Growing up Yong Li thought he would follow in his father’s footsteps and become a doctor but his father encouraged him to seek other aspirations. After finishing his MBA in Australia, Li switched paths and decided to pursue an academic career. He spent 12 years at the State University of New York at Buffalo, where he served as a professor of strategy and entrepreneurship, then joined the Troesh Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation in the Lee Business School in January of this year.
He has developed and taught a well-received Technology Entrepreneurship course in which students from engineering, business, and other disciplines work together. He has also written a best-selling case. Li also consults for companies and startups, and has given keynote speeches on topics of venture capital, crowdfunding, technology commercialization, sharing economy, international expansion, and social entrepreneurship.
What do laypeople usually ask you about your field?
If people ask me what I do, I tell them I study how investors make such decisions as when to invest in a startup and when entrepreneurs should shift gears and experiment with something new.
What inspired you to get into your field?
When I did my MBA in Australia I had the opportunity to talk with people with management experience and from that kind of conversation I understood that it was very important, but hard, to make strategic decisions because very often managers are faced with substantial uncertainty about the market, the product, etc. Absent uncertainty, there would be very little surprise in strategic decision making.
What drew you to UNLV?
This is a vibrant, diverse place, where we can enjoy a balance between life and work.
I am also intrigued by the opportunity to build something, to help shape the growth of the Troesh Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation. And, of course, we have wonderful colleagues here.
What was your best surprise about working here?
Before I joined UNLV, I didn’t know much about the university or Las Vegas. I was surprised at how fast the school has grown. UNLV recently became an R1 school. I am sure we’ll build on this momentum and continue to move forward.
I didn’t know much about Las Vegas either. I’d been here once, for a winter vacation. I stayed on the Strip. And I think that’s what many people know about Las Vegas — the Strip. As I moved here, I’ve gotten to know the people here, who are warm and friendly, the abundant places to visit, including the beautiful national parks, and all the entertainment options.
Who did you look up to in your field when you first started?
At least two scholars. Carliss Baldwin at Harvard Business School and Joe Mahoney at Illinois. I was exploring a topic for my dissertation, trying to see if I could examine venture capital investment decisions from a real-options perspective. Carliss expressed interest in my idea and encouraged me to work on it. She later sent me her just-published book on modularity. It was at a critical juncture of my career. And her encouragement emboldened me to explore. Joe Mahoney was my thesis advisor and he is a conceptual scholar. Although he does not work in the specific field, he was so supportive, so open-minded, willing to hear my immature and premature ideas, challenging me and debating with me. That process has helped me build my own research program.
Is this what you thought you’d do when you grew up?
No, my father was a doctor, and my mother worked in a hospital, too. So I wanted to be a doctor. My father didn’t want me to, and his reasoning was that as a doctor, you have to learn every day. What he didn’t realize is that once I became a university professor and a researcher, I have to learn all my life.
Tell us about a time in your life you were daring.
That’s when I decided to pursue a Ph.D. I was finishing my MBA in Australia, and a lot of my friends and classmates were busy looking for a job. Somehow, I got interested in research and decided to pursue a Ph.D. I didn’t realize at that time that this decision would totally change my life and how much commitment it requires. When I started the MBA program I thought I would want to get a job upon graduation. Had I known I would pursue an academic career I guess I would probably not have chosen to pursue an MBA.
Tell us about an a-ha moment in your career.
I was trying to find some practical problems I could address for my research around 2005. And then there was a job candidate who talked about corporate venture capital investments. I learned that this is a context where investors generally face significant uncertainty because at the time of investment they don’t know if a startup will work out or not. Here’s an interesting theory that deals with investment under uncertainty. So it came upon me that maybe I could marry the theory with the context and do something. I wasn’t expecting I would have worked on this topic over the last decade in my research.
What problem in the world would you most like to fix?
This is related to my research, I am primarily interested in how we make investment decisions under uncertainty. The world is full of uncertainty, no matter what we do. For example, when do venture capital firms and angels invest in startups? When do entrepreneurs experiment with new business models? Those are interesting and important questions. If we make wise decisions under uncertainty, we will be better off as human beings, companies will perform better and create more value.
Outside of your research, what are you passionate about?
Gadgets and family.
What kind of gadgets?
I’m interested in newer things, whether that’s headphones, smartphones, computers, virtual reality equipment.
What is something people would be surprised to learn about you?
I like to talk about sports — all kinds of sports: football, basketball, tennis, hockey, gymnastics, swimming — but I don’t do any of those, other than swimming.
Because you came to Las Vegas from Buffalo, is the winter ordeal there better or worse than the summer heat here?
I’d take the summer heat over the winter ordeal. You don’t have to shovel the snow, you don’t have to wear layers and layers of clothes, and you can jump into a pool if you get hot.
Is the start of fall semester more or less exciting than the end of spring semester?
I am equally excited, but for different reasons. The start of this fall was my first teaching semester here at UNLV. I love teaching, and I was excited to meet with our students.
At the end of spring, it’s summertime, and I get to travel for conferences and family gathering. I can also focus on my research a little bit more.