Angela Lee

Angela Lee is the founder of 37 Angels, an educator, entrepreneur, and angel investor. She is passionate about education and has started several companies in that space. Currently she is the Chief Innovation Officer & Associate Dean at Columbia Business School and an Adjunct Assistant Professor teaching Strategy and Leadership courses. She also has 15 years of experience in marketing strategy, both as a product manager and as a consultant at McKinsey. Angela has a BA from UC Berkeley and an MBA from Columbia Business School.

 
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Angela Lee shares how she discovered her depression and her inspiring journey towards healing herself and her pain. She also talks about her work as an educator, as a founder, and as an investor and what we can do differently as an industry.

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Thank you for making the time to do this interview. I was really excited for us to engage in this conversation. It was great connecting with you last time over mental health, especially given how passionate you are about this space.

I'm both excited and nervous that this is happening. I actually scheduled this interview at the end of the day. I don't have any meetings after this because I have no idea what I'm going to end up talking about. I'm trying to be open.

 

Thank you for your willingness. I know you are accomplished as a professor and as a businesswoman, but I would love to learn more about you. Tell me how you got here.

I’ve had three careers in a way. The first career was in marketing innovation. I did product management before business school, focused on digital marketing.  Post-business school. I was at McKinsey as a strategy consultant, and then I helped to start a marketing innovation consulting firm.  Marketing is actually what I started teaching when I moved into higher education.

I've had two “shadow” careers as well. One is entrepreneurship. I've started four companies in my life, always while I had a full time job. The first was right out of undergrad. I went to UC Berkeley, and it was the first dot com boom and things were crazy.  Money was falling from the sky, and so I dipped my toe into being an entrepreneur. I started a technical consulting company.

I also started a couple of companies around 2007 and 2008... all in the space of education and corporate training.  One was a big failure, one still exists today.  And then the last company is 37 Angels, which is what I'm currently doing now. We teach people how to be startup investors, and we also invest in startups.

This leads to my third career, which is one of an educator. I've taught, in some capacity, for most of my life. When I was in high school, I was a teacher's aide for second-graders. In college and post college, I taught SATs and GMATs. When I was at McKinsey, my favorite thing to do was to train the incoming consultants and my clients.

About eight years ago, I said, "Well, let me do this in a more full-time capacity," and started looking at schools to teach at.  It took me a couple of years but these days, I am very grateful I get to spend a huge part of my time in the classroom, teaching people how to be the best versions of themselves.

So those are the three themes of my career... marketing innovation, entrepreneurship, and education. But I definitely would say, I am first and foremost an educator. I was born to be a teacher. And I feel very grateful that I get to it every day at a place like Columbia Business School.

 

When you were sharing, I was smiling because I also started off in education. And you have had an eclectic set of experiences as a serial entrepreneur.

There aren’t as many women as there could be in the investor space. I so respect the work that you're doing at 37 Angels and just building this network of women investors. Can you tell me more what led you this?

37 Angels is actually a happy accident. In 2008, one of my best girlfriends from middle school directed and produced a film called Hiding Divya. It had received a ton of critical acclaim and she needed money to invest in the distribution rights. And I wrote a $5,000 check because I wanted more people to see this film.

The movie was all about promoting mental health awareness in the Asian-American community. As you know, in the Asian-American community, we don't talk on mental health. We just say, "You're not depressed, you're just sad. Get through it and endure."

But all of a sudden, after I wrote that $5,000 check and I was an investor. People started approaching me with deals and because I'm a lifelong learner, I was like, "I want to really learn how to do this." So I read books, read blogs, tried to take a couple courses, and just didn't really find anything that taught me how to do the math, taught me the terminology, taught me the nomenclature. And so, I felt very lost.

Simultaneously, I was trying to network and go to events. I kept walking into rooms of investors and being surrounded by old white men and I got asked every question under the sun. Like, "Are you lost? Oh, who do you work for? Are you investing your husband's money? Where did your money come from?" Just all sorts of questions that made me ask "What is happening here?". And I realized that I wanted to create a network that I wanted to be a part of and that is how 37 Angels was born.

It is two things. One, it's a network of women investors. We invest in women and men founders, but the investors are all women. It's also an investment bootcamp where you learn all those things that nobody tells you. It shines a light into the black box of startup investing.

