I'm a Harvard CS & Econ student, startup investor, and Elpha's First Ambassador – Jessica LiFeatured

What’s your name and your current role? If you’re a student, what are you studying?I am Jessica, a senior at Harvard studying applied math, economics, and computer science. After graduation, I am joining Morgan Stanley’s Global Technology Investment Banking group. Where’s the place of your origin?I was born in Indiana (when my parents were graduate students at Purdue), grew up in China, and came back to the US (where my parents had found jobs in New Jersey) in late elementary school. How many years have you been in tech?My parents are both electrical engineers, so I grew up with a strong fascination with technology. In late middle school, through the encouragement of my parents (immigrants from China) who have always been strong believers in personal financial empowerment, I started public markets investing, where I found my interest and strength in evaluating technology from a business angle. I quickly became very engaged with investing as I felt it was a challenging but stimulating blend of being contrarian and innovative while being data driven, evidence focused, and grounded. In high school, I continued investing as well as my more technical pursuit of the field when I did computer science research on risk extinction models and solid state physics. Now in college, I study computer science and conducted research in the field of autonomous driving. Outside of school, I also became involved in tech startups, including Luxe (acquired by Volvo) and investing in tech/supporting tech founders through Rough Draft Ventures (General Catalyst), Romulus Capital, Female Founders Fund, and Global Founders Capital. After graduation, I will be moving to Silicon Valley to cover tech companies in investment banking at Morgan Stanley, where I also spent the summer working on tech IPOs, including Sonos, Domo, and Bloom Energy. What’s something that you’ve done that you’re proud of?Something recently that comes to mind is my senior honors thesis. For this, I worked with Nobel Laureate Oliver Hart to study foreign direct investment bargaining in China, an application of game theoretic mathematical models I found fascinating and on a topical topic area close to my own roots. The process of completing over 100 pages of research practically entirely on my own from start to finish was incredibly difficult but also made me appreciate the details and nuances as well as iterative, persistent thinking and work that go into the finished research product. It was a true culmination of my college experience and the diligent, creative thinker I have become through the rigorous but rewarding coursework and other learnings I have had at Harvard. What’s your “aha” moment in deciding what do you want to do professionally?When I was working in venture, I listened to pitches and had conversations with incredibly brilliant, innovative, and driven founders. I realized that being in venture is one of the coolest roles: being around and adding value to the most talented people creating disruptive, impactful, society-changing products, concepts, platforms, and companies.In the short and medium term of my career, I want to develop more analytical and operating experience to better be able to support founders and have the entrepreneurial empathy to develop genuine relationships with startups, but eventually, I do want to end up in venture and create a meaningful impact in the industry and ecosystem. What’s your definition of success in life or in your career?I think so frequently people measure success based on socially accepted, standard benchmarks. In high school, people measured success by which colleges they were accepted to. In college, people measured success by whether you went to work for Fortune 100 companies in a hot industry, major city, and coveted role. After college, people’s paths start to diverge: not better or worse but just different. At this point, people have trouble grappling with the lack of a clear next step or given ladder to mindlessly climb for the next milestone or trophy. For some time, I did define my own success through some of these external, arbitrary markers that ended up creating lots of meaningless stress and internal conflict. Now, I am beginning to realize that my own definition of success is when I am happy to go to work and not just waiting for Friday. Moreover, I want to feel that what I do has a positive impact on the company and the world. What’s something that you’re working on to improve about yourself?I am trying hard to find balance and making sure I do 1 thing for myself each day. I try to be more mindful of taking some time, even if just 20 minutes for a run or bike ride, to do something purely to make myself feel more empowered and enhance my mental and physical wellness in the present moment. Overall, this creates a positive feedback loop and virtuous cycle where I can more efficiently and happily do my remaining to dos and avoid burnout in the long run. Tell us about someone who has inspired you a great deal. Who was it and how did they inspire you?My dad has always been the biggest inspiration to me. He grew up incredibly poor in China and overcame endless hardships to come to the United States and create a better life for my brother and me. For my whole life, he has been the most dedicated, hard working, and responsible person. My drive and motivation comes from his role model and inspiration. How do you celebrate your wins?I always first take a