An Entrepreneur in Education: Angela Lee, Executive Director at Columbia Business School and Founder of 37 Angels

Angela Lee is on a career-long journey to continue finding that perfect intersection of personal passion and professional satisfaction. Having born witness to her impressive ability to create opportunities to challenge herself and those around her since our undergrad years at Cal, I have no doubt that Angela’s story will inspire readers to stop thinking of themselves as a checkbox and start asking how they can build a portfolio of life and professional experiences they’re truly proud of.

How would you define your job today?

Honestly, it’s hard to answer that question. My primary role is Executive Director and Adjunct Faculty with Columbia Business School where I’m charged with helping them revamp their core curriculum. I also teach two courses at the business school – one on strategy and the other on leadership.

On the side, I run 37 Angels, which is an angel investing network that empowers women investors and educates women on how to become angel investors.

What was the main impetus for making change from the corporate world to today?

The first decade of my career was about acquiring as many transferrable skills as possible. I spent 5 years in product management and then 5 years in consulting, always with a marketing lens. It was important for me to understand holistically how businesses operated – from reading and owning a P&L, to working cross-functionally within organizations, to launching products.

One of the things I loved since high school was education. Five years ago, I found myself wanting to be a little more convergent and I started conducting a lot of experiments around how I could incorporate education into my professional scope. I began lecturing at business schools as well as speaking on panels and at conferences. For about a period of two years, I ran a lot of rapid experiments to test how viable the opportunity was. Then three years ago, I found myself really wanting to put education at the forefront and started working on a path to becoming a full time educator.

Around that same time, I had been angel investing in some pretty interesting projects. After a few years of doing this on the side, I was looking to do it in a more structured fashion. However, whenever I said “I’m a female”, there was an assumption that I only wanted to invest in female founders, and that’s not true. I wanted to invest in good companies. I kept on getting introduced to companies with female target demographics and it continued to be a point of frustration. So, 37 Angels was born a year and half ago.

What questions do you think people need to ask themselves if they’ve woken up and say “What do I want to do”?

First, dramatically lower your own bar for how certain you’re going to feel. The reality is that you are never going to know for sure. At best, it’s going to be an educated guess as to what you’re going to do next. Stop planning your 20 year career.

Second, run a lot of experiments. It’s easy to get seduced by the idea of investment banking or believe that PR is so sexy, etc. Go talk to folks – follow them around for half a day. Even better if you can do a week long project. Run experiments to de-risk as much as you can.

Third, meet as many people as you can. You’ll meet people who are doing awesome things that you never thought of.  You’ll find out what’s great and what sucks about their jobs.  And best, you’ll be top of mind when that cool new job opens up that you’d be perfect for.

How did you go about the process of meeting as many people as you can?

I tried to surround myself by good people who were doing things I thought were interesting.  I used Linked In, meetups (there is one for everything!), and went to interesting talks.  Learn about what people are doing. Be curious and ask your network if they know people who are doing x or y. Every time you’re in a meeting, ask to be introduced to two other people who can help you keep learning.

Going back to your frustration with being typecast as a female angel investor only interested in female focused companies – what is your perspective on the “women in leadership” movement?

I know several women in senior roles (myself included) who are frustrated that they have become posterchilds for women in leadership, as opposed to simply being seen as great leaders.

To this day, I get asked to keynote and speak on panels and point blank have been told “we need a female on the panel”. It’s like they’re just trying to check the “female” box. It’s funny because until I was 28, I never really realized that being female was an issue. I used to be asked what it was like being a female consultant at McKinsey and I remember wondering “Why don’t people just ask me what it’s like to be a consultant at McKinsey?” It was frustrating.

Then a friend Anjali Kumar helped ground me with some great advice. She said – “The first time you get invited, it will be because you are a female. But the second time, you’ll be invited because you’re awesome.” She’s right. It’s an opportunity – embrace it.

Speaking of advice, who have been some key mentors to help guide you?

Funny, I’ve never had a “mentor”, but I have always been hungry for one. In place, I’ve sought out peer coaches along the way where we’ve helped each other.

Why do you think that is?

I think part of it is I probably thought a mentor had to look like me, and 15 years ago there weren’t a lot of asian women in senior roles I wanted to play. Also, I was very afraid of asking for anything the first decade of my career, so I simply didn’t ask for the help.

I also think that people need to stop looking for mentors in a traditional way. I’ve had several women come up to me and ask me “Will you be my mentor?” and my initial reaction is often “I don’t know anything about you”. Instead, surround yourself with people you respect and are working on projects you’re interested in.

I think a better thing to look for is a “executive board of advisors” of sorts.

In the current environment, do you think the value of business school has changed?

I think the value of business school 30 years ago was the curriculum. And for a very long time now, that has not been the case. Now, the value isn’t just the classroom curriculum. There is huge value in spending two years with 500 people who are going to end up being pretty successful over the course of their career.

The other thing people don’t really talk about is that business school is an incredibly rare two years of your life where you’re forced to self reflect, become a better communicator, and take all of these self assessments to help you figure out what you’re really good at. Could that be replaced by diligently shutting yourself in a room and doing that? Yes. But, most of us don’t have the self discipline to do that. I know myself better and I have an amazing network because of business school.

Before you went to business school would you have had that same response?

I went to business school because even though I was an economics major, there were a lot of gaps in my business acumen. I wanted to have a well flushed out skill set. Remember, early in my career I was focused on learning transferable skills and I wanted that to be broad based. That and it was an incredible networking opportunity.

Something else unexpected was that I completely misinterpreted the value ratios before business school. I thought it would be 70% learning/ 30% networking. In reality, the ratio ended up being 20% curriculum, 40% networking, and 40% of providing a safe environment where I got to run lots of experiments and think about what I was going to do next.

Is there a point in someone’s career where you think going back to a formalized program is no longer valuable?

I may have a bit of a bias here, but I happen to think it’s always valuable. The reality however is that the opportunity cost grows as you get more senior and at some point it might not be worth it. You’re also going to be networking with people 20 years your junior. Once you get about 10 years of work experience under your belt, that’s when I’d recommend you start thinking about an executive or part time MBA.

There are a lot of great executive and certificate programs out there for professionals who don’t have the ability to commit to a two year program or find themselves having the opportunity cost conversation. In our executive education program, I teach people who are 40-60 all the time.

Is there something that’s unique or particularly interesting about the new generation of working professionals?

One trend  I see is that they have way more experience than you or I had at 22. The barriers to entry for things like crowd-funding or launching products are much lower. Now, there are these cool things like App Architect where you or I could create a mobile app overnight. Because the barriers to entry for everything have come way down, 22 year olds have so much more experience.

On the flip side, the bar is way higher. When you come to me as a college senior, I expect that you’ve done something relevant to the job you’re looking for because you have no excuse at this point.

So what’s your advice to your younger you?

Two things – First, please don’t be afraid to ask for things. Both in the form of access to people and the time you need. Don’t waste time waiting for people to offer. Second, run lots of experiments to reduce risk as much as possible. But still at some point, you’re going to need to jump.

Connect with Angela on twitter at @angelawlee or @37angelsny

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