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Female Disruptors: Angela Lee, is shaking up Angel investing

“What makes your heart sing? This isn’t advice, just a question I ask myself quarterly.


“What makes your heart sing? This isn’t advice, just a question I ask myself quarterly. I sit down with a cup of tea and look over the last 3 months and ask “what made my heart sing?”. I also have this image as my screensaver to keep pushing me to find my own Ikigai. It pushes me to constantly think of what brings me joy, rather than just what I’m good at or what’s easy. I feel really lucky that I am doing what truly believe I was meant to do in life, and it’s because I have always taken time to reflect on my career and how I spend my time. I didn’t come up with the question — they ask you that when you do a Ted talk (if you’re curious, my Tedx is here).”


I had the pleasure of interviewing Angela Lee, founder of 37 Angels and Chief Innovation Officer at Columbia Business School. Angela is a serial entrepreneur (37 Angels is her 4th startup), former product manager, and former strategy consultant at McKinsey. She currently teaches top rated leadership and entrepreneurship courses at Columbia Business School.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”?

I think the title of my autobiography would be “Risk Averse Entrepreneur”. I am someone who from the outside has taken a lot of risk (multiple startups, multiple career pivots, now invest one of the riskiest asset classes possible). Yet at my core, I am a risk-averse (often scared) over-preparer. I think folks are surprised to find out that I’m super scared of failure and also insecure most of the time. The good news is it drives me to over deliver on most things, the bad news is that I still remember dumb things I did 20 years ago and it keeps me up at night!

Why did you found your company?

I’ll focus on why I started 37 Angels. I personally started angel investing 10 years ago. I got into angel investing because I wanted to invest in the distribution rights of a movie I wanted more people to see (Hiding Divya) — it promoted mental health awareness in the Asian American community. I wrote one check and all of a sudden, I was an “investor”. For 5 years, I was quite haphazard about it and realized I wanted to be more thoughtful about angel investing. So I searched for courses and books on angel investing and talked to as many investors as I could find. I also thought about the type of angel network that I would want to pitch as a founder. From those two things — 37 Angels was born. We are an angel network focused on clarity. For our investors, that clarity comes from an educational boot camp where you learn all of the lingo and terms (I teach the same course at Columbia Business School). For our founders, our process is all about transparency and efficiency.


What is it about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?

A lot of startup investing is cloaked in mystery — I think investors like folks to think that startup investing is a black box and that they are geniuses. 37 Angels takes the opposite tactic. We shed light on the terminology, the calculations, the frameworks of investing, how much we don’t know, and we share that with investors and founders. We also believe in not wasting the founders’ time. We guarantee from pitching to funding decision takes only 4 weeks — I believe the only angel network globally to meet those sort of timelines. I’m glad to report that after 5 years, it’s working — our portfolio of the 50 startups we have invested in (out of over 10,000) is performing very well.


We all need a little help along the journey — who have been some of your mentors?

I was lucky enough to work for an amazing woman in my early 20’s — Tamara Bohlig. She was one of those super star women — VP at bank, mother of 3, ran iron man triathlons in all of her free time. One, I learned how to be efficient from her and how to manage my time well. She crushed it at work, yet left every day by 5:30. Two, she had remarkable empathy as a manager and I have strived to be as good of a manager since.

How are you going to shake things up next?

The startup ecosystem is really broken right now — everyone is chasing unicorns, valuations are bonkers, and founders believe that raising capital is the end goal and that it somehow demonstrates success. I’d love to figure out a way to invest in and support lifestyle companies (basically, the non-unicorns) while still appropriately compensating investors for their risk.


Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.

Say no: I am really, really bad at saying no. It came to a head a few years ago where I had a crazy week, yet also felt I had to cook Chinese New Years dinner for a dozen people. Now Chinese tradition dictates that you cook 10 dishes. So I created an excel spreadsheet of how I was going to make this happen amidst my really busy work week and I had it under control. But I “had” to braise a beef shank. And that takes 4 hours. And I didn’t have 4 hours! So I came up with the genius solution of waking up at 2am and braising it from 2am to 6am, waking up every hour to make sure I was rotating the beef shanks. Not surprisingly, my husband woke up at 5am to find me crying in the kitchen because the beef shanks were not cooking as quickly as I thought they would. When he asked me what on earth I was doing, I explained my master plan to him. Now whenever things get crazy and he sees me overcommitting, he says “remember the beef shanks!” and I know it’s time for me to say no to some things on my plate.

What makes your heart sing? This isn’t advice, just a question I ask myself quarterly. I sit down with a cup of tea and look over the last 3 months and ask “what made my heart sing?”. I also have this image as my screensaver to keep pushing me to find my own Ikigai. It pushes me to constantly think of what brings me joy, rather than just what I’m good at or what’s easy. I feel really lucky that I am doing what truly believe I was meant to do in life, and it’s because I have always taken time to reflect on my career and how I spend my time. I didn’t come up with the question — they ask you that when you do a Ted talk (if you’re curious, my Tedx is here).

Ask for help: On one of my early projects at McKinsey, I was thrust onto a project where we had to use Microsoft Access because there was more data than Excel could process. I had never used Access so as you can imagine, I was drowning in the analytics that I had to do. Rather than asking for help, I spent half my day frantically googling how to do different calculations and wasting a ton of time and working into the wee hours of the night. After about a month of this, I ended up crying in a janitor’s closet one day, calling my college friend to tell him I was going to quit. He said “you dummy, ask someone for help”. It was the push I needed and I will always remember how it felt to be sitting on a paint bucket, feeling like there was just no hope. Now I ask for help way earlier, before I get to that point.


What’s a book/podcast/talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Share a story with us.

So hard to pick just one! One that comes to mind is Multipliers. The book talks about being a multiplier (someone who amplifies the awesome in their network by sharing resources) or a diminisher (someone who hoards knowledge and believes that the world is a zero sum game). They even have a quiz you can take to see if you are an accidental diminisher. I used to think I was a multiplier — I help my network, I share resources, etc. But recently, a friend’s Ted talk (check it out if you have ever felt lost) ended up on the front page of Ted.com. And my immediate feeling was one of jealousy. Because of this book, I realized that this was a diminishing thought and I instead realized that I needed to share the good news and feel only happy for her. It’s not always easy, but I was grateful for the mental nudge that book gave me. I love books that bring an awareness to a habit or behavior. Some other recommendations are Deep Work, Essentialism, Give & Take, and Power of Habit.


Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this. 🙂

I’m going to say Hillary Clinton — why not shoot for the moon, right? I’d love to talk to her about patience and grit and resilience and a hundred other things.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

@37AngelaNY, @angelawlee

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

Originally published at medium.com

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