Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Impressionism of India - Part Two: Feeling Connected

In Part One of my trip through India, there was a sincere feeling of being an outsider.  I had to acknowledge and embrace that I knew nothing of the customs, none of the languages(s), nor anything of the experience that was in store for me.  It was resoundingly apparent that I was different.  Yet, as soon as I had comfortably settled into my own peculiarity, I found myself feeling a serious sense of connection with all of those around me.  Perhaps it was simply the fact that accepting ourselves is what opens us up to these types of connections, but it still felt profoundly unique.

The last post was in the form of “Lessons Learned” because that’s what happens when you feel different.  You are taught.  However, feeling connected is much more of an egalitarian task.  It’s less about someone teaching you and more about discovering for yourself.  It is for that reason that this section consists of four key discoveries from my time in India.

Discovery #1:  What it means to be taken care of

From the moment we arrived, we were attended to, shepherded, and guided in the most wonderful of ways.  Upon stepping off the plane in Chennai, I was mildly concerned about finding my way. This feeling quickly devolved into a state of panic as I thought, “Oh my God, where am I and where do I go and how do I know if I am safe?”  But only a few minutes into my own downward spiral did I discover someone waiting for me with a sign saying “Rasanath and Hari Welcome You!”  After arriving to the hotel late at night, we were awoken in the morning with a gentle knock and a warm cup of coffee by the groom’s sister.  When I arrived at the wedding venue hopelessly wrapped in an unattractive swath of saree fabric, two girls who spoke absolutely no English overcame their seemingly paralysing shyness by helping me pin my saree into a stunning display of color and sequins.

The groom’s cousin quickly befriended us by explaining what the hell was going on, taking us shopping for the right type of Indian clothes, and arguing with the auto rickshaw driver to make sure he didn’t rip us off (even going so far as to take a picture of his license plate to ensure he didn’t pull a fast one after we left).  He allowed us to hotspot our phones from his to maintain some semblance of connection with the outside world.  He even invited into his family's home, fed us delicious fruit and nuts and Sprite, and shared his (only mildly embarrassing) childhood photos.  Thanks Aswhinn :)

There was something so beautiful, unselfish, and unconditional about this hospitality and generosity of spirit.  In every moment in which we interacted with a host or hostess of some kind, it did not feel like an obligation or an imposition.  Instead, it felt like an authentic desire to share in the experience with us.   There was a two way connection; one in which we got to feel included and aware, and our hosts got to rejoice in relegating this experience to more than just a ritual.  Indeed, for all of us… it was reminder of the meaning behind it all.

Discovery #2:  Indian Humble Pride

When I travel, I always find it fascinating (and telling) to observe how natives perceive and communicate their own culture.  There is a sliding scale between those who love their own culture and believe it to be superior to all others, and those who hate their own culture and assume that as an outsider, you are lucky to have come from somewhere else.  India falls somewhere in between. 

My first experience living outside of the United States was in France.  Living with a Parisian family in Paris was enthralling, rich, and complex.  It did not take long to realise that the French genuinely believe that French culture is the absolute best.  They see themselves as every bit as intelligent, enigmatic, and alluring as popular culture depicts (and frankly, they are!).  This unquestionable pride in their own culture is enthralling and inspiring, but also offputting because you know that no matter what, the assumption is that you, as an outsider, are inherently inferior. 

Contrast that with my current reality, living in Hong Kong.  Whenever I meet someone from Hong Kong, they ask me, “How do you like Hong Kong?” to which I reply enthusiastically: “I love Hong Kong!”  Without fail, this results in a look of disgust, surprise, and confusion, “Really?!”  Amongst the local community, there is often a confusing disdain for Hong Kong/Chinese culture.  This humility is charming in its own way, but also leaves me feeling a bit sad.  Yes, there are elements of Hong Kong and China which are dirty, crowded, loud, and inconvenient, but that does not mean it isn’t a wonderful place to live or to come from.

India was a melange of these two sentiments.  Upon being greeted, we were frequently asked with an engaging enthusiasm, “Is this your first time to India?” — to which I replied, “Yes” and the unequivocal response was, “Aren’t you LOVING It!?”  Without hesitation, without arrogance, it was simply a given that I would love this place.  Yet, there was also an open acceptance of its negatives.  Everyone acknowledged that, “You must be careful.  There are good people in India, and there are also many bad people,” or “It is very dirty and hot.”  But these were simply facts of life, they did not mean anything about the inherent value and reverence for Indian culture. 

