When Victoria Li first left New York City to attend Dartmouth, she felt a little lost. She missed her close-knit Asian-American family and their bustling restaurant.
Inspired by her family’s love of food, she found comfort in serving falafel sandwiches from a campus food truck, founding a club that hosted food tastings on campus, and even washing dishes in the dining hall. Following graduation, Li landed in hospitality, but then took a different path to become Learning & Development Manager at L.E.K. Consulting. She co-chairs Mosaic@LEK, an employer resource group for individuals who identify as racial and ethnic minorities. She started a podcast recounting her experiences attending Bronx Science, a well-known school in New York City, and she's a contestant in Miss Chinese Chicago. Li traces fascinating twists and turns in her rising career.
Read the Transcript
Jennifer Avellino: Hi everyone and welcome to our 50 for 50 Podcast. 50 stories for 50 years as we celebrate three major milestones in Dartmouth's history. As many of you know, and some of you can remember firsthand, 1972 was a pivotal year. Women joined the undergraduate community as Dartmouth students, following several years of women exchange students on campus. The Black Alumni of Dartmouth Association, or BADA, is also entering its 50th year and so is the Native American Program. Quite the trifecta of anniversaries, and also not a coincidence that so much happened during this critical time. I'm Jennifer Avellino, class of 1989, past president of the Dartmouth Alumni Council and a former senior producer at CNN. As a journalist, my early days were spent as the news director for WDCR, WFRD Dartmouth Broadcasting. I've had the good fortune to meet and bring to the airwaves remarkable people over the years, and this podcast, in many ways, brings me home. Over the next few months, I'll be talking to inspiring, influential and fascinating Dartmouth alumni. They'll reflect on what it was like to be a woman, a Native American, a person of color at Dartmouth, and how their time at the college led to the lives that they're pursuing today. Our guest today is Victoria Li, Dartmouth class of 2016, the Learning and Development Manager at L.E.K. Consulting in Chicago and the National Co-director for Mosaic@LEK, an employee resource group for individuals who identify as racial and ethnic minorities. When she wasn't taking classes at Dartmouth or studying for her economics degree, Victoria was thinking about food. She was the founder of Dartmouth Spoon, an organization that published articles online and hosted food events. And she worked on the campus food truck, the BOX, as both a marketer and a food server. After Dartmouth, outside of her busy work life, Victoria took improv classes and performed at the famed comedy club Second City. She also hosted a podcast called Dear Bronx Science about her well-known New York City high school. And these days, she's a contestant in the Miss Chinese Chicago Pageant. Victoria, welcome.
Victoria Li: Yeah. Thank you so much for having me here.
Jennifer Avellino: Yeah, great to have you join us today. You clearly squeeze a lot into your day, I almost don't know where to start. Do we talk about food, podcasting, comedy, corporate inclusivity? We'll get to all of that, but first, I just mentioned that you grew up in New York City; how did you end up in the woods in New Hampshire?
Victoria Li: I know it sounds corny, but when I visited Dartmouth, it was the summer of my junior year of high school. We happened to be in Massachusetts, and my mom thought, let's drive over to Dartmouth to take a visit. It was just—after the tour, I walked on the Green, and I just had a gut feeling. Dartmouth felt like what I thought was a quintessential college experience. I think I trust my guts a lot of time, even though I'm not quite sure what's leading to it. And thankfully, Dartmouth accepted me. And I wanted to also just get out of the city. I'd been in New York for quite a bit and then wanted to just explore and spread my wings elsewhere.
Jennifer Avellino: I remember the exact moment that I got off the bus in Hanover for the very first time, so you are not alone. Tell me more about your time in Hanover, your experience at Dartmouth.
Victoria Li: For me, the part that was really influential for me in my life in my Dartmouth experience was knowing that I could explore my interests. So like you mentioned, I attended Bronx Science. Students have to test in to get in and it can definitely be very competitive, a lot of pressure, and kind of feeling that you have to do what you think you should be doing in order to get into a good college. It's also a school community full of many children of immigrants or immigrants themselves, so a lot of pressure there, but at Dartmouth I felt a lot more freedom to pursue what it was that I was interested in. I remember my first term, I was actually really scared of that freedom and just felt very homesick and not sure what I was doing, but I had another gut feeling. It was the summer after freshman year of college, and I realized I spent a lot of my time watching food videos. My parents had run a restaurant when I was younger. My home literally was in that restaurant. When I was a kid, there's photos of me as a baby, a toddler, in the kitchen of the restaurant. And I wanted to explore more of food. And the Box food truck, which is a food truck founded by business school students. So I really also just liked serving people and giving them a really fun experience with food. So that was my time at Dartmouth. It was just feeling I had this freedom to explore my interests and feel like I had all these opportunities at Dartmouth.
