Turning Life's Work into Daily Work

For Lucy Keoni, choosing a new project or job has not been just about building her career, but about structuring her life around the issues that she feels are most important.

Like, not just working in finance, but starting a conference to teach young girls financial literacy. Learning mobile product development to build technologies to help empower people in developing countries, or starting a holistic health and wellness company to help corporate employees be healthier and happier so they could give back more to their communities - and sending her profits to support social impact causes.

Today, Lucy is the founder of StartUpRising and is committed to bringing resources and opportunities to historically underrepresented founders and investors.

In an interview with Milk, she talked about how she came to discover this focus and how she has structured her life around working to solve the issues she finds most important.

MILK: In entrepreneurship, we often hear people talk about needing to be driven by solving a problem in the world. How did you figure out which problem you were driven to solve?

Lucy: After college, I knew I wanted to contribute but I didn’t know how.

But it was a series of personal life events -- going through a divorce and having a ton of health issues when I felt like I was going to die -- that made me think if I were going to die in the next 6 months, what would I regret not doing?

I ended up taking a sabbatical. I traveled the world, I went all over South East Asia, and finally made it home to where my mom had come from, to this tiny little village in Vietnam, 4 hours from the city where they only have holes for toilets.

It really tugged at my heart strings, I realized there’s so much opportunity here for me to help people throughout the world, but how do I scale impact?

Locally and globally, I see the missed opportunities to support people who might be super intelligent, who might have the cure to cancer, who might have the answers to the world’s biggest problems, but because they don’t have quality education or access to capital or they have to stay at home and take care of their families they can't fulfill their potential.

It’s become my life’s mission to find ways to enable those people. I don’t have all the answers, I see myself as a connector, as a bridge, an enabler. But now, I am able to leverage my networks and resources to support the work of historically overlooked founders and investors.

MILK: You have launched several ventures and worked in tech and finance, how did you come to your current work with StartUpRising?

Lucy: My life's goal is to be able to support and educate underrepresented investors and founders to collaboratively solve the world's biggest problems. Every step in my career was a conscious decision towards this goal.

Through finance, I was able to build relationships with very powerful people and share their knowledge of financial literacy, economic parity, and entrepreneurship initiatives. Being in operations at a startup taught me the power of technology to change lives. Being an entrepreneur taught me that there are better and easier ways to get things done. And then I got to share all these experiences and knowledge through consulting startups, social enterprises, and nonprofits.

Now, I am advising, I am a mentor, I am on the Girls in Tech SF/SV board, and have co-founded Vietnamese Women in Tech.

Earlier this year, I launched StartUpRising, a community of tech leaders who are moving the diversity conversation into inclusive action through collaborative initiatives.

MILK: We hear a lot of talk these days about “diversity”. But we’re interested in talking about what that actually means and why it’s valuable to bring different perspectives to the table. Your background is not like many Silicon Valley founders. How has your life experience shaped your focus and approach to your work?

Lucy: It all starts with my mother. Understanding the sacrifices that she had to make in order to give us the opportunity to succeed always and still does keep me motivated and grounded. Imagine moving to a new country, not knowing the language and having only a fourth grade education, when reading in your own native tongue was already a challenge. Now imagine doing that with a newborn, a ten, and eleven year old.

We definitely had our hardships. We lived in poverty for many years, with no family, or other support system in the US. My mother waited tables and went to school at night. My younger brother was born 4 years after me but went to live with his father nearby. My siblings were out of the house by the time I was 6. I struggled for many years without guidance. I was in the advanced classes in elementary school but lost my way as an early teen. My mother had achieved her dream of having her own beauty salon but was often too busy managing the store. Not having much of an education herself, she lacked the understanding and resources to support me in my studies.

In the 10th grade, I had a history teacher who saw something in me and believed in me more than I did. I barely made it to class but would ace all the exams. He gave me a pep talk and I started to engage. Within a matter of months, I was transferred into all the college prep classes, joined clubs and volunteer groups, and even began to mentor other students. My high school counselor took me under his wing. He encouraged me to apply for scholarships and to be ambitious in my college applications. I was accepted to a few ivy leagues and UC’s with full scholarships. I opted for UC Berkeley and later transferred to Santa Clara University where I graduated with a Bachelors in Marketing from the Leavey School of Business.

