Alumnus finds how preparation can unlock success

After four years at global pharmaceutical firm Eli Lilly without a promotion, Yi Shi MBA '99 admits he was disappointed.

Yi Shi, Duke MBA Alumnus“The early years were tough,” Shi said. “I did not have enough work to do, and my work was not a priority to the company.”

Shi’s reaction to that situation was to learn more about his industry and to build his network. That decision put the 1999 graduate of Fuqua’s Daytime MBA program on a path to become managing partner of Lilly Asia Ventures, a biotech investment firm.

“To this day, I enjoy every bit of the job,” he said. “And I feel it is worth every bit of the struggling and preparing for the many years before I got here.”

The first thing Shi did when finding himself in the professional doldrums was to ask his bosses for more work.

“This surprised them, because most associates would just pretend how busy they were,” Shi said. “I also asked to work on cross-functional projects, which gave me exposure to different things so I could find out what I liked, and what I was good at.”

He started reading up on his industry during quiet spells at work, and networking, taking literally the title of a book he read: Never Eat Lunch Alone.

“I just set up lunch with everybody, including, some senior executives at Lilly,” he said. “I figured the executives had to eat lunch anyway, and they probably wouldn’t mind eating with somebody, and that was a perfect time for me to find out where the new opportunities were within the company.”

When Eli Lilly needed someone to lead a new venture operation to invest in Chinese biotech companies, Yi Shi got the call.

“The job required both scientific and business training, both of which I had from Duke,” Shi said. “And, throughout my first six years at Lilly, I had a reputation of being a hard worker who always wanted to do more. My rigorous reading had made me knowledgeable about the industry, and my networking had made me known to Lilly’s executives. I was very well prepared for the job, and I got it.”

As a venture capitalist specialized in the biotech industry, Shi had found his niche.

“It fit my interest, my background and my strengths,” he said. “Seeing my investments turn into medical products that help people live longer and healthier is extremely meaningful and fulfilling. Four years later I set up my own firm to do exactly the same thing, but with a bigger capital base to have more impact on the discovery of life-saving medicines. And I just love doing it, regardless of being a partner of my own firm, or an employee with Eli Lilly.”

As a student, Shi had switched from science to business. He had lost his interest in but wasn’t sure what to do instead.

“I figured the business world is big enough that I should be able to find what I would like to do,” he said. “And I did, eventually.”

He switched jobs twice in the two years after graduation before landing at Eli Lilly, and making the choices that built his success.

“It is so important to find the work you are passionate about,” he said, “and if you don’t find it right away, you need to keep searching and preparing for it.”