Jennifer Avellino: Tell me more about your parents' restaurant, your father's restaurant, when you were growing up, and how that made you feel being a part of that.
Victoria Li: Yeah. Yeah, so they sold it when I was around 12 years old, so it was more during the younger parts of my life, but it's very interesting that how I thought about it back then is very different than how I think about it now. I think back then I was a little bit ashamed. I was a bit ashamed because my dad didn't know how to speak English, whereas other people's parents seemed like there were, I guess, working more prestigious jobs, I guess. So at that point, I felt a little bit ashamed. If we didn't have a babysitter to watch us, we'd have to just wait in the restaurant and it'd be extremely boring as well. But now looking back on it, the restaurant was really what created the foundation for my family, what led to me and my sister both to go to Bronx Science and then both of us to go to Dartmouth. So she's an 18, class of 2018. And it's also what led me to, when I was younger, just always having such delicious food at home. Both my mom and dad are amazing cooks as well, and just having that community... I think for us, food is what speaks about love in our family. And I think you find that probably in a lot of Chinese American families, if you see the short film Bao from the same director as Turning Red. So yeah, I think that's what led me to wanting to explore more of food and knowing that my parents came to the U.S., they had to work in a restaurant, whereas I had the choice that I wanted to explore this area a bit more.
Jennifer Avellino: I asked you when we spoke earlier if your story felt like a classic immigrant story to you. It does sound like you view it different ways when you were a child and now as you look back.
Victoria Li: Mm-hmm. I think it's also just as a child, I didn't know what was going to happen because it was that uncertainty. I remember when we first moved to New York, I don't think my mom thought that my sister and I would be able to go to an Ivy League school. She wasn't sure if that was in a pathway for us, but just seeing how hard my parents worked and also making sure that we had extracurriculars and experience, now looking back, I think we look at it a little more fondly. In the moment, it was just a bit more of, wow, other people's parents are born in the U.S., have gone to school here, have done this and that, and my sister and I are trying to chart our own pathway here.
Jennifer Avellino: How else did you find ways to do that at Dartmouth? Tell me about some of your other activities besides food. Your academics, you were an economics major, tell me more about that time for you.
Victoria Li: Yeah, so I think another big part of my time at Dartmouth was also my sorority Epsilon Kappa Theta, but being able to be a part of that house was so helpful because it was like-minded women who were part of that home as well, and also just, my dad had passed away my junior year of college, and knowing that I had that support system there as well of Thetas that I can talk to, Thetas that I can cry to. And also even when I stayed there, my sophomore summer, it was just really fun to be able to live in a home with them. I remember one summer, one of the events we did was we went to the Ben and Jerry's Factory, and we got the giant sundae where it's a big tub filled with ice cream scoops, and 10 of us are just around it just trying to finish it, and then towards the end, only three of us could keep going. I think I gave up in the middle, but I have just a lot of fond memories of that time period in the house.
Jennifer Avellino: I think it was called the Vermonster or something like that. I remember doing that once upon a time. And then your junior year, your sister joined you in Hanover. She's class of 18. What was it like having your sister there as well?
Victoria Li: It was nice to know that we had each other because that was immediately after my dad passed away. He passed away September of 2014, so it was just right immediately afterwards. So I think it's probably helpful that my mom knew both of us were there. But it was also an interesting experience because now she was on the campus, it wasn't just me as the only one from the family. But I think it was really helpful because she and I both love food. It's probably the outcome of having grown up with the restaurant in our family and both loving food and sharing the passion. My mom also really loves food as well, and she [my sister] took up the mantle with Spoon as well, being a critical contributor during my time there and also running it after I graduated.
Jennifer Avellino: So tell me exactly what Spoon was. What did it provide for students? And by the way, how did you end up serving falafel sandwiches from the campus food truck?