Discovery # 3:  Food is Important

During each day of the wedding, we were served three meals of traditional South Indian food, or rather “prasad”, meaning it had been deliberatively and lovingly prepared and blessed for our consumption.  Served by a crew of men wearing really funny chef hats, the prasad was lovingly plopped upon our moistened banana leaves, and eagerly consumed by our carefully cupped right hand.  It was not only a spectacular delight for the senses, but also somewhat of a cultural artifact as there was significant meaning behind each ingredient and spice.  

I quickly learned that even if you don’t want more, or if you even try to think about being full... You. Are. Wrong.  Continuing to eat brought such unfettered delight to whomever was serving me, I felt obligated to stuff my face five times over.  When I tried to deny a second helping, the servers would wait a beat until I turned my head or looked away, and then sneak a bit extra on my plate… only to turn back as they moved onto the next banana leaf with a knowing grin as if to say, “Yeah, you’re welcome….” 

Discovery #4:  The Head Bob

As it is the most notorious and well known idiosyncrasy of Indian culture, I had been fully debriefed and prepped for the head bob.  Yes, I know, when someone bobs their head side to side - it looks like “No” but it really means “Yes”.  They will even say the word “Yes” while shaking their head saying ‘No’.  It will be confusing, but I was prepared.  Or so I thought.

Regardless of how much I thought about this, I was still confused when it happened to me.  I couldn’t help but open my eyes wide, pause, and say, “Wait, what?”  Though I understood it intellectually, I still could not physically keep up with what was happening before my eyes.  And yet, somehow, at some point several days into the trip, I found that I started making this gesture myself.  Without even realising it, I would bob my head side to side as to say, “Right, sure, whatever you say.”  This continued well into the following weeks once I had returned to Hong Kong.  Mid-conversation, my fiance would lovingly whack me on the arm saying, “You’re doing it again.”  It’s silly, of course, but I can’t help but interpret this as a subconscious connection that continued beyond the point where I had physically left the country.   

Indeed, what started as painful recognition of my “otherness” unexpectedly gave way to a profound feeling of connectedness.  As the trip wore on, this continued to evolve into what can only be described as a feeling of ultimately being the same.  To be continued in Part Three….

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Impressionism of India - Part One: Feeling Different

I recently traveled to India for the first time and had some of the most fascinating, fulfilling, remarkable, and unique experiences of my entire life.  I always find it scary to write about my traveling experiences because, as a rule, I hate speaking with any semblance of authority about things I don’t fully understand.  Given I am not Indian by heritage, I have never lived there, and all I have to go on are my recent ten days in this massive, diverse place, I fear that sharing my thoughts will be nothing short of superficial.  Be that as it may, I call this post “Impressionism” because, just like the painters of the Impressionist era, I am not seeking to accurately represent the reality of India.  I fully acknowledge that would be impossible, as there is so much I do not know and can never understand.  I can only share my perception of the special moments I experienced there.  So, this is my attempt to capture the vivid yet constantly shifting lights, colors, sounds, and feelings of India.  

Part One: Feeling Different

Once I decided to travel to India, I quickly found that whether they have been there or not, everyone has a lot to say about India.  Consequently, I couldn't avoid a flood of prejudices before embarking on my trip there.  It seems that people fall into three camps when it comes to India:

  1. The Cynics: They told me that India is crowded, polluted, dirty  and smelly.  That everyone would try to take advantage of my white skin.  To keep my possesions close and not trust anyone who was being too nice.  To avoid any food that is not securely packaged or else contract the dreaded 'Delhi Belly’.
  2. The Pragmatists:  These people warned me that India is not quite enjoyable, but there is a certain beauty in the chaos.   They said it is an exciting, exotic, and different, place but just “not for them”.  They acknowledge that it is evolving at a rapid pace, both economically and culturally, and that we should all take note or be left behind.
  3. The Idealists:  According to this camp, India is a mystical and enchanting place.  Life in India is in technicolor, a delight for all of the senses.  The spices, the music, the laughter... it would be nothing short of a magical experience.  They emphasized how unique it is in its unbelievable diversity (over 780 languages are spoken among its 1.25 billion people), and yet still a loving and accepting country.  I should embrace the opportunity to take part of it.  
And so, both confused and curious, I eagerly set off for my journey through India.  I was at once determined to be devoid of preconceived notions and relieved by the fact that given so many contradictory heedances, it was already impossible to know what to expect.  All I knew is that, no matter what, I would surely learn a lot.

