2021 Best & Brightest EMBAs: Echo Li, Wharton School

Echo Li

The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania (Wharton San Francisco)

Age: Is just a number…

“Authentic, intellectually curious, collaborative investment professional that balances hard work with an active, outdoor life.”

Hometown: Los Angeles, CA (Immigrated from Northern China; Call Southern California home)

Family Members: I have a fur child (cat).

Fun fact about yourself: I started learning how to surf during the pandemic and grew a beautiful milk crate garden of vegetables.

Undergraduate School and Degree: University of Washington, B.A. in Accounting, Summa Cum Laude

Where are you currently working?  I am excited to join USAA Real Estate in June 2021, as a Senior Director. Previously, I spent 6.5 years at a Los Angeles-based real estate private equity firm managing investments on behalf of institutions.

Extracurricular Activities, Community Work and Leadership Roles: I am passionate about helping people achieve their dreams of business ownership. Prior to Wharton, I was a SCORE volunteer (SCORE is the nonprofit arm of the Small Business Administration), where I served on the workshop committee and worked with entrepreneur clients from diverse backgrounds. At Wharton, I enjoy being a sounding board for my classmates, many of whom have bounced ideas off me on their businesses, investments, and more. In regard to school awards, I earned Director’s List for 5 terms and First-Year Honor.

Which academic or extracurricular achievement are you most proud of during business school?  Quantico! I was fortunate to have survived the Quantico military simulation offered by Wharton’s McNulty Leadership Program. Over 24 sleepless hours, our guest speakers became screaming drill sergeants and our tests involved “fire team” tactical challenges. Then, drenched in freezing Virginia rain, we crawled through a barbed wire battlefield and shivered our way through the many obstacles in the legendary Quigley to finally triumph in hot showers. The experience was both inspirational and bonding. My teammate called me “valiant, fearless,” and “just the kind of person I’d like to survive imprisonment with!” Moreover, the Quantico experience solidified my deep gratitude and respect for our military professionals.

What achievement are you most proud of in your professional career?

Working directly with my previous firm’s managing partner to raise and deploy a $115M core-plus fund, which became a landmark moment for the real estate private equity company, as it was the first and only core vehicle. Typically, all our capital is opportunistic. When an opportunity came up to recapitalize a number of long-term hold, multifamily and student housing assets in the US and the UK, we pitched the idea of a core plus vehicle to our investors, which involved a series of complex transactions with investments in an open-ended fund, a commingled acquisition fund, and separate account develop-to-core joint ventures. I led underwriting and investment memo/presentation, while supporting the managing partner on deal structuring, legal document negotiation, and execution.

Who was your favorite MBA professor? I enjoyed learning from many top-notch professors. My favorite electives include the following

  1. I) Valuation and Distressed Investing with Professor Kevin Kaiser who taught us more than finance – Kevin cultivated a value-creation mindset, negotiation and leadership skills, and how (not) to think.
  2. II) Legal and Transactional Aspects Of Entrepreneurship with Professor Bob Borghese who not only inspired entrepreneurial value creation, but also equipped (future) business leaders with essential legal tools to secure the value they create.

III) Derivatives with Deputy Dean Michael Gibbons who put great intuition behind technical theories, and as a classmate fittingly remarked that his course pack “is a work of genius.”

These are just a few examples that set Wharton apart. For me, these electives are among the most valuable courses and stand in a class of their own – if you have the opportunity, don’t pass them up.

Why did you choose this school’s executive MBA program?

* Abundant choices of high-quality electives from renowned faculty; flexibility and depth of academic experience across bicoastal campuses (SF and Philly), and around the world access (through modular courses).

* Opportunities to learn from and form lifelong friendships with a highly selective, exceptionally driven, and diverse cohort, as we become part of Wharton’s national and global alumni network.

* A well-rounded MBA experience complemented by unique leadership development opportunities, e.g., McNulty Leadership Program, career and executive coaching.

