Biz Sch News 05 January 2015

“I don’t want any regrets when I look back at my life”: Leonard Lee

A computer programmer at the age of 14, then a PhD scholar at MIT and a marketing professor. Not exactly a typical career progression. Dean’s Chair and Associate Professor Leonard Lee explains his unconventional career decisions in an interview with Outside-In:
Early Years
“I was 14 when my dad brought home our first computer and I quickly developed a passion for programming,” recalls Leonard of his interest in technology in the early years. After junior college, he was awarded a scholarship from the National Computer Board (NCB), (now known as the Infocomm Development Authority (IDA). After completing a BSc in Computer and Information Science at NUS and an MS in Computer Science from Stanford, he returned to Singapore to join the IDA. “I used to work with a lot of organisations and government agencies, and in the midst of the boom in the late 1990s, everyone seemed to be scrambling to find his or her own identity in the emerging cyber era,” he recalls.  He admits that even though he knew he wanted to be an academic, he wasn’t sure of what area he was specifically interested in or wanted to pursue.
Turning Point
“I did a lot of soul-searching during my time at IDA and decided to explore the academic path. I was inspired by the words of an NUS professor who told me that when it comes to research, what really matters is not so much which area you choose to focus on, but how much you enjoy the process,” says Leonard.  “With my technical background and deep interest in social sciences, marketing seemed a logical fit.”
Leonard decided to pursue a PhD in marketing and was accepted into the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

Early years: With MIT friends who were from Singapore

Early years: Leonard Lee (centre) with friends from MIT who were from Singapore

A turning point was a thought-provoking encounter with his academic advisor at MIT, Dan Ariely, a renowned professor of psychology and behavioural economics, who is also a mentor to Leonard and a close friend. “Dan opened my mind to the endless possibilities of studying human behaviour in marketing, and he helped me break free from all my psychological barriers.”
Leonard developed a keen interest in consumer behaviour research – how and why people shop, the emotions and/or environments that affect their buying decisions.
He also started to explore teaching. After much trepidation, he took up a faculty position at Columbia University after completing his PhD. “It was challenging at first. I used to focus too much on the materials instead of the classroom experience. But over the years, I’ve learned that teaching is not just about how prepared you are or how much you read. It is about being there, being present to manage the dynamics of a group. I love the experience of being able to impart knowledge, share experiences and learn from the students in real-time.”
Leonard Lee (first from right) with colleagues from the Marketing Division at MIT

Leonard Lee (far right) with friends and colleagues from the Marketing Division at MIT

These decisions have certainly paid off. To date, Leonard has won many awards and honours, including Lee Kuan Yew Gold Medal (1996), MIT Presidential Scholarship (2000-2005), Journal of Consumer Research (JCR) Outstanding Reviewer Award (2013), Association for Consumer Research (ACR) Franco Nicosia Best Competitive Paper Award, Winner, (2014) and NUS Business School Dean’s Chair (2014). His work has been featured in leading academic journals as well as top-tier media publications, such as Financial Times, Wall Street Journal, and The New York Times.
Looking forward
With a renewed passion for research and teaching, Leonard took the opportunity to return to his alma mater earlier this year. His love for Singapore and NUS is evident. “It’s an exciting time to be in Singapore (and NUS). I find that private and public sector companies in Singapore are relatively more open to experiment and support relevant academic research. The NUS community offers a good mix of emerging scholars who are hungry for knowledge,” explains Leonard.
With the changing digital environment, Leonard wants to conduct research into trends such as omni-channel marketing. At NUS, he sees himself contributing to the School not only by training PhD students, but also in a broader and a more strategic way.
“I hope to contribute to building an even stronger pool of scholars, to place our PhD graduates as academics in top schools all over the world and increase our global visibility.”
Sounds like a tall order? He begs to differ. “I don’t want to look back at my life and have regrets because I was too timid.”
Leonard LeeLeonard Lee is Dean’s Chair and Associate Professor of Marketing at NUS Business School. His research focuses on understanding how both emotional and cognitive factors influence consumers’ judgments and decision-making. Professor Lee holds a PhD in Management from MIT Sloan School of Management, an MS in Computer Science from Stanford University, and a BSc in Computer and Information Sciences from the National University of Singapore. Reach him at