Read Part 1 for Lucia's career journey that led her to "Rock the Boat."
An Asian-American Identity
Rock the Boat is really unique in that it focuses on sharing experiences of Asian-Americans and challenging the status quo, and I definitely think that you're one of these people. Could you elaborate more about your experience as an Asian-American woman and how that has influenced your experience as an entrepreneur?
I think while I was at Amex, it never really hit me as anything because I actually ended up working under an Asian-American boss. Those were two amazing years. My boss was phenomenal. She always had my back, and I learned a ton. She was like a mentor to me. I don't think I have yet found anybody who is similar to that since I veered off that path.
But I think that the first time that being an Asian-American woman impacted me was when I worked at the real estate fintech startup that was veteran-owned. The CEO was a very big sales and business development person. He also came from Amex, so we had that shared background, which was nice. A lot of our clients were these online lenders. To give you some context on a lending demographic, loan officers tend to be 55-year-old white men who live in Kansas City, Missouri or in San Diego or in more central American places.
I don’t think I've ever felt like such a fish out of water. I think that’s another experience as to why this zigzag career path makes me feel like, “Oh, you know what? I'm okay being uncomfortable.”
I feel like I’ve been uncomfortable so many times. That was another thing about starting the chocolate business: it was that at Amex I felt very comfortable; sometimes it was hard, but it didn't feel like I was pushing myself, and I wasn’t putting myself in uncomfortable situations to grow. But with the chocolate business, absolutely, 100%, I felt very uncomfortable. The real estate fintech startup was also a very uncomfortable situation because as we were pitching these 55-year-old white male executives out in the middle of the country, I didn't realize how missing diversity was in those parts of America. My boss is half Korean half Irish; he looks fully white, but he has Korean blood in him, and he grew up in Hawaii, so he’s also a Pacific Islander. We would go and look around us, and nobody looked like us, and he’d be like, “I feel like they think we’re these exotic furry creatures.” And I get that, right? I would talk to an older gentleman, and he’d mean it in the best of ways, but he’d be like, “Oh, what part of the Orient are you from?” It's like, who says that? Who says “Orient” anymore? No one says “Oriental,” that's not a thing.
I never saw it because at Amex it was 70% women. There were gender norms, and women equality was very important at Amex. Even in the food business, it was totally fine, there was nothing that made me bat an eye. It wasn’t until working for that real estate fintech startup and encountering a lot of different people that I started to realize women are not on the same playing field here. When you’re out and about with these SVPs of banks, and they’re just taking shots and having bro time, it’s just really odd to be there as an Asian-American female who doesn’t drink and is allergic to alcohol, awkwardly talking to them about their kids. It’s so strange. You know that they look at you and they’re like, “Who is this chick? What is she even doing here?”
One guy who was supposedly one of our partners, after an event, he came up to my boss and he was like, “Lucia shouldn't come to this conference again because she's being catty.” I was just there trying to do my job, I was talking to people, I was trying to do business development work, and he was like, “She’s being catty.” This guy is, like I said, a 55 year old white man. That to me was such a jarring moment when I didn’t even think about it before. I never thought that being a woman or anything would put me at a disadvantage. But that was the moment that really solidified in my mind, “Oh, I’m very different.” I can't believe a white man would go and say that about a woman - that she’s being catty so she can’t attend these events. Really? What age are we? Why is this high school shit happening?
That's my experience as an Asian-American woman in the workforce. I think outside of that, it’s been okay. I know for mostly male dominated industries like engineering, you still get a bit of that. To give you another example, at the last startup that I was part of, the CEO sat me down one day, and we had our one-on-one. Keep in mind, this CEO is a thirty-nine-year-old Jewish white man who came from a pretty well-off background. His dad was the CFO of Lotus Notes, so he grew up pretty rich. So he sits me down, and he’s like, “Lucia, I don't understand why you come to me in every meeting like you have something to prove. Why do you have something to prove? You always come with this agenda in mind like you have something to prove, and you always have to fight your point. You know, when I walk into investor meetings, and I do these things, I just feel welcome.” And I was like,
“That’s because you’re not a fucking woman of color. And you’ve never been treated the way that I have, just like how you're treating me right now, telling me that I have something to prove. Fuck yes, I have something to prove. I have to prove that my voice is just as important, or that the points that I’m making are grounded in reality and grounded in data. Stop discounting my statements, stop making me feel like I’m not being heard.”
But also as an Asian American woman, I get away with a lot more things. I do also feel like I'm able to connect with other Asian-Americans, I have a very tight network in the Asian-American community. I feel like it's easier for me to champion Asian-American causes through Rock the Boat, and it’s easy to get from one node to another. That’s something I think is amazing about being an Asian-American woman. I also do feel very privileged. My husband makes fun of me all the time from that perspective because he’s like, “Just because you’re a little Asian girl, you get away with everything.” Whatever I ask for, people are like, “Yeah, okay.” So I think it's a double-edged sword.
At the end of the day, take what you got. Use it as your advantage. Use it as leverage. And don't apologize for it.
The Future of Rock the Boat
What are your goals for Rock the Boat moving forward? What would you define as success for the podcast?
I think success for the podcast as of right now is to really grow the cause that more Asian American voices need to be heard. We are very much a community first. So our goal is not to be a media company. We never wanted to be a media company. We never wanted to go out there and say, “At Rock the Boat, we want to create content that changes the world, and we also want to do video.” That's not what we want to do at all.
