Sunday, October 9, 2016

Interview with Dr Joanne Li Dean of Raj Soin School of Business

Dr Joanne Li recently became Dean of Raj Soin School of Business after being professor and chair of the Department of Finance at Towson University in Maryland. She works strategically to build bridges between the university and business community. Part of her mission at Wright State University is to keep the pipeline open between industry professionals and the college so students are prepared before they graduate. It’s a herculean responsibility, but Dr. Li believes in cultivating an environment to enhance the skills and talent of staff members which aids in the strength of her team. Plus, in our interview, she tells us that she gave a copy of the book, Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead to her entire female staff.

Lean In Women of Color: You have a doctoral degree in finance from Florida State University and are a recognized scholar in the fields of corporate governance and international finance. What led to a decision to go into finance?

Dr. Joanne Li: Hong Kong is one of the most important financial centers in the world. That got to have something to do with my choice of study.  There is a myth about girls not being good in math. I think it’s partly due to whether they receive proper teaching or good instructors. Early in my academic career, many of my economics accounting professors would state, “You are really good at math. You should pursue it.” Actually, I found the discipline of finance fascinating. Possibly, in my second/ third year, my professors explained that I was good in economics and accounting and that I should consider it as well.  Subsequently, I took a lot of accounting courses. The courses were instrumental, but accounting didn't fit my personality. Also, finance involves a reflective learning process, meaning, when you go to the pool, you just don't keep practicing to improve your speed, and style, you have to get out the pool to think about what you did wrong and how you could improve your stroke or how you can reduce the seconds to cross the 50 yard line. Finance is sort of like that. So that’s how I ended up with a major field in finance and a minor in economics.  In my Ph.D. study, I continued to pursue graduate study in finance and a support area in econometrics. I enjoyed the study of finance and think the challenge was worth it.

Lean In Women of Color: How so?

Dr. Joanne Li: Sometimes when you are one of the two female students in the whole class, it could be emotionally intimidating. I remember when I was taking a fifth-generation computer language class in my finance major, and I was one of the two female students in the class – we often did homework until 3 am. I think by the second or third week, I was the only girl in the class.  I try not to look at my gender and say, “Just because I’m a girl, I shouldn’t think a certain way.” I look at myself as, “What can I bring to the table? Or whether I have the skill set to survive in the finance discipline.”  Most of the time, I don’t even think of my gender has anything to do with finance.  The discipline itself is colorless and genderless in my mind. 

Lean In Women of Color: You grew up in Hong Kong. How different were the opportunities for you compared to those within the United States?

Dr. Joanne Li: Hong Kong is very different than the United States. At least at the time when I grew up, the population was very homogeneous. We loved foreigners because they represented a very small percent of the population. Things were a little different in the United States. I went to Florida State University which is a big university with quite a diverse student body. Sometimes you have to be courageous enough to speak up and not so concerned with whether you sound intelligent. Part of the lack of concerns stem from my personality and others were possible because I went to an all-girl, catholic high school. I was very athletic in high school. I was on a lot of sports teams. Overall, I was competitive and there was very little regard for who I was competing with. Because of the competitive sports experiences, I am far more outspoken today.

Hong Kong education is very competitive. St Paul’s School, which I attended is ranked number two in the entire Hong Kong district. Consequently, I think while attending an all-girl school, you were not faced with the constant reminder of differences because we had to wear uniforms. Plus you were not faced with certain gender disparities. Though, college life at Florida State was completely different. For one, the student body is diverse, comprising of men, women, old and young people. Plus the campus is vast. The competitive environment is full of many variables.
I love the United States of America because it provides an opportunity to succeed regardless of background, sex and ethnicity. By the same token, of course, there are other variables involved. Do these variables play a part on each individual outcome? Of course, they do.  No one is truly guaranteed success. No one. However, we are provided with an environment which gives us the ability to compete. Whether we compete with boys, traditional students, non-traditional students, the older, the very young, it's a good training playground.

Lean In Women of Color: As Dean of Raj Soin College of Business at Wright State University, you are actively engaged with the business community. Plus your department aids Dayton’s business growth. Can you give an example of how you and your department is working with the city of Dayton?

