Connie Li: Engineering an Entrepreneurial Path
What propels entrepreneurs on their journeys and sustains them through the inevitable challenges of business ownership can be as unique as the business owners themselves.
Passion and positivity drive Jing (Connie) Li, PE, PhD, President and CEO of TranSmart Technologies, an engineering firm she founded in 1996.
Connie grew up in a Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) family in Beijing, China. Her father was an electrical engineer, and her mother was a high school physics teacher. The oldest of two girls, Connie was encouraged to carry on the family tradition of engineering.
She really liked the idea of an engineering career, but she was not sold on electrical engineering, her father’s field.
“My dad tried to show me electrical engineering, but I wasn’t interested, and he didn’t push me,” she said, “maybe because I wanted to be independent of my parents.” However civil engineering, specifically structural engineering, began to appeal to her.
At that time, Beijing was experiencing significant growth with an epic amount of construction occurring. “Beijing was building like it was fast becoming a brand-new city,” she said.
She knew this path was out of the ordinary for a girl, even with her family’s full support. “In my generation, engineering was still mostly for boys,” she said.
Connie dreamed of walking around her city and seeing her designs become reality. “I liked building structures,” she said. “And I liked translating a design into drafting.”
After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from Tsinghua University in Beijing—the most prestigious university in China—Connie won a coveted Japanese government scholarship to pursue graduate civil engineering studies at the University of Tokyo, Japan. There she switched her focus from structural to transportation engineering.
“Transportation engineering is multidisciplined,” she said, noting that its broadness interested her. “You have design, Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS), human behavior, and other disciplines.”
In 1990, she was the first woman in the history of the University of Tokyo to graduate with a master’s degree in transportation engineering. She fondly remembers her lab throwing her a huge party to celebrate the trailblazing accomplishment. Connie said other young women came to follow and graduate from that program.
STEM continued to be a family business. After Connie and her husband Bin, who is also an engineer, both completed their studies at Tsinghua University and the University of Tokyo, it was time to choose their next step. Bin was already determined to go into academia, so he needed to select a civil engineering PhD program. Although Connie was not sure about becoming a professor herself, she also decided to pursue a PhD.
“For me, I like to study continuously, to learn more,” she said.
Connie and Bin received their PhDs from the Urban Transportation Center at the University of Illinois at Chicago. The Center was part of the ADVANCE program, which was the world’s first Intelligent Vehicle-Highway Systems (IVHS) program at the time. IVHS would come to be known as ITS.
Connie started her career on the East Coast with a large engineering firm where she worked hard and envisioned moving up the corporate ladder. She loved taking on leadership roles, enjoyed making connections and learning more about the world of engineering consulting.
“I found myself really liking the industry,” she said.
A change in her husband’s teaching career brought them to Madison where he took a position at the University of Wisconsin.
“It gave me the opportunity to think about what I was going to do next,” she said of the move. She talked to senior engineering professionals and reflected on her next steps.
“I began to really get excited about starting my own business,” she said. She carefully contemplated the mix of risk, effort, and reward that this decision could bring.
Connie could not get her head around the timing. The economy was poor and since she and her husband moved to Wisconsin not knowing anyone, she considered working for a few more years before becoming an entrepreneur.
“I was very determined. I knew I needed a lot of knowledge to start this business, more than just technical knowledge,” she said. She continued to read a lot of books and talk to people in the industry, making connections along the way.
Then she discovered the Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (DBE) program and thought she should apply.
It turned out there was no time like the present.
“I knew I wasn’t going to be homeless because my husband had a job, and I knew I could go to see a doctor if I was sick since I was covered by my husband’s health insurance,” she said.
Connie had a few hurdles to overcome to get started. She had invested so much time working on her doctoral thesis that she did not get her Professional Engineer (PE) license.
Connie worked to get her Engineer in Training (EIT) designation as quickly as possible, and then waited six months to take her PE exam. During that time, she incorporated her business in Madison, and submitted her DBE application.
“I can’t say enough about how much I appreciated the DBE program helping me,” Connie said. It opened doors and provided opportunities for her to demonstrate the value of her business and evolve as an entrepreneur.
During the first two years of its operation, TranSmart was a one-person firm.
“I was the CEO and the janitor, and everything in between,” she said. “I bought the office supplies, took care of the administrative work, conducted the marketing presentations, submitted the proposals, and performed technical designs.”
Building a business was very challenging financially and mentally. She said Bin has been very supportive, adding “I had spent all of his salary setting up the business!”
As she grew TranSmart, her family also expanded. She and her husband have a son and daughter. Her son recently graduated from UC Berkley with a double major in computer science and math. Her daughter will be starting her junior year at the University of Chicago, studying biology.
Striking a balance between work and family life is challenging. As a mother of young children who would work 12 plus hour days regularly, Connie saw it more as a delicate dance with shifting priorities.
“Family is always your priority,” she said. But as her own boss, she could break up her work into several blocks throughout the day as the kids were in school, at sports practice, or sleeping.
Though she and her husband were firmly established in STEM fields, they did not push their children to follow.
“They were free to learn anything they liked. They were free to not learn what they didn’t like,” she said. “My kids are pretty talented, but I never pushed them to do the math contests, you know?”
Instead, she spent a lot of time watching her children develop their character, their good manner at school, and their emotional intelligence. Connie encouraged them to be open and become good communicators.
Connie has lived, studied, and worked in some of the world’s greatest cities including Beijing, Shanghai, Tokyo, San Francisco, Boston, and Chicago.
“If I didn’t become an engineer, I would have become a diplomat,” she said.
Not surprisingly, Connie’s chosen career path has required diplomacy at times and strong communication skills over the years.
In 2017, TranSmart acquired EJM Engineering in Chicago, which was another woman-owned DBE firm. The acquisition doubled the firm from 40 to more than 80 employees and expanded its service offerings. The company now has a large presence in downtown Chicago and a diverse project portfolio of transportation work throughout Illinois, Wisconsin, and Virginia.
“This growth path of acquisition versus organic expansion, I never had a doubt,” Connie said. “The EJM acquisition gave us the opportunity to grow fast.”
As TranSmart continues to grow, Connie and her leadership team are committed to encourage and motivate staff to “self-propel” on a successful path.
“We focus on hiring quality staff, so we can give them full trust to let them make their own decisions,” she said. “My staff is very self-motivated and hard working. They help the company a lot and grow with the company. I am very proud of them.”
To Connie, the recipe for success for any career includes learning how to work with people and to possess empathy.
“Think of what you can do for other people, and for the whole team” she said. “Do not think only in terms of your own maximum benefit.”
“If you learn to serve, you will do well. . . and do well happily!”