 

Thank you for doing that. You were talking about the "black box," right? It's like, "What are the conversations that we are having in the industry, but more importantly, what are the conversations that we're not having?"

And I so love that you're putting a light to that and making that knowledge more accessible.

Yeah, we've actually had a number of experienced venture capitalists come to me and say, "I really want to take the bootcamp, but I don't want to take it with the broader cohort. Can you teach it to me privately because I can't let people know that I don't know this stuff.” That's bonkers, right?

 

Like when people raise a Series A. Most people who are handed $10 million are learning for the first time how to handle that much money, right?

Oh, absolutely.  When there are three founders or more in a room together, if you ask them how they're doing, their response is always "I'm crushing it. I've got so many VCs trying to hand me checks.  I am turning away business Everything is amazing.”

And then, if you talk to these founders one-on-one, then they are more honest and share things like, "I'm lonely. I have no idea what to do. I don't know how to hire people, I don't know this terminology.  I’m exhausted" And it's like people are so afraid to show their vulnerabilities and talk about failure, to talk about how difficult it is, especially the later years of being a founder.

The first couple of years of being a founder, you're solving the big problems and in some ways, the really visible and easy problems. You're hitting a lot of milestones those first couple of years. And then, year three or four or five, it's much more of a slog and problems do become harder. People just don't talk about that enough and how difficult that is.

 

Yes, when we talk about these topics, it makes me excited for what is possible. What would happen if we became a little more honest with one another? What mistakes could we avoid?

I also wanted to highlight, I respect the work you do in the Asian community. It is hard for our culture to talk about mental health, especially in a healthy way. In The New York Times two days ago, there’s a new term being coined in China. The 996, which means working from 9 AM to 9 PM, six days a week.

Can you share more about your passion for mental health? I think it is so inspiring and needed at this time.

I have had a therapist and try to be pretty open about that fact.  And I've definitely told people individually that I suffer from depression, but this is actually going to be the first time that I'm saying it on a public forum.

I definitely wouldn't call myself a mental health advocate. I have been incredibly private about my own struggles with it. And yes, I'll talk to people one-on-one and be vulnerable, but I've never done it publicly.

Mental health has affected my family in very deep ways since I was a young child and I had an incredibly violent childhood. I really didn't realize until my late twenties how much it affected me.

All this to say I am not doing nearly enough in a public way, but it is something that I care very deeply about. I've supported it privately by helping founders who are struggling, by helping founders who are working in this space. But it's always very behind-the-scenes because I have felt very embarrassed to talk about it. Because as much as I advocate for it not being taboo, I clearly see it as a sign of weakness because otherwise, why haven't I talked about it until now?

 

I just want to say that I am touched that you entrusted us with your story. Thank you so much just for joining our movement and being part of this conversation. I really am honoured.

I almost feel like... the depression I struggle from, that it’s not extreme enough for me to talk about, you know? I almost feel like I have impostor syndrome around being depressed. It's not so bad and I don't have the right to claim that “mental health badge” or whatever the case may be.

Pete Davidson is a hilarious comedian on SNL. There was an athlete who was very public about his panic attacks. And Pete Davidson kind of came out like, "Oh, poor athlete, you suffer from panic attacks. I have real depression. I've been suicidal.  I’m on medication”.  It was a joke, but it speaks to the idea of “real” mental health issues and what “counts”.

There's a huge spectrum, and I never want to claim or ask for more sympathy than I deserve. I would say I have mild depression. It's definitely not as severe as it could get.

 

You know, I actually really appreciate that you've brought this conversation forward. I honestly wonder how many other people in our community feel the same way.

When I was younger, when I wasn’t a certified coach and I hadn’t collected years of training in psychology, it was a confusing time. In my teen years, I was just depressed and crying all the time. The worst feeling I had was, "When is it okay to share? To tell someone" Back then, people didn’t talk about mental health, I couldn’t find anyone else in my class who had depression, so I kept silent. I waited six years and it was so lonely.

But you know what? That’s why this movement has stories from survivors AND allies. It’s important that people know that feelings are feelings, that we can share with anyone, not just people going through the exact same thing.

