Starting With Nothing

By Poornima Vijayashanker

A few weeks ago I had sent out a feedback form to people on my mailing list, one reader had referenced a previous FemgineerTV episode with Maria Molfino in which Maria and I talked about the fear of failure and how to practice creative confidence in spite of it.

During our conversation, we had mentioned that most people are more fearful about what could possibly happen to them if they took a risk and failed versus the likelihood of the failure.

I had mentioned that many of us have a safety net, which is why we don’t end up destitute after a failure.

Each person’s safety net may be different. Some may have a partner or a family to support them. Others may get another job.

I realize my response in the episode might have caused some of you to think I was speaking from a place of privilege: the Silicon Valley bubble.

Fair enough.

I’m also happy that you feel comfortable enough to push me, and let me know how it made you feel.

Let’s talk about the concern the reader brought up: starting from nothing and having everything to lose.

This is a paradox.

If you are starting from nothing, you have nothing to lose…

…unless of course you are starting from nothing and plan to go into debt.

In that case, YES you have something to lose, so you want to be thoughtful about how you proceed.

When you’re presented with two options.

Back in 2000, I was entering my freshman year of college. My dad who is an engineer got laid off due to the dot com bubble. Yup bubbles do burst! Along with it went my college tuition. My dad couldn’t afford to pay for my college, he had other things to worry about like covering a mortgage and my family’s expenses.

That left me with two options: quit college or to take out a student loan. I took out the student loan.

Let me tell you, taking out an $80,000 loan as an 18 year-old is scary…

But what would I have done if I had quit college? It’s not like I had many or any marketable skills.

I didn’t let the fear paralyze me, I just kept moving forward.

And yes it’s hard when you go to school and your peers have a stipend, a shiny new car, and you barely have enough money to cover books and food.

I learned to shift my focus to TAing to cover books and food, and when I wasn’t working I was studying.

I learned to take a risk and live with less from my parents. When I was two, they took a big risk moving to the US, with basically no money, but support from family. We lived in one room, and my mom did odd jobs to support my dad and me, while he focused on getting a graduate degree.

I figured if they could take a risk, uproot themselves, and make it work, what did I have to lose?

After graduation, I knew I had to start paying back the loan, which meant finding a job. I’ll admit I was pretty fortunate to find one and start paying back the loan.

A couple years later I was presented with another risk: to join an early stage startup. However, I didn’t have the freedom to just leave my job. I had to be thoughtful about it because I was up to my eyeballs in student loan debt and rent. I had to wait to join by saving up and making sure I was my own safety net.

When things don’t work out.

I took some risks and yes they worked out for me.

I realize that’s not always the case. Some do take a risk and get hit hard.

Back in 2012, a woman named Sandy reached out to me for mentorship. Sandy had started a business years before.

When Sandy started her business, she didn’t have a lot of savings and easy access to investment capital, so she decided to mortgage her house.

It took Sandy awhile to develop a product and bring it to market. By the time she had, the recession hit in 2008.

Sandy got hit hard and lost her house.

Sandy also had to file for bankruptcy and start from scratch.

She took a risk and some might think she lost it all.

Instead of worrying about the loss, she realized she needed to rebuild. She had a family she needed to provide for and that became a priority.

When I met Sandy four years later, she was back in the black with very limited funds.

Sandy was eager to give it another go.

Before I took Sandy on as a mentee, I asked her how she’d feel if she lost it all over again. Sandy said, “I learned how to get it back once, and I’ll learn how to get it back again.”

Sandy told me that while she was scared, she knew she was a creator. Not being able to practice creative confidence and take a risk wasn’t just stifling, it was depressing.

It was more important for her to take a risk and create than succumb to fear.

She also felt like she needed someone who could keep her in check, which is where I came in.

The one characteristic Sandy had, which you absolutely need when you start with nothing is a growth mindset.

The mindsets that mold us.

The point I was trying to make in the FemgineerTV episode is that some of us are afraid to take a risk because we worry about losing material possessions. However, if we have built up a safety net or have a strong support network, the likelihood of losing things is slim. What we instead need to come to terms with is fear around losing our self-worth by being rejected or ridiculed, if and when they fail, and being OK with embracing risk in spite of it.

Then there are of course those like Sandy who may indeed lose material possession like money or their house.

Even in that case, it’s hard, but it is possible to bounce back slowly.

The willingness to take a risk and bounce back boils down to having a growth mindset versus a fixed mindset.

When you have a fixed mindset: you feel like you’re only capable of doing so much, and you only have so much money or resources to do what you want. It also means that if you do decide to take a risk and experience a setback once you do, it may feel like it’s the end, or like the struggle just isn’t worth it. If one path didn’t work, or you ran out of resource it’s time to call it quits. This makes it hard to follow through.

Contrast that to a growth mindset: you understand that you might not know everything or have everything, but you know you are capable of learning, growing, and being resourceful. When you face a setback you either see it as an opportunity to learn and grow and may enlist help to support you through it. Yes, you might pursue a path that causes a setback or worse yet causes you to lose it all. But you’re willing to try again, because you’ve already experienced the worst case scenario, and are stronger and hopefully smarter from it.


Ultimately, some of us start with something, while others start with nothing. Yes, it’s much harder when you start with nothing. In both cases, you feel like you have something to lose, and in both cases, it’s hard to say who will benefit from the risk and who will be left with scars.

The questions we have to ask ourselves are: how will we feel if we don’t take the risk? Do we believe that even if we fail we are capable enough to bounce back? And when we do fail, have we surrounded ourselves with people who will still love and respect us?