Tell me a little about yourself and your interest in Community
I’ve always been really active in women’s groups since undergrad. I breathe it in, the camaraderie, the sisterhood of being part of this community is very important to me.
I’m very, very focused on supporting women of color. I’m a woman of color myself, and I spent most of my career in tech. I’m often the only woman and if not the only person of color, the only woman of color in a room. This has changed, we see more Asian women now but I don’t see Latinas or African American women as much, so there’s a real sense in me of wanting to see more diversity in the industry I work in.
I have been working really hard to do a couple different things on a personal hack-it-myself level, and with other friends. I left Google in March , but while I was at Google, I felt so honored that I was I think the only non African-American person invited to the Black Googlers Network to do their first mentoring sponsoring program. I was actually doing some mentoring with some young African American women and they invited me to be a mentor in their program. I was really proud. I did some mentoring for Women at Google as well.
What’s community been like since leaving your job?
I felt that I got an even larger access to a community of women that has fully embraced me. The first people that have embraced me were women. I spent most of my 20+ year career forging wonderful relationships with my male allies, but always feeling alone as a woman but [for the first time now] suddenly being an entrepreneur, maybe it’s just the right time but I suddenly have this community of women that I haven’t really experienced other than when I left college. And so I have been just basking in it, reflecting it back. It’s been just the most amazing experience of my life. I feel so fortunate. It’s been probably one of the best couple months of my life really.
From a life perspective, my mother passed in 2010 and it really made me realize how short life was, and how you really have to live by this concept of good karma and doing good in the world, and sending even small ripples has a big effect. I’ve been trying to live by the One Kindness A Day concept, which is: At minimum, once a day you do something conscientiously trying to do something good. That can be something as small as opening a door for somebody, or responding and giving a helping hand to an up and coming undergrad who wants to learn more about the tech industry. You do something good everyday.
I [also] have my big hack project is terms of getting nothing hack but hopefully that it’ll have ripples.
I spend a lot of time talking about women in tech, minorities in tech, and bringing more diversity [to tech]. And a male ally said “Look, I feel like there’s a real problem, and definitely for pre-seed, for pre-A, people are telling us we need to help, but where’s this list of women entrepreneurs? Where’s this list?”
Nobody ever asks if there’s a list of men, because it would be too numerous to put on a list, and yet somehow it’s like “a list.” But I know that as a male ally, he means well, he wants to help but he needs direction and help.
The only list I’ve seen of women entrepreneurs was two years before. [Someone was] doing a big survey of women entrepreneurs and there was about 250 names, but all of that was in an HTML file. No email contacts, just a name and the name of their company. And so I was like “There is no list, but I will create one. I will maintain this list until I die if you guys will step up and take action on what you keep saying.”
There is nothing that bugs the shit out of me more than people that spend a lot of time talking about shit but never doing it. Funding minority entrepreneurs and funding women startups is one of those things [that’s] very fashionable for the tech digerati and venture capitalists to say they’re gonna help but they don’t really take action to do it. Nobody writes a check. They all want to run programs. My feedback to them is, “Look I don’t need any more freaking programs where you’re gonna make me potentially pay to attend and tell me I need to be an entrepreneur.” Most women and most people of color — we over-prepare. We could be six times more prepared than a 22 year-old white boy wearing a hoodie but somehow, we still need to take a program to be an entrepreneur. So, no more minority and women entrepreneur programs. I only want to get this list to people that want to write a check.
I put the call out to every woman I know [to join or forward the list]. Literally over 100+ women heeded the call, they put their name and their company information on the list. I emailed this list in a spreadsheet to qualified investors. I sent it to angel investors, to women who manage family funds out of Asia, and [venture capitalists].
Have they started to step up and invest in women?
They have! People have started calling women on the list and I’m keeping my fingers crossed that hopefully one of the women soon will be actually getting term papers.
I spoke to the first woman who stepped up to invest — she helps run two family funds as an investing executive. She asked me, “Do you get a carry?” and I was like, “Heck no!” Typically when venture capitalists bring in the deal, they get a percentage of the deal and that’s how you make money as a venture capitalist. I don’t take a carry on any of these. That’s not to say that some day I wouldn’t wanna be a VC, and we could talk about how hard that is as a woman of color. But I don’t take a carry. I’m carrying good karma.
If we all stood up and worked on this one project which is: Get more women and minority people money. No more programs. Write a check. … Then we’ll all get funding.
It’s [just] me hacking together an Excel spreadsheet; literally it was a Google form. It wasn’t so hard for me to come up with a form and email it to people and share it on Twitter: “Hey join this list,” then “Hey, take this list.” It’s work but it’s not hard. But if we all stepped up, that’s multiple voices in a community amplified. So we can make that bridge happen.
My biggest concern is that people spend too much time talking about it, and women and minority entrepreneurs are stuck in pre-seed. In Silicon Valley, you hear all the jargon about “seed funding.” Seed funding used to be for if you had no ideas, and you write something on the back of an envelope, some dude across from you having steak was like, “Oh that sounds like a great idea, let me give you a $100,000.” That happens mystically to only white men that I know. I’ve never heard of that happening to any people of color. Never. No woman.
When I ask people and talk to women of color, there’s this ethos about being an entrepreneur in Silicon Valley that says ‘to be an entrepreneur, you must suffer, you must live on a couch, eat ramen, get scurvy” like that 500 Startups guy who almost got scurvy because he didn’t eat well.
