I LOST MY CORPORATE JOB, BUT LANDED ON THE COVER OF FORBES
by Pocket Sun (@pocketysun)
The story below was written for 3 Billion Under 30, a new book put together by Jared Kleinert, to showcase 75 millennials who’ve leveraged the experiences and ideas they’ve shared in the book to build companies that are collectively worth billions of dollars, write and support the release of over 40 New York Times bestselling books, found and operate major media companies that have hundreds of millions of readers each month, earn over 50 million combined social media followers, donate millions to charity, and more.
A quick rundown of my past two years:
I founded SoGal, now a global community influencing 50,000 diverse entrepreneurs and investors with a dozen of city chapters worldwide. When I realized that funding was often the largest hurdle for female founders, I jumped into venture capital and cofounded SoGal Ventures, the first millennial venture capital firm led by women. Last February, at 24 years old, I became one of the youngest persons to ever be on the cover of Forbes Asia Magazine, as a 30 Under 30 in the VC category.
If you told me a year ago that I would be on the cover of Forbes as a female venture capitalist, I would think you were out of your mind. But here I am, the only woman standing alongside four men on the cover highlighting “the first Asian regional roster of Millennials making good,” smiling in a red dress. Under my name, it says, “gathers entrepreneurial women.” Holding the magazine in my hands and looking at my face on the cover feels unreal.
I never thought I had any entrepreneurial passion within me. For twenty-three years, it never crossed my mind that I would become an entrepreneur at this age, and I felt a little strange getting accepted into a master’s program called Entrepreneurship and Innovation. Even my application essay (only one-page long, thank god) was sort of made up. I mentioned that my uncle is a successful entrepreneur and that I admired his success. My previous employer was a technology corporation and my boss brought up the word “entrepreneurial” several times. But that’s about it! Isn’t entrepreneurship something you might do after you are at least thirty years old?
Looking back, it’s almost cute how wrong I was.
I spent six and a half years in the US and kept moving west. I first came to the East Coast, then went to the Midwest, and finally ended up in California. My college friends used to say I was F.O.B. (Fresh Off the Boat), and I don’t deny it. I didn’t know what jalapeño, mustard, root beer, or mozzarella was, and I had never heard of St. Patrick’s Day, Scavenger Hunts, or the Super Bowl. You bet I was laughed at a lot.
For a long time, I was intimidated by searching for a job. I never heard back from companies that I wanted to work for, and sometimes I got rejections within fifteen minutes after I checked a box that says, “I will require visa sponsorship now or in the future to work in the US.” Life is tough when you are an international student trying to get a qualitative marketing job in the US.
Why would a company spend upward of $40,000 to hire a foreign person to do marketing, when there are tons of college graduates who speak English as their mother tongue? Several times I wanted to give up.
But I didn’t. Instead, I went to every interview I could get, even for some sketchy sales jobs and marketing positions that would only pay $25,000 a year. After dozens of interviews, I stopped worrying about my imperfect English and started enjoying my conversations with potential employers. I learned to network, build connections, and talk about myself with confidence.
When I finally landed a marketing job, I absolutely loved it. The team was diverse; the corporate environment was friendly; the work-life balance was great; the work I was doing had a purpose. The catch? Sadly, being an international student means I was not guaranteed a work visa. The system is unfair — I was a skilled worker with a great education contributing to the economy, but all of a sudden I was not allowed to continue working in the US because my visa application didn’t pass the computer-generated lottery. I was devastated and wanted to leave the country.
But I didn’t. Instead, I quit my job, took the GMAT, and applied for graduate schools at the end of May, the time of year when top schools had already finalized their roster for the fall. Even though the timing was against me, I scored 750 in GMAT (top 2 percent), and got into five schools. I ended up at University of Southern California (USC) studying Entrepreneurship and Innovation, not because I was into the subject, but because they offered a half scholarship. I couldn’t even pronounce or spell the word “entrepreneurship” properly! My plan was simple: to graduate in a year and get another corporate job.
That didn’t happen. After listening to tons of founders telling their fascinating stories, I quickly came to the realization that entrepreneurship is the only way if you want to make a real impact on the world. Being in a corporate job is a safe path, but you often need to “fit in” and climb the already-designed ladder. When you want to shake things up, a corporation is like the Titanic — too heavy to steer. Corporations do have brand equity (that does not belong to you), but they also have inefficiency. A meaningful change often takes too long to happen. Being an entrepreneur is totally different. You will have full autonomy because everything is on you. Without a corporate name behind you, you start to learn how people really think of you. Scary, right?
The entrepreneur’s mindset, on the other hand, boils down to three sentences: I know I have to solve this pain. How? I don’t know yet, but I’ll figure it out.
I realized that I could not wait for the perfect time to start. I used to think, “Of course people who are older are wiser and more experienced.” Now I have learned that years of experience means nothing unless you are constantly challenging yourself to learn something new. Being young is an advantage because people want to see you succeed. You have little to lose and much to gain. Entrepreneurship is a fast track self-discovery journey because your role goes beyond the standard scope of any position. As a founder, I have become a strategist, brand specialist, social media influencer, web developer, graphic designer, public relations expert, event coordinator, content creator, business development professional, financial planner, community builder, public speaker, and even a model! If I could go back in time, I would tell my college self to become a serial entrepreneur before I graduate.
I ditched my plan to go back to the corporate world and decided to immerse myself into the startup world. However, I was always one of the only women in the room at technology and entrepreneurship events. My entrepreneurship classes had very few female guest speakers. Technology is our future, and we can’t afford to leave half the world’s population behind and not put their talent to use.
