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Lydia Li ’13: Personally invested in hydrogen fuel

Portrait of CMC Alumna Lydia Li ’13
June 17, 2021

The first person Lydia Li ’13 told—upon learning she’d made the Forbes Under 30 list—was, of course, her mom. They’re close and talk daily. But Li also reached out to someone she hadn’t seen in a while: her former CMC professor and mentor Marc Massoud.

“Not showing off. Just wanted to make you proud,” Li, 29, wrote to him in email, with a link to her Forbes listing.  

“I’m so proud of you!” he replied.

It was Massoud, the Robert A. Day Distinguished Professor of Accounting, who’d first spotted Li’s talent for investing. He’d been a bit skeptical of a government-econ double major enrolling in his “Accounting for Decision Making” class. But she knocked his socks off, delivering an oral presentation that still rings in his ear. Massoud became Li’s mentor and nudged her toward a career in investment.

Smart nudge, as it turns out.

An investment professional with Generate Capital, Li made the 2021 Forbes 30 Under 30 list in the “energy” category—one of 20 spotlighted industries. Selected from tens of thousands of candidates by a panel of Forbes reporters, editors and expert judges, these 600 fresh-faced change-agents “are proof positive that ambition and innovation can’t be quarantined,” the magazine asserted.

Hydrogen fuel cell equipment
Hydrogen fuel cell equipment financed by Generate Capital. Li works closely with multiple partners including Plug Power who manufactures the equipment pictured.

The Forbes editors credit Li with making headway in the pernicious “valley of death problem,” which deters traditional investors from funding emerging technologies. Li bridged the chasm by immersing herself in renewable energy research, acquiring special expertise in the hydrogen fuel cell niche. Her technical and financial analyses made it possible for Generate Capital to underwrite more than $200 million in power, transport and waste sector investments, including several first-of-its-kind hydrogen infrastructure and fuel cell projects. The San Francisco-based company finances, builds, owns, and operates more than $1 billion in sustainable infrastructure projects and employs about 100 investors.

Li was nominated for the Forbes recognition by her boss, Generate Capital CEO Scott Jacobs, and by Jason Jay, who heads the MIT Sloan School of Management’s sustainability initiative. She earned her MBA there in 2019, with a beyond perfect 5.0 GPA.

Though Li feels luck played a role in her Forbes selection, there was nothing serendipitous about her rise in “environmental impact investing”—a specialty that didn’t even exist a decade ago.

“I put a lot of effort into the research, talked to all the players in the sector, and basically became a particular expert in the very niche vertical,” she says.

At MIT, Li took courses in renewable energy alongside her Sloane School curriculum. She collaborated with faculty scientists on academic research projects. After she finished her MBA, Li didn’t let up on her studies. She told her new bosses at Generate Capital that on top of her normal associate’s workload, she intended to build expertise on hydrogen technology—which, she predicted, would be the next big thing.  

Skeptical at first, her bosses were delighted when in 2020, green hydrogen emerged as one of the big ideas in the clean-energy space. Several companies went public and stock prices skyrocketed. Generate was flooded with opportunities, and Li was the rare investment professional equipped to assess them. Last year, she met with principals from more than 50 hydrogen-related projects, sifted out the best prospects and pitched them to her bosses with conviction and authority.

Born in Beijing, Li had graduated from high school in Vancouver. The family emigrated to Canada when Li was a teenager. Her mom had been an attorney and her dad a professional English translator in their homeland. They briefly owned a Chinese restaurant in British Columbia before retiring.

While visiting family in Los Angeles, Li took the CMC campus tour and realized she’d found her dream school.

“CMC was just a great fit for me,” she recalls. “It’s exactly where I wanted to be, what I wanted to do, filled with the people I wanted to meet .” 

She credits CMC’s culture and resources with making her “more intentional” in planning her future. “I started thinking about what a career means very early,” she says. “By 19, I was considering what steps I would need to reach the next milestone.”

At the same time, Li threw herself into Model UN, then in its infancy at CMC, and was a mentor in the Asian-American Student Alliance. She did the Washington DC semester. She was active in the Student Investment Club and vividly recalls a club trip to New York City that put her in meetings with several Wall Street firms.

Many of her CMC friends have stayed close, including Van-Ahn Su ’13, who attended MIT Sloane with Li. Both women are in San Francisco now, where Su works for biotech platform BrightInsight.

Li also has kept up with favorite professors. She likes to chat on Facebook with Jennifer Taw about public policy and life in general, and she keeps up with  Minxin Pei, who years ago had invited Li to his home for a traditional Chinese New Year’s dinner.

“That meant a lot to me,” she recalls.

And of course, there’s Marc Massoud.

“Lydia means so much to me,” says the beloved accounting professor. “She’s smart, warm, personable and highly motivated. She will not accept anything less than perfection, and she gives every task 100 percent of her effort.”

Looking ahead, this intentional young woman sees herself starting her own investment platform or fund to breathe life into “things that I believe in.” If not hydrogen fuel cells, then whatever comes after. Maybe sustainable plastics, she muses. Or carbon capture.

This much is sure: “One day, I want to be the decision maker,” Li says. “There aren’t enough women who are making investment decisions.”

 

Advice to CMCers hoping for a Forbes Under 30 listing:

“I think my first advice is to follow your passion. Everybody at CMC is so talented and has a lot of resources. You can choose something you truly enjoy and make a career out of that, which is what I was lucky enough to do.

My second piece of advice relates to what I said about intentionality. Plan ahead, think about where you want to be in five, 10, 30 years. See yourself on the different paths to get there. It’s easier that way. When you only think about tomorrow, then you live in a fire drill.”

Diane Krieger

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