With 22 years of experience working in technology and marketing at Agilent (a spinoff from HP), Cynthia Cai, WG’01, recently joined Northern Light Venture Capital, where she is now a senior advisor and U.S. healthcare investment lead. “I spent many years in the corporate world and that experience combined with my Wharton MBA enabled me to make this recent career change. It also shows that I’m willing to learn, which is very important for advancement,” she said.

A willingness to learn has been an important theme for Cynthia throughout her career. After graduating from Tsinghua University, she planned to work as an engineer for HP in China, but an unexpected event led her to a sales role, where she committed to learning as much as she could without any background in sales or marketing. Within two years, she was the top salesperson for the Far East region at HP.

Her drive to “learn more and do better” continued, and she came to the U.S. to earn her Ph.D., rejoining HP in Delaware after graduation as an R&D application chemist, and then a product manager.

That move from a technical to a business role motivated Cynthia to get an MBA. “I wanted to get a systematic understanding of business from a top business school to continue advancing myself,” she explained.

In the years after graduation, she became director of business development and senior director of strategic marketing for her division. Cynthia points to five key learnings from Wharton’s EMBA program that have impacted her career:

1. Look for the optimal approach to problems.

“As an engineer – and as someone who was educated in China – I used to look for the one correct answer to a problem. However, that is not the case in business, because there could be multiple approaches to one business problem. I learned at Wharton to look for the optimal approach to achieve the best outcome.” said Cynthia.

2. Be open to different perspectives, and understand the people aspect in business.

“In the past, I thought high-tech companies should mostly care about science and technologies, however coming to Wharton I learned early on that people aspects are just as important in business,” she said, pointing to her first team project as an example. The assignment was to analyze a case and make a five-minute presentation. “Anyone in my group could probably have completed that task in 30 minutes, but it took us seven hours. The reason was that our study group had very diverse backgrounds, so each member had different approaches – no one was right or wrong. We had to learn to appreciate our differences and work together, and at the end of the school year, we had made great relationships and lifelong close friendships.

3. Always be willing to learn and don’t underestimate real-world experience.

“I learned that it’s important to stay open-minded because no matter how good you are at something, you may be surprised to learn from other angles. For example, [in a class] I used my strong math and modeling skills on a finance case to calculate WACC (Weighted Average Cost of Capital) for a candy company. Five minutes after I sent out my model, a teammate suggested that I recheck my calculations because the result seemed much lower than an average WACC in the real world. I did and discovered he was right!”

4. Stay connected to the best and brightest people.

“We can all continue to challenge ourselves and learn by staying connected with the best and brightest people.” This takeaway helped Cynthia transition to her new role as a venture capitalist. She explained, “The founder of Northern Light Venture Capital, Feng Deng, WG’05, was not only a college classmate from China but also a Wharton EMBA alumnus. We reconnected at a college reunion a couple years ago and I was interested in his perspectives when I was ready to make a career change.”

“As we talked, I identified healthcare as a growth area in a global market and saw how entrepreneurs who immigrate from China often lack access to funding and networks in the U.S. I wanted to help those entrepreneurs advance the world of healthcare. I am glad Feng shared my goal and is letting me use his VC as the platform to achieve it.”

In the VC world, Cynthia adds one more takeaway to her list of how Wharton is impacting her career.

5. Build a strong and accessible network.

Cynthia noted that the Wharton network is providing great value, as there is a strong representation of people in healthcare as well as in venture capital in the Wharton alumni network. “I can easily connect with alumni and discuss possible collaborations. I also can talk to my professors, like Prof. Michael Useem who I recently spoke to about the next generation of Chinese entrepreneurs.”

Looking back, Cynthia sees Wharton as a worthwhile long-term investment. “Wharton opened my mind to new knowledge and perspectives and provided access to the best and brightest network of faculty and alumni.”

— Meghan Laska

Posted: December 11, 2018

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