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Lessons from My Father and the Magic Number

When I first meet people, people have sometimes told me later that they had the impression that I come from an ultra privileged background and imagined that I spent much of my youth on holiday traveling to exotic locales. Everyone has unconscious biases, and this impression couldn't be further from the truth. The truth is that my parents were hard-working immigrants who worked seven days a week to give me an education. Everything they didn't have growing up, they had tried to provide for me.

I remember in elementary and middle school, all of my friends would go on holiday or summer camp, but I never had a month off. From 3rd to 6th grade, during the summers, I was enrolled at the local community college and took computer courses and critical thinking courses. At that time, my father was working for the Chevron Corporation and the entire office was outfitted with Apple computers. He told me it was incredibly important that I become computer literate because understanding technology was the key to all future endeavors. It was the early 90s and I wanted to take ballet and horseback riding lessons like all the other girls, but instead I learned the basics of how to program in ASIC. I was one of two girls in the summer class, and the other girl, Maria and I would play 2D games such as Super Mario Brothers and Bushido after our classes. Previously, I wanted to pursue gymnastics, as I had excelled in the sport when I was seven years old, and won several awards; but after doing research, my father decided that the life of a gymnast was not for me. He concluded that gymnastics coaches abuse their gymnasts and they are put on medications at an early age that stunted their growth, he told me. Instead, I was enrolled in martial arts: Hapkido and later, Shindo Jinen Ryu, which is a Japanese form of karate that incorporates aikido, jujitso and kendo. Out of a class of 40, again, there were only 3 females in the course. For the next 10 years, as I moved up in rank from a white belt, it was me, Jenna and Jenna's sister who comprised of the only girls in the class.

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Me, demonstrating a defensive move as a 2nd grader (left, in a ponytail) and receiving my green belt at 11 years old (right). I was one of 3 girls in my martial arts class.

As a child, I was always surrounded by books, to a chaotic degree. Our house had books everywhere. My friends even dubbed my house: The Library. My father had a love of books and reading, and we had piles of books in every room. Every week, my father and I would make a trip to the bookstore and I would choose 10-12 books to read that week. I graduated from middle school with the most amount of book reports ever written: over 200 in a single year. No one was even close to breaking my record. My father taught me how to write essays: The opening sentence has to catch people's eye, he told me. He tutored me every morning from 5am to 7am in math and science before he left for work. With a cavalier attitude, I've always told people math came easy for me, but in reality, it was due to all the hours my father had invested in me.

Sundays were the only time when my father would be home early from work at 6pm. My father taught me the value of cuisine. I was at that age in middle school, a preteen, when I was beginning to think that cooking was a kind of slight against feminism and due to the influences of the US media, that the modern woman didn't dare enter the kitchen. However, my father taught me about the art of cooking, and how important it was to nourish yourself with fresh, whole foods. He built a garden in the backyard of our modest suburban home, and would let me choose which vegetables I wanted to grow. Whilst my friends went on skiing trips every weekend to Lake Tahoe; on every Sunday, my father and I would choose one recipe from my vegetarian cookbook to try. It's important to follow the basics of every recipe, but it doesn't have to be exact, he told me, and you can choose to add and change what you want. You can be consistent, but every chef is different. 

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My signature dish as a child was something called the "meatless loaf". A plant-protein based dish with vegetables, beans and nuts.

However, at University, I became disillusioned. During my junior year, I wanted to drop out and move to Paris. I didn't like some of my Professors and was just beginning to understand the politics of being a part of academia. There was a level of sycophancy in academia that I wasn't comfortable with, and the highest scorers were always the ones who repeated whatever the Professor said, word for word. I didn't have a plan, but like every other 19-year-old, I was filled with a kind of arrogance and couldn't find the value of my courses, when really, I felt that I learned most things that I pursued on my own time anyway. My father would have none of it. 

We are not quitters. It is always important to finish what you start, my father told me. You may not see value in it now, but you will later. Indeed, he was right.

Despite the fact that my father worked seven days a week, he always made time to instill important values which have been important in my evolution as a woman. 

