2022 MBA To Watch: Zihan Li, University of Toronto (Rotman)

Zihan Li

University of Toronto, Rotman School of Management

“I’m an avid learner, a passionate educator, and a life-long explorer.”

Hometown: Baoding, China

Fun fact about yourself: I was homeschooled until I finished high school.

Undergraduate School and Degree:

Dartmouth College, Bachelor of Art (Psychology; Asian & Middle Eastern Studies)

Harvard University, Master of Education (Human Development & Psychology)

Where was the last place you worked before enrolling in business school? New York University Shanghai, Academic Advisor

Where did you intern during the summer of 2021? Boston Consulting Group, Summer Consultant

Where will you be working after graduation? Boston Consulting Group, Consultant

Community Work and Leadership Roles in Business School:

Co-President, The Letters

VP Recruitment, Management Consulting Association

VP Development, LINKS Mentorship Program

Forte Fellow & Forte Ambassador

ROMBA Fellow

Dean’s List and Andrew Alexander Kinghorn Fellowship (top 10%)

Joseph L. Rotman Entrance Scholarship (full tuition value)

Rotman Scholar for two first-year core courses

Which academic or extracurricular achievement are you most proud of during business school? The achievement I am most proud of during business school is how I balanced academics with extracurricular activities and career development during my first year. Coming from a non-business background with an immediate career goal is to pivot into consulting, I was a bit intimidated, but also motivated to take on the academic and career challenges that I would face during my first year. Not only was I able to achieve top 10% of the class academically, I have successfully transitioned into a consulting career with BCG. At the same time, I wanted to be deeply engaged in the community; I wanted to build connections and fully utilize the amazing resources that Rotman has to offer. At the beginning of the first semester, I enrolled in multiple student clubs and served as the first-year rep for two of them as well as the Academic & Career rep for my section. I also led workshops for the Graduate Business Council in the hope of doing my part to help Rotman provide a better online experience for all students given the pandemic. I view myself as a member of a larger Rotman community, and being able to achieve my personal goals while giving back to the community is what I am most proud of.

What achievement are you most proud of in your professional career? “Humbleness was your shield, well-spokenness was your emblem and all your ethics showed on you all across./ A mighty tree to rely on,/ Soft 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. The motto of my education master’s program is 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.”

Why did you choose this business school? Many factors influenced my decision to pursue an MBA program at Rotman, but one of the most important factors is its geographic location. Having spent many years in the U.S., I always knew that I would want to live and work in North America because of its culture and inclusivity. However, when choosing where to attend business school, Toronto became the obvious choice, not only because it is a vibrant, diverse, and inclusive city but also because of Canada’s friendly policies toward international students. Within Canada, Rotman at the University of Toronto was my top choice given its academic rigor, top tier professors, and superior career support.

Who was your favorite MBA professor? At Rotman, I had the opportunity to take classes with many brilliant, dedicated professors — Daniel Trefler, Jan Mahrt-Smith, Mike Simutin, to name a few. However, I would like to take the opportunity to give special recognition to Professor Brian Silverman, whom I not only studied with but also worked with as a Rotman Scholar for his first-year core course, Foundations of Strategic Management. The biggest benefit I have received from my MBA education academically is that it challenged and broadened my way of thinking. Coming from a social science background, learning to think about business problems from a strategic perspective has been a very different and enlightening process and I owe much of that to Professor Silverman, who taught my first strategy course. Working with Professor Silverman as a scholar for his class also allowed me to observe first-hand how committed he is to educating the next generation of business leaders, and I’m very fortunate to have had that experience.

What was your favorite MBA event or tradition at your business school? Recently, I had the opportunity to attend a Dinner & Talks event at the Gardiner Museum in Toronto featuring the speaker Admiral James Stavridis, who is the former head of U.S. Southern Command and NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe, along with Dean Susan Christoffersen and other Rotman faculty, students, and alumni. The Rotman Family Foundation was the dinner sponsor and it was a very insightful and riveting discussion over the current state of international affairs. Being able to attend such events as a Rotman student is highly reflective of Rotman’s commitment to providing students with learning opportunities outside the classroom and enabling students to become deeply embedded in the real-world challenges throughout their learning process.

Looking back over your MBA experience, what is the one thing you’d do differently and why? I would have fully taken advantage of the personal and professional development opportunities at Rotman, such as the Self-Development Lab (SDL) and Leadership Development Lab (LDL). I would also have challenged myself to diversify my academic pursuit and take more electives from a broader set of disciplines.

What is the biggest myth about your school?

Myth: The first two terms (September to December) are brutal.

