Today we speak to Valerie, a young entrepreneur, about having the courage to chase your dreams. At 22, she has already been involved in 9 start-up companies (one of which she helped co-found) and is working on setting up her own social enterprise. Speaking to me over Skype from Silicon Valley (where she is completing a prestigious entrepreneurship programme), what stood out to me most was her unwavering belief in her vision of ‘doing good’.
Whether you are still studying, a fresh graduate, thinking of a career change or simply stuck in a rut, I encourage you to read Valerie’s fresh take on everything from how to score your first job without the requisite (and ironic) prior experience, to making your own opportunities and dealing with failure.
1) Tell me about the projects you have been involved in. How did you get the opportunity to work on them?
I’ve interned and helped out with different start up organisations, namely social enterprises, non-profits, an accelerator, an incubator and a venture capital firm.
Most of them were self-sourced through word of mouth from friends, networking at events and social media. For some, I asked if they had an opening. For others, they were looking for someone so I joined on board.
How did the opportunity for the company you co-founded come up?
I met one of the other co-founders at a conference and found out he was just starting out with this idea of his.
"I messaged him afterwards saying ‘hey! I have some experience interning at a social enterprise and I think I can help you out in these ways. Would you be interested in going for this particular opportunity together?’"
After that, we just kept working on the idea and on other competitions together.
How often do you get a positive reply from a company?
In general, it’s easier if the company is already looking for interns or help, and I got more success that way. But in the Bay Area (San Francisco especially), I received quite a number of rejections- maybe 1 out of 10 would work out because of the sheer number of peers who are interested in similar opportunities.
How do you deal with rejection?
I think one thing is you have to accept that rejection is part of the process. Always expect that there will be a low rate of acceptance when you are looking for good opportunities. But there are so many different types of opportunities, so it is important to not give up hope and to keep trying.
Valerie and Chris Anderson, Curator of TED
2) How did you decide where your passion lay in business?
Since I was young, I have always wanted to help people and do something good for society. Later, I found that I was also interested in businesses and start-ups. I thought it would be good to combine the two and have a business that would do social good in the future.
Also, interning in a social enterprise (The Thought Collective) allowed me to see that this way of doing business was possible and inspired me to do the same.
Were there any points where you felt unsure if this was the path you wanted to take?
"I think even at this point, I’m not entirely sure what my path is. One thing I do know is that I want to be a global leader in doing good but the exact way by which I want to do so is unclear. I think it is ok to have that amount of uncertainty."
It is hard as someone who is young and not entirely exposed to different experiences to know what you want. So I think just having a general goal and trying out different pathways and experiences are good ways to allow you to have a clearer picture in the future.
3) Did you/your parents have any concerns about your wanting to set up your own company?
Definitely. Because I was doing this while in college, my parents were really worried it would affect my studies. They were afraid I was spending too much time on it and that it would cause me to be really stressed.
For myself as well, there was uncertainty whether this was something that was worth it, whether it would do well and if I would succeed.
How did you convince your parents?
It was gradual. I told them I thought this would help me to learn and meet new people, that I was accomplishing things through this and also helping other people. I’m not sure if I have managed to completely convince them but I told them ‘I can handle this!’
How did you reconcile the doubts within yourself?
For myself…hmm…I think God has really helped me throughout all this. It has been hard sometimes but I just have this faith and trust in God that this is all for a purpose.
Valerie at Facebook HQ
4) What are some challenges you have faced? How did you overcome them?
The first is ‘overloading’- having too many things going on at once. Especially in my second year of college, I had almost 10 commitments! It was very stressful and exhausting juggling everything. What has helped me is always being part a team so that you have people supporting you. Communication is important as well- just letting people know what you can and can’t do. Have a support network of friends who can help and manage your time according to what is most urgent- there has to be a give and take.
Second, there is a lot of uncertainty and failure involved, especially when you are doing something new. You need to learn to be ok with not being able to control and know everything. Don’t be too afraid of making mistakes and failing- every time I have gone through failure I do feel somewhat like it is the end of the world but really, it is not. It is extremely tough and demoralising but it is temporary and you CAN pick yourself up. When you have had more failures, you realise you have the capability of getting though them- in a sense, it gets easier because the belief and knowledge that you can handle it helps you in overcoming it faster.
The third challenge is rejection. When you are starting a start-up and you are young, you will face a lot of ‘No’s from people. And when you are applying for internships or programmes you will get many rejections as well. My advice for that is don’t let that stop you- just keep going for more.
"Don’t take it too personally. It is a numbers game- you will always get rejections but the more you do it, the more ‘Yes’s and successes you will get."
Valerie and Dave McClure, Founder of 500 Startups
A lot of people face the difficulty of not being accepted to their first job/internship because they don’t have previous experience but if you never get that first opportunity then how can you get experience?
Maybe you could start small first. I have found that smaller organisations are more willing to take you in even when you lack experience. So diversify your search.
"It’s also good to have a personal connection with someone in the team and show your willingness to learn. Don’t just apply through the traditional job portal- send them a personal email and ask them to meet up for coffee. Show them that you are inquisitive and passionate."
You may not have the particular skill that they want but you may have related skills that will help you in learning the needed skill. There have been times where I did internships where I didn’t know anything before hand and just learnt on-the-go. If you show that you have the right attitude, they might still take you on.
You can also just start learning it on your own- you don’t always have to have practical experience. Learn it online and create your own projects where you can display that you have developed that skill. One example is marketing. You might not have any marketing internships but if you start your own blog/ page, create a following and learn how to post, you can show that you have developed that skill! This can work for software engineering and coding too.
Valerie and Eric Ries, author of The Lean Startup
5) What resources/support have you found useful?
Online self-improvement articles help a lot- I like those on lifehacker.com and these two articles, by Elle Luna and Erno Hannink, about finding your purpose. I also enjoy reading blogs about business (Paul Graham and Sam Altman) and personal development (Mark Manson and Oliver Emberton).
Family, friends and mentors have also been helpful.
How did you identify your mentors?
A number of mentors happened to be people I have worked with in internships- they were basically my bosses. Others are just people who I met along the way who are nice and who I’m friends with. It is important to be friends as well. To keep it going you have to half be friends and half be seeking advice from them.
Valerie and James Beshara, CEO of Tilt, during her internship
6) You have an excellent website. How do you go about ‘branding’ yourself?
For one thing I don’t think I have a super strong brand. I think I’m kind of a little bit all over the place. (laughs)
I brand myself in the sense that I have one common vision in my life. Right now, I’m also clear that what I am trying to do is learn more.
Try to show how the work you are doing is useful- highlight your achievements and the skills you have learnt. See if there is a way you can find a coherent narrative of why you are doing the things that you are doing. And show that you are active and going about doing a lot of different things. Make it public.
7) What advice do you have for university students who are uncertain of which direction to take?
For undergraduates, I advise trying out lots of different things so you can get a sense of it and see if you like it.
For graduates, I recommend meeting people who are in the jobs/fields you are interested in and asking them how it is like. Get a very detailed sense so you don’t go into it just having a vague notion. And do research online as well. One good resource guide is 80000hours.org- it has a lot of advice about how to choose a good career for yourself that also makes a social impact.
You should make learning one of the key criteria when choosing a job. Find a job that allows you to be able to learn a lot of things versus one that just has a good pay check or seems stable and prestigious.
"The older you get, the more you need to have stability. But when you are younger, you can afford to focus on your learning."
Valerie with the other interns at Tilt
Thank you for sharing your insights with us!