How Audrey Li helped build the premier collegiate capital partner
MIT undergraduate Audrey Li is the CEO of Collegiate Capital Partners, a student-led investment advisory firm that connects the venture capital industry with five universities in the northeast. Collegiate Capital Partners works with around 70 angel and VC partners who maintain a total of $28 billion in assets under management. Audrey is also an Xfund Advisor, working to connect Xfund to the founders and startups coming out of MIT and Harvard.
Audrey is studying abroad in China, but found time to chat about her work with Collegiate Capital Partners, her advice for student founders, and her perspective on the startup ecosystem at MIT and Harvard.
You played a big role in the development of Collegiate Capital Partners from a Harvard-based club into an organization with multiple university chapters. Tell us that story.
I’m an MIT student, majoring in computer science and economics. I’ve always been interested in VC, but I found that it was hard for undergrads, especially underclassmen, to get exposure to the VC industry. I was fortunate enough to learn about Harvard Undergraduate Capital Partners (HUCP) at a pitch event, and I thought about joining. I basically took the T down to Harvard — it’s only two stops away.
At the time, I was a freshman and HUCP was just beginning as a club, in its second year. It was an incredibly vibrant and welcoming community, and I was excited to be joining a VC community founded by students and for students and getting to know more people who share the same passion for VC.
From that point on, I was thinking about the other MIT students who might also be interested in venture capital and entrepreneurship, and how I could help them get exposure to the same opportunities. So, I shared the idea with some of my like-minded friends at MIT, and together we created a small cohort.
After founding the MIT part of the community, I discussed with the HUCP management the idea of starting new chapters at different colleges to provide opportunities to more students who might lack access to this traditionally insular industry. We recruited people from different colleges like Princeton, Penn, and NYU who were also interested in VC. Now collectively, all five chapters — at Harvard, MIT, Penn, Princeton, and NYU — are part of Collegiate Capital Partners.
And how did you connect with Xfund?
When I joined HUCP as a freshman, Xfund was (and still is) a long-time partner of the club. When I was promoted to Managing Director of Sourcing, I connected with Brandon and Patrick.
We talked about how we could grow the Xfund relationship with HUCP. At that moment, Xfund was thinking of starting a student advisory board, and they thought that I could be a great addition to the team, because, with my engagement in the MIT and Harvard startup scenes, I could contribute insight from both entrepreneurship ecosystems.
Explain to us what Collegiate Capital Partners does.
We are a collective body of the teams at five schools — Harvard, MIT, Princeton, Penn, and NYU. Our teams at each of the schools mainly do two types of work. One part is due diligence, and the other part is sourcing.
In terms of diligence, our teams of analysts provide well-crafted deliverables on anything ranging from industry theses to competitive landscapes. And for sourcing, our students monitor university innovation hubs to provide custom startup updates to our partners.
How do students benefit?
We are so grateful for all of the support and hands-on diligence and sourcing training that our partners have provided. Back in the early days of HUCP, our management went door to door to meet investors. Brandon and Patrick at Xfund were really supportive of the idea, and they have been a long-time advocates for us ever since.
We’re really appreciative of the fact that they’re willing to offer us opportunities or a door for entry into the VC world, which is often seen as a relatively closed-off industry to young grads. We as students have a passion for connecting with early-stage founders, and it’s always great, in turn, to connect the founders who are actively seeking funding to the great investor partners that we have.
A lot of the student-led companies on campus lack a direct way to get funding. Many of them can get on-campus grant funding. But if they’re growing beyond the seed stage or looking to expand, the grants sometimes aren’t enough, so they start looking for institutional investors, yet they often lack a direct connection to VCs. This is where we and our partners come in.
Are students at Collegiate Capital Partners more interested in VC or entrepreneurism?
It’s a two-way street. I think a lot of us see ourselves on both sides of the bridge, in a sense. We are totally open to joining a startup right after we graduate, but we also definitely want to explore the VC side.
And in contrast, some of us are looking to join the VC/finance industry right after we graduate, but might move on to serving in an operative role at a company, or joining a startup to help it grow.
How would you characterize the startup ecosystem at MIT, Harvard, and the other universities with Collegiate Capital Partners chapters?
I’ve always been super excited to talk to founders in these communities, because a lot of them are great thinkers and risk-takers. They are incredibly intelligent, curious, and passionate, and they have so many great ideas that can inspire students who can sometimes get bogged down in academics.
I believe a lot of them possess both the determination and the intelligence to start something great. Of course, plenty of startups fail, but I still think founders here are really resilient, in that a lot of them are constantly learning, thinking, and pivoting, because they’re truly passionate about the field that they’re interested in.
Meeting founders and talking with them is a truly intellectually stimulating experience. That’s one of the reasons why I wanted to embark on the VC path in the first place. I really enjoy talking to and meeting different founders and hearing their stories and ideas.
What advice do you have for student founders?
I mainly have two pieces of advice. One is to build great relationships with everyone you encounter on your path.
For example, I met one of HUCP’s founding members, who was a junior at the time, at a pitch event. It’s all about meeting and talking to different people; sometimes they can lead you to an array of amazing opportunities. Students especially, whether they’re undergrads, grads, or PhDs, have so many opportunities to step out of their comfort zones and meet different people both on and off campus. Try to connect with them and build those conversations based on your passions and interests. You never know where it could lead you.
The second piece of advice is don’t be afraid of failing. I see so many of my friends coming up with ideas and trying to start something. But then, they get rejected for a grant, or they encounter obstacles and just give up along the way.
But a great idea can be a good beginning to something else. You can always pivot, revise your idea, or change your perspective by learning and doing more. Maybe this one idea could turn into something else, by adding in a different feature, for example, to make it a success.
What’s next for you and Collegiate Capital Partners?
Personally, I’ve never been more excited about the VC/PE industry. I’m hoping to explore the full spectrum, in terms of VC, growth equity, and PE. I want to figure out, after I graduate, where I want to land on that spectrum. I’m hoping to have more internship opportunities to explore and learn from VC/PE firms with funds in different stages. But at the same time, I’m always looking for opportunities to co-found a company and to start something exciting. I’m a junior and a lot is still up in the air. But I’m very passionate about this field.
As for Collegiate Capital Partners, we are always looking to expand and connect to more VC partners. We have about 70 partners now. It’s also an exciting time for us to expand to more campuses, and to provide more students with exposure and access to the VC world.
Next up, we have two major goals. One is education: getting students connections and training in the VC world, since a lot of them typically aren’t exposed to that until much later in their careers.
Our second focus is to promote diversity both in the startup world and the VC industry. We know that minorities, including women and people of color, don’t have the same access to VC or financing, or exposure to the industry in college or even when they join the workforce. We are underrepresented across the entire VC/entrepreneurship world, so we want to provide women and people of color the education and the opportunities they need to succeed as both founders as well as investors.