I have a love for learning and always strive to be my best self. During my early years in finance, I had a series 6, 63, notary, and real estate license. More recently, I received training in counseling psychology to better equip me as a mentor and advisor.

My focus, determination, and resilience are programmed in my DNA. I come from a long line of strong women who have mastered the art of the hustle. My mom's focus was, 'I need a better life for my family, I have to give them an opportunity.' For me, I don’t have children, and I feel like I have to give this same opportunity to other people. Talent is universal, but opportunities are not.

MILK: And why do you think it’s important to bring different perspectives to the table?

Lucy: Our motto at StartUpRising is inclusion equals innovation. Different perspective create better solutions. It’s the model behind crowdsourcing. Creating intersections of differing perspectives, differing experiences, differing professions, industries and cultures is how you spark innovation.

MILK: What do you think about the talk around diversity in tech especially these days? Is progress being made the way you measure progress?

Lucy: There have been a lot of conversations, panels, articles etcetera, but who is putting money where their mouth is? I know at the White House Demo Day last year, 40 different VC firms committed to changing the ratio and we’ve seen nothing yet, no specific initiatives. I would like to see more action, less talk.

MILK: And how is StartUpRising going to solve the problem?

Lucy: We're launching a number of initiatives. We have a rapid prototyping workshop, that is applied solely to diversity, equity and inclusion. We’re are working on hackathons, pitch nights and demo days with community partners to not only teach underrepresented founders how to build and pitch great products but also get them connected to diverse investors. We’re are working hard to launch a worldwide initiative called "Bring A Future Leaders To Work Day", with a thoughtfully crafted curriculum for children and mentors from all walks of life.

MILK: What would the world look like if StartUpRising succeeded?

Lucy: StartUpRising would be obsolete and there would be no need for it anymore. I feel like we can get there. We wouldn't need to fight on everyone’s behalf anymore. People of all colors, shapes, and sizes would be recognized, their voices would be heard, their ideas would be validated. But it isn’t just a tech thing. Tech is where we begin to move the needle in this generation's civil right's movement.

MILK: I find the way you describe your work being about your life's mission so inspiring. How did you realize this mission and how have you been able to structure your life and your career around these issues you're so passionate about?

Lucy: It was along road. After my divorce, I spent a lot of time reflecting on who I was and who I wanted to be. I had to peel back the layers of the stories I had believed about myself and what I was taught through my upbringing, media, and other social constructs. I broke down in order to break through. I gave myself permission to sit in that mess for a while, exploring the things that made me happy and unleashed my creativity, and being patient with that process.

I discovered vision boarding as a tool to help guide me to achieve my life's purpose. I imagined what would my life look like in 5 to 10 years, I started collecting images of how I envisioned my perfect life to be and I started writing narratives. I wrote out how my life would look, how I would contribute to the world, how I would interact with people everyday, how I would take care of myself and what my relationships would look like.

Being a goal-oriented person, I broke it down further to this is what I would do monthly to get there, and then this is what I would do daily to get there. When I had that structure in place I was able to share it with my friends and my partner who could keep not just accountable but inspired.

There are times that I struggle with imposter syndrome. When I share this with my partner, friends, and family, they remind me of what I want to accomplish, and what I have already accomplished, and about the people who benefit from the work I’ve already done.

It’s like KPIs for work, you can track against what’s working and what’s not. It helps me to stay productive, to determine which experiments are working or not, where I can improve in my life, how I can take better care of myself and those around me and even have space to be creative.

MILK: How can people get involved with StartUpRising?

Lucy: We don’t have any type of funding yet, so our work is dependent on amazing volunteers. Community partner should reach out if they would like to collaborate on an initiative. Most importantly, if anyone is interested in financially contributing or sponsoring any of these initiatives it would be so helpful not only to our organization but also to the entire tech ecosystem.

This interview was edited by Milk editor Jilly Badanes.

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