Dr. Joanne Li: Actually, you mean my college. My college has six academic departments. It is in the mission and vision of this college, faculty, staff and students that we are part of this business community by a partnership.  We would like the business community to think of the College as a preferred provider.  Our goal is to blur the line between the industry and high education. We pride to be a strong partner of the business community because our candidates are well trained.  We are very mindful of the skill sets that our students have acquired through us. We are committed to providing an environment to flatten the learning curve. Quite recently, we created the Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. The goal of this Institute is attuned to the initiatives we have taken on in the past three years or so- that is to create opportunities for students, faculty, and employers to work together on real projects.  Through the Institute, we have created a strong partnership with the Entrepreneur Center in Downtown Dayton, the Technology Acceleration Program sponsored by the Air Force Research Lab (AFRL), and the Dayton Chamber of Commerce.  Similarly, our college is a partner with Wright State Applied Research Corporation and Wright State Research Institute with participation from multiple disciplines.

Why is it important that we do that? Number one, from our side, our students are now able to work alongside with real industry professionals, on real projects and real data.  More importantly, we provide opportunities for students to really be trained as a professional even before they graduate. We have opened up opportunities for industry people to provide input to say, “Hey you know what, we want students to have this kind of skill - we need them to work on commercializing products; we need them to look into the product features and to be able to do this and that..." Listening inputs from our industry partners allow us to design timely market-driven curriculum which is relevant to ensure we produce not only college-ready but workforce-ready candidates. We position ourselves as an extended arm for all industries. I believe by doing so, we actually push the economic development in such a manner that we allow students to not just consider getting good grades, performing well in class, but also ensure a better opportunity for our students to garner employment and largely contribute in a community that they have already participated.  This kind of partnership allows the College to help move the Dayton economy forward because now everybody in a social-economic ecosystem. In fact, the College believes so much in this kind of partnership that we have been providing programs reaching out to high school students through our Professional Business Institute- we train grades 10 through 12 to think like executives because the whole involvement of Dayton economy relies on whether we are talking to each other or not. We want to make sure we train our students a lot earlier, making sure they are already participating in the social, economic development of the region and the society.

Raj Soin College of Business 2015 Achievement. Photo via

Lean In Women of Color: So what do we do about the Dayton business leaders who might feel that the talent that is being invested in here takes their skills outside of Dayton?

Dr. Joanne Li: Wright State University is a big player in retaining the workforce in this region.  As a matter of fact, WSU probably retains 70% plus of the candidates in this region.  Wright State University possibly graduates 20 to 30% of its students with no college debt. It’s an outstanding and deliberate effort of the University.  However, workforces often have a natural cycle. Let’s think about the economy for a minute. There’s always a portion of the population that will move out and move on. However, it doesn't mean that they cannot come back. Also, I know quite a few people, after they worked for a few years [outside of the city], they come back to the region. So, part of the problem with this issue is that when we talk about it, we can only discuss it in a very shallow manner without understanding the data. You really have to dig deeper into the issue so that we can talk about this topic intelligently. When we start to add value to the labor market, candidates will stay.  For instance, in Raj Soin College of Business, we recently just built a Data Analytics and Visualization Environment (D.A.V.E.). In this particular lab, similar to the Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, we create an environment for students, the industry professional, faculty and staff working collaboratively on real data. We train them as such that when they’ve completed their degree, they can go and meet the demands of the market in this region. And that’s the value-added proposition.

Lean In Women of Color: You’ve done tons of research on corporate governance. In your opinion, how are women being stakeholders of the companies here in Dayton and at the Raj Soin College of Business?

Dr. Joanne Li: First and foremost, I do research on corporate governance. I'm not an expert. Also, I'm a CFA by trade and I was the associate editor for the Financial Analysts Journal. Earlier in my career, I did research on corporate America.  There was criticism that there weren't enough women sitting on corporate boards. In terms of statistics, this statement is true because we really have a very small percentage of women sitting on corporate boards. There are a lot of stigmas associated with that. Yet, I will say part of it is because we don't have a pool to draw from. We don't have a pool of available female executives to draw from. Let's say the pool is 90% male, and the rest is 10% female. The percentage is too small to draw an adequate amount from. Also, in higher education, many universities have observed the trend that there are more female students than male students now; for many, they are surpassing 50%.  Just recently, according to data from our accreditation body the AACSB business schools do not reflect the same stats. We still have fewer women than men in business school. I think part of it is due to societal stigma- girls aren't good in math, or that you have to be really good in math to consider business school. The business acumen itself does not necessarily equate to math. It entails some training in math. In my opinion, a woman can contribute a very different perspective. Usually, her style of leadership is different than her male counterpart. Also, allowing female participants is good for business and brings out good results. It enables diverse opinions, creativity, and healthy debates. The difference in style and thinking of a female executive is of high value and often overlooked. I think female leaders’ and administrators’ contributions are eye-opening. I am not saying this because I am a woman. However, the world has become more global, large, and less flat in many ways.  We have to attack an issue with multiple perspectives. So encouraging female stakeholders on an advisory board or leadership position in a college actually challenge our male counterparts to think of things very differently. We bring a lot more creativity to them, actually.  I have observed that Dayton is making a concerted effort to encourage women leadership.  For instance, the Dayton Power 50 – Dayton Business Journal identifies 50 most influential women in the region and the Wise Women hosted by Deloitte's Dayton Wise Women's Initiative are a great example of how this region is trying to nurture women leaders. 