Lesson One:  Embrace that you know nothing

I arrived in Chennai late on a Tuesday evening.  The airport was surprisingly large, as it should be given Chennai is one of the largest cities in South India, a capital of its state Tamil Nadu, and it has nearly 5 million inhabitants.  Upon exiting the airport, I was immediateely bombarded by hundreds of men offering taxi services, and I felt my first wave of panic as I remembered the warnings I had received about being a prime target for deception and crime.  My fears were quickly allayed, however, as I quickly located the driver that our kind hosts had arranged.  I was still on high alert, given I was traveling alone, but the sign saying, "Rasanath Welcomes You!" followed by my name certainly made me feel safer.

The next day was the first day of wedding festivities for our friends Rasanath and Anuradha.  I don’t even know where to begin.  I had heard stories about the boozy, loud, late night Bollywood-style festivities of many Indian weddings, but somehow that didn't seem to fit the bride and groom, both of whom are extremely joyful but also devoted to their spirituality.  My first lesson in the grand diversity of India was that these raucous affairs most think of as "Indian weddings" are actually "North Indian weddings".  These festivities involve lots of drinking and dancing and elephants and can last for days on end.  They typically take place late in the night, leaving guests partying into the wee hours of the morning.  South Indian weddings, like that of Rasanath and Anuradha, are much more traditional and subdued affairs.  They typically last two to three days, are devoid of alcohol and dancing, and focus much more on family, tradition, and faith.  The marriage itself occurs early in the morning, around 11am and each day the ceremonies are concluded with a deliciously and lovingly prepared serving of prasad, blessed food served on giant banana leafs that is to be eaten exclusively with the hands (oh yeah!)

Lesson Two:  Accept that you have no idea what is going on

The wedding itself was two days long and consisted of no alcohol, a LOT of food, a steady stream of fragrant incense, and countless rituals which made absolutely no sense to me.  The entire ceremony was in Tamil, so I couldn't understand its significance, but there was a lot of bowing and touching of nose then ear then nose then ear then bowing again.  It was festively accompanied by a band of men playing drums and the Indian version of trombones, who were unable (or unwilling) to gauge the strength of their own sound.  Their music had seemingly little correlation with what was actually happening on stage.  

Especially with no musical cues, it was challenging to figure out where we were in the general program of things.  There was no marked schedule of events, and starting times turned out to merely be suggestions.  The majority of the ceremonies were performed on a stage, which was brightly lit by studio lights and every moment captured by a clunky video camera plopped directly in front of the attendees.  The expectant audience was arranged into careful rows that quickly devolved in clusters as family members and friends scooted around catching up with each other, paying very little attention to ceremony itself.  The stories of chaos I had heard from the Pragmatist camp were starting to make sense.

Lesson Three:  Acknowledge you are not like the others 

Outside of the wedding, I did not see a single other Western tourist.  Walking through the streets, we were the only people who looked like us, and we drew quite a few stares.  Children and adults alike had no shame in putting down their newpsapers or pausing their conversations simply to watch us walk by.  My saree and Michael's kurta were the source of endless amusement for them, and packs of kids on their way home from school would follow us for blocks.  The wary cynic within me figured it was because they wanted money, or to pickpocket us, but it was nothing of the sort.  They were simply curious, eager to watch and listen to our silly accents. 

Because we were somewhat of a novelty, there were quite a few people at the wedding that wanted to tell us about the other white person that they once knew.  I was chatting with another Westerner (we were two of the four at the wedding), and an older Indian gentleman came up to us with an excited sense of urgency as if he had something very important to tell us.  He opened, “I interviewed for a jobs in Mumbai in 1958.  The interview committee… the interview committee.. do you know who was on the interview committee, Sir?”  We didn’t even have time to respond before he waved and twisted his hand in the air for effect and proclaimed, “A man from Canada, Robert Thompson!” and then walked away triumphantly.  He returned only a second later to check in to see whether we were fully appreciating the gravity of what he had just shared.  Naturally we were confused, but feigned excitement to make him feel welcomed.  He was visibly disappointed that his anecdote was not seeming to have its intended effect, so we attempted to distract him by asking, “Did you get the job?”  Well, yes he did, he told us.  “I worked there for 34 years, and I have been receiving my pension since 21 years.  Now, I just roam around.”  All I can do is smile and delight in the beauty of this preciously absurd moment.  Though there was clearly much lost in translation, I can’t help but feel warm inside knowing that this person was so eager to relate to us.  

