“A Conversation with Li Lu” was held on April 2. Over 150 guests joined us at our host, Weil, Gotshal & Manges, for an engaging conversation, interviewed by our committee’s co-chair Andi Gray '94, with Li Lu, a distinguished Columbia Business School alumnus ('96), investment manager, business owner and human rights activist.
Tell us about your childhood.
I was born in 1966. It was a tumultuous time in China with the Cultural Revolution. My parents were leading people at the time and were persecuted. I was separated from my family and shuttled between foster families after my mother and father were sent to labor camps. Living apart from my family taught me survival skills. Learning the will to persevere was a lesson I learned from early childhood.
Can you take us down the detour to Tiananmen Square?
I lived the first twenty years of the Cultural Revolution so there is a huge contrast between the two periods of time, between that period – the worst period – and the period of political reform. The late 1970s to the 80s was a cultural renaissance, and the entire generation of that time was imbued with understanding and turned out to be quite idealistic at the time. Tiananmen Square was an expression of hope and a determination to sacrifice one’s self for the good of the country. It ended in the tragic death of many people, but the message carried out by the demonstration in 1989 found another life in a different form. Because of the tragedy of Tiananmen Square, my generation became entrepreneurs instead of working for the government. Today, all of the major private companies in China are led or funded by people of my generation. It is the greatest generation of entrepreneurism.
You left China, moved to France and then to the U.S. How did you get to the U.S.?
My grandfather had received a PhD from Columbia many decades earlier, but I didn't even know where it was located, and I didn't speak English. I had no way of connecting to Columbia, but I was invited to speak at a Columbia student association for human rights. In the audience were the famous East Asian studies Professor William Theodore de Bary, who at 92 is still sharp, and Ruth Levenson, who came up to me after the talk. She spoke with me about the American Language Program (ALP). I broke the record by getting through the program in three to four months, and then I was accepted into Columbia College. However, I didn't have a transcript from my studies at Nanjing University in China, so I had to start over. After two years, I joined the law school, then the business school.
You were ambitious and smart and moved forward quickly?
When I first came to the U.S., I had no way of making a living. I cannot tell you how lucky I am. Everyone was fascinated about China. One lady from my speech raised her hand, and asked if I had a place to stay and if I had other clothes aside from what I was wearing. I answered “no” to both questions, and she directed me to a brownstone near campus. The landlord said he could give a share of the common living room that I could use as my bedroom (since all of the bedrooms were occupied). I moved in that same night. Each night I had to wait for everyone to go to sleep so that I could go to bed on the sofa in the common living room. I didn't understand anything about English, and didn’t know what my roommates were talking about when they spoke. I learned English through the ALP, but worried about how I was going to make a living.
How did you make money and get off of the sofa?
I was looking to make a living. A friend said if you want to make money you need to listen to this lecturer, a fellow by the name of “Buff-éy.” (Warren Buffett). So I went there not knowing anything about him. But what he said at the lecture made complete sense. He doesn't hire many people and just operates with a small staff. I found this very appealing, and I thought it would fit my personality. I read everything about him, and the more I read, the more it made sense. A lot of people have the same reaction, so mine was nothing unique. Since I already thought in those terms, he just moved me in the right direction. But I’ve also had a great time, and I’ve had some luck. I didn't have a lot of money at that time, and I had debt. I had some cash, so I dipped into that and had a series of winners at the time. The more I do it, the more I love it. I always wake up thinking about investment ideas. To find something you love and are good at is such a blessing. Just a gift from heaven. How could that happen to me? But it did, and I feel grateful.
What was starting your own business like in the beginning?
I shared an office. I had a laptop, and that was my operating cost. I was the CEO, CAO and secretary. When someone called, I used a different voice. When asked for a prospectus, I would put on my hat and deliver it. Entrepreneurship is all about uncertainty. You could be right on certain things, but wrong on timing. You could run the risk of failure, which is extraordinary. You need to give yourself enough margin for error. Always cut your costs, don't spend and always assume the worst so you can still function. Even in the best of times you want to prepare for the worst of times.
What advice can you give to budding entrepreneurs based on the path you’ve taken?
Everybody’s different. My sense is that everyone eventually follows one's own path. It's useful to spend some time to ask what you really are made of. You have only a finite time. Find that talent inside you and make the best use of it. If you have to choose, go with what you love, and you still can have success. Why have a miserable time?
Thank you, Reba!
Our thanks to the CBSAC/NY Business Owners committee for organizing this event.
Christine B. Whittemore CBS '93