Lean In Women of Color: One thing Lean In suggests is that a career path is like a jungle gym, not a so much like a ladder, contrary to what so many people might perceive. Basically, there is no straight path to success. In what ways has your career not been structured or lined out for you?

Dr. Joanne Li: It could be a bit scary not knowing exactly what’s lying ahead or how you will eventually land in your career. A jungle gym is an interesting analogy. I do agree that it's not a straight path. Sometimes, it could be a circle. Regardless of your sex, I believe when you work hard in your career and bring good results, you will get noticed by other people. People will invite you to get to another level of participation. You may have to go through a different circle or participate on a different kind of project, go through different kind of experiences, before picking up a job. For example, today you can be a director, tomorrow you can endeavor another level of opportunity such as vice president. You may have to acquire skills that you probably don't have to move on to the next project. These projects may be lateral. Your participation could have been lateral, but you acquire skills. Once you acquire all the other skills, you may be invited to jump to the next level. So it's never really quite a ladder. And some people may not really want to climb the ladder because achievement itself is not only defined by what level you are really at but of the fulfillment and happiness that your job brings to you, the passion you are able to retain and keep working on.

Lean In Women of Color: How did you learn to stay focused even though you could not see what was in front of you?

Dr. Joanne Li: If you visit my office, it is always a bit messy. When you go to my home- my home office is the same way. All the other parts of my home are tidy. My office is the only space that is kept this way. I've been like this since I was a kid. I refer my system as “chaotic order’.  Also, I will have multiple projects happening at the same time.  My messiness, however, is not indicative of my focus. If I’m passionate about something or if it's something important to me, I will be able to stay focused on doing that. People surrounding you can be powerful agents which would enable you to stay focused. For instance, your spouse and parents can be great forces of positivity. Once in a while, you become overwhelmed by work, but when you talk to these people, they help put things in perspective and keep you focused.  Also, I’m very big on execution. I think what keeps me focused is knowing where I want to go.  I’m extremely disciplined and I stay focused because of it.

Lean In Women of Color: Where did the training come from?

Dr. Joanne Li: I am a healthy eater and relatively disciplined in my exercise regimen.  I pay close attention to whether I am able to put in some exercise on a regular basis.  I think if you remain conscientious about your health, physical and mental welfare, it's become a lot easier to stay focused on other tasks. Sometimes poor health leads to an unhealthy mindset. It is intertwined and connected. However, no one’s perfect. You cannot do it all. So the two other fundamental elements to stay focused on a task is to stay healthy emotionally and physically.  It is extremely important for anyone if he or she wishes to do well.

“However, I've grown bolder with age. I have no problem saying, "The meeting is over.”

Lean In Women of Color: What challenges or obstacles did you face throughout your career specifically because of your gender?

Dr. Joanne Li: I would have to say that I faced more challenges due to my height than gender. Seriously, if you met me, I’m 5’1 on a good day and an Asian woman. Even though it's 2015, once in a while, I will come across an individual who may make comments like “Oh you're so pretty and you're so tiny.” They may tower over me and behave as if they are attempting to intimidate me. I think sometimes people grossly underestimate your ability. Sometimes an individual may feel he or she can talk down to me because of my size, ethnicity and gender.  However, I’ve grown bolder with age. I have no problem saying, “The meeting is over”.  I want to make sure the other person on the other side of the table understands where I stand.

However, I think in 2015, you have a lot more people who no longer think this way or who don't use these insignificant variables to stereotype you. Yet, the mindset still exist. I don’t want to sound naive. Of course, it is still in existence.

