We spoke to Lesley Li (MFin 2011), co-founder of u impact, about her decision to leave a successful career in the banking industry to turn her attention to sustainable investment.
Resilience is the most important thing
When Lesley Li was 16 years old, her parents took out all their life savings to send her from China to the UK, to get the best education they hoped she could have. It wasn’t easy: Lesley was shy and spoke little English. She worked at McDonald’s and then got her first experience of the financial services industry, working as a cleaner at Legal & General, when she would look out at the big offices in Canary Wharf and tell herself that she would work there one day.
Lesley attributes her drive and ambition to this time. She saw that there are always two sides to the coin and realised that she had nothing to lose and everything to gain. Compared with cleaning, studying was fun. She went on to obtain a Masters in Industrial Engineering from the University of Cambridge and later a Master of Finance (MFin) from Cambridge Judge.
“Resilience is the most important thing”, says Lesley. “I’ve evolved so much in the last 20 years; I’ve evolved from every single small gain I’ve made. I mean, from a Chinese girl who hardly spoke any English to Cambridge; that is already a huge achievement.”
After graduating, Lesley had a successful and interesting career in banking; the day she started at JP Morgan was the day Lehman Brothers went bankrupt. As she progressed through her career, she came to realise that banks capitalise on the asymmetry of information between financial institutions and individual people. Lesley knew that something fundamental had to change and started to wonder whether she could work in a different way.
There doesn’t have to be a trade-off between doing well and doing good
The real turning point came when Lesley’s daughter was born in 2014. Lesley didn’t want her daughter growing up in an unequal society and made the conscious decision to be part of the solution, not the problem.
Lesley saw that, when the market isn’t doing well, companies with a good governance system, with a good sense of ESG, shine. She left her well-paid job and switched her focus to sustainable investments, which had withstood the financial crisis. “Doing well financially and doing good don’t have to be mutually exclusive, there doesn’t have to be a trade-off,” says Lesley.
In 2020, she co-founded u impact (impact4good GmbH), a company with the ethos that everyone can do good to the world, without sacrificing financial returns. The company makes sustainable investment accessible to the millions of people around the world who care about important causes but who do not have the access or means to cut through the clutter. It does this by addressing the two most important points of investing – the knowledge side, namely what is in the funds, and the transparency side, which means bridging the knowledge gap for people who lack the necessary financial literacy. The company offers its product as a B2B white-label solution for banks, fund platforms and financial advisors, enabling their end investors to invest sustainably as easily as shopping on Amazon.
u impact has been incredibly successful thus far and has scooped numerous awards. It has also received EU funding for its contribution to sustainability. It closed its pre-seed funding round with SDG Investments, an established player on the German sustainable investment market; crucially, the founder-market fit was right.
As a woman, I have no issue with making myself heard
Lesley’s 10 years in banking stood her in good stead for her entrepreneurial journey in the fintech sector, an area highly dominated by men. She was often the only woman in the room but was never afraid to lead or make herself heard or put her hand up. She spoke up when other women wouldn’t. Today, she sees many female founders who are very polite and shy about their achievements and who don’t voice how good they are. “Fortunately, I have no issue with making myself heard,” says Lesley.
Don’t underestimate your power to make a difference
Lesley is proof that getting a well-paid job in the banking industry isn’t necessarily the only way forward. Lesley’s advice to MFin students following in her footsteps is to take a step back and embrace a more holistic view of the market, spot the imperfections, and then use your expertise and experience to correct them. With an MFin from Cambridge Judge, graduates shouldn’t underestimate their power to make a difference. “When you study for your MFin, you might not be the smartest or the brightest in the class, but when you’re out in the workplace, you will most likely be the best. Just go with that,” says Lesley.
Lesley offers the following words of advice: be curious, courageous, obsessed and persistent. Be curious about how your experience can contribute to the world; be courageous and pursue your passion; be obsessed, otherwise you will achieve nothing more than mediocrity and, finally, be persistent because you can only really fail if you stop trying.
My Cambridge education has given me confidence in everything I do
Lesley is tremendously proud of her Cambridge education. Now, when selling her product to the biggest banks, she knows that they trust her not only because she has more than 10 years of experience in the financial sector under her belt but also because she is Cambridge educated, with an MFin from Cambridge Judge. “My Cambridge education is something in which I really, really take pride; I have benefited from it so much and it has given me so much confidence in life, in everything I do”, says Lesley. “When talking to the CEO of a big bank, I always thought ‘yes, of course I can do it because I’m a Cambridge girl. If I can go to Cambridge, I can do anything.’”