Victoria Li: So Spoon, I had started that because it was actually an organization that was across multiple college campuses. The premise was allowing college students to write articles about food. So the main thing was about a blog. It became more of a publication. And I wanted to start some kind of food group on campus, and it was helpful to know that there was an existing infrastructure that I could join into, with a network of colleges. But over time, it's kind of maybe similar to a lot of the Greek houses at Dartmouth where they are part of a national structure, but then decide to go local and independent. And similar to that, we went independent as well. Instead of being Spoon University, we simplified to Spoons, and that's what people knew of us because we realized that our passion as a group was more about hosting the events. So one of my favorite event that we hosted was... it was actually on frat row. We knew that there was an appetite from the Greek houses... I guess the coalition or something, they wanted to host events to introduce to the freshmen, but something a little bit more friendlier. And we submitted an idea of what about all of the houses they cook something so that people could walk down frat row and get a bite of this at this house, a bite of that at another house. So it was also just a really fun experience being able to interact with the freshman and introduce them to Spoon, but also get to work with the Greek houses on campus. Another one of my favorite events was, we had someone who was really interested in molecular astronomy, and we had an event where one of the tastings that we had was if you eat this little pill or candy, it makes everything that's sour sweet. So if you eat a lemon, it literally just takes like lemonade, so that was also just a really fun event. And getting to share all these different food experiences with people, especially since being in Hanover, in the middle of nowhere, it can be hard to find interesting food experiences with the limited restaurants in town. But as for cooking falafel, I was really fortunate that that food truck started my sophomore year, right around the time I was considering, how can I get into food? So I first started working in the dish room, in FoCo there just to get experience. And then when the food truck opened, I thought, wait, this is perfect. I want to be able to cook in that kitchen. I got to cook in the prep kitchen. I got to cook on the food truck as well. And I really loved the lunch rush as well. Being partners and cooking for both the students and professors. So that's how I ended up there. And I worked with them from my sophomore to my senior year. Even my sophomore summer of cooking in hot metal box during the middle of summer was not very fun, but a good bonding experience with everyone.
Jennifer Avellino: It's a good thing New Hampshire isn't that hot in the summer. And you did marketing for them as well. You weren't just cooking.
Victoria Li: Yeah, exactly. I remember my senior year, I wanted get more involved on the business side because I had at that time taken a business class that they offer for undergrad students at Tuck, so I was a bit curious about that side of the business versus the operations. And I remember working with a fellow student and we were trying to figure out ways of how can we market the BOX be the caterer for all of the houses formal? So the BOX did cater Theta's formal. One of those, I think for the spring. So that was also just really fun of thinking about how can we reach out to the houses? How can we budget the menu, et cetera?
Jennifer Avellino: Well, it sounds like a fun time for you. And it also sounds like you were headed perhaps for a career in food. You interned at David Chang's Momofuku in Manhattan, I think during your junior spring. Why did you ultimately turn in another direction?
Victoria Li: I did go into food after college. I did work at a... working within the hospitality space, but I realized it was kind of tough because people, they think after they graduate, you find your first job out, it will be this perfect match, that all of the hard work that you did throughout school from, I guess first grade to middle school, to high school, to college, that it's all worth it for that first job. But I had the hard realization of that I didn't think that first job was quite the right match. I also had to come to the realization that a lot of the things that I was doing throughout college, it was more... it was a hobby, it was an interest, that for internship, you do it for a few months and then that's it. And there was always a lot of fun in that, but I realized once it became more of a job, I lost a bit of interest in there. And it was really rough, I remember. I talked with a friend from high school about, "I don't know what I'm doing. I did all of these things and what if I was wrong? Did I waste all my time at Dartmouth?" So it was a really hard realization, but I think that's the beauty of why we do have a liberal arts education that even though I was an econ major, I went into food, but then I was able to take that ability to learn, to think critically to ultimately transition into consulting. On campus, I remember at school, I thought, "Ugh, I'm not doing consulting. That's what everyone else does. I'm going to be more interesting than that." But I realized that I was at a point where I didn't quite know what to do next, and consulting really was the really best option for me to get that exposure into different industries, different skills, and to build my business acumen as well. So then afterwards I was able to transition and work at L.E.K. Consulting as an associate.
