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Women Who Lead - Ellen Li (Part 1)


In honour of Asian Heritage Month, Live Your Potential highlights an empowering Asian-Canadian woman leader, Ellen Li.

Ellen is an exceptional leader as the Vice President of Finance at a private equity firm. With her strong work ethic and positive attitude, she successfully oversees the finance and accounting teams and is responsible for managing funds and investments within North America.

Ellen shares powerful insights and advice surrounding Asian stereotypes in North American corporate settings and what’s needed to build the next generation of women leaders of colour, providing concrete examples and facts. She also speaks about the challenges she faces while navigating the transition to and from maternity leave.

Read Part One of her interview below as she shares more of her wisdom with us.

As we celebrate Asian Heritage Month, please share with us your story as an Asian-Canadian leader.

I started my career over a decade ago in a large professional services firm. There were over 100 new graduates in my year from different universities, all starting on the same day. I worked there for five years, made a lot of amazing connections, and left in 2014 to join a mid-size asset management firm as a senior manager. I’ve been working at the same asset management firm since, steadily progressing with my responsibilities, and my current role is the head of finance for the private equity division.

Throughout my career, I’ve had the opportunity to work with a lot of bright, motivated, and open-minded individuals. I personally believe that people, culture, and opportunity are the most important aspects of a career. For companies to keep their talent engaged and happy, the leaders need to be focused to deliver on these three aspects. Otherwise, those bright and motivated talents will be itching to leave.

In my professional career, I’ve not had explicit experience of racial discrimination based on being Asian and I believe that speaks to the progress and diversity in the companies I’ve worked with, as well as within our society at large. However, Asian Canadians are a very small minority in leadership positions in my industry, and that observation is not going unnoticed.

Asians in the North American corporate setting often face the stereotype that they are fit for low-mid level management but not necessarily for top-level leadership positions. What are your thoughts on this?

Through my personal experience and observations, I’ve certainly identified a lack of Asian female representation in top-level leadership positions throughout the financial services industry, including partners at professional service firms or the C-suites at asset management firms.

These observations limited my ability to envision a path forward earlier in my career, because there were not many leaders that looked like me in those seats. When I had the opportunity to learn about experiences and success stories of partners and executives, it was hard for me to imagine myself replicating their paths, because the starting points were very different. In the past few years, there have been waves of celebration for more Asians being cast in leading Hollywood roles. I think we should strive for the same in the business world and celebrate more diverse teams across all levels.

In terms of the stereotypes regarding Asians in management vs. top-level leadership positions, there have been a few interesting studies completed in North America on this topic that have caught my attention: first, covering the overall perception of Asians in North America and, second, taking a close look at Asian stereotypes that are most prevalent in our society and the impact of these stereotypes.

I came across an interesting Harvard Business Review article and its key points are as follows. Since the 1960s, Asians in United States have been the country’s model minority and this racial group consistently outperforms other minorities and Caucasians with respect to education and employment income. The article referenced 2010 data from U.S Department of Labor; 52% of Asians over 25 have a college degree, whereas only 32% of Caucasians have the same. The Asian unemployment rate is about 7.5% vs. 8.5% for Caucasians. Asians on average earn about $855 a week, compared to $765 a week for other groups. When you look at all these statistics you think Asians are doing well and, on average, this certainly is true. However, the glowing statistics hide the fact that Asians are underrepresented in leadership positions. There’s a term for this experience which I didn’t know existed before reading the study: the “bamboo ceiling.”

With respect to the stereotypes commonly associated with Asians, the article noted two studies completed in 2001 and 2005. Participants of the study listed what they think about when they think about Asians, and the two main groups of stereotypes are i) Asians are highly competent, they seem very successful and intelligent; and ii) Asians have low social skills, they seem nerdy and anti-social.

Participants who agreed with the first stereotype admitted to having admiration and/or envy toward Asians. Those who agreed with the second stereotype admitted to experiencing greater hostility toward Asians. These participants may be less likely to want to interact with, or learn about, Asians; for example, preferring to not be roommates with an Asian person.

It’s interesting that stereotypes exist, and they impact people’s decisions. When you think about the stereotypes for Asians as highly competent with low social skills, these are somewhat at odds with the stereotypes for leaders, which contributes to the growth of the so-called “bamboo ceiling.”

When you think about a business leader such as Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, or your own boss, those people typically are competent, intelligent, and dedicated, which is consistent with the first common Asian stereotype. However, leaders are often expected to be charismatic and socially skilled, along with masculine, dictatorial and authoritarian. These are the opposite of the second common Asian stereotype. This puts Asian leaders at a disadvantage. This also puts female leaders at a disadvantage, because women are often not seen as masculine, dictatorial, or authoritarian.

My priority is the opportunities for change. When we look at the numbers, it’s discouraging. In 2015, there was a report on diversity in Silicon Valley. Asian women comprise only 3.1% of executives while Asian men do better; they made up approximately 13.5%. In contrast, 80% of executives are Caucasian. And of that, only 11% are women, which is a serious concern in itself.

McKinsey research has shown companies in the top quartile for gender, racial and ethnic diversity are more likely to have better financial returns compared to their peers. Recent research in the private equity industry have shown firms with at least 30% of women filling investment decision-making roles achieve 10-20% higher rate of return than firms that do not.

I hope more companies choose to embrace diversity across functions and all levels. Building a diverse leadership team is not just the right thing to do, the data shows it is also better for your bottom line.

What’s the best work-related advice you’ve ever received?

Mentors are incredibly important to the development of a person’s career. They are your personal and professional board of directors. They offer insights, act as sounding boards, and have honest conversations that get you out of your comfort zones. Your personal board composition may change as you progress in your career, and that’s a good thing.

One of the best advice I’ve received is “It’s a marathon, not a sprint.” This advice was given to me fairly early in my career from an important mentor.

I delivered a report for her review long past office hours, I thought she would appreciate the quick turnaround. To my surprise, I was told, “Ellen, I didn’t need that right away. I appreciate your efforts but I’m afraid you’re going to burn out if you don’t pace yourself. Remember, it’s a marathon, not a sprint.”

I was taken aback but at the same time appreciated the honest feedback. That advice shaped how I manage myself, as well as how I now manage my team as a leader. While we strive to do our best with the resources on hand, we should also strive to be kind to ourselves. There’s nothing more important than our physical and mental health.

Stay tuned for Part Two of our interview with Ellen, where she shares her thoughts on building the next generation of women leaders, ‘mom guilt’ and returning to work after maternity leave, and what she does to overcome self-doubt.


About the Author: Tina Chow

Tina Chow is a visionary changemaker, avid traveler, and passionate writer. She empowers leadership, personal growth, and career development through her creative content. Follow her blog for more of her work.


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