Lesson Four:  Ladies, step aside

The culture in Chennai was much more conservative than I  expected.  I did not feel comfortable walking around in shorts or sleeveless shirts — even in a longer skirt and a t-shirt, I still felt compelled to cover my top with a scarf so that you couldn’t see too much of my shape.  I was embarrassed to find that as a foreigner, I had somehow accidentally managed to even make my saree look slutty by not adequaletly covering the outline of my chest.  I never understood how sarees were so conservative given they leave your entire abdomen exposed, and in Western culture, showing skin can be risque.  However, it seemed the point is much more about covering your shape than your skin. 

Now, I have to admit that Indian English is not that easy to understand.  In the average conversation, I could make out ~60% of what was said, which lead to a lot of polite nods and head bobs and awkward bowing.  But one word that did punctuate every sentence which I could clearly understand is their frequent use of the word “Sir”.  By prolific, I mean that “Sir” makes its way into nearly every sentence, sometimes twice: “Excuse me Sir, but what are the timings, Sir?"

At first, I thought it was for effect.  Then, I thought it was simply a verbal tick.  Then, I thought perhaps they weren’t sure of my gender (had I covered up too much?).  Then, I realised that people were simply not addressing me.  If I was alone, they’d call me “Madame”, but if I was in the presence of a man (regardless of whether it was my fiance or another man), they would only address him directly.  I’m not in position to comment too deeply on women in Indian culture, but I did find this to be somewhat frustrating.  Who knew you could feel so different and so invisible at the same time?

Lesson Five.  Respect the Moustache

This deserves its own point because facial hair is generally amusing, and the ubiquity of the moustache in India is downright hilarious.  Where I come from, moustaches are a style generally reserved for hipsters, Tom Selleck, and Movember.  But in India, literally, every single member of the male species has a moustache.  And it's not ironic.  Some of the handlebar variety, which are particularly impressive, but really any kind will do.  Young men, old men, all of them seem to abide by an unspoken code that no matter what, thou shalt not shave thy upper lip.  

.... To be continued

Monday, January 12, 2015

Solving Problems, Not Drawing Lines

When it comes to education, there are a lot of arbitrary lines that are drawn.  Dividing neighbourhoods to determine who can go to which public school.  The difference between 3rd grade and 4th grade.  Income levels for receiving financial aid.  GPAs.  While I acknowledge that some of these delineations are necessary evils to create a system that scales, their often cruelly random nature can do more harm than good.  As a result, I am naturally wary of capricious classifications when people ask, “How do you qualify your education technology investments?  The problems in education are so complex, shouldn’t you narrow your focus to just K-12 products, or language learning, or educational gaming?”
I appreciate the need for focus and clarity in mission, but I prefer to work in the business of solving problems, not drawing lines.  That’s why we do not qualify education entrepreneurs by their end users (children, teachers, adults), their target markets (K-12, higher education, corporate), or their business models (enterprise, consumer, advertising, data analysis).  Instead, we remain driven by our mission of scaling  impact in education.  As a result, we classify edtech start ups based on the problem they are solving.  
To be clear, there are four key problem areas where we believe technology can meaningfully transform education.
1.  Limited access to content
In a world where over three billion people have access to the internet and there are almost as many cell phone subscriptions (6.8 billion) as there are people in the world (seven billion), the concept that high quality educational content is a scarce commodity no longer applies.1 
2.  Inefficient infrastructure
In the United States and other developed countries, it is estimated that teachers still spend over 50% of their day grading papers.  Given there are over 100 billion emails sent and received every day, any other business person how much of their day they spend handwriting letters and they will laugh you out the door.2 
3.  High dropout rates
Rigid pedagogy and a one size fits all system fails to account for different types and speeds of learning.  As a result, 30-40% of primary and secondary school students around the world drop out or fail to graduate on schedule.3  Higher and adult education similarly struggle with low engagement and completion rates.3  
4.  Lack of job relevant outcomes
In spite of the exclusivity and competitive nature of attending higher eduction, it is still largely not translating into job outcomes.  Youth unemployment is a global issue and yet 36% of employers worldwide struggle to find candidates with suitable skills.  This is even worse in Asia - 81% Japanese employers cite difficulty hiring4.  It won’t be getting any easier either.  The U.S. Department of Labor estimates that 65% of school children will be employed in jobs that don’t yet exist.5 
Our analysis of edtech start ups then involves the exact same filters for people, product, capital efficiency, scalability that we use for other sectors.  We find that this approach is not only empowering to the entrepreneurs and their businesses, it also leaves room for truly innovative solutions to expand beyond their initial applications in classrooms.  It’s not surprising that these challenges exist in other environments, too, and the most exciting investment opportunities in education often involve businesses that can be applied in multiple verticals.   If we or our teams are arbitrarily forced classify their business as "K-12” or “hardware”, we’d be thinking way too small.  Drawing lines tends to do that, and we prefer to be in the business of thinking big.