Jennifer Avellino: So tell me more about what you do for L.E.K., and your work with Mosaic, L.E.K.'s employee resource affinity group.
Victoria Li: As a Learning and Development Manager, essentially I manage the operations and strategy of how we train the consulting staff, as well as our internal staff. So that ranges from when new people join the firm, I'm there with the orientation, working with the team to set up all the instructors, set up all of the material, get all the logistics, as well as with the hotel. But also outside of that, we have trainings almost once a year for every cohort. And a lot of that was also influenced by my work with Mosaic, which you also mentioned, which is our employee resource group for those who identify as a racial or ethnic minority at L.E.K. Consulting. And I had been involved with Mosaic very early on from when I joined back in 2018 when Mosaic just started. I was really passionate about it because I think, as you might imagine, consulting or really any corporate job, it's not the most diverse place, and for me going from Bronx Science to Dartmouth, also experiencing just a very different change in demographics as well, I wanted to make sure that I can create a welcoming space and be a part of that community within Mosaic at L.E.K. So I, over time, went from just an office committee member to then the Chicago office head, and then finally we started having a national structure and I was elected to be the national co-director. So I oversee all the offices, different Mosaic committees. So that has also just been a fun ride to see how much we've grown over my time at L.E.K.
Jennifer Avellino: Mm-hmm. So the last few years have seen a significant rise in anti-Asian violence. How have you addressed this in your professional work with Mosaic, and how has it affected you personally?
Victoria Li: Yeah, no. Yeah, I think that's a really important topic to bring up because I find that it's interesting you ask how did I do it in my job and also personally, because I feel like I wanted to make sure that through Mosaic, we did have a way to address this. I think, for me, I tend to shut down on things. If it's affecting me, I try to push it away, but it is underneath the surface. So what we did do for Mosaic last year is I know that I'm no expert in how to lead these discussions, so I brought in a professional, someone who would know how to lead such types of discussion. Brought him in March of 2021, so about a little bit more than a year ago. I met him through my high school network and also I interviewed him for Dear Bronx Science, Jerry Won, to talk about it. But I don't know whether unfortunate or just really helpful timing for everyone in the staff, it was a day scheduled right after the murders in Atlanta, and a lot of people on that call, were talking about how they were worried about their parents, how they're worried about themselves and not feeling quite at home here, knowing that there is such hatred and violence just for how we look. And so that's how we've been addressing it, is trying to bring external speakers to talk about it and also sharing external events that might be happening for people to do that. I found there was an event happening last March, this past month, and I was able to share it to members in the Chicago Mosaic office. And some of them were able to come, and we had a meditation, an open mic to talk about our experience as Asian American women and how we've been feeling. But yeah, that's kind of just bringing outside experts who know how to do it, because it's a tough topic. I'm even having a hard time talking about it now. As for how it affects me personally, I think about when I'm taking the train... I think about what happened to Michelle Go. And in New York City, the subway, she was pushed into tracks. And now, I stand further back and kind of just be a little bit more cautious. In the past, I would just put on headphones and just enjoy my music or podcast, but now not so much. You're just being a little bit more cautious about that, which is kind of sad to think about, but it's just something in the back of my mind that this is a reality, but it's also that's why we have Mosaic to create a welcoming environment and also to form relationships with allies within the firm as well.
Jennifer Avellino: Yeah, really important to have these conversations. When you were at Dartmouth, you did a term abroad at Beijing Normal University. What was that like for you as a Chinese-American?
Victoria Li: I wanted to have that experience in China where I wasn't just with family members and they're just taking me around to everywhere, and having my own experience. But as a Chinese-American, it's interesting because I walk around and I look Chinese and people see me with what they think look like foreign students, and they come up to me, and they ask me because they think I'm a tour guide for them all, but I'm really just in there with all of them. And then once I start talking with them, and I say, "Oh, I'm from the U.S.", then they just look at me, very confused of, "How is that possible? You look Chinese. You look like me. You're not from the US." And then once I say my parents immigrated from China, it all clicks. And it's also interesting to be in a space where I am part of the majority, at least appearance wise, but culturally in experience, I am not at all part of that majority. But it was such a fun experience because I think that was also the closest I'd been to family, distance-wise because I was just a bus ride from my grandparents.
