Former Lehman Banker Leads Social Ventures in China, Battles Dyslexia in Schools

Yvonne Li's Avantage Ventures is investing in high-impact social programs throughout Asia—and she'd like other big-time bankers to join her.

China's social entrepreneurship scene is not all that well known, but the Hong Kong-based Avantage Ventures is trying to change that by infusing the country with a hefty dose of capital and mentorship. The company is led by founder Yvonne Li, a former investment banker with Lehman Brothers, who has a particular zest for climate change issues.

The social investor's latest project is a school program in China that supports the growth of students with dyslexia—a condition that is not formally recognized by other school and government officials and thus often goes untreated, leaving thousands of children helpless.

"We try to focus on areas that traditional private equity firms might be missing, such as health care, education, and China's growing aging population," Li tells Fast Company."We're more of an impact investing firm. We're looking for high-impact ventures, such as clean tech and renewable technologies."

The Beijing LangLang Learning Potential Development Centre has already educated over 20,000 parents in the Beijing Metropolitan area about dyslexia. Hundreds of students are now receiving special training according to their needs, and development plans include expanding to the Southern city of Shenzhen.

Of the program, says Li, "The students go through 'mental gymnastics,' trainings without drugs."

And because the idea of social investing is still new in Hong Kong, says Li, "We launched an investor club, so they warm up to the idea of social investment investing. It's a club to get them ready, comfortable, to get them to invest with us."

Like some of Hong Kong's other social investment projects that focus on the elderly or disabled, one directed at dyslexia is still relatively benign compared to some of the more controversial projects in the West—Hong Kong and China are still a ways away from tackling teen pregnancy or teen drug use, for example.

But Li, having grown up in Hong Kong, was later educated in Australia and if anyone will eventually be able to push the envelope in terms of issues, it would be someone like herself, with a multicultural background, extensive training and experience in finance, and a passion for social change.

"I've always worked in finance, but then I became interested in climate change and so I left Lehman," Li Says. "I got to know the industry in China, including climate change policy. I attended the Global Institute for Tomorrow—they provide learning programs and that's where I met my business partner. We saw the need was for capital investments in high-impact social ventures and that's how we got our start."

Li is thinking for the long-term as she's found her niche in focusing on social entrepreneurship in China, Hong Kong, and around Asia. And with her finance background, she's a strong candidate to bring other finance professionals into the social investment loop.

"We have to be sustainable," says Li. "Particularly in China and Asia, giving grants is not going to solve the problem. You really have to teach them how to fish. We're interested in creating a community—of technical advisors, consultants, mentors."

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[Image: flickr user Rex Pe]

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