Partner, Head of Investment Strategy @ Research Affiliates
Feifei Li is Partner, Head of Investment Strategy at Research Affiliates where she leads the Investment Strategy Group, supervising research insights creation, methodology design and analytic support for the firms investment strategies.
Feifei sat down with Jobs in ETFs in advance of the upcoming Inside Smart Beta & Active ETFs conference to share her thoughts on adapting to American business life, culture at Research Affiliates and the challenges of developing in the male-dominated investment industry.
“Not being able to deliver or understand a sports joke, for example, can make acceptance and communication that much harder”
Jobs in ETFs (JIE): From Tsinghua University to the Anderson School of Management at UCLA, tell us about that journey and how an international perspective helps in your day to day?
Feifei: It was a tough journey but also an incredibly fruitful one—as the saying goes, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” The language barrier seemed daunting when I just came to the US, let alone the dramatic difference between Asian and Western culture. The great learning I gained from this experience is (1) Humility—many professors and PhD fellows were incredibly smart; (2) Confidence—I re-built my confidence pretty much from the edge of losing it to an understanding that anything is achievable if we put our mind to it and, of course, a lot of effort into accomplishing it as well; and (3) Empathy—to those who may experience a temporary setback.
JIE: How did you decide to pursue the career you have today and what was the pivotal moment?
Feifei: My parents are very traditional Asian parents who were strict with me when I was a kid. As a child I had to make my pocket money by selling New Year cards and sneakers. As a result I always felt I had the ability to make money. I decided to pursue a career in investing so I could help make money at economies of scale for the broader community.
JIE: Tell us about your career path at Research Affiliates, rising through the ranks from Senior Researcher to Head of Investment Strategy.
Feifei: When I joined Research Affiliates, I started in a researcher role and worked extremely hard because during the start-up stage of the firm everyone was wearing three hats! I have always been interested in moving beyond my comfort zone to learn something new and to identify areas in which I can contribute to the firm’s growth and the investment community. Fortunately, Research Affiliates is a small company (based on number of employees) and is willing to offer a lot of flexibility in adapting roles and responsibilities and is open to supporting my professional curiosity and growth.
JIE: Are there particular elements of culture at Research Affiliates that drew you to the business and keep you there?
Feifei: Absolutely. I loved its flat and casual structure before I joined as a full-time employee; it was not much different from a PhD cubicle at UCLA! When the firm reached a certain size, we invested resources hiring a culture coach to create an authentic and collegial atmosphere. More recently, our senior management team made an explicit pledge to embrace diversity in our day-to-day operations. It is extremely rewarding for me to see this in action when we solicit the opinions of staff for honest consideration even when the specific individual is not in a position of authority or doesn’t have superior, persuasive communication skills.
JIE: What have you found, personally, to be the most challenging aspect of your career?
Feifei: To build a relationship with senior people in our male-dominated investment industry as an Asian female. Not being able to deliver or understand a sports joke, for example, can make acceptance and communication that much harder. I see the challenge more as a lack of perceived similarity, but I believe people are kind and that society, in general, and the investment industry, in particular, are moving in the right direction. I believe younger generations of females/minorities will have an easier career path.
JIE: What is the greatest challenge on the horizon for ETFs and what are you most excited about for the ETF community?
Feifei: The same thing in the ETF space excites me and concerns me—technology advancement. It is a double-edged sword. The ETF community has blossomed through the emergence of many products, including Smart Beta, facilitated by technology and efficient infrastructure. This is great news for investors because they have access to these low-cost solutions. But because the entry barrier is so low, the number of products has grown exponentially over the past decade. This creates confusion for investors and they need help to tell lemons from viable investment solutions.
JIE: What is work-life balance for you and how do you achieve it?
Feifei: Work-life balance for me is being able to enjoy my achievements in both the work place and other aspects of my life. The key is to prioritize, delegate, and work more efficiently. I prioritize my time to important (not just urgent) projects that rely on my unique skill set/perspectives or to projects from which I derive significant pleasure in doing the work myself, and delegate the remaining team projects to others. Delegation is welcomed as an engaging and productive process for my team members, because they get their own opportunities to shine. I must admit that delegating to my husband is not as easy! Whether in a professional or personal setting, to work efficiently is easier said than done. It requires focus and flexibility. I am very lucky that Research Affiliates is a firm that nurtures a culture that can help me and all of our staff achieve a positive work-life balance.
JIE: If you could change one thing to accelerate the pace of change for gender equality what would it be?
Feifei: I would simply ask the gentlemen to behave as true gentlemen in all business settings. Always make explicit time for all voices—including female colleagues—to be heard and cultivate being a receptive and open-minded listener. Don’t consume all the oxygen in the room in your enthusiasm to express your opinion! If teams practice this behavior at all hierarchical levels of an organization and other professional settings, I believe women will be more appropriately recognized for their skills, knowledge, and experience.
JIE: You will be speaking at the upcoming Inside Smart Beta & Active ETFs conference in Boston. What will you be discussing?
Feifei: We will discuss how Factor Investing is going to take over the cap-weighted world, just like in the Terminator! Come if you can and it will be fun!