One of the most important lessons I’ve learned is to develop empathy for everyone. There are a lot of different people in the team and company, but these unique backgrounds make us stronger as a company. As a leader, I am trying to put myself in other people’s positions and learn.
As a part of my series about “Lessons from Inspirational Women in STEM and Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Li Fan, Chief Technology Officer and Head of Engineering at Lime. Prior to Lime, Li was SVP of engineering at Pinterest and led all 600+ engineers to execute technology strategy and deliver company priorities. She was also a Senior Director of Engineering at Google Inc. and is accountable for Google’s popular image search.
Li worked at Baidu from 2010 to 2014, leading search product design and development for the second largest desktop search engine in the world. She served as the Executive Director of Infrastructure & Platform from 2010–2012 and as Vice President of Search from 2012 to 2014. Li developed her career in software development and engineering management at Cisco, Ingrian Networks and Google. She holds a Master’s Degree in Computer Science from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a BS in Computer Science from Fudan University, Shanghai.
Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Growing up in Shanghai, I was in love with the urban life environment. When I was a child, I could easily get around and go places within an hour on a bike, but the city is completely different now.
With traffic, it can easily take hours to get anywhere. So when the founders of Lime, Toby and Brad, reached out to me, I was so excited to take part in making urban life more livable. Micro-mobility makes so much sense, especially with the trend of people moving into high density areas. I can’t wait for the day when people can explore the city freely again — just like when I was younger.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?
After I joined Lime, many of my friends started sending pictures of themselves riding Lime scooters wherever they went: Paris, Berlin, Tel Aviv, Lisbon, San Francisco. I suddenly got to know in real time where they were all traveling! I am proud to work at a place like Lime that is helping people get around and have fun!
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
As a first generation immigrant, I had limited vocabulary in everyday conversation in my first few years at work. In school, we only spoke in tech language, which made things even more difficult. So as a result, I had a lot of funny stories from language mistakes I made while at my first job.
One time, I went on a trip to the Grand Canyon with my co-workers. I saw a mule that I wanted to ride, but I exclaimed: “I want to ride a moose!” instead by mistake.
My co-workers thought it was really funny. Fortunately, they were all very sympathetic and kind hearted, helping me overcome many of the language barriers.
As an immigrant, there can be a lot of obstacles with your career and even the smallest things can hurt your confidence. I am lucky to be in an inclusive environment like Lime, but I also understand that many people have a hard time overcoming insecurities. Promoting Inclusivity and having people with different backgrounds and cultures is necessary to have a successful team and foster a good working environment.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Our team is working extremely hard towards our company mission and every employee here is very committed. The first week I joined Lime, one of our markets had network outages in the middle of the night, which caused the scooters on the street to lose connection with our servers. Luckily, some members of our Operations team took immediate action, bringing back thousands of scooters in the middle of the night within a couple of hours! It’s incredible to see such passion and commitment, and I’m proud to be a part of a company where people care so deeply about the mission.
Our company wants to build a better world and create value to our community, whether it’s for riders or non-riders. We always take an approach of customer first, partners second, company last.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Continued innovation is key for us to improve micro-mobility and create a better experience for the community and riders we serve.
Every year, we host two hackathons, where different teams come up with new ideas and projects. In our most recent hackathon, one of the teams came up with a new feature that could help improve parking capabilities for riders and cut down on clutter and congestion. We came away from the hackathon with lots of great ideas, many of which we hope to implement in the future.
Another new project we recently launched is “LimePass,” a new subscription service. LimePass offers unlimited free scooter unlocks for a week, making it easier and more affordable for those who ride frequently with Lime. LimePass is especially useful for commuters, who use Lime to get to and from work or school, which is 40% of our rides globally.
At Lime, we are always looking for ways we can use technology to help improve people’s lives and make getting around our urban environments easier.
Ok super. Thank you for all that.
Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in STEM? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?