Jennifer Avellino: Oh that's great. It sounds like a great experience. I suspect you'll get back there if you haven't already. So tell me about your podcast, Dear Bronx Science. The Bronx High School of Science is a well-known public magnet school, one of the top high schools in New York. Why did you start the podcast? What kind of stories do you like to tell?
Victoria Li: I started the podcast because at kind of during the height of the pandemic, I started listening to a lot of podcasts just to... We were all stuck at home, and I didn't... I don't know. It just feels like there wasn't anyone you were talking to and I just needed to hear a voice other than myself and my husband's, but I also started thinking about how tough it was also going through Bronx Science. It definitely is a challenging school. And then just thinking about all the students are at home. They're not walking around the hallways. They're not seeing upperclassmen and seeing like, "Oh this is what can happen and what can be if I work hard and do well here at Bronx Science." And also I think about when I graduated from Bronx Science, I didn't know what was next. I was going to go to Dartmouth and was like, "Okay, I guess I'm going to this Ivy league school. What happens from here? What do I do now?" Because I was essentially the first in my family to be going to a US university for education. And there's just such a wealth of stories within the Bronx Science community. And as for that question of what type of stories I'd like to share, I wanted to highlight alums that might not necessarily be the ones that the alumni association would highlight in their newsletter. I know Bronx Science always celebrates the high number of Nobel laureates that they have, but you don't have to be a Nobel laureate to be celebrated at Bronx Science. And I would first reach out to my friends to have them share their stories. So for example, my first guest was someone who talked about her own experience of, similar to myself, being an immigrant. Talking about her experience of when she went to college, she didn't know what a syllabus. I think that would resonate with a lot of students. It's great to hear that about all the Nobel laureates at Bronx Science, but it just seems so far. And I wanted to share stories from guests that people could see themselves in, and their younger selves, so that they could see that, "Hey, I can be like them when I'm older. This is what could happen."
Jennifer Avellino: It sounds fascinating. So Victoria, outside of work, clearly you have such a full plate, I guess, to use a food metaphor. You recently got married, you mentor first generation college students, during the pandemic, you founded something called Meals for Chicago. What did you set out to achieve with that effort? Tell us about that.
Victoria Li: Yeah. So Meals for Chicago was founded right at the beginning of the pandemic when we were first told to stay at home. I could see all of the great work being done in New York City. Since I'm from there, I'm still very connected with the community there, of all these local organizations doing things to help the community, such as... I was inspired by Welcome to Chinatown. They're really a successful organization now, but in the beginning they started with buying food from restaurants to support restaurants, to give it to essential workers, to hospitals. And I thought that type of model can also help the community here in Chicago. So I was able to, with a friend, we were able to raise nearly $3,000. And we were able to use that money to support almost 10 restaurants and also feed over 300 essential workers, from those that worked in banks to grocery stores to even an urgent care facility that provided COVID tests. And it was great to see that we were able to also rally other people who... We were doing our part to stay at home, but wanted to do more, and it was really great that we were to collect my friends, family, as well as I even shared it with my coworkers. And it was awesome to see partners also donating to the effort and being able to connect with so many different organizations and restaurants in the community.
Jennifer Avellino: So it was such a worthy endeavor. You didn't let the pandemic stop you. It may have curtailed some of your activities though. Are you still taking improv classes?
Victoria Li: I currently am not, but at the beginning of the pandemic, we had a class that was in person. I remember we were joking about, "Ah, this is fine. This is fine." And we jokingly did some elbow bumps to just say, hi, and the next week we were shut down. And we were like, "Wow, was a joke pulled on us?"
Jennifer Avellino: What was it like performing at Second City?
Victoria Li: I find that it's kind of... I have a funny, I guess, I don't know, it's a dichotomy of, I can be kind of nervous in meetings, but I'm fine on stage. It's really weird. I just want to embrace that a little bit more and bring my confidence from there into meetings. I'm not sure why I have that dichotomy, but I guess they need to bridge the gap.
Jennifer Avellino: Perhaps. Perhaps. Well, you do have another creative outlet right now with the Miss Chinese Chicago Pageant. You have to fill us in on what this involves. What does one do to be a contestant in a pageant like this?
