She Began Life in Rural China With No Plumbing. Now She's Our CFO.
Leen Li grew up in Northeast China, the fifth child in a family too poor to buy even a potato peeler. That experience informs not only her leadership role at Wealthsimple, but her whole life.
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Wealthsimple is a whole new kind of investing service. This is the latest installment of our recurring series Money Diaries, where we ask interesting people to open up about the role money has played in their lives.
I grew up in a very small, rural coal-mining town in northeast China called Baishan, right on the border with North Korea. I have four older sisters. My mom has admitted to me since day one that when she got pregnant with me, she wanted to have a boy. As I said, I was the fifth, and it's important in Asian cultures to have a boy to carry on the family name. When my mom was pregnant with me, everybody in town told her that this time it was going to be a boy. My mom picked the Chinese name Yong, which means courage and bravery — it's a boy's name. When I was born, even though I was a girl, she didn't change my name.
Both of my parents had electrical engineering backgrounds and worked for the Chinese government. We were poor. We lived in a house with no glass in the windows — they were covered by layers of plastic. In the winter it got really cold. We didn't have a bathroom in the house. You had to go outside. At night you'd use a bucket in the backyard. During the day we'd use an outhouse that was for the whole community — it had like 20 holes in the ground. We'd all squat next to one another. There were kids in my elementary school who fell in. I remember hearing, “Oh, my God, so-and-so fell in the toilet!” If that happened, you would just scream. There was a pole to fish you out, and they'd dump a bucket of water on you. I shouldn't laugh, but it's funny.
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My parents made about $30 a month. We didn't go on vacation or to the movies. They made enough money to buy food but that's pretty much it. To us, money was simply the equivalent of food. If you didn't have it, you didn't eat; if you did, you ate. I never starved, but I was never full. It's hard for people in Canada, where I live now, to understand, but where I was from, you couldn't eat whenever you wanted. My mom once told me a story about when I was little and they ran out of money. To put food on the table, she and my sisters went to the garbage area in our town, collected some things, then sold them for cash. They made maybe $1.50, and it lasted for almost three days.
It's very different in China because there were almost no salaried jobs — if you work eight hours, you get eight hours pay, and if you work 10 hours, you get 10 hours pay. The longer you work, the more money you'll make.
We ate a lot of potatoes and cabbages. My hometown is very cold, and there would be no fresh fruit or vegetables in the winter. So in the fall everybody would travel to the farmland to pick up buckets of potatoes and cabbages to last through the whole winter. We couldn't afford a potato peeler, so we had to peel them with broken glass. I hate potatoes.
Two of my sisters couldn't go to high school because we needed them to make money for the family. They were not happy about that, especially my second sister who, at 19, started working in a coal mine, outside with men. She knew what we all knew — if you were able to get a higher education, you'd most likely make more money. My oldest sister and my third sister, who were able to go to school, are much better off compared with my second sister and my fourth sister. They're still behind because they didn't have the same opportunities. When we get together, the sisters won't say very much about it, but we all know. I have the highest education, and right now I make the most money. Life is not fair, right? We were born in the same family, to the same parents, and I think some of my sisters are smarter than I am.
I came to Canada 16 years ago, when I was 25, as an international student. I was working for a big bank in China, and I was inspired to come get my MBA after one of our senior executives went to North America, got a business degree, and returned to China and implemented a bunch of new management practices. I was very interested to learn them myself.
If I couldn't see the benefit, I wasn't interested in buying it. I think that translates to business.
I learned from my parents that you have to fight for your money. There's no free lunch. It's very different in China because there were almost no salaried jobs — if you work eight hours, you get eight hours pay, and if you work 10 hours, you get 10 hours pay. The longer you work, the more money you'll make. Life is easier here compared with the life I had in China. The standard of living here is higher, the opportunities are better, and there's less competition so you do not have to fight as hard to have a basic life. I've met some lucky people who are rich from family money. But, I will say, here at Wealthsimple and at the software company I worked at before, everybody works so hard. In a lot of ways that's what I learned while growing up in China.
I hate climbing the "corporate ladder," and that’s why I didn't enjoy working at a large corporation. Communicating my ideas in a big group can be hard — I sometimes feel a bit more stupid because I'm saying everything in a second language. That's something that has always been a challenge. Once, at a previous company, I didn’t get a promotion. It came down to “soft skills,” which take much more effort to learn for me than picking up some new technical skills. I could have just taken easy path out, and said, “OK, I'm not a soft skill person.” And had a successful career with just technical skills. But I decided I needed to take a risk, and work to improve that part of myself. That's what leadership would require.Now I'm responsible for the financial operations of this company.
With my job, it helps that I’m a very practical person. I have always tended to spend money on things that would drive personal value for me. If I couldn't see the benefit, I wasn't interested in buying it. I think that translates to business. I like to spend money in places that generate returns, that generate value. In some ways it helps having grown up in a family where difficult decisions had to be made so I understand opportunity cost: if we spend $100 here, can we get a better return if we spend the same $100 there? Ask anyone here — I hate to waste money!
I never thought I'd get married, but now it looks like I will. I grew up in a big family, it was always loud, and China is overcrowded. Here, all I wanted was a quiet house by myself where I didn't have to compromise. And I got used to that. Then about seven years ago a friend set me up with my now boyfriend, Bryan. We both really enjoy good food, good wine, and lots of travel. We both read a lot and have many of the same books. After dating for six months, we decided to move in together. We figured that we were old enough, and if it didn't work after three months, we'll call it a day. Three months later I told Bryan that we needed to talk. I'd been told that when you live with somebody, you saved money. “These are my credit card statements for the last six months,” I said. “Before you moved in, I spent $1,000 every month outside of rent, and now I'm spending $1,300. I can't live this way!” We'd been eating out a lot at the local restaurants. So we came up with a solution that going forward, we were going to eat at home more. Now you can see why I'm CFO. At my last job I spent more time at the office than literally everyone else. But two years ago I turned 40. Life is really short. I still work hard, but my hours aren't as long as before. I prioritize better now. So sometimes I focus on work, and sometimes I focus on my relationship.
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I eat fast. When I'm in a restaurant, I remind myself to slow down, and I try not to finish everything. But at home I'm really fast. Bryan constantly tells me, “Stop eating so fast. Stop eating too much. There's lots of leftover food in the kitchen. You do not have to fight with anybody — it's all yours!” But imagine you have three plates of food on a table and seven people. In that situation, you had to eat as much as you could as fast as you could. My entire family eats fast. My dad is faster than me. Bryan was shocked when he ate with us.
I have no problem spending money on anything that goes into my mouth — quality food and really nice wine. Once in a while I'll spend $400 on a meal. But I don't go shopping very often, and I never buy clothes at full price. The most expensive purse I ever bought was $100; the most expensive shoes were $200. I remember a conversation with a girlfriend in which I couldn't imagine that she had spent $400 on a pair of shoes and she couldn't imagine that I had blown $400 on one meal. She asked, “What did you get?” I replied, “Food. What did you get?” She said, “A pair of shoes that I can wear forever.” And I countered, “But they're not even pretty!”
Four years ago my boyfriend proposed to me. He took out a ring that he'd made of paper. I was like, “No, I'm not going to marry you with that!” So we've talked about the size, the shape, and everything. He's gonna pay for it; I'm not paying anything. A friend asked, “But aren't you supposed to marry for love?” And I responded, “No, no. You live together for love.” I want that ring on my finger before I say yes. It's just practical.
As told to Andrew Goldman exclusively for Wealthsimple. Illustration by Jenny Mörtsell. We make smart investing simple and affordable.
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