Reality: They definitely were! But in a good and manageable way. During the first two terms, I had to adjust to becoming a student again, build personal and professional relationships, participate in case comps, engage in various extracurricular activities, and prepare for internship recruiting – all the while in a different time zone as I was still in Shanghai back then due to the pandemic. It was both challenging but also invigorating for me — I love learning and experiencing new things and I was eager to take in as much as I can.

What surprised you the most about business school? How many opportunities there are! I think it is very important to reflect on your own interests and goals, strengths and weaknesses, in order to take advantage of the opportunities that business school offers to the fullest extent and at the same time avoid spreading yourself too thin.

What is one thing you did during the application process that gave you an edge at the school you chose? Being myself and embracing my background. At Rotman, I’ve met many amazing students who are smart, hard-working, and have impressive backgrounds in the field of business. When I was applying to business school, I was concerned whether my non-traditional background in social science and education would hinder my application. However, the liberal arts education I received taught me that there is great value to the interdisciplinary approach, drawing from multiple disciplines to redefine and solve problems outside their traditional boundaries. This inspired me to view my background as an edge rather than a drawback, and in my application, I highlighted key learnings and transferrable skills from my past academic and professional experience that would enable me to be a successful business school candidate. This approach also helped me pivot into a new career successfully, as I was able to draw parallels between a seemingly unrelated past career and management consulting.

Which MBA classmate do you most admire? At Rotman, I was very lucky to have met many people whom I admire and built incredible friendship with. If I have to name one, I would want to highlight my friend and colleague Solomon Zheng for his kindness, compassion, hard work, integrity, and commitment to inclusion at Rotman. In addition to his professional achievements, what sets Solomon apart is his character, how genuine and supportive he is toward everyone, and how he goes the extra mile to help others regardless of any challenges he might be facing. I am very grateful to have met such an amazing friend and human being at Rotman.

What are the top two items on your professional bucket list?

1. Establish my own K-12 school. Growing up, I’ve had a very unique educational experience and I was very privileged to have accessed various educational resources that shaped me as a person. As an educator, I am committed to bringing better opportunities to more students and establishing my own school where I can materialize my educational philosophy is my ultimate career goal.

2. Becoming a mentor to more young professionals. Mentorship has always been a critical part of my academic and professional career, and I hope to be able to pay it forward and be a positive influence to young professionals as I gain more career experience.

How has the pandemic changed your view of a career?

Quite frankly, my view of a career has not been deeply influenced by the pandemic. Granted, the MBA program has been very challenging, especially during my first year, due to the many policy restrictions. However, I always take pride in being a highly adaptable person who is comfortable with change and ambiguity. Reflecting on my long-term personal and career goals, I understood prior to coming to Rotman that my immediate career goal post-graduation is to pivot into management consulting. I was committed to achieving that goal throughout the program, preparing for online interviews and making the most out of a largely virtual internship. I think the pandemic has challenged me to be more flexible in my career approach but I remained determined in terms of what I hope to achieve professionally, regardless of the pandemic.

What made Zihan such an invaluable addition to the Class of 2022?

“Bringing her passion to educate and help others has been Zihan’s guiding principle in her MBA journey. Her leadership and dedication in education and mentorship not only allowed her to reach her full potential but also helped others to do the same.

As a strong ally for the LGBTQ community, she strives to help others to develop the courage needed to manage prejudice and unconscious bias. As the Co-President of The Letters student association, she brought tremendous support for other LGBTQ+ students and upheld the values of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion at Rotman. As a Reaching Out MBA fellow at Rotman, Zihan proactively contacted the Reaching Out organization and took a leadership role in organizing the annual Out Women in Business Conference in 2021, benefiting many industry professionals and MBA students from over 70 business schools globally.

Her transformative professional journey, which sees her pivoting to a full-time role with BCG this year, grew her passion to help others with a similar career goal. In her role as the VP, Recruitment with the Management Consulting Association, she personally conducted over 25 one-to-one case practice sessions with first-year students, mentored her classmate on how to pivot into a management consulting career, and inspired others especially those without prior consulting backgrounds to gain confidence in transforming their careers to new horizons.

Her positive impact isn’t only seen with her classmates and the professional community, it extends to the future pipeline – the undergraduate students. She is the VP, Development of the Rotman LINKS Mentoring Program, where Rotman MBA students support undergraduate students in building the necessary technical and social skills to successfully transition to their professional life.

Zihan’s exceptional emotional intelligence and leadership approach combined with her strong dedication to making a positive impact on others’ lives is truly exemplary. Her commitment to empowering others through education and service is profound that benefits not only her MBA classmates but the next generation of future leaders.”

Agnes Mak
Assistant Director, Recruitment & Admissions
Rotman Full-Time MBA


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