Bless the hearts of my very supportive ex-Googler friend when we were at lunch and he said “Chia-lin, you have such a great idea. Now you have to get your friends to write you $25,000 checks.” I get it. He thinks that because I went to work for Google that I have plenty of friends who would write me $25,000 checks. But the reality is that that’s not true. I’m an executive, but I’m a new executive. I was not one of those early Googlers. I didn’t have that experience.
As women and as people of color, our relationship to asking people for money is radically different and our relationship with supporting our families and our family circles is radically different. This idea of having family circles that you could draw $25,000 from, that’s not the world that me and the people in my circle live in. We weren’t lucky to have families paying for our college. [It’s not the same as these] white 25-year-olds who lived at home then one day mom or dad just writes them a $50,000 check. [That’s] Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs.
Typically when you look at seed funding, or now what I’m calling dirt funding, is people begging friends and family for money. This isn’t an outlet that’s readily available for people of color and for women. And so I feel like this project — Binder Full of Women Founders — that is what I’m hoping is the soil funding.
None of us have a place to germinate. Forget about getting seed funding. We need fertile soil to help us start. I want to champion alternative means and connectivity to help. My vision is connecting investors to women founders. And to do anything I can change the ratio of women investors, and challenging this notion of what it means to be an entrepreneur and how you get funding in the first place.
We all need the soil funding to fertilize our dreams.
I live and breathe this, I love it.
What’s your experience of community been like around this project?
The community has really rallied. At first, I thought this community was only going to be women. But there’s been some male allies, investors, and VCs stepping up too. And women helping each other. I feel like people need things to rally around. It’s not easy to feel like you can make a change. More women are stepping up and saying let’s all do it.
The ball is rolling slowly but its rolling. It’s overwhelming to be one woman doing this so I’m getting other women together to shape what this thing should be. The sisterhood has been amazing. And the male allies have been amazing. It’s renewed my faith in people, seeing everyday people stepping up and doing little things to help each other.
How would you define community?
Your community can be your family unit. It can be so many things. I’m an immigrant, I wasn’t born in this country, and so I have a sense of community and bonding with other immigrants, and other women of color. Community is people whose hearts are linked. Their hearts are linked in some kind of shared mission, shared love, shared experiences, shared background, shared dreams.
You said that when you started your project, that there was an opening and all this community came into your life. What do you think made that happen?
At first, it didn’t happen that quickly. It was me trying to really open up. It’s hard, socially and emotionally. It illuminates fear and anxiety.
I spent most of my career as a tech executive. I came in to tech when everyone did everything. It was the beginning of the internet in 1995, and I spent most of my career either working for a Series A startup or working for like, Audible which was sold to Amazon. Then I was an exec at Google and Harman International. I spent most of my career being an executive. Its challenging because you’re not your employees and you have fiduciary responsibilities, and so you’re always a bit guarded. [At times] it could be a little bit cutthroat. It’s a lot of smart people who are over-educated, under-utilized, and everyone’s trying to shoot for the next thing and it’s hard for them to not be competitive. I was super, super guarded, afraid to ask questions. You always have your group of people who you ask questions to but there’s always a politically a challenge. As a person of color, you don’t wanna be the person who’s always asking questions because then people think, “What is she doing here? Does she really belong here?” So especially as a woman of color, I am very cautious.
So when I left [Google], it was challenging because I was afraid to ask questions. I was afraid to reach out to people. And then as people voluntarily came and said [they’d] help, my heart opened up and I realized there was a community of women out there who wanted nothing but good things for me and for me to succeed. They didn’t see my success as taking away from them — we all amplify each other.
I had to get over my own fear of taking a path that’s different.
There’s a prescribed ladder that we are told to take. You know what the race is, what the course is. And if I know what the course is and I’m running and I’m keeping pace — and then you have this idea to say “eff this” I’m gonna create my own course and go my own way, I am not running this race. What does that mean?? THAT was really scary.
I’m 43, and I have a very supportive husband. And it was like, ‘if I didn’t do this now, like, when am I gonna do it?’ At least I can feel like I tried. I can always go back to the race.
I’ve been very fortunate. I have a community of women we all get support from. My board members, I have nothing but gratitude in my heart. So much of community is offline bonding. I’m still old-school enough to want to meet people face to face. But it’s a blend. I do have some friends who are all online, but if I have the chance, I want to meet them in person.
What do you think gets in the way of people making connections that are the most meaningful and generative?
I think it’s hard for people to not be confined by how society currently defines community.
It can be color, ethnicity, gender, but so much of community is about shared valued, dreams, history. It’s hard for people to think about it in that way. There’s aggressiveness and the lines dividing people: color, immigrant [status], or what people consider to be family values. Many of these things are stopping people from breaking down the borders of what we understand about community and redefining what that really is.
What’s your biggest wish for community in your life?
That more people open their hearts to building new concepts of what community is. I love my cultural identity and being able to embrace that but embracing it doesn’t mean that I can’t embrace other cultures and backgrounds. I hope that maybe after November, when things settle, that we can get back to a world where people are not so defined by “us versus them.”
Like, the man who adopted me is African American. A black man raised me. I get a peek into the challenges he lived. My stepdad was an LAPD police officer. I grew up thinking I should listen to the police. And my stepbrother is an African American man, and I worry about him out there. And I don’t know if I would ever feel comfortable around police officers. I really hope and pray that we’re trying to heal. I want to help participate in that.
We all have a very short life. I want to make an impact before I go. I’m not gonna be Gandhi, but if I help an entrepreneur that is creating technology that brings energy to people who can’t get energy, it’s a ripple and I’ll feel satisfaction from that. I can feel like I tried.