Wealthsimple’s Leen Li: Diversity makes better products
Leen Li moved from China to grow a prosperous career in Canadian tech, currently as CFO of FinTech startup Wealthsimple. She’s passionate about bringing different perspectives to the table because diversity produces better results. Read on to see her global idea for tech and innovation.
How did you get involved in tech?
After getting my bachelors degree in China, I moved to Canada to get my masters in finance at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax. Upon graduating in 2005, I moved to Toronto join a then-new marketing tech company called Eloqua. The company was doing a Series B fundraising round at the time to expand in North America and Europe, and they needed someone on their finance team.
2005 was the year I started learning about SaaS companies and seeing how startups operate. I stayed at Eloqua for a little over a year but then moved back into the financial services industry, where I’d worked in China prior to coming to Canada.
In 2012 I came back to tech.
Mark Organ – founder and CEO of Eloqua – reached out, asking me to join his next company, Influitive. We had a few conversations about what the role would look like and I joined Influitive in 2012 to run finance operations for the office.
I was at Influitive for almost five years, seeing the company grow from less than ten people to over 150 when I left.
During my time at Influitive, I connected with Mike Katchen, founder and CEO of Wealthsimple. He was looking for someone with both startup and finance experience to lead finance at Wealthsimple, and I ended up joining as CFO in September 2016.
You have 3 hours to make someone fall in love with Toronto – where do you take them and what do you show them?
We would start at the ROM. I love that you can see art from all over the world in such a short period of time, and particularly love the Egypt and European Exhibits.
We’d then go for lunch around City Hall, getting a hot dog from one of the street vendors. There’s a unique energy in Toronto, and I think City Hall is the best spot to see and feel that energy.
We’d then walk from City Hall to the King Street and Spadina Avenue area of town. There are a lot of startups, cafes, and bars where you can meet new people.
Elevate Toronto is founded on three principles (#DiversityIsOurStrength, #DisruptTogether, #ItsOurTime). Which one resonates most with you?
This is hard to pick! I resonate with all three, but #DiversityIsOurStrength is the strongest for me.
Canada is built on immigrants and the resources people bring in terms of solving problems. If you work with people from different backgrounds, the way people approach the problems and talk about problems is different from the mainstream and is very refreshing.
Innovation is part of the tech industry – we have to introduce new ideas to solve the same existing problems. To be able to get different perspectives from different people is an advantage.
What is your “global idea” for tech and innovation?
My global idea comes back to mobile. I’d like to see a central plug-and-play style app where you can run your whole phone, have the apps communicate with one another, and ensure a consistent user experience globally.
This is already happening in places like China with WeChat, and I see app collaboration as the future of mobile and technology in general.
I’d also like to see, building off a central app collaboration platform, more resources that allow non-technical people to build functional apps with a decent UX/UI. That way, we can see more entrepreneurs testing out new ideas without requiring years of training or formal university education just to get to a baseline.
We’ve already seen this type of thing happen with technology. Consider math – you used to require many years of training. Then we got calculators, which helped immensely to lower barriers. Now, with relatively minimal training you can build complex mathematical models in Excel. This should come into how we think about mobile and app development.
What should the world know about the Toronto tech community?
The world should know that we have diversity in our talent.
Talent is one of the most important resources any city can offer, and Toronto has a lot of it. Thinking of my own story, I’m an immigrant and know a lot of immigrants from different backgrounds. So far, I have not heard anyone say anything negative about Toronto or Canada.
As a culture, we are moving to really embrace diversity, which brings a lot of shared knowledge that can contribute to our innovations in tech and other industries.
Given that we have different backgrounds, it leads to different opinions and decisions when we approach challenges. You may not have the right answer every time, but having diverse perspectives on a problem means that you can collaborate to come up with the best possible solution.