When I confirmed a sit-down interview date with Angela Lee last year, I didn’t realize quite how much of a headliner she was.
Looking for names of women under 40 who have successfully started their own companies, I found her in Entrepreneur Magazine, in the article “Six Innovative Women to Watch in 2015.”
When we set the interview date, I (wisely) decided to do some research, and found that Angela is not only the founder of 37 Angels, the investment community and training program for female investors. She’s also a publicly recognized business expert, highly sought-after on Bloomberg TV, CNBC, and Fox Business Network. If that wasn’t enough, she also serves as the Assistant Dean of Columbia University’s Business School, where she teaches courses in Leadership, Strategy, and Innovation. No big deal.
We had agreed to meet at her apartment, a post-war Columbus Circle complex, just as New York City began to melt into the swelter of summer. Taking a seat in an oval study room at the top floor of her building, my back faced both Central Park West and Lincoln Center.
“My greatest achievement,” Angela has said, “is getting over the mindset that I had up until I was 25. I used to think it was really ‘cool’ to not try.”
Growing up in an Asian-American household that regarded education highly, going to college wasn’t exactly optional. But in her success-driven household, she realized that by applying minimal effort, she could maintain good enough grades to avoid causing a stir. Not to say she was a mediocre student — she went on to attend U.C. Berkeley, graduating again, with limited effort.
Out of school, Angela worked for a few years in the Bay Area, before applying to Business School on a whim. (She applied to culinary school at the same time, coincidentally, but chose the former).
But being accepted at Columbia University changed all that.
“I got to school and realized that I would have to work really hard to keep up with my classmates”, she says. “I started to try really hard and what that meant was that I started to fail a lot more. I started going after things that people were saying no to me for”.
Her extra effort in the classroom paid off — out of the hundreds of qualified students it considered, McKinsey & Company, the renowned management consulting firm, made her a full-time offer in her second year.
She spent the next few years at McKinsey and elsewhere, tackling corporate America’s toughest business problems.
The exposure was great, but one unnerving fact kept resurfacing from place to place — she was often the only woman in the room:
“On the one hand” she says, “it was awkward at times and it felt uncomfortable speaking up, but at the same time, I was very visible.”
When she decided to start her company, 37 Angels, in November 2012, it started as a a community for female investors and business women to learn from each other. She also wanted to change the perception that angel investing, or funding start-up companies, was a man’s sport. When she began, it was said that only thirteen percent of women were angel investors. Angela chose the name 37 Angels because her goal was to get that figure to 50 percent.
“The million dollar question is: Does gender hold you back?”, she says. “ I don’t know — it’s a double-sided coin. I’ve felt many minor injustices, yet I don’t think I can genuinely say I have been held back, as a woman or hit the glass ceiling.”
In a time when popular opinion says that women are less likely to reach a certain salary or work in a particular industry, it’s uplifting to hear from someone who is fully aware of the probabilities, but chooses to persevere in spite of them. Angela’s story represents the unique perspective of someone who statistically speaking, was never supposed to be where she is today. Her positivity and relenting belief in herself is contagious, and we could all use more of each.