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How a meeting with Bill Gates changed an alum's trajectory

A meeting with the Gates Foundation founder led Yinuo Li to return to China and develop a dual mission. 
Yinuo Li in a white dress with a black background
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Yinuo Li (LAN, BEI, SVO 05-15) left the Firm with a mission: to build bridges that improve lives.

She does this first through her day job at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation China, where she leads a team that exports China’s knowledge to implement programs in developing countries and helps to improve health and development at home.

But – perhaps unsurprisingly for someone who was already juggling three children and Partnership when she got the Gates call – she also builds bridges through her ‘back page’ activity: starting a school in Beijing that aims to fill in the gap between traditional Chinese education and expat international schools, and link China and the world.

Yinuo spoke to us about why she went into the nonprofit world, how China can help developing countries, and her dreams for her education endeavor.

* * *

Your career path is a bit unusual. You joined McKinsey directly after earning a Ph.D. in biology, were elected Partner, and then went to the Gates Foundation. Can you talk about those transitions?

When I reflect on what inspired me through that whole process, it’s a passion for solving problems, and asking bigger questions driven by curiosity. When I was working on my Ph.D., it was scientific problems, but when I came to McKinsey as an APD hire, it felt like a seamless transition. In essence, the thinking approach is very much the same: you see a problem, develop a hypothesis, gather data, come to a certain conclusion, then go back to your hypothesis to see if it is sound.

And although it’s an atypical move to go from McKinsey to a nonprofit, it’s still basically solving problems in a different context.

You turned down an outreach from the Foundation until you personally spoke with Bill Gates. What changed your mind?

When I was first approached for this job, frankly, I wasn't interested. I was a third-year Partner. I had just had my third child and was based in McKinsey's Palo Alto office and was getting to know the client base. They said, "Okay, we understand you're not interested in a job, but are you interested in meeting with Bill Gates?" My meeting with him in Seattle was scheduled for 45 minutes, which is already a long time with Bill, and we ended up talking for two hours.

What changed my mind was the conversation we had about his motives for starting the Foundation. He compared the amount that was being spent yearly on malaria research – about $500 million – with the amount spent on research to reverse hair loss, which is significantly more – about $2 billion. He said that he realized on issues like malaria, that impact hundreds of millions of lives, there is a huge vacuum, and he wanted to do something about it.

Before that, I did not realize that philanthropy involved problem-solving; I thought it just meant doing good things. But talking to Bill, I realized that it's almost a harder type of problem-solving, because it's solving problems that, frankly, have very little share of voice, and probably fewer resources, and therefore can actually be more challenging.

Part of your work is to take models that have been successful in China – such as efforts to eradicate malaria and reduce maternal mortality rates – and implement them in other countries. Can you tell us about that?

In 1949, when China had just recovered from civil war, the average life expectancy was 35 years. It’s now about 78, and in some of the big cities, it's well over 80. Then in the 1970s, China had 30 million malaria cases, and as of 2017, there were zero domestic cases. If China can hold onto three years with no domestic cases, it will be certified by WHO as malaria-free. From a malaria control and maternal and neonatal health perspective, China is a huge miracle.

Another one of the problems that China used to have is that the maternal mortality rate was much higher in rural areas, and now there's little difference between rural and urban. The best approach to reduce maternal mortality is simply to get women to the hospital when they are delivering a baby. But in rural areas, there's an infrastructure issue, and there can also be cultural issues. China has done a remarkable job in terms of community mobilization.

We are trying to get that same experience to other developing countries – we call it “China for the World.” For example, we’re currently doing a pilot on malaria control in Tanzania, which is going well. We’re also doing similar work in agriculture, lifting what we call smallholder farmers. Being able to make those connections happen, to bring expertise from China to solve real problems, is the most rewarding experience.

You're coming up on five years as the head of the China Country Office. What do you consider your biggest accomplishment?

There are two things. The first is that I have raised a lot of interest in China at the Foundation. Every two weeks, I write an email to my colleagues called Get Smart On China. We all hear about the political issues, and we read about China in the media, but what's missing is what I call the third narrative, which is the perspective of regular people. I’m not a professional journalist, and I'm not a diplomat, but I engage in China on real issues. The Foundation has about 1,500 employees and now more than 1,000 people are subscribed to this email. Because of that, we've engaged more teams to work on China-related projects.

And second, I’ve been able to get China integrated into the Foundation’s strategy as a potential solution provider. It's like being a connector for people to make change. Our team talks about China in a way that makes sense to our colleagues.

The international, bilingual school you founded aims to help with this, while focusing on holistic education. What was the inspiration for that? [Note: The school is not connected to the Gates Foundation.]

It was triggered by the relocation to Beijing – I wanted to give my kids a middle road between traditional Chinese schooling and international schooling. The Chinese system is a drill-based, test-based system. It's hard work and little fun, and it can drive the interest out of learning altogether. But the advantage of it is that you learn good Chinese, and you learn the culture. And then on the other hand you have the international schools, which are basically for expats, so you lose ties with the local culture. I wanted something new that incorporated both the Chinese and the global perspectives.

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Global connectedness is one of the ETU School's goals.

We started the ETU School in Beijing in 2016 with 30 kids, five teachers, and three rooms, and we now have about 400 kids with three campuses, one in Beijing, one in Guangzhou, and one in Silicon Valley, called the Imagination Lab School, which opened in 2018.

You’ve spoken about the importance of young Western people understanding China. How is your school addressing this?

A big goal of our school is global connectedness. When Steve Schwarzman started his Schwarzman College effort at Tsinghua University, he said that tomorrow’s leaders cannot be global leaders if they don’t understand China.

Born, raised, and now working in China, I have seen enough not to be naively positive about my homeland. But the Chinese and American people are very similar. We work hard. We believe in meritocracy. It's very much the same. But somehow the communication from and about our countries is driving us apart. The question is, how do you then avoid that for the next generation? How do you get kids to care about similar things?

One way we have addressed this is by integrating into our curriculum the theme of sustainable development, because the UN Sustainable Development Goals are global goals. Our Silicon Valley school is working on these, too, so we're getting exchanges between the two campuses.

What else makes the curriculum different?

We use project-based learning across all campuses. In a recent project related to the Sustainable Development Goals, students read and researched an issue, identified key facts and messages, and then built a campaign of ‘public service announcement’ posters that could spread the story throughout the school community and beyond.

We also have technology platforms that enable schools to capture what’s happening in school and using them to support assessment. The platform also connects teachers on both sides and enable student ambassador programs between China and the U.S.

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ETU School students in Beijing.

I've also been advocating an idea called "Teachers as Leaders” that invests in training for teachers. We talk a lot about leadership at McKinsey – and if you think about it, teachers are also leaders. In a way, lots of the qualities that we want in our business associates should be the same for teachers. You want them to be problem solvers and to be collaborative, with a growth mindset. I've borrowed how we look at talent in the business world because I think it’s very transferable.

The core vision behind ETU is building an empowering education ecosystem. The problem with education is that there can be a lot of anxiety, so it becomes a painful experience for all parties involved. We aspire to view school not only as a place to deliver curriculum, but as the center of a learning community that involves children, teachers and parents. Only when we see school as a learning community and as a way to rebuild connections can we empower all students to fulfill their potential. We hope that our efforts combined with the technology platform can help more schools become such learning communities in China and beyond.

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