Victoria Li: Miss Chinese Chicago is a different type of pageant. It's a community-oriented heritage based pageant, hence Miss Chinese Chicago. And it's been a really great opportunity for me to get to know people I think, and also to meet other like-minded women, but also with the contestants, we volunteer in the community. And it's been a great way for me to get involved with the Asian-American community here, because for myself, I grew up in Flushing and Queens. For those who might be familiar with that neighborhood, it's a very predominantly Asian neighborhood, so I had been very involved with the community there, but it just wasn't as tied in to the community here. The other reason I wanted to join the pageant was just to build my confidence as well. For example, we have to have a community service platform, and my platform I think is going to be on body positivity. It's been something that I've... I wouldn't say passionate about. I guess it's been really all my mind for a lot of my life growing up as more of a chubbier kid. And whereas, a lot of people, I think, tend to think that East Asian women always are thin. And I just didn't fit that stereotype. And feeling the pressure within... Also a Chinese family community can be very blunt. They mean it in a very good way, but it can be hard for someone who's, let's say, grew up in an American context. But it's been really helpful to build my confidence of being more comfortable in photos and being more comfortable in my skin. We're going to eventually have to be on stage in a bikini for the pageant, which is going to be in August of this year, and definitely looking forward to that. I think right now, I'd be pretty scared, but I'm looking forward to when I do get on the stage, I think I'll be a lot more confident then.
Jennifer Avellino: Wow, there's no shortage of interesting things in your activity list. I can't wait to see what you do next. You recently served on the Women of Dartmouth Global Steering Committee, and you've produced some of the stories for the Women of Dartmouth's Inspire Project. You also did some work while living in New York, pairing Dartmouth women from different decades. What are your thoughts, Victoria, about the comraderie you've found from other Dartmouth women, both as an undergraduate and now a graduate? What do you think ties Dartmouth women together through the five decades of co-education?
Victoria Li: For me, I talked about Theta just being such a strong community on campus for me. And then as I graduated, I was a young graduate in New York City first feeling really lost because I wasn't quite sure if that first job was a fit, but being able to be a part of Women of Dartmouth, the New York City group was so helpful because I got to see older graduates of Dartmouth. I think the initiative that I guess a lot of people know me from, from Women of Dartmouth is the coffee pairing program, which you mentioned, where I would pair alumni randomly once a month, every month, with each other, just to get to meet each other, whether for a coffee, whether for a phone call, or even video call when it was during the pandemic. And so I think it's also just knowing that we all went to Dartmouth together, have a similar experience as well throughout the time periods.
Jennifer Avellino: When you pull Dartmouth women together from the five decades of co-education, it's always a pretty remarkable experience. So you graduated in 2016. The new class that will be entering in the fall is the class of 2026. They're a full decade younger than you are. Students have been accepted from all 50 states and over 70 countries. 53% in the accepted group are students of color. 17% are the first in their families to go to college. What do you hope for all of these students and for their Dartmouth experience, and what do you see in the college's future?
Victoria Li: I want to wish for them that Dartmouth is a place for them to explore their interests, especially, like I mentioned earlier, for myself, as a child of immigrants and perhaps other students who are also children of immigrants, it definitely was really hard work for them, their journey to get to Dartmouth. But knowing that there is so many opportunities at Dartmouth to explore whatever it is that their interest is and just knowing that they can with full force, explore it. If it turns out it's not your passion or what you want to do for the rest of your life and you find that out after Dartmouth, there's still an opportunity to reinvent yourself. And the Dartmouth community is such a strong network, and I was able to leverage it. So really my message is that what I hope for this new class of 2026 is just to explore and to not be afraid of it.
Jennifer Avellino: Oh, Victoria, I cannot wait to see what you do next. This has been a fascinating conversation. Thanks so much for joining us.
Victoria Li: Thank you for having me on the show.
Jennifer Avellino: It's truly our pleasure. And thanks to all of you for listening to our 50 for 50 Podcast series supported by our office of alumni relations. I'm Jennifer Avellino. Many thanks to our co-producers Catherine Darragh and Charlotte Albright and to Dartmouth's media production group for technical assistance. We hope you'll join us for our next episode marking Dartmouth's three milestone anniversaries.