Meet the MBA Class of 2022: Zihan Li, University of Toronto (Rotman)

Zihan Li

University of Toronto, Rotman School of Management

“I’m an avid learner, educator, and explorer. I’m a creator, striving leader, and social entrepreneur.”

Hometown: Baoding, China

Fun Fact About Yourself: I love learning new languages and one of my goals in life is to become a polyglot. I also have lepidopterophobia – an extreme fear of butterflies.

Undergraduate School and Major: Dartmouth College, BA in Psychology and Asian & Middle Eastern Studies; Harvard Graduate School of Education, Ed.M. in Human Development & Psychology

Most Recent Employer and Job Title: New York University Shanghai, Academic Advisor

Aside from your classmates, what was the key part of the school’s MBA programming that led you to choose this business school and why was it so important to you? In addition to Rotman’s innovative and flexible program structure and curriculum, the Creative Destruction Lab (CDL), Self-Development Lab (SDL), and Leadership Development Lab (LDL) are definitely among the most impactful elements that drew me immediately to Rotman. As an aspiring entrepreneur passionate about education and ed-tech, I would love to get involved in these programs to immerse myself in the start- up ecosystem, engage in real-world business challenges, learn from industry pioneers, develop an entrepreneurial mindset, and strengthen my interpersonal and leadership skills.

What club or activity excites you most at this school? There are too many to list them all here! As a Forté fellow and Reaching Out MBA (ROMBA) fellow, I’m particularly excited about the Letters and Women in Management Association among many other student clubs, and contributing to initiatives that support the LGBTQ2+ community and women in business. I’m also very interested in the Behavioral Economics in Action at Rotman (BEAR) — given my academic background and research experience in psychology, I have always been intrigued by people’s decision-making processes and how psychology can be applied to fields such as behavioral economics and business to provide usable knowledge for organizations.

Describe your biggest accomplishment in your career so far? “Humbleness was your shield, well-spokenness was your emblem and all your ethics showed on you all across./ A mighty tree to rely on, / Sog as any female but you carry the spirit of a lion./ If your being hardworking was a shirt, I’ll try it on.”

So wrote one of my students before I left my last job at an international high school in the U.S. In my master’s program in education, I was taught to “learn to change the world.” For me, changing the world starts with each individual student, and as an educator, nothing could amount to the sense of accomplishment than hearing my student say, “You make the biggest positive difference in people’s lives.” These words are my greatest motivation for generating more positive, lasting social impact through education.

What led you to pursue an MBA at this point in your career? My decade of educational and professional experiences has planted in my heart a dream of changing the world for the better through innovations in education. When I visualize my career trajectory, however, I see myself not only as an educator but in the future, an innovator and leader of an education organization.

Through working with students and parents as a teacher, advisor, and education entrepreneur, I have realized more and more clearly the need of establishing far-reaching education platforms that not only provide students with quality learning resources but also disrupt and transform people’s fundamental beliefs toward learning and their definition of success. Achieving this goal requires both a deep understanding of the field of education and a mastery of management and interpersonal skills. I see myself standing at the tipping point of my career and I hope the MBA journey I am about to embark on will be a transformative experience personally and professionally.

What other MBA programs did you apply to? UBC Sauder, McGill Desautels

What was the most challenging question you were asked during the admissions process? As part of the application, I was required to submit two timed video essays on the Kira platform. One of the questions went something like this, “If you could have a superpower, what would you choose and why?” I remember the answer I gave, without having much time to deliberate over, was teleportation – the ability to travel instantaneously. While it seemed like a fun, relaxing fantasy to indulge myself for a few seconds in, it was a question I was least expecting and yet I frequently found myself thinking back to ager the interview, because despite its make-believe nature, it offered me a unique opportunity to think about what I truly value and hope to achieve in life. The answer I gave, without realizing it then, was a manifestation of my passion for exploration and life-long learning.

How did you determine your fit at various schools? Having worked in the field of education for many years, it was very interesting for me to find myself on the other side of academics again. In my most recent position, I used to hold workshops to help college students identify their academic, professional, and personal passions and goals; similarly, choosing the ‘best fit” MBA program for myself started with introspection — who I am, what I value, and what I hope to achieve. Among those I identified, there were several important factors including diversity, program innovation, experiential learning opportunities, and geographic location that I prioritized in my search for MBA programs. Subsequent research and attending info sessions sold me on Rotman almost immediately, and every day my belief is being reinforced through interacting with my classmates and participating in various pre-program activities.

What was your defining moment and how did it prepare you for business school? It’s hard to pinpoint a single defining moment; instead, my unusual experience of being homeschooled (a practice rarely adopted in China), navigating different countries and cultures independently since I was young, and juggling my startup project with everyday work have all played integral roles in shaping who I am today. I remember when I left my home country alone for the first time to study abroad when I was 15. Everything was frighteningly new and I was horribly lost (thanks to my zero sense of direction) – and I loved every second of it. Over the years, I have acclimated myself to adapting quickly to unfamiliar environments. The continents I have traveled across, the cities I have lived and worked in, the cultures I have experienced, the languages I have learned, the feelings of novelty and uncertainty I have embraced, and the people I have encountered and connected with have all taught me to explore my boundaries and to be comfortable outside my comfort zone. My diverse experiences have empowered me to address every challenge with the philosophy of “Let’s try,” and I’m ready to apply that philosophy to business school and to work that I am passionate about and deeply committed to.

What is the most important attribute that you are seeking in an MBA employer and why is that so important? I want an open, inclusive work environment with a culture that emphasizes social responsibility. I deeply value organizations that use creative solutions to bring about positive social changes and impact. Further, through my professional experience I have learned about the power of synergy — I believe at the core of every organization is people, and I truly appreciate a fun, inspiring setting where individual members can come together to collaborate and connect.


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