Lily Qi: Mover and Changer
By: Jenny Chen
Rockville, MD – Lily Qi is no stranger to change. The Shanghai native has lived in West Virginia, Indiana, Ohio, and now Maryland. Over the years, Qi has served as head of multicultural affairs at American University, Vice President of Business Development and Marketing at the DC Economic Partnership and Community Liaison for the Asian, Middle East and Near Eastern populations in Montgomery County, Maryland. But whether she was disciplining college students or drafting press releases, there’s one thing that’s held constant – Qi loves making connections.
A self-declared cultural broker, Qi is now drawing upon all her past experiences as the newly appointed Director of Special Projects in the Montgomery County Executive’s Office. Looking around at her new office, which is full of relics from the past – a mug from American University, where she earned her MBA, a porcelain cup from China, and photo from her days as a community liaison – Qi says that she feels like this is a reward for all the years that have passed.
But her path was not easy. Like any immigrant, Qi found her first couple of years in the United States extremely difficult. She not only had to learn English, but also the cultural idioms that are not written in any grammar textbook.
“You sort of lose your identities,” Qi said about being an immigrant in a new country. “I have been working very hard at small barriers.”
Qi says that Asian Americans have just as much responsibility to fight stereotypes as do mainstream figures. She says that it is up to Asian Americans to show the greater public that they are above stereotypes.
Perhaps it is because of her immigrant experiences that Qi became a strong community activist.
“I don’t want to feel like a guest. I am a U.S. citizen. I want to be plugged in…in order to feel more grounded,” Qi said.
This desire propelled her into her latest position. When Qi heard about a new project to convert an old farm on Muddy Branch Road into a Life Sciences complex, Qi recognized it as a project that Asian Americans should rally behind – and she made it her mission to make sure they do. She took to the streets to encourage Asian American residents to pressure their elected officials to vote for the project.
“This is why they came here in the first place,” Qi said. “My point is not to teach them about what to say but they have to care,” Although the project received very strong opposition by those concerned about pollution and transit problems, by the time the County Council took a vote, every council member was for the project.
Qi’s single minded tenacity is not lost on those who work with her.
“She’s one of the most diligent people I’ve ever met,” said Michael Stevens, the Vice President of the DC Economic Partnership. Stevens and Qi worked together for four years to recast DC from a political center to a business center. “She was always well prepared. She was a great strategic thinker.”
Qi’s support of the life sciences center fell right in line with the county’s own development strategy and in 2001, she was appointed by County Executive Isiah Leggett as Special Projects Manager. Her special project? The life sciences project which is now dubbed as the Great Seneca Science Corridor.
Her vision is to make the area the number destination for science and health research. “No one has the FDA. No one has NIH. No one has NIST. It would be a shame for us to sit on all our assets and no benefit the world,” Qi said.
As Manager of Special Projects, Qi is poised to oversee radical change in the area. For example, Qi facilitated a deal between the Chinese pharmaceutical company, Tianshili and Johns Hopkins. Tianshili will be the first traditional medicine company approved by the United States FDA.
Many in the Asian American community appreciate Qi’s efforts to engage the immigrant community in local affairs. Qi is a rare face, as a Chinese born activist and who rose in ranks not through science or technology but by her sheer ability to communicate in her second language.
“If you go to any majority activity that is not an ethnic activity, you will have to look closely to see any Asian Americans. It’s not proportional to our presence here, which is 12-13% of the population. If we are not there, there will be a misconception about whether or not we are really interested in being part of the community,” said Michael Lin, former President of the Organization of Chinese Americans. Lin worked with Qi while she was President of the DC Chapter. Lin says that her presence continues to bring unique perspectives to the community as a whole and pushing reluctant immigrants into participating in their new home country.
“If a vacancy comes up, I’d encourage her to run for elected office,” Lin said. And although he was laughing, if there’s one thing that’s certain when it comes to Lily Qi, it’s that change is always in the air.