Lean In Women of Color: What sort of support did you have which led to where you are today?

Dr. Joanne Li: Of course my parents. They love me unconditionally. And my husband and my daughter. I think throughout my career, there were a lot of great mentors in my career and great professors in my academic life.  I think that I decided to stay in the United States because I believe in this country. The U.S. provides a lot of opportunities. Many professors took the time to tell me I could do it and they believed in me. That’s the thing that made me come to the conclusion that I wanted to make a contribution and give back. People have been extremely generous. Even though they may not know you, they are still willing to help you. I think this is the driving force for me staying in higher education, hoping to pass it forward.

For all the mentors who may or may not know that they have mentored me, I want to send a big “thank-you”. You are the driving force to where I am today.

Lean In Women of Color: How do you feel your work has helped women?

Dr. Joanne Li: Once in a while, people send me cards, emails or they may send nice comments on Facebook. They will say, "Just the fact that you are in finance, as a woman, it's really inspiring to young female students." When I get notes like that, I'm touched. Honestly, I'm not doing it deliberately, to inspire people, but it's a very happy consequence.  I’m proud that I have been able to provide an example for my students and younger colleagues. I love and care about them deeply.
One time I remember vividly a high school students requested to shadow me. I said ok, she wants to find out about a life of a dean. I invited her in. By the end that day of shadowing, she said, “I think I want to be a dean.”  I was so proud of her. I said, “Good for you.”

I think it’s good for female professionals to be mindful about what they are doing every day, even if they think nobody takes notice. Actually, a lot of eyes are on them. We should stand with solidarity, keep doing a good job, so all our younger female students, candidates, and daughters, can say, "My mom can do it. My aunt can do it. My grandma can do it." I think we should just stay focused doing a good job, not to inspire but because it's a constant reminder to them that they can do it. My daughter is in 8th grade and currently the president of the student council.   She told me, "I want to get an engineering degree and an MBA. I’m going to be a really good entrepreneur. And when I get my money, I want to donate back to this school because of this teacher and because she did a wonderful job in math. I want to donate to this middle school because they created a lot of activities for students.” I mean these things are possibly due to genetics but part of it is by observation. We should always be mindful of the quality of work we are doing and the examples that we are able to provide so that young people understand that they can do that too.

Lean In Women of Color: You stated that you gave your entire female staff a copy of Lean In. What led you to do that?

Dr. Joanne Li: I read the book. I think sometimes when you pick a position, you can be quiet, be passive or you can take a proactive or active approach. There were a few chapters in there that I thought was very thought provoking. And sometimes you can't just nudge people and say, “Read that”. I don’t want to do that. I want them to read it and be provoked, then come back and ask questions. I took an active role in that. However, I wanted them to read it while respecting their space to do so and then hopefully, they would come back and talk about it. I explained to them, whenever you are ready, we will have a little book club and discuss it.
I pay a lot of attention to professional development for staff and faculty.  Sometimes, I write extensive recommendation letters for staff members and explain to them that they should apply for a particular scholarship, or they should participate in a certain group and get mentoring. Plus, I pay for some staff members to attend conferences to perfect skills. I think it’s very important to continue to develop people. For any healthy profession or for any organization, we have to be very deliberate with our intentions to encourage a particular environment. So the Lean In book is my active way of provoking my female colleagues and staff to really challenge themselves to think every day because they are really worth it. I want them to really think for themselves.  I want to encourage them in staff meetings to ask questions.  Over the past year and a half, I've observed an increased level of comfortability. Everyone seems to be able to voice their opinions. That's the reaction I wanted because I think they are brilliant people. Sharing the book with them was my deliberate way to challenge their thoughts. I think they are doing wonderfully. Some have commented on the book and collectively we've shared some laughter about the scenarios in the book.

Lean In Women of Color: What single piece of advice would you give to a woman who may be interested in your career path?

Dr. Joanne Li: Build strong relationships. I think building strong relationships will lead into a lot of different things. It will lead into mentorship, career advice, and strong relationships provide a very strong network and support because sometimes when you get to a certain place, it becomes lonely. But when you have strong relationships, you expand the pool of people to talk to for advice. Strong relationships will make a lot of issues and projects go a lot smoother. However good your skill is and however focused you are, without those relationships, it's very difficult to charter on. 

This interview was provided by Lean In Ohio | Interviewed by Julene Allen


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