What we want to do is be the resource center for Asian Americans who want to hear other Asian American voices. We want to be a resource for people who want to do something, start something, need a blueprint to get unstuck, or are interested in being part of the Asian American community and want to actually make an impact. We want to create an ecosystem around that. Right now, what we're doing is we're working on partnerships across other Asian-American organizations and enabling Rock the Boat members to get access to our partner resources and our partner content because we don't want to be the ones who have to create all the content and start from scratch. That's not what we're about. What we're about is this online repository and resource of Asian American voices. If you are interested or curious about entrepreneurship, you can come and listen; if you're interested in politics or pursuing office, then you can also come to the podcast and listen to the ones that are related to that; if you're interested in becoming an entertainer or a filmmaker or a producer, you can come to the podcast and listen to people who are producers.
We want to be able to have this wide repository of Asian Americans doing lots of different things so that people can come in and use us as a resource to say, “Yeah, this person has done it before. I can do it, too.”
How to Take the Leap into Entrepreneurship
For students at Penn who might be interested in pursuing entrepreneurship but are scared to take the leap and aren’t really sure where to start, do you have any advice for what they should do?
My advice has always been that you don't know what you truly like and dislike until you’re knee deep in it. So there's three ways to looking at this problem.
The first approach is: you worked so hard to get into Penn, your parents probably have certain expectations of you, so why not go and work for two years somewhere at a reputable company, get what you need out of it, and get that on your résumé? That way, if you ever need to go back or do something a little different, if there’s a huge financial downturn and entrepreneurship is no longer a viable strategy, you still have the safe route you can still take, and you can do what you’re interested in doing on the side. So start small - it doesn't have to be a huge project. It doesn’t have to be your dream product - you're not going to build the next Google. I mean if you are, kudos to you; but I think for the rest of us, you're not going to build the next Google, so the key here is what I like to call “resting your troops.” Build up your coffers, make sure that you have enough money that you can survive. If your parents live close to wherever you want to start your startup, move back home and save some money to get a part time job, but make sure you take care of your basic needs. This is part of Maslow’s hierarchy - you need to make sure you can eat. Once you can eat, then you can start thinking about what types of projects that you're interested in. I would say get to know yourself really, really well. When I quit my job, I took a whole slew of personality tests because I was like, “I don't know what I should be.”
Be really clear to yourself, and be honest. Be really honest with yourself about what you're good at and what you’re bad at.
The second thing is to try it out in any possible way. Chris Cheung, who is the first person we interviewed on the podcast, founded Box.com. He started out doing e-commerce by selling Twilight T-shirts online. And he was working at Goldman Sachs at the time as a contractor. He was selling Twilight t-shirts in the middle of the night, and he was flipping t-shirts from Taobao to sell other things. That’s how he got his taste of e-commerce, and now Box is a billion-dollar company. Charlotte Cho started Soko Glam as a side project to sell South Korean beauty products because she wanted a connection to South Korea. So I would say do something on the side. Rock the Boat started off as a side project.
Do something on the side until it can make more money or enough money that you know that you can eat, and then you can leave and do the other thing. Or focus intently for two years doing something that you don't necessarily love to do, but it can make money and make a living for you.
I think a lot of time we expect our job to be a unicorn that can provide us with satisfaction and give us a sense of well-being; we can be proud of it, and it helps us learn, and it makes money for us, right? That's not the case most of the time. Most of the time the job is just a job. It’s called a job for a reason - it’s to help you make money. And so it's important to make that distinction. If you find that unicorn job, hold on to it for dear life, man. But if you don’t, it’s not the end of the world. It’s okay.
Then I think the last part is you have to hold yourself accountable. If you say that you want to do something, you have to go and do it. You have to go and try, or at least take steps towards doing it. I fell into this trap as well while I was at Penn. You have these big, awesome ideas and you’re like, “Yeah, I’m gonna make these big, awesome ideas happen.” Then you keep thinking about this big awesome idea, and you’re like, “Oh shit, how do I make such a huge thing happen? All these things have to fall into place. I don't even know where to start.”
I think it's important to not focus on the end goal but to focus on what’s the next obvious possible step for you to take.
So if it’s to be an entrepreneur, then the next possible step that you can take is to go meet some other entrepreneurs, go intern for some other entrepreneurs, take entrepreneurship classes, or start an e-commerce thing on the side. If you're not a technical founder, go and try and meet a technical founder. If you’re a technical co-founder,, but you don’t even know where to start from a sales and marketing perspective, then go find your sales and marketing partner. Find partners. That’s really important. It's really hard to do it alone. Most solo entrepreneurs fail. Penn is a great place to find boyfriends, future husbands, and business partners. That’s what school’s for.
Do you have anything else you'd like to add or elaborate or talk about?
I think one thing that I do want to add is that we put so much emphasis on our first job. We put so much emphasis on our major. It's so true when people tell you, five years out of college, no one cares. No one has ever checked my diploma. Except for Amex. No one has really asked me what I majored in, and no one really cares. It's all about what you do. I can't emphasize it enough for those people who have aspirations to really do. And I think it’s especially true for women. There's a book that I’m reading called The Confidence Code. And it's all about this confidence gap between men and women. The biggest finding they publicized on The Confidence Code is that when you do more things, you become more confident in your ability and skills, so it's really important to do.
The more you do, the more confident you become in yourself and the more you realize, “Oh, I'm a very confident person, and I can actually get these things off the ground, and I know exactly how to do it.”
Header photo courtesy of Anchor's interview with Lucia Liu and Lynne Guey