Maria Li is the chief operating officer (COO) at Tech in Asia (TIA), one of the leading digital media publications covering Asia’s tech and startup scene. Prior to Tech in Asia, Maria worked at Apple as a business operations and commercial strategy manager, in Cupertino and Singapore. She began her career as an emerging markets consultant with consulting firm Deloitte, leveraging her Masters of Business Administration (MBA) from Wharton and her Master in Public Policy (MPP) from the University of Virginia.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
KrASIA (Kr): Hi Maria, most people know you as COO of Tech in Asia. What is something people don’t know about you?
Maria Li (ML): If you knew me in San Francisco, I actually loved the outdoors. I’m happiest when I’m outside, camping, and hiking. My husband and I would spend many weekends out in the various national parks. I’ve summited both Mount Kilimanjaro and Mount Rainier. I love the intensity of just being outdoors.
KrASIA (Kr): You’ve gone from consulting to tech and then media. Can you explain the reasons behind your career transitions?
Maria Li (ML): It is really important for me to make an impact on the local economy. This was influenced by the differences I saw in my own upbringing versus my cousins back in China. I did my MPP, which led me to join Deloitte’s Emerging Markets Group, which is very focused on advising international institutions on how to run multi-year projects to support national gross domestic product (GDP) growth within developing countries.
However, I started to realize that the most sustainable way to support local economic growth is actually through the private sector. So, I moved from the public to the private sector, and I ended up in Nairobi for my MBA summer internship, and helped to spin out new investment products for those in rural Kenya.
I started to think about how companies can influence local supply chains, transferring tech, knowledge, and skill sets over to developing countries, creating a lasting impact for that country. Hence, I started working for the Apple supply chain. It was a great experience working for Apple, but although I was working in a tech company, I wasn’t connected to the tech community. I believe in the transformational power of local enterprises, and building up a local economy, which resonates a lot with the work that TIA is doing.
We are putting Southeast Asia’s startups and the tech community on a map. As our coverage is done in English, we are broadcasting it to the rest of the world. To give the overall community room to grow, you need coverage. You also need to connect people within the community, to make them feel like they’re actually part of something different and something big, which is why I decided to make the jump to the media sector.
KrASIA (Kr): How were these career transitions like for you?
ML: I tend to take challenges pretty head-on, and I don’t overthink them. I think about every individual job and role in terms of what experience skill set I would like to learn and gain from it. I don’t really take into consideration the industry of a certain job, or even so much of the company itself. What’s more important to me is whether I believe in the mission of who I’ll be working for, the people, and my role and contribution.
I really believe in TIA, and I actually found TIA through being a user. I read TIA news, went to their conference, and I wanted to be part of it. Also,I knew I wanted to join a startup after my double corporate experience. The first few months were a massive learning curve. Everything changed so quickly from working in Apple and being given a ton of autonomy, signing multimillion-dollar deals on behalf of the company, basically making all these big decisions. But at the same time, if I really wanted to do anything super strategic, I still had to go through various levels of approval, and a lot of cross-functional conversations. Hence, jumping to become one of the leaders of TIA was a bit of a shock. It felt like there was a safety net in a large corporate, and no matter how badly I would mess up, it wouldn’t be that bad. Hence, that safety net definitely got yanked away. So for the first few months, I was trying to orient myself in terms of understanding the privilege of the position I held, and the responsibility that came with it, and then, adjusting myself, my expectations, how I worked, my tone, communication and more, to fill that leadership role.
KrASIA (Kr): In terms of adjustment, as you are now working in Southeast Asia compared to previously in the US, are there any notable differences worth mentioning?
ML: In America, people communicate fairly aggressively, and even at Apple, which has a culture that really encourages very independent thinking, there was a lot of back and forth discussions. Argumentation is fine as long as you wrap it up and move on at some point. Hence, those were some of the things that were bred into how I spoke and thought about things, and that comes off really harsh.
But it is really different from a leadership perspective. So I did have to learn how to communicate in a way that wasn’t so aggressive, the shifting of tone, making room for other people to speak. Especially here, people do ask for honest feedback, but it’s hard for them to get it, and so you have to really create space for the rest of your team to legitimately be able to contribute, and you have to hold that space for them.
KrASIA (Kr): In terms of career, for those who are newly employed or fresh graduates, what advice would you give them to navigate their career choices?
ML: I can only speak for myself, but don’t sweat the long term stuff. I look at my career in like four-year increments, and I just ensure that I’m confident and I understand why I’m making a particular move.
Especially, when you’re younger and just coming out of school, you’re just like, what’s my passion going to be? What’s my career going to be? What’s my legacy going to be? These questions are so ambiguous and stressful. I try to just break down problems. So, well, what do I like to do now? I would think of what I want to try, and then find the role that would align with the top three things that I want to do.
I will always use this model for my own career decisions and to advise other people who feel stuck or overwhelmed by some of their decisions. You have to be really honest with yourself as to what you’re looking for. Over the course of time, your priorities will shift, from your 20s to your 40s, and that’s okay, it’s actually natural. So, don’t try to solve a ten-year problem now, just understand where you are, where you’re looking for, and try to find that role that best fits those priorities, and don’t worry about the rest.
KrASIA (Kr): What are your thoughts for 2021?
ML: I think a lot of the challenges of 2020 took people off guard, but, there are two important takeaways I have. One is, I don’t write off 2020, I thought it was an incredibly challenging year, but I think with every challenge, amazing opportunities come as well. If you just wrote it off for yourself, and your company in your industry, it’ll be a waste of a year. So appreciate it for what it was, the good and the bad, and try to learn what you can from it. Also, I don’t think that just because is 2021, things are going to be magically better. They aren’t going to change that much, or maybe not that soon. And so, for any startup, or anybody as well, in order to survive, you just have to start making moves, and learning to operate in order to make this ‘new normal’ work for you.