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.