Monday, December 29, 2014

No silver bullets in education... except maybe this one

Someone recently asked me about red flags for investing in early stage companies.  Particularly when it comes to education, a red flag for me is anyone promising that their product or service will “revolutionise education” or “disrupt the educational system as we know it.”  We all know entrepreneurs are prone to hyperboles, and I certainly appreciate a bold vision, but I usually find these type of statements to be overly dramatic, simplistic, and short-sighted.  In fact, by believing that you are single handedly revolutionising education, you’re missing the potential for revolution entirely.

I have been thinking about this concept quite a bit and have been mulling over how to write about it for way too long, so I was delighted when I was looped into a conversation around this video “What will revolutionise education?” by Veritasium. The author posits an interesting point that many technologies have promised to “revolutionise” education, yet none have.  At one time, Thomas Edison was so excited about the potential for motion pictures to revolutionise education, he is quoted as saying, “Books will soon be obsolete in schools… scholars will soon be instructed through the eye.  Our school system will be completely changed within ten years.”  That was in 1913.  So, what happened?

Veritasium points out that the motion picture did not successfully revolutionise education, and neither has any technology since, because when it comes to education no technology is inherently better than the other.  I don’t disagree entirely but I would add a qualifying factor that no technology is inherently better than the other at scale.  For certain concepts, for certain students, some technologies are actually better than others.  Everyone learns differently.  For me, I remember pictures much better than moving images.  I remember words that I see much better than words that I hear.  (Fun fact, I had a grade school teacher who thought I had a photographic memory.  I don’t, though that would be awesome.)  In any case, each person is different, which makes a revolution nearly impossible given each person wants and needs different things when it comes to their education (I mean that on micro, macro, and meta levels).  So the what we need to do would be figuring out a system that allows for scalable individualisation, mass customisation of content, delivery, trajectory, and motivation.  Clearly, no silver bullets here.

Suspending our disbelief for a second, let’s say there were some silver bullet technology that could “fix education” — scaling it to any sort of “revolutionary” level requires cooperation of a diverse group of people and systems, which is exceedingly difficult.  When people are so different, how can we convince them that any one thing is the answer? In fact, the comments section of this Youtube video embody this challenge.  Let me share some highlights:  
  • Everyday, millions of children march to school with drudgery and resistance.
  • It is the teachers job to try to inspire their students, but let's be honest, they don't. Most don't try or fail miserably at it.
  • Kids are without homes, and without clothes. Teach these first and you will revolutionise education with full stomachs.
  • For you to personally accuse me of thinking I'm better than them just shows how irrelevant your train of thought is.
  • Stop wasting your time criticising my ideas when you could be thinking of your own. Get a grip.
  • Everyone is being a total bitch?

Clearly, it is all too easy for a productive conversation around education to devolve into a virtual pissing contest.  My point is that the challenges with education are incredible, astonishing, diverse, far reaching, and incredibly complex.  Given all of these competing factors (egos included), it is all too easy to throw our hands up in the air and say, “Forget it!  It’s impossible!” 

But here’s a thought.  Maybe the truly revolutionary concept is simply embracing that there is no revolutionary concept.  By acknowledging that there is no “one size fits all” solution, no single technology that will change the system forever, we are liberated to pursue a multitude of different strategies that solve different problems for different learners in different markets around the world.  We will never have the answer because there is no one answer.  That’s not discouraging, either.  It’s incredibly empowering.  It frees us to stop talking and start creating solutions (or in my case, investing in them).  That’s why I truly believe that empowering engaged and passionate entrepreneurs with the resources and networks they need to succeed is the only thing that even comes close to a silver bullet in education. 

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Getting real about gender issues

There’s been a lot of talk recently about female founders, discrimination in the start up world, and what we can do about it.  There have been countless articles, studies, and op-eds talking about what are the challenges for “female entrepreneurs”.  Those who have the courage to express their opinions and personal experiences are simultaneously praised for their bravery and viciously criticised for their skewed interpretation of the issues at hand.  There is no obvious answer for, “Why do only 13 percent of venture-backed companies have at least one female co-founder?” or “Why do women make up only 4.2% of partner level VC’s in the US?”  It’s dumb and unfair, and I want to be part of changing those numbers.  In order to do that, though, I have to stop walking on eggshells and own up to something important.

