Embrace failure and stay focused, top investor tells MMS graduates | Duke Kunshan University

Embrace failure and stay focused, top investor tells MMS graduates

May 29, 2019

The MMS program’s Class of 2019 celebrate graduation at Duke Kunshan on May 17

In business, “failure” is often a dirty word. But not to Jeffery Li, managing partner of Tencent Investment. To him, it represents the only true test of an entrepreneur’s potential.

“It’s not about how someone fails, but about what they learn from that failure,” he said in his commencement speech to the master of management studies (MMS) program’s Class of 2019 at Duke Kunshan.

“Get out of your comfort zone, take risks and experience failure,” he told them. “Failure is inevitable – so fail early, and fail fast.”

Li, a Duke alum, spoke at a ceremony on May 17 that saw 58 students awarded with degrees from Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business after 10 months of intensive study in China and the United States.

After opening remarks by William Boulding, dean of Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, and Duke Kunshan Executive Vice Chancellor Denis Simon, Li shared his personal journey from frustrated graduate to senior figure at one of China’s tech titans.

Starting with his two years on Fuqua’s MBA program, from 2002 to 2004, he talked of his struggle finding opportunities in the U.S., which at the time was reeling from the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the dot-com crash. Many of his peers failed to find an internship or full-time job, he said.

“I interviewed at almost every consultancy firm, including Deloitte Atlantic, McKinsey New York, BCG Boston and Monitor Chicago. I failed all of them,” he said.

But what at first appeared a major bust was in fact a boon for his career. “I learned how to prepare for each small opportunity, how to motivate myself and keep a proactive attitude, and how to make peace with myself when the bad news kept coming.”

After graduating from Fuqua, Li chose a different route. Instead of consulting, he joined phone manufacturer Nokia and spent almost three years in the United Kingdom and China as business development manager. He then moved to Google as director of strategic partnership development.

“The experience at Nokia and Google gave me early access to China’s mobile internet industry, which is by far the most fundamental technology and consumer innovation globally,” he said.

In 2008, Li joined Tencent Investment, a division of the company behind WeChat and some of China’s most popular mobile games. Today, his team invests more than $10 billion a year and has a portfolio of over 700 companies worldwide. Li is also the company’s general manager of mergers and acquisitions.

Jeffery Li, managing partner of Tencent Investment, gives the commencement speech watched by William Boulding, dean of Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, and Duke Kunshan Executive Vice Chancellor Denis Simon

“To expose your weakness is always a painful experience. But once you go through it, you will become truly confident and strong,” he said.

In addition to embracing failure, Li also told the MMS graduates to stay focused in the face of endless opportunities and choices.

“Today, you can choose a job, be a small business owner or try to build a huge business with the support of venture capital,” he said. “But you must be focused. I’ve seen so many talented people fail because they lost focus.

“One of my key responsibilities is to define the investment scope of Tencent – in simple words, what not to do. I assure you that many opportunities seem attractive, but only those people with the deepest understanding see the final value.”

According to the MMS program’s employment report, 91 percent of graduates from the Class of 2018 found jobs within six months, with employers including McKinsey & Co., Deloitte, L’Oreal, Nielsen China and Softbank China Capital.

Below, watch a video excerpt of Jeffrey Li’s commencement speech. The full speech is available on YouTube.