Ethan Li
Home Region

Tianjin, People's Republic of China

Undergrad Education

Yale University, BS Engineering, 2013

“I thought it might be good to step out of my comfort zone and open my mind.”

Ethan Li may have an advantage over other would-be business leaders: he feels very comfortable with the unknown. As an undergraduate, he majored in engineering, yet took his first career assignment with Morgan Stanley in Hong Kong. He could have stayed with banking, but instead, joined Alibaba Group where he later became chief of staff to the group president. 

"I had just a few years of experience at the time," Ethan says. "My boss had almost forty. How would I build trust and add value? I had to evolve into the role over time." Yet the ambiguity never fazed Ethan. "There's always something unexpected that happens that can be very valuable. When I'm rewarded for taking risk, I want to take more risk.

Ethan’s work at Alibaba "involved a lot of work between cultures and mindsets – Asia versus the West, structured versus entrepreneurial, strategic versus operating." And it opened up new questions for Ethan. "I realized there may be something limited about my skills and the way I think about things," he says. "I was developing breadth, but I wanted depth, too. I thought it might be good to step out of my comfort zone and open my mind. Is there a different way of approaching things? Going to business school would help me reflect on my experience and develop perspective. How could I put it all together in a way that would guide me into the future?"

Using the HBS experience to explore ideas, options

For Ethan, "all the time at HBS—in class and out—is valuable. I love the case study method; it helps me relate my prior experience to future goals. For example, we just had a case about the international expansion of a Japanese business—could a similar process work for a Chinese company?"

The extracurricular events, Ethan believes, "complement our cases. The speakers, the clubs – they offer a first-person narrative, a way to interact with leaders that is not interpreted by case structure or discussion. It's another way to get deeper insight on what makes someone successful."

For his summer internship, Ethan chose a company many would envy, Google. But consistent with his appetite for risk, Ethan picked the division "I know the least about,” Google Cloud. “I see it as a good way to learn," he says.

Long term, Ethan expects to return to China where he can "work from the bottom up" in a vertical that interests him. His previous experience in engineering and banking, however, will remain relevant. "For me, the sweet spot is a combination of business with a technical foundation."