RUNC: Celine Fei

Celine Fei uses big data to help small businesses.

Celine Feiphoto by Andrew Russell
February 8th, 2023

Celine Fei is a postdoctoral researcher within the UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School. She studies frictions that arise in financing entrepreneurship, such as drivers of racial disparity in small business lending.

Q: How did you discover your specific field of study?

A: I’d say it was a blend of chance, inspiration, and unique excitement. I was studying macroeconomic theory on growth at the start of my PhD. Then, I came across a book on venture capital by Josh Lerner and Paul Gompers that piqued my interest. After speaking with several professors in my department, I came to believe that entrepreneurial finance was a viable topic that fit with my original research interest in growth determinants.

Q: Academics are problem-solvers. Describe a research challenge you’ve faced and how you overcame it.

A: The application of big data in research presents some intriguing practical issues. The transition from a small data sample to a large one can significantly increase the difficulty level. I evaluate the economic impact of racial discrimination in the small-business lending market using an empirical game-theory model — and a regular computer just isn’t up to the task.

Fortunately, and despite the fact that my academic background is not in computer science, I have access to the university’s powerful server infrastructure. Using remote computing nodes, I was able to generate a good estimate for my model in just a few weeks.

Along the way, I picked up a new toolbox of skills for parallel programming, executing modules across nodes, and so on. One challenge is dividing a major project into digestible portions that will not use too much of the university’s time or resources. By speaking with technologists at the UNC Cloud, I was able to reach a compromise between my needs and those of other researchers.

I’m working on my fourth and fifth novels now. It’s still hard. Maybe harder. But it’s still just as fun.

Q: Describe your research in five words.

A: Big data helps small businesses.

Q: Who or what inspires you? Why?

A:Everyday people’s struggles drive my research. For instance, I learned about the importance of frictions in supporting small businesses and entrepreneurship from conversations with numerous Uber drivers who want to start their own businesses to make a better life. A successful funding campaign has the potential to alter the future for an individual, a family, and perhaps a whole generation.

Many members of my family have been and still are professors and teachers. Passing on knowledge has been a family tradition ever since my grandmother’s father established a middle school in the little town where he grew up.

Q: If you could pursue any other career, what would it be and why?

A: A musician. Since I was a child, I’ve enjoyed playing musical instruments and singing opera. Artists and researchers share the same creative key, which is the most enjoyable aspect of conducting research for me.

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