As a child, what profession did you envision for yourself when you grew up?
I grew up in China till I was 18, so one of the first American movies I saw was Apollo 13. And after that I wanted to be an astronaut. Then I wanted to be a doctor because I loved the look of the white coats; I thought it looked really sacred. Everything I wanted to be was a traditionally masculine role. A lot of the dreams I had were pretty weird.
What was the most transformative course from your undergraduate education?
I don’t think I’ve ever taken a class that I hated, everything was pretty awesome. And some of the intellectual discussions that came with them, whether it was organic at a dining hall or in office hours, were really influential to my own personal growth.
I would say there’s one that I took that was really life changing for me: it was an intro-seminar with only ten students with a high-profile professor. The topic was electrical engineering, using nano-technology to build chips. We were trying to revolutionize a subject where the chip hasn’t been used in the past. Since I’ve always been a musician—I played piano throughout my life and I did a lot of competition in it too—I turned to music. I looked into this really cool project where someone was able to archive the whole universe of music scores into a few chips, and I wanted to do something similar. I was basically able to write a pattern on the microchips that allows the chip reader to play a sound. It's almost like a new instrument, because if you've archived all of the music scores, then you can allow the chip reader to make sound while it reads the scores. We were able to archive a small section of Chopin’s piano concerto onto the microchip. That was an eye-opening experience for me in electrical engineering, helping me to realize that your imagination is unlimited; you can truly do anything as long as you imagine it. It helped me to look at myself and my career trajectory differently, to never think I wasn’t good enough to try hard things. That was very transformational.
You're currently the Chief Executive Officer of HelloAva, a company you co-founded. What does your role as CEO entail?
I’m super involved since we’re a relatively small team. We have a decent amount of social presence, a lot of followers on Instagram and a lot of users. But we’re still a really young company, since we launched only a little over two years ago. So I do everything because the CEO of a startup this young is basically the master admin. I do product design, UIUX, design the entire user experience of the digital project… I also do the business development, forming partnerships with skincare brands to carry their product. I take care of fundraising, strategic and financial planning for the company, the hiring and vetting of new candidates, and legal stuff. It’s very unglamorous under the hood, but on the outside people think it’s so cool to be a female founder.
What do you enjoy most about what you do?
I like the interdisciplinary side of it; our team has some of the best dermatologists and estheticians in the country, as well as some of the great business minds, and some of the best designers that you can find in their field. I consider myself somewhat non-traditional because I did economics, computer science, and I was also a musician. So I’m already all over the place. But I get inspired all the time by my teammates who are experts in their specific fields, which helps me grow so much.
Four years ago when we started the company, I had no idea how to run a whole process on testing user interface, drawing wireframe, building a whole mockup, and then having AB testing... Now I feel like I know all of this so much better and I could probably teach it to a new entrepreneur. That is huge personal growth for me that I never would have been able to achieve if I worked for someone or if I had not had this experience. Additionally, even though I was trained as a computer scientist, I didn’t really know much about these complex machine-learning theories or models. Now I have to know about them because I talk to our engineers and ambassadors all the time, and I have to be able to explain to them why our algorithm is so smart.
What lessons did you learn in starting your own company?
One of the main lessons I learned is to be humble. Entrepreneurship is probably one of the most humbling experiences I’ve ever had. Before this I was a Phi Beta Kappa in college, I had really good jobs after graduation, I went back to business school at Stanford and also got a Masters degree from Harvard... So I was always pursuing these trophies along the way. Young people should do that because it’s how you build your resume. But when you’re building your own company, you don’t have a lot of these trophies to support you. No one knew what HelloAva was four years ago; it was a new company!
Entrepreneurs are a really special group of people, and some of the most hardworking and humble people. Even the very successful ones, because they’ve experienced founding a company from the ground up that no one recognized to it eventually becoming successful. That experience grounds you; sometimes it lessens your ego and makes you more of a real person. I think that is one of the biggest wake-up calls I had: these past victories you’ve had won’t get the job done; if you want to be a successful entrepreneur, you have to put in the work that is sometimes unglamorous.
What was the best advice you were ever given and who gave it to you?
I have a lot of really great advisors, some my Stanford professors, some my past bosses. I think one of the key things they gave me is the sense that you need to focus. I was kind of all over the place when I was younger. I thought that the multidisciplinary angle is what makes a person interesting. But when you’re building a startup you can’t be doing many things, not knowing which will succeed. So I needed to be focused on one thing, HelloAva, for a long time. This is the longest job I’ve had compared to other ones, so being able to focus and have grit and resilience is probably the most important lesson.
Do you think Phi Beta Kappa and a well-rounded, liberal arts and sciences education are important in today's society? How has your liberal arts education benefited you?
It’s extremely important, because I’m in the intersection of AI and beauty. The technology we use these days can go beyond what some of the master estheticians and dermatologists provide. But what is lacking is the love and care for people. A machine can never do that. This whole idea about being considerate, loving, caring, which is very important in lifestyle products, is not really there for AI to take over. So that’s why we have the real esthetician part to make you feel special and cared for, in addition to the AI helping you find an accurate skincare matching.
What makes us special as humans is that we have empathy and emotions, which technology can never replace. As a technology entrepreneur, I feel so strongly about this, because it’s part of our philosophy and company culture. I think the whole liberal arts education is a huge part of helping your character development and guarding against the limited perspective that might come with just building circuits all day. And a liberal arts and sciences education is even more important today, as we face the world of artificial intelligence and want to elevate that human part of ourselves.
What book are you reading right now? Are you listening to any podcasts or watching any shows? Anything you'd recommend?
I’m currently reading What the Road Said
by Cleo Wade to my son a lot. It would take people 20 minutes to finish it, but I actually learned so much from it. It’s listed on the J.P. Morgan summer reading list, but this is the only kid’s book on that list. It’s a kid’s book, yet it’s so inspiring to adults.
I’d also recommend the podcast “How I Built This” to anyone interested in entrepreneurship and business development.