Regardless of my opinion on these issues, I must admit I often find myself holding my tongue and not saying what I really think. Not because I’m afraid of disagreement - I’m fine with that. It’s much more shameful to admit than that.  Mostly, I am afraid to let go of the idea that I can be totally objective.  That’s the ideal, isn’t it?  I don’t want to be seen as “biased”, “sexist”, “unsupportive” or “overly supportive”.  Especially when I am making decisions to invest or not invest on behalf of our partners, the last thing I want them to think is that my analysis may be skewed by prejudice.  

However, it is precisely this fear that is keeping these unbalanced statistics firmly in their place.  Forget the numbers themselves, the conversation about minorities and entrepreneurship is not going anywhere until we all get real, acknowledge where we are coming from, and start saying what we really think.  

Let’s face the facts — absolutely every single person is biased when it comes to gender issues.  Except for a very small subset of the population who have experienced the world as both genders at different times (who we should all pay close attention to because they can provide the most accurate description of the differences between society’s perceptions of men and women), we are born either a man or a woman.  You can’t help how you’re born, or how you grew up, or the set of experiences that have formed your current mindset.  So, guess what?  You are biased.  I am biased.  We are biologically hardwired to be biased.  So why is everyone pretending that they’re not?  

Instead of striving for complete objectivity, we should all take ownership of our biases so we can fully embrace and benefit from diversity.  Diversity of experience, mindset, and purpose is a competitive advantage, but only if we allow it to be by being honest about where we're coming from.  Hello, I am a white American female in my late-20's. I went to an Ivy League school, worked on Wall Street, then at a VC-backed education start up in New York and Hong Kong.  I now live a privileged life of an expat in Asia.  Does that define who I am?  No.  Has it shaped how I see the world?  Absolutely.  

As a woman in VC, I want to support female entrepreneurs.  I really do.  But yes, sometimes I am unintentionally harder on them than their male counterparts.  I have experienced the disadvantages of being a woman in male-dominated industries like finance and tech.  I believe I have had to fight a little harder than a male in my position would have, and sometimes I take that out on other women by expecting the same from them.  I am very aware of this bias.  I’m owning it right here, right now.  I hope I can change that, but I’ll never have the chance if I don’t acknowledge it.  

As part of a team of two at Fresco, we come from different backgrounds, life experiences, professional capacities, and personal interests.  We communicate well, but most certainly approach problems in different ways.  Being aware of our differences and open to new ways of thinking has been a huge advantage for us in the investment process.  Out of our 28 companies, 50% have at least one female co-founder.  We don’t have quotas, and we never set out to encourage female co-founders, it simply happened as a byproduct of owning our biases and staying open to new possibilities.  I hope that through continued awareness and honesty, we can continue to peel back the layers of our own prejudices and create the space for diversity to truly flourish.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Starting from scratch

Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere. – Albert Einstein

In classic Hong Kong fashion, I have spent the last year living in an apartment that is cozy, convenient, and compact.  Yes, just like a shoebox.  Naturally, as I hit my two year mark in this bustling metropolis that I love so much, moving to a bigger apartment that can actually fit furniture inside of it feels like a rite of passage.  As much as I love my Murphy bed and the cabinets that are pre-built into my walls, I'm thrilled to finally have enough space that I can actually choose what it might look like.

Well, I was thrilled until I realized that "possibility" also means "responsibility", which really means "work".  All of a sudden I have to figure out what fits where, how big it can be, what it will look like, whether or not it will match everything else, what if it gets spilled on, how much of our budget can we allocate to it, when it is available vs. when we need it and how the hell we will get it to the 17th floor. Starting from scratch starts out feeling like the ultimate freedom of a blank canvas, but shit starts piling up pretty quickly, and all of a sudden you don't feel so free anymore.

I hate to admit it, but this is an uncomfortably familiar feeling.  Graduating from college initially feels like the ultimate freedom - no classes, no semester schedules to juggle, no reason not to live anywhere you want.  Leaving a traditional career path for a start up initially feels like the ultimate freedom - you can create something new, craft your own product, team, and vision.  Oh, but what about paying your bills?  Generating revenue?  Wanting to live close to your friends?  Need to find the right people to hire?  People keep talking about this Lean Start up thing and agile methodology, aren't you supposed to work that in somehow?