I think women entrepreneurs are inevitably different from male entrepreneurs. When VCs talks about entrepreneurs, I find that many are attracted to the sort of man they would like to be. This is an unconscious bias. We are all attracted to people that we want to emulate. Travis Kalanick is popular, not only because he is a charismatic speaker but because men want to emulate him. The fact that Uber's burn rate in China alone is $1 billion per year alone should raise some red flags, but it has not affected the fervor of late stage fundings. He is probably the only entrepreneur who has been able to successfully raise billions just months after raising billions. He is the lead in an action movie, and he is the epitome of what men would like to be. However, women entrepreneurs face a different journey because we have to unravel decades of cultural normative thinking, in addition to navigating through the values of what women should be.

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Sara Blakely (left), billionaire founder of Spanx, took 2 years to launch her prototype whilst working at another full-time job. Lynda Weinman (right) founder of was a full-time designer and educator who spent 2 years to launch her educational site. 

Although many people cite that as an entrepreneur- one can't work on ideas on a part-time basis, or on the weekends, and that it is important to jump in- all or nothing, I find this sort of advice contradictory to progress. I find that the most successful entrepreneurs- male or female, tend to be strategic thinkers. They are not the types who gamble, but are calculated risk takers. Gamblers look at statistics and think they have a 1/100 chance of winning or even a 50/50 chance, and bet it all on black or red, or else jump in head first into an empty swimming pool. This is the kind of risk that is damaging to VC communities, people who are careless and lack a cohesive strategy.

On the other hand, entrepreneurs who take time to carefully build their prototype instead of rushing it out 3 months after the formation of their company, I think are more likely to succeed. Certainly, there are types of startups that are based on one simple app- perhaps it's that app that made your phone look like a beer glass or others that take virtually no time to launch, like a travel rental website, but those aren't the sort of companies that I find compelling, although I have nothing against pure slapstick fun or travel, I just prefer to focus my attention on startups that are ambitious enough to make an effect on at least 1 billion people in a positive way.

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The one-hit wonder: the iBeer app, one of the most popular apps of 2008

Currently I am working with a startup that is based on BCI (Brain Computer Interface) that has the ability to change the treatment options for neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's and stroke victims. I asked the founder how long it would take him to produce his MVP and when he told me one month, I was very surprised.

I asked him, "You can build this in one month?!" Ah, yes, but he explained to me that he actually took 2 years to build his prototype whilst he had been a full-time PhD student. Similarly, another friend of mine who is a founder of a financial monitoring firm in London told me that he took 2 years to build his prototype, and he did this whilst having a full-time job as a software engineer. Another founder I've come to know, Julian McCrea of Portal Entertainment, a Greenwich based startup which analyses visual information to target emotion-based advertisement in users and has landed coveted deals with Warner Bros and other Hollywood studios, told me it took him 2 years to research and develop his idea before launching the prototype. In terms of other visible founders, Sara Blakely, the self-made billionaire of Spanx, also took 2 years to produce her prototype whilst she had a full-time job.

I've found that entrepreneurs who are quick to launch something without a strategy are the ones who aren't in it for the long-run. This "all-or-nothing" mentality is actually a misnomer to entrepreneurship because oftentimes, I find that if VCs themselves are not entrepreneurs, they only see the result, and not the process it took to get there. Fast-forwarding to the result is not possible without going through the process. Rome wasn't built in a day. Execution is important, and an army charging blindly into the enemy without a plan is a sure route to failure. I think that is one of the main reasons why 90+% of startups fail. Too many entrepreneurs are told to "just do it" without a strategy and people often misinterpret and cite the Lean Method to make an argument that strategists who think carefully and make calculated risks are somehow not as able as those who jump in head first without thinking and randomly try everything until they finally find one win on black by their audience. Advice like "your prototypes should take less than 90 days to build" is antagonistic to entrepreneurship, it's more akin to gambling.

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Calculated risk-takers are strategists rather than gamblers.

And gamblers are different from calculated risk takers. However, despite that gamblers can often be charming, they are not in it for the long haul. They are in it for the short-term. They are 1 get-rick-quick scheme away from infomercials. 

I find entrepreneurs who spend 2 years in development without a salary are typically  not the gambler types. They are in it for the long haul. If they did it whilst having a full-time job and facing professional and personal challenges, more kudos to them. They know how to manage their responsibilities and time and those are important characteristics I think all successful founders share. 

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I learned from my father that investing in time and people are one of the most important qualities to have in a world that may often seem to be filled with ever changing disposable roles. Big ideas are worth striving for, and people are the most important resource in any organisation.