JT Li’s Journey From China to Chile and Lessons Learned From Crossing Borders

JT Li joined the Magma Partners team in our Santiago, Chile office earlier this year. As part of her training, she listened to much of the Crossing Borders podcast and wrote up some of the most interesting things she learned from the entrepreneurs and investors I talked with. Here’s JT’s story about how she went from the south of China to Santiago, Chile.
Three months ago, on my 25th birthday, I took a flight from my hometown of Jieyang, China, and arrived in Santiago, Chile two days later, after 32 hours in the air, and joined the Magma Partners team.
I never imagined that one day I would be working in South America, let alone Chile. But now when I look back, everything makes sense. During the first 18 years of my life, I followed a very traditional path. I lived with my family in Jieyang, a small (by Chinese standards!) city of 6M in Canton where I was born. I studied hard and got good grades. Next up university. After the extremely competitive entrance exam, I was accepted into Beijing Foreign Studies University and hopped on a plane to study economics.
It was my first time away from home, 1100+ miles away from my hometown. I had a great year meeting my fellow students from different backgrounds and experiencing huge differences between southern and northern China in terms of languages, food, and lifestyles. After meeting new people from different places, I was hooked. I wanted to see more. After my first year, I started traveling and haven’t stopped since.

My first stop was Bulgaria, a small country in eastern Europe, where I for a cultural exchange program for 6 weeks. Next, I flew south to Queensland, Australia for a semester abroad, where I studied management and learned a bit of Aussie English. After I finished my undergraduate in Beijing, I went back to Australia, settling in Sydney for a Masters Degree in Management.

I knew I wanted to go abroad again. One day, I was handed a list of 28 universities to pick from for my exchange semester. Chile immediately stuck out because of its natural beauty and because nobody I knew had been there. Chile and Brazil were the only two South American countries on the list. I remember thinking, “Hmm Chile is definitely far enough away, and it seems safer than Brazil,” so I applied!

In February 2016, I arrived in Santiago, Chile, and started my Latin America adventure. I managed to survive with very limited Spanish and got to feel my first few earthquakes, including a 7.0 one when I was in Costanera Center,  South America’s tallest building.

Everything was exciting and fantastic. I enjoyed the music, the BBQs, and the vibe. Latin Americans follow a totally different life philosophy than Asians.
I really like how Latin Americans open up to strangers and are always warm and welcoming. Yet I was also bothered by how slow business moved, and how bureaucratic things could be. For example, there was no way for me to get a bank account, not to mention a credit card. I saw lots of ways Chinese and US technology could help improve things. As my semester came to an end, I started doing an internship with Andes Property, a property company that helps foreigners buy, sell, rent, or invest in Latin American property, which is where I met Nathan and Magma Partners.
In addition to real estate, I got to learn a bit more about the Latin American entrepreneurship ecosystem because Andes Property shares offices with Magma Partners and 10+ startups that work from Magma’s shared offices pace. It was obvious to me that Latin America is on the verge of a tech transition. I really believe that there is a big opportunity and Nathan and the team showed me that I stood in a unique position to help take advantage this trend, given that Chinese companies and investors are starting to look at Latin America more deeply.
In December 2017, I graduated, left Chile, and went back to China. I was a bit lost. I wasn’t sure what to do next. I had been trained to be a business manager but I was so unmotivated by the idea of working in the big corporate world and being a perfect screw, or small cog in a big gear. I wanted to do something different. Something that made an impact. I felt my opportunity was in Latin America.
But my parents were freaked out about the idea because it is so far away from home and perceived as an undeveloped, dangerous place.  But after a few months, it became clear to me that I had to come back to Latin America to work with Magma and Latin American entrepreneurs. I knew I had a chance to make a difference and I couldn’t afford to miss it. So, in mid-2018 I came back. It has been only three months and I have no regrets! I am learning new things every day and excited to help Latin Americans, Chinese and US create new businesses that help people change Latin America for the better. I’m excited!

What I Learned from Crossing Borders

After listening to Crossing Borders, I have a more realistic view of startup life. All the overnight success stories of Mark Zuckerberg in Silicon Valley and entrepreneurs like Ofo’s Wei Dai in China have created a fantasy around startups which is most definitely not true. Starting a startup isn’t easy and overnight successes are more likely to take years. It’s anything but rainbows and butterflies.
All the founders on Crossing Borders podcast, including Nathan, were knee-deep in mud once, or more than once, to get problems solved and keep their companies alive. That is what entrepreneurship really is about.
The challenges can vary from testing over Alba Rodriguez testing 500 cricket recipes (Yep you heard it right, crickets!), going bankrupt overnight (EP02 Adrian Fisher), living out of your car (Federico Vega), or going even more extreme as going to prison in a foreign country for six months (EP48, Mayer Mizrachi). You name it, entrepreneurs will go through it.
Their grit and passion carried them through. Entrepreneurs’ testimonials make it clear that the struggle is real. Yet for all of them, they just can’t not do it. The solution? “Don’t be afraid to fuck up,” (EP48. Mayer Mizrachi), “Move forward and do it faster than others,” (EP21. Rocio Fonseca) and eventually “To be happy with the struggle we have,” (EP47. Paulo Duarte).
The 2nd biggest takeaway is to don’t be afraid to reach out and ask for what you want.
Most people shy away from asking people for help, yet it is surprising how many people are willing to respond once we ask. People like to help. It is part of our human nature. “People don’t reach out enough”, commented Argentine entrepreneur and investor Guimar Vaca Sittic (EP18). He encouraged founders to reach out and learn from successful people. David Lloyd (EP01), cofounder of The Intern Group, was very insecure about his decision to quit his investment banking job in London to start a company in South America. Instead of overthinking the decision, he sent out his business proposal to a bunch of family friends who have had a successful business for feedback, which encouraged him and gave him the strength to go for it. As Nathan and Codie Sanchez (EP17) discussed, “The most successful entrepreneur are those who always think, what can I ask for?”
The 3rd big lesson is to be very patient. Pierpaolo Barbieri (EP42), founder of Uala, has it spot on, “Things take longer when you are innovating. Things are even longer in Latin America. ” I sometimes easily got frustrated with how slow things are in Chile and lost my patience. Once I had to queue up for six hours from 6 am just to get myself registered as a foreigner, which supposedly could have been easily done with a basic online system. However, inconvenience also means opportunities, especially for technology. As Lisa Besserman (EP43) said, Latin America is a land “where opportunities meet inefficiency”. That is the reason why industries like fintech and insurtech are thriving in LatAm. After all, “Technology is something that never wants to wait.” (EP34. Cristobal Perdomo).
 I think Latin America’s entrepreneurial ecosystem is at an inflection point and I’m excited to be a part of it!
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