What is the biggest lesson you gained during your MBA and how did you apply it at work? Speaking in class and interacting with classmates, faculty, and career coaches have boosted my confidence to thrive in working settings, which was extremely valuable in my role as the only woman on the executive committee (real estate private equity, in general, is a male-dominated industry). As frequently as I leverage academic frameworks to evaluate new ventures and deliberate investment strategies, I rely upon soft skills fine-tuned (and strengthened) at Wharton to lead teams more effectively, persuade executive leadership on organizational initiatives, and manage communications with potential and current partners (including executives at global investment management firms).

Give us a story during your time as an executive MBA on how you were able to juggle work, family and education? The entire two years have been a juggling act. Working as an investment professional in private equity real estate (and previously, a Big Four auditor), I am no stranger to long days and late nights. Given that work continued to be my priority during the EMBA, I found communication was key – oftentimes, my Wharton teammates received my deliverables in the wee hours. Yet by setting clear expectations and planning ahead, we never missed a beat. A hat tip to my classmates with young children – they manage to do it all, and somehow make it look easy.

What advice would you give to a student looking to enter an executive MBA program? Go for it! And, have fun. Keep an open mind, ask your classmates to lunch/coffee, take challenging electives, and travel (if you can!). Thank your support system and let the EMBA journey take you to new heights you didn’t know you could reach.

What was your biggest regret in business school? Not being able to spend more time with my classmates in person. That said, there have been many silver linings despite COVID-imposed challenges. For instance, thanks to the WEMBA team and student leaders working tirelessly behind the scenes, we were offered electives from both SF and Philly campuses, global virtual (modular) courses, unique real-time classes in response to the coronavirus, and post-graduation events, to name a few.

Which MBA classmate do you most admire? The tumultuous academic year amidst a global pandemic and civil unrest has brought out true grit in my classmates; picking one person doesn’t do them justice. Our cohort has had a rough go of two-thirds of our program, but my classmates are standing strong and showing incredible tenacity and resilience while caring for each other during unprecedented events (furloughs, child-care challenges during lockdowns, winter storm Uri, and sadly, COVID deaths among family and friends). I admire my classmates who serve on the front lines, who show empathy and give strength to others, who rise to the challenge and persevere as leaders, and who inspire us with good causes and create solutions to bring our class closer together.

What was the main reason you chose an executive MBA program over part-time or online alternatives? As noted above, Wharton’s EMBA program is best-in-class. Its bi-weekend living-and-learning environment fits well with my desire to develop soft skills, broaden my knowledge, and forge deep connections with classmates and alumni. Importantly, I’m fortunate to have been able to make the commitment to pursue the Wharton EMBA with full support from both my colleagues and my family.

What is your ultimate long-term professional goal? I would like to create value for my new organization, develop lasting, impactful relationships with stakeholders and key partners, and lead a phenomenal team that sets standards in the commercial real estate sector.

What made Echo such an invaluable addition to the class of 2021?

“When Echo started our program, she was already an accomplished real estate investment professional. During her two-year journey at WEMBA, Echo put much thought, strategy, and time-consuming effort into elevating her career to the next level; eventually joining a globally recognized investment management company in a high-profile role. Impressively, she is at the top of her class academically all while balancing a highly demanding career in real estate private equity. Echo approaches challenges with grace, leadership, positive energy, and resolve to succeed. It’s not surprising that many of her classmates want Echo on their teams. There are more people that value Echo’s inputs and advice than she realizes. It has been a great pleasure working with Echo, and we are proud to have her as an alumna.”

Steve Hernandez
Director of Career Advancement
Wharton MBA Program for Executives, San Francisco

“From the moment I met Echo, I knew she was someone special. Aside from being brilliant and highly successful, Echo is the kind of person that takes a genuine interest in and concern for others. Her warm nature, quick smile and strong work ethic lift up those around her. Echo always carries a bright attitude and makes a meaningful impact on her class with thoughtful perspectives and creative solutions. She has a quiet confidence and humility that makes her an effective leader and admired classmate. Her keen interests in learning, leading and connecting embody the spirit of the WEMBA program.”

Barbara N. Craft,
Director of Admissions
Wharton MBA Program for Executives, San Francisco


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