Yeah, I love that. It's so easy for me to say, "Oh, I have a little bit of a sore throat today. I have the sniffles," And people understand that you're going to take it a little easy, you're going to have some hot tea that day. You take care of yourself.

And why isn't it the same with mental health, regardless of where you are in terms of severity? It's funny because I've had days where I can't get out of bed, but it only happens three or four times a year, and so it doesn't really impact my life that much, so am I allowed to talk about it?

It's like, "What's the threshold that I'm allowed to say that I have depression?" We all need to be easier on ourselves and each other.

 

Mm-hmm. 100%. If you are willing to share, could you take me back to that moment where you discovered you had depression?

As an ambitious Asian woman, I have learned to tamp down my emotions and be “professional.” Getting in touch with my emotions was never something that I did, and so I was completely out of touch with them.

Here’s an example. I've been married now for nine years, and my husband… We're both ethnically Chinese and these days, we say, "I love you," all the time. My husband has always been very liberal with those words. The first kind of couple years that we were together, I remember saying, "Stop saying those words so much because you'll make it lose meaning or wear it out." Because I thought that love was a finite resource.  It all goes back to me not being loved unconditionally as a child.

And I've been through therapy, so it was so interesting to me. I was uncomfortable with him expressing love so frequently because A, it's not something I ever heard growing up, and B, I really thought he would wear out if he kept saying it. And, luckily, I've gotten over it. And I’m so grateful to have a relationship today that is abundantly full of love.

I took a course in business school called Personal Leadership, it really helped me to just check in and ask myself, "How are you feeling today?" I went down a crazy rat hole for three years reading every positive psychology book under the sun. The course had a lot of personality assessments and introspective quizzes. They ask you to journal.  I would start to do some of these and just start bawling. I had no idea this emotional stuff was down there.

One book that my therapist recommended is called is 21 days where you do an exercise every day, and the author makes you confront this stuff. It's called Mirror Work: 21 Days to Heal Your Life. And she makes you go through an exercise a day where you have to look in the mirror and talk to yourself.

And days 9 through 16, you have to basically engage with yourself like a child. Oh my goodness. I would get three sentences into a 4-page exercise and just be on the floor bawling.

I was like, "Oh, my goodness. There's so much stuff here from my, again, my very violent childhood that I just never, ever dealt with." And I just shoved it down into a deep, dark box. Because I never dealt with it, it's almost like the snakes in a can, like they just started popping out and unravelling and I couldn't stop it.

 

How do you cope with it [depression] now?

A lot of it is learning to recognize the signs early on.

I journal and I check in with myself, and when I see myself going down into a slippery negative slope, I stop myself before it gets to the point where I can't get out of bed. And I try to take a walk, grab a coffee with a girlfriend, or talk to my husband. Or I have a bunch of videos that I know will make me cry and I will actually watch them to release some of the emotions and force a good cry. Scrubs, Greys Anatomy, Joy Luck Club.

 

My last question to ask is, what can we all do together as a community to move mental health forward?

It's a great question.  I think that people who are in a position of perceived power should definitely talk about their struggles more. These are investors, these are successful founders, especially those folks who are kind of at the forefront.

We need to be starting that conversation by being vulnerable. We have all heard the keynotes where people are so good about talking about the failure they had ten years ago.  Let's talk about the failure we're having today.

And we need to check in with people in an authentic way.  We all do the casual, "How are you doing?" "Really good. How are you?" And it's so automatic, that people don't even hear or listen to what's actually being said.

Something very specific I’m going to recommend is My Wellbeing. They are a therapist-matching tool, right now largely in New York City. You answer a questionnaire about what type of therapy are you seeking, what style works for you. They match with someone who stylistically matches with you.

 It's very hard to find a therapist. As someone who's gone through that search cycle a couple of times, it's so difficult to find someone who matches you and their schedule aligns and even location-wise, it works out.

 

I love how you mentioned holding the space for someone. That in itself can really change somebody's life. So thank you.

I totally agree. And this is something that's going to be one conversation at a time, so thank you for what you're doing to bring this forward too.

 

You're welcome. I'm really glad and I'm so honoured to be doing this work. So honoured to have had this conversation with you.

Thank you so much.

 
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