When faced with such an overwhelming challenge, a natural first step is to start gathering information.  In the tangible case of furnishing my apartment, I gained a new appreciation for how much money furniture stores must pay brand agencies, because they seem to have successfully manipulated me into believing that where I buy my furniture really says something about what kind of person I am.  Seriously, I have used way too much of my brain capacity wondering if I am still an IKEA person, or does that mean I have commitment issues?  I'm drooling over the clean lines, translucent smoked glass, and trendy gray felt fabrics at BoConcept, but the price range is slightly above my means.  Or, maybe I should stay true to my inner scrappy entrepreneur by scouring GeoExpat (Hong Kong's functioning version of Craigslist), where I can bargain my way to underpaying for high quality, only gently used items that may or may not fit together.  Do I care more about my money or my time?  Go ahead and try to analyze that.

Then the hunt begins - gathering information, comparing dimensions, weighing priorities.  Nothing fits quite right - if the dimensions are perfect and we love it, it can't be delivered until 2015.  Maybe the fit isn't quite right, but it's within our budget, and available immediately, but what if the color doesn't match the other things we have picked out?  No matter what the context, it's excruciatingly frustrating to have a vision of what you want things to be like, but the path to getting there is cluttered with a million uncontrollable variables blocking your way.

Frustrated and teetering on the border between a panic attack and completely shutting down and giving up, we finally stumbled upon some furniture stores in Wan Chai.  We wandered in and started asking about the pieces they had in the showroom. We braced ourselves to mentally prioritise delivery time vs. design vs. price.  The little team working in the shop, a soft spoken yet quietly eager young man and an older more portly Cantonese woman with a designer's eye, patiently watched us debate the numerous variables.  The English speaking young man quietly interrupted and suggested, "Well, we can make it any size you want."  I was so dumbfounded, I asked for clarificaiton multiple times.  Apparently, you can choose literally everything about the furniture you order: the color, dimensions, wood, glass type, door type, fabric color.  It would then be manufactured just across the border in China and delivered to our doorstep for literally one third of the cost of any fancy, Scandinavian furniture store.  Fuck you, IKEA.  Ah yes, I fall deeper in love with Hong Kong every day.

The scariest and most empowering part of this particular metaphor is that when faced with unlimited possibility, we are the ones holding ourselves back.  In some ways, we need these restraints to avoid the sheer panic that comes with truly starting from scratch.  So instead, we search from the existing set of options, trying so hard to fit everyone else's designs and specifications into our own space.    Sure, you can have this job, use this type of methodology or job description template, go to this or that type of furniture store.  Price points, salaries, dimensions, hours, office locations may vary, but really it's all pre-determined.  We just assume that these are the only options available to us, because subconsciously, we think it will be easier that way.   But is it?  As Einstein so wisely put it, we resort to logic to get us where we need to go, but what we really need is just a bit of imagination.

What we forget to embrace is that literally anything is available to us.  Don't see it at the store?  Doesn't matter.  You can decide exactly what your life, your business, your home will be like.  It may take some work, you may have to go to Hong Kong to make it happen, but there's no reason why you can't have things exactly how you want them to be.  You may just need to stumble upon this store in Wan Chai to realize that it's actually possible.  So, there you go.  For Forrest Gump, life is like a box of chocolates.  For me (right now, at least), life is like an unfurnished apartment.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Keeping the lights on

I was recently asked to speak at the opening event of Baker & Bloom, an innovative education center in Hong Kong that aims to empower young people with confidence through courses like social entrepreneurship, creative writing, and many others.  The topic was, “How can we create entrepreneurs and innovators?” A pretty powerful question that I am sure millions of people would love an answer to.  If we could just figure out how to effectively teach our youngsters to be gritty, driven, creative, and innovative, we could transform generations!  No pressure at all...

I started racking my brain for an answer and initially found nothing by a bad case of impostor syndrome.  What could I possibly have to add to this conversation?  However, as I reflected upon my own journey, it occurred to me that perhaps this problem of "creating entrepreneurs and innovative thinkers" is actually a false choice.  Perhaps we don’t need to create them at all.  I would argue that all children are born with a natural light inside them.  A natural penchant to create, to innovate, to affect positive change in the world around them.  Our job as educators, investors, parents, friends, and members of society is simply to figure out how to keep that light from dying out, to fan the flames of entrepreneurship within each child, and to empower them with the tools and the confidence to pursue their unique passions.   

Of course, I’m not going to even pretend that I know how to do that, because I do not.  But I can share my own experience of how that light of entrepreneurship within me died out, how I was able to turn it back on again, and what I am doing now to keep the lights on for as many people in the world as possible.