moment to appreciate (mentally or in writing/communication, depending on what is most appropriate) the people who had helped me get to this place. It is a great chance to experience and share gratitude, which can be a deep, non-fleeting source of happiness. I then take a bit of time to just take in the moment, feel the happiness, and celebrate myself and team before planning what is next. So frequently we rush into the next thing without taking an important moment to re energize, reconnect, and reflect. Doing so helps us enter a better mentality and understanding to more effectively tackle the next challenges. What do you do when you aren't working or studying?I love staying active, especially running or biking. I also love making new smoothie recipes, going on food adventures, reading, and traveling with my family in China. What is one piece of advice that you’d share with the Elpha community?My biggest advice is to define yourself by your interests rather than your strengths. If you define yourself by your strengths, your entire sense of self-worth and identity is tied to the status of your uncontrollable environment. With an unsuccessful interview, a negative performance review, a bad exam grade, your perceived value and your claimed future vision are shattered, leading to constant identity crises, disappointment, and volatile experiences. Instead, go back to your core instincts, what you gravitate toward in the absence of expectations, and what you do when no one is watching. In this way, find your true interests and define yourself by those - the way in which you craft your confidence, sense of self, place in the world, and vision for your future will be much clearer, grounded, stable, and exciting. Jessica Li is a senior at Harvard, studying applied math, economics, and computer science. She is completing her senior thesis research on foreign direct investment in China under Nobel Laureate Oliver Hart. Outside of academics, she teaches advanced macroeconomics at Harvard, does research on autonomous driving technology, serves as a venture fellow with Rough Draft Ventures (General Catalyst) where she’s helping launch a biotech fund, interns with Global Founders Capital and Romulus Capital, leads the Female Founders Fund college fellows program, serves as head of business development for fintech startup Rialto, serves in advising capacities for several companies in YC’s W19 cohort, blogs on Medium (check out Profiles in Entrepreneurship!), and volunteers with UNICEF and Harvard College Children's Stories. In her free time, she enjoys training for races, yoga, food adventures, podcasts, and comedy TV shows.
This is the first of our new series highlighting members in the Elpha community. We're curious who you are, what you're working on and what inspires you. Jessica is our first Elpha Ambassador! 🎉To learn more about Elpha Ambassadors:
Hi Jessica! As a fellow student (PhD candidate) - I'm interested in learning about how you started working with VCs. I'm unable to participate in many of fellow programs right now due to finishing up my PhD but would also like to hear your opinion on reaching out to VCs with interest in internships (local or remote).Thanks!
Hi! Thanks so much for reaching out and glad to hear you are interested in getting into VC! With regards to reaching out with VCs for local or remote internships (or even fellows programs that work with your schedule) more practically, one main thing to emphasize is your value add in sourcing technical companies and doing technical diligence. I have seen this play out quite frequently where even seasoned VCs have spent so much time solely or mostly on the business side that they only have surface level familiarity with the underlying technology in more deep tech businesses. Your unique perspective from your own research, familiarity with that of others, connections in the research community (many researchers end up spinning off their dissertation work into companies so you will be first to hear about those/have the deepest insights on the founders/have the best starting point for building these relationships) would be a huge value add! More broadly, I think having some exposure to what the day to day or week to week work of a VC is like will be quite eye opening and help you decide if that is something you want to do in the future. Also, each VC firm can be quite different in terms of how they operate and their cultures, so being able to see a couple (depending on time - maybe you can do something term time and something else over the summer or a longer break, like winter break) may be helpful as well to see whether your positive/negative experiences are firm specific or more a product of the industry to better help you decide. Even remote work, I have found, can help you get a great sense of what a role may look like, especially since frequently many investors will work in distributed style teams. On my own experience, I started through a good amount of cold emailing early on in college and going to events where I met investors at different funds and kept those relationships warm throughout college. In keeping the relationships warm, I thought about not just periodic catch ups or the like but rather how I could be helpful through sharing articles, connecting them with relevant student groups, helping pub their accelerators/events, sending over top student companies, making warm intros, providing feedback on a particular space (especially one more Gen Z oriented). Hope this helps :) and best of luck!