I don’t think anyone is satisfied yet. After so many years of education on these initiatives, it still hasn’t translated into the realities of the workplace. There are still a lot of challenges we have to overcome. While indeed there has been progress, there is still a glaring gap in STEM. To change the status quo, I believe the company leaders will need to take the gender gap problem seriously — that means providing mentorship and investing in coaching and advancement programs. Company wide, we need to work with employees and help them recognize that women can bring unique and diverse perspectives that are crucial to any workplace.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in STEM or Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?
It used to be the societal norm or expectation for women to be agreeable, take care of their family and defer to men. For example, when a man spends more time on career and doesn’t take care of his family, it is considered very acceptable, or even a source of pride. But when a woman focuses more on her career and spends less time taking care of family, she will get criticized. A lot of time, because of the social norms out there, women start to question themselves. This problem of “self-questioning” will potentially block initiatives of women in STEM. I think it is very important to have a real conversation around these biases and rethink how women are portrayed in the workplace.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a woman in STEM or Tech. Can you explain what you mean?
One of the myths when we talk about diversity in hiring is people constantly think we’re “lowering the bar,” or compromising on the quality of a candidate. But that couldn’t be further from the truth — there are plenty of diverse candidates out there, and every company should want to bring different experiences to the table. At Lime, we’re aiming to have a more involved and thoughtful hiring process, by expanding the talent pool and having a better methodology to select candidates.
What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience as a Woman in STEM or Tech” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
I am learning lessons everyday. One of the most important lessons I’ve learned is to develop empathy for everyone. There are a lot of different people in the team and company, but these unique backgrounds make us stronger as a company. As a leader, I am trying to put myself in other people’s positions and learn.
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
Encourage your team to take risks, and lead with the same confidence you want your staff to have, no matter what the challenge is. Believe in yourself. There is always going to be disappointing situations, but if you question yourself, everyone will start to question you. You are you best cheerleader.
What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
“Talk less and smile more”.
This is not only my advice to female leaders, but all leaders. It takes everyone’s effort to make your workplace and the world a happier place. In this fast moving world we live in, we sometimes step in to express our own feelings or opinions too quickly, Often we forget to listen to what others are saying or trying to say. Especially as a leader who manages a large team, it is even more important that you listen. It’ll help you to make better connections with your team. Smile more to make the communication more grateful.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Bill Coughran from Sequoia, who was my long time manager at Google and later became my mentor. He set a great example for me and I learned many of my management skills from him.
He was the first one to point out that should always advocate for what I believe in, and taught me to stand my ground instead of compromising in the middle.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I’ve involved myself in several organizations that help women and minority leaders grow, including one that helps Chinese immigrants develop leadership skills.
I’m also involved in other organizations that help underprivileged professionals. Being involved in these organizations has helped me develop empathy and become a better leader.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Everyone should go explore unknown or new environments to help them understand others’ lives and the world. We all have different cultures, religions, family backgrounds and experiences in life. By exploring more, it will help you to be more understanding and empathic.
I went to Tibet last year and saw how people prayed around the temple the whole day in a repeated routine. I have seen this kind of prayer in the movies before, but it was a completely different to experience firsthand and see their dedication. It reminded me that everyone has different religions and beliefs, and we need to respect that to have a better world.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I’ve had favorite quotes at different stages in life.
Right now, my favorite quote is, “Be the change that you wish to see in the world”. When I was younger, I would often get upset problems I saw in the world, but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that I can be part of the force to change them. Instead of complaining, I believe you should take action and actually make the change.
At Lime, we care about the environment and want to make the world we live in greener. Instead of complaining about the pollution, we’re taking action, providing the service that can both reduce car usage and in turn reduce emissions. I am so happy to see companies like Lime work hard to save the planet and make it better for future generations. Nowadays, if I can’t find a scooter, I would rather walk to reduce traffic and pollution.
We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
Malcolm Gladwell — talking to Strangers and Outliers are both my favorite books. He is such a gifted writer who gets your mind engaged. There are so many times when people misread each other, and misinterpretation can lead to misjudging other people. I have learned how important communication is, not only with strangers, but with your family, friends and team members.