Knowing how much the founders’ stories made an influence on me, I thought, wouldn’t it be powerful to bring the same access to other young women before they make their first career decisions in life? It never hurts to have an entrepreneurial mindset, and at least they will know that entrepreneurship is an option!
On a sunny afternoon in a classroom, I hosted the first High Tea Party for young female entrepreneurs. With no funds to purchase food or beverages, I reached out to my classmates and got connected to entrepreneurs who owned a cupcake store, a cookie brand, a juicery, and a tea brand. They became my first set of speakers, and I made sure they brought in their products for a tasting.
Within the first month, I hosted three additional events, and the positive feedback made me want to do something bigger. I thought about creating a full-day summit for hundreds of female entrepreneurs to get together, share stories, and help each other. When I told my entrepreneurship professors about my idea, they thought I was crazy. They said it was too little time for too big of an undertaking. I almost broke into tears after a short and discouraging conversation with one professor, and seriously doubted myself. But you know something is worth doing when people don’t think it’s doable. It’s fun to prove them wrong.
A hustler at heart, in less than two and a half months, I was able to secure sixty top-notch speakers, mentors, and judges to join our inaugural SoGal Summit, while selling over 400 tickets. After the event, many people told me about the amazing opportunities they were introduced to there, how inspired they were by the speakers, and why it was the best conference they had ever attended. It was beyond rewarding.
I learned one of the most important lessons in life: if people say you can’t do it, it’s only because they can’t. They don’t know what you are capable of, and they may not understand why you want to take on such a challenge. I made things happen because my intention was pure and because I worked my butt off to execute. To secure sixty speakers, I probably sent out 600 emails and begged everyone to introduce me to more people who may be interested. It’s the massive actions I took that led to results.
As SoGal grew, I often met with fantastic women entrepreneurs and would always ask how I could help them. Almost all of my conversations led to the same conclusion: women have a hard time finding investors for their startups. Since most investors are male, women sometimes feel unwelcome, not taken seriously, or discriminated against. During pitch meetings, they are asked things along the lines of, “When are you planning on having kids? I don’t want to invest if you’re just going to get pregnant in a year or two.” Often, if women bring their male cofounder or employee to the meeting, the male investors completely ignore them and go straight to talk to the man.
Through researching the statistics of what women entrepreneurs are facing, I quickly discovered the gender disparity in venture capital. Only 6 percent of partners at VC firms are women, and 77 percent of VC firms have never hired a woman into an investing role. Furthermore, female CEOs are not getting much VC money either (only 2.7 percent did in 2011–2013). In my venture capital class, we had one guest speaker each week for the entire semester, but not a single speaker was female.
Changing the ratio of women in technology and entrepreneurship, as well as leveling the playing field, is one of many problems in the world. Instead of saying, “Someone should do something about it,” I asked myself, “What can I do about it?” The answer was clear but intimidating. I had to become a venture capitalist. I had no idea how to break into venture capital. Take a look at the 2016 Forbes Midas List of Top 100 Tech Investors, and you will find ninety-five men and only five women.
One day, I came across a training program for venture capital investors. The application clearly indicated that it was for experienced investors, but I applied anyway. During my interview, I was honest about having zero experience as a VC and told them my goal was to change the investment landscape for the many women entrepreneurs that I worked with. To my surprise, I was accepted to join a class of thirty-five investors from around the world! There, I met my business partner, Elizabeth Galbut, an impressive young woman who at the time was building the first-ever VC fund powered by Johns Hopkins University students. During the program, we had close discussions with top investors in Silicon Valley, including Dave McClure and Jason Calacanis, who encouraged us to lead by example to improve the status quo, instead of sitting around and waiting for others to create the change we want to see. Elizabeth and I decided that it was time to start our own VC firm. We bought the domain name www.sogalventures.com and got to work!
It took me months to believe in the idea that I, a twenty-four-year-old woman, could start a VC firm. Getting an entry-level VC job already seemed impossible, let alone starting one! It took a LOT of self-convincing to set foot on this journey to build my SoGal “AdVentures.”
For a while, I did not dare to call myself a VC. I did not want to tell people about SoGal Ventures because it would just cause a storm of questions about my qualifications and credentials, which I barely had. What I could do, though, was turn off the noise. I soaked up all the information out there, took classes to study everything about it, learned from with every VC that I could reach out to, and I even wrote about it on our new blog. I focused on collecting proof points to make my case, not getting discouraged by different opinions. I started to look into investment and advisory opportunities so that I could build a portfolio and track record with very small checks.
It worked. Fast forward twelve months, Elizabeth and I have invested in twenty-two early stage startups in the US and Asia, and these companies have collectively raised $50 million dollars. We’ve been featured on the cover of Forbes, BBC World News, China’s largest TV network CCTV, and countless digital and print media. Our blog was ranked in the “Top 10 Voices” on LinkedIn. We are speaking all over the world at tech, startup, and venture capital conferences. And this is just the beginning!
My entrepreneurial story is “accidental.” None of the steps were planned; they just happened. The best thing? When you are committed to a mission, you will inspire others to create changes too. Many young women have told me that they’re inspired by what we do and that they are starting their own projects and companies to teach girls and moms to code, to create funds for college entrepreneurs, to educate the mass public, or to amplify the voices of minorities. How awesome is that?
If you are bothered by something, don’t complain. Be the change, because you are just as ready and equipped as anyone else.
Start by taking baby steps — write a blog, organize a meetup, reach out to someone who is into similar things, and tell people why you care. Never did I imagine a classroom event could grow into an impactful global community and a VC fund all within two years. I saw a problem, experimented with solutions, and kept growing. When entrepreneurship becomes a way of life, you will be on a rocket ship. Remember, only the people crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.