This was so helpful, thanks @jessicali! I feel much more confident in pursuing VC internships and cold calling.
Hi Jessica,You are literally so inspiring. I've seen your name a few times on the Accelerated slack channel as well and just want to reach out and say hi (as well as ask a few questions)! I am currently a junior at Yale studying computer science and am interested in working in the technology branch of an investment bank or consulting firm. I would love to hear more about your work at Morgan Stanley and what the interview/application process was like for your role. Also, how much did studying economics help you with investing as a VC or your career goals? Many people complain that economics is too theoretical to be useful, but the research you conducted seems very much based in reality. Are there any areas in economics you would recommend me explore while still in college?
Hi Felicia - thank you so much for your kind words :) it is so great to be in touch with you! With regards to the work, much of it revolved around creating presentations and analyses to help large tech companies think about financing based, growth driving strategies. For the interview and application, if you are focusing specifically on tech, it is helpful to show why you are passionate about tech specifically and how you have followed the space in depth over time. Definitely have some unique theses on where you think particular verticals are going on why! To this end, I have found it helpful to read a lot of books from top VCs and founders (for big ideas) as well as similar blogs (for more ongoing updates on the industry). I also try to track my own investment picks (to calibrate my company analysis ability and strategy) and come up with my own analyses from first principles before reading the thoughts of others. With regards to economics, I think that some of the course work was a bit more theoretical than the job demands, but I think a lot of the skills you learn around 1) understanding the gaps between the theory and empirical side, 2) deriving results from first principles, and 3) using frameworks to understand the fundamental drivers of real world events continue to be quite relevant in VC, banking, and more broadly. I think doing economics research (beyond the course work itself) is also helpful to bridge some of the gaps between classroom learning and real world understanding. While economics research is still probably more theoretical than banking or VC work, the process you go through of learning about an entirely new field, navigating a steep learning curve, communicating information in an accessible manner, etc. is really valuable. For specific areas of economics, definitely focus on what you find most interesting! I personally really liked behavioral finance and international trade. But I think any area of economics can teach you the above skill sets if you approach it with the right mindset!
Thank you so much for taking the time to provide such a thoughtful answer. This is so helpful.The work you are doing at Morgan Stanley sounds super interesting and exciting! What are some books/blogs from VC's and founders that you would recommend? Most of the tech analysis I read comes from Stratecherry and Justine and Olivia's blog. Would love some other great sources, if you are willing to share.Also, I love your point of view on economics. I had never really considered the skills you can build through discipline, but those skills are very valuable. That's such a great insight to have.
Of course :) So glad this was useful and always happy to help! For recs on what I follow, see below! Blogs/Weekly Content: Fred Wilson USV, Brad Feld, Sequoia 7 Questions, Andrew Chan a16z, Chris Dixon a16z, Benedict Evans a16z, Eugene Wei, Retales, The Algorithm, Chain Letter, Tomasz Tunguz, Oversharing, First Round Review, Both Sides of the Table, School of HerringNewsletters/Daily Content: Bloomberg Tech, Axios Pro Rata, Fortune Term Sheet, Recode, Axios Markets, Fortune Broadsheet, PitchBook News, Fortune CEO Daily, StrictlyVC, TC, AngelList, Fifth Wall, Fortune Eye on AI, Fortune The Ledger, The Proof, John Gannon Books: Hard Things About Hard Things, Venture Deals, Startup of You, Alpha Girls, Blitzscaling, AI Superpowers, Zero to One, Bad Blood, Change by Design Podcasts: Village Global, 20 Minute VC, How I Built This, YC, Masters of Scale, The Pitch, Ventured, Acquired Also following people on Twitter like Ryan Hoover and Ryan Caldbeck and following interesting people on Medium!