When I was a child, I was incredibly creative, eager to try new things, and always trying to find a way to be different.  In second grade, I boldly proclaimed to my friends that I LOVED homework. I wrote a series of books about a cartoon aardvark named Dixie and her best friend, Missy the Chicken. I started a custom pillow business where I sold basketball shaped, heart shaped, and animal shaped pillows to literally anyone who would buy them, from my extended family, to my neighbors, to my computer teacher, Mr. Gilhooley.  

But somewhere between the social pressures of trying to fit in, wanting to look cool but also wanting be successful, between attempting to work hard, play sports, be editor of the Yearbook, and study for the SAT’s, between getting into Harvard, wanting to be the “perfect student”, daughter, friend, or girlfriend, I forgot how to be weird, crazy, and to try new things.  Instead, I simply learned how to be the best according to other people’s standards.

As a sophomore at Harvard, I was recruited to work on Wall Street, within the Sales & Trading division at Goldman Sachs.  I had no idea what a “derivative" was, but I knew that it was an exclusive world that was very competitive and fast-paced, filled with smart people, and that I should be grateful for such a sought after opportunity.  Throughout my four years at University, in spite of career counselling, academic advisors, and a diverse group of friends, I can honestly say it never even once occurred to me to do something else.  So, after graduating with a degree in Economics and Film Studies, I joined the Equity Derivatives team at Goldman in New York.  

My parents were extremely proud, people were always impressed by my business cards, I was able to support myself and even save a little money, and a lot of people wanted to have my job.  I felt lucky, but I was sad.  I was busy, but I was stressed.  I absolutely hated myself for not just being grateful for what I had, but there was no spark. I had no idea what it was, but something was missing.  Somewhere along the way, that crazy pillow saleswoman had closed shop and that little light inside me had gone out. 

In 2012, I decided to do something about it.  I took a leap of faith and left Goldman to join an early stage education start up in New York City called General Assembly. I was an early member of the team and saying I got thrown into the deep end is putting it lightly.  I was tasked with building out their long-form courses for practical digital skills for entrepreneurs - programs to teach people how to code, digital marketing, data science, user experience.  All amazing skills, none of which I knew how to do.  It was completely overwhelming, but all of a sudden it was like someone turned on the lights and the world had gone from black & white to full colour.  I was learning new things, solving problems, creating completely new possibilities for myself and for others, I was engaging with other incredibly talented individuals in ways that came very naturally to me, but I had completely forgotten how to do.  

Not only was I experiencing a change within myself, but by creating education programs that empowered others with the same experience, I was watching that light turn on within each and every student we had.  Our programs were geared toward adults, toward working professionals who, just like me, had been jaded by the real world and somewhere along the line, their lives had lost their spark.  I could see their eyes light up and their worlds turn to full color as they found themselves building their own websites, launching their own marketing campaigns, making their own dreams a reality.  All things they had always said they wanted to do, but had forgotten were completely within their reach.

Once I got a taste of my childhood back, the entrepreneur within me came back with a vengeance and I haven’t looked back since.  People tell me I am crazy all the time, but I can’t help that I just keep thinking bigger and bigger.  After seven months building out the education programs and team at General Assembly in New York, I decided I was going to move to Hong Kong and launch their business in Asia… they just didn’t know it yet.  I pitched the founders on why they should let me give it a try, they told me I was insane, that I was completely inexperienced, but I didn't care.  I wouldn’t take no for an answer.  They finally said yes, and in 2013, I incorporated General Assembly Hong Kong.

From nothing, we started launching all types of education programs to empower entrepreneurs in Hong Kong. After just nine months (and very little sleep), we had dozens of amazing teachers on board, 2,000 students had come through our doors, we had formed countless partnerships, and I even had a full-time team of six people.   Then, in January of this year, I took on a whole new challenge when I handed off the business to a new Director and joined Fresco Capital, a seed stage fund investing in entrepreneurs around the world. 

I have been learning a lot as an early stage investor but I just couldn’t stay away from the power of education and the magnitude of the work that needs to be done to make sure that everyone has what they need to keep the lights on and to see the world in full color.  Again, I can't pretend to have any idea how to do that, but I know I can contribute.  So, now, we are raising a new fund at Fresco specifically to invest in entrepreneurs who are starting businesses in education technology.  The goal of this fund is to scale our impact as much as possible - to leverage our capital, experience, and network to help change the system, one business, one entrepreneur, one student at a time, one light at a time.  

I share my experience here to highlight that the challenge of encouraging innovation and entrepreneurship is not about shaping our children as individuals.  They are already filled with infinite capability and wisdom.  Our challenge is banding together to shape the system so that it fuels their passion instead of stiffing it.