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Using big data to help small businesses

Celine Fei

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

Here she talks about her work with Endeavors, UNC’s research magazine.


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.