more about 37 Angels, click here.