Post-graduation plans for 30-year-old newly minted MBA Alice Song involve stepping directly into a “CEO-in-training” role with Alpine Investors’ Software Group in San Francisco. From there, the Yale undergrad alumna will be assigned the top job at one of the private equity firm’s smaller portfolio companies, where she’ll rely on skills she’s learned in previous jobs at GTCR in Chicago and J.P. Morgan in New York, and while working at pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly before coming to Stanford GSB.
What attracted you to that one-year stint in Big Pharma?
The Eli Lilly position, which is what I did right before business school, was part of Stanford GSB’s Charles P. Bonini Partnership for Diversity (P4D) Fellowship Program, which I received after getting into the GSB. It’s sponsored by Eli Lilly, and it a gave me a chance to do something completely different. It increased my understanding of what it’s like to work in the pharmaceutical industry. I helped launch a new Alzheimer’s drug by developing the sales strategy for all metropolitan areas in the U.S., figuring out how to work with patients, doctors, nurses, and the broader community to get the word out about this new product. I very much felt a connection to the patients, learning how much this drug could potentially impact families and communities. I also loved working in the health care environment where there are so many different constituents — salespeople, hospitals, the broader medical field, and regulatory agencies. How do we make sure we’re getting this important drug to patients and staying within the guidelines of an industry that’s heavily regulated?
Is that what you liked best about it, juggling all those balls at the same time?
It certainly kept things interesting. Learning how to get things done with so many different groups, that’s how you make an impact on a larger scale.
Do you imagine medical investments will be part of the portfolio you eventually want to manage?
Potentially. One thing I’ve realized is that I’m passionate about working with people and solving problems, whether that’s in health care, business services, education, or financial services. What really excites me is figuring out what makes people tick and solving problems as a team.
What were the most valuable lessons you brought from your private equity work that you’ll take into your upcoming role with Alpine?
I enjoy understanding what makes a business work at a macro level. Investing trains you to see the bigger picture and ask tough questions and gives you a framework to figure out how best to put money to work. How do you best allocate resources? Is it investing in a particular project? Buying another company? Or changing what we do altogether? That kind of big-picture thinking was helpful. However, as an investor, you take a more detached view of what’s going on. Working at Eli Lilly taught me how much effort it takes to get things done within companies. But I found it exciting to be in the action, making things happen, which is why I’m looking forward to my new role as an operating executive at Alpine.
You’ve taken on leadership roles in nonprofit organizations, including a microfinance enterprise fund. Why do you feel it’s important to get involved in such projects?
They were causes I strongly believed in. The microfinance group came about because I was inspired by Muhammad Yunus’s Grameen Bank when I was in high school. I liked the idea of being able to empower communities, and especially women, to start their own businesses and achieve a more self-reliant future. When I got to Yale, I found this group called the Elmseed Enterprise Fund, which was a nonprofit run by students. They helped small business owners within the New Haven community, gave them consulting and microloans. I was co-executive director of that nonprofit and worked with a team of 40 other Yale students to give out loans and business consulting. It was so motivating to work with our clients.
One of our clients ran a clown business. He worked children’s birthday parties and other events. With our microloan, he was able to increase his online presence. It was an incredibly educational and rewarding experience.
You defined success coming out of business school as “(a) a higher comfort with risk-taking; (b) greater confidence to bring my full authentic self to work; (c) better understanding of myself and my strengths as a leader; and (d) a network of strong friendships.” Of those, which feels most important right now?
I’ve realized that authenticity is the glue that holds all the rest together. Prior to Stanford GSB, my friends would joke that I had “professional Alice” and “personal Alice” identities. I kept a lot of my personality out of the workplace. As an individual contributor, this split didn’t impact my work too much. During “Touchy Feely” [a Stanford GSB course officially called Interpersonal Dynamics], I received blunt feedback early on from a classmate that I came across as very rational but emotionally hard to read. That made it harder for this classmate to trust me, since they felt they couldn’t build a personal connection. I realized that as a manager, I needed to find a way to bring my whole, authentic self to work, and enable others to do the same. Much of my time at Stanford has been spent on this quest — for example, writing and sharing my TALK [a Stanford GSB tradition in which students share their life stories with classmates]. It was a 30-minute narrative that covered my immigration to the U.S. from China and coming out to my parents — twice. By being open to my classmates about the personal struggles I’ve experienced, I developed some of the strongest relationships I’ve ever had.
Did any other courses prove particularly useful?
This is top of mind because my Entrepreneurship Through Acquisition class just wrapped up, and the lecturer, David M. Dodson, said something that really resonated with me: “The summit you’ve worked so hard to reach will give you better view of other mountains to climb.” That rang true because I’ve been so inspired by other people at Stanford, both professors and classmates. It’s a combination of their passion, courage, and kindness. They have motivated me to work harder, aim higher, and be more compassionate.