An ode to unspoken stories

What are the words you do not yet have? What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own, until you will sicken and die of them, still in silence? – Audre Lorde, The Transformation

What I read this weekend: I’ve experienced the power of great storytelling in all of its forms: from exceptional journalism that broke my heart and opened my eyes wide, poetry that spoke intimately to my consciousness, to the chic Glossier ad that sold me the promise of feeling chic, effortless, and free when you sport skin as smooth as a baby’s ass.

I wish I could tell good stories. I suck at telling good stories. I never seem to get the pacing right, I don’t give enough context, my punchline is only funny or compelling to me, and I focus in on all the wrong details.

I suck in part because I’m not practiced. I’ve mostly stayed silent. Perhaps to appear normal, or because of fear and trauma. Or because I didn’t see a space for my stories.  Last weekend, I sat on a panel with a Vietnamese woman that grew up in my neighborhood. In hearing her frank and unsentimental account of her life, I realized that I had never shared my own. With friends, even! I realized that I’m not afraid of vulnerability; I’ve kept silent in fear of being cast as “other”.  And for so long, I’ve adopted versions of stories, allowing other people’s narratives set the bar of what is OK to share.

It feels comfortable to say storytelling isn’t my jam, shrug it away, and move on with my life. But I need to learn. My story is so important, and so is yours. We further our collective consciousness in deep and meaningful ways when we tell our stories.

So how do you begin? For me, it starts with getting my stream of consciousness into clear, concise, and digestible writing. I also want to use a variety of tools, including data and strong imagery. Think Matthew Desmond.  Here are the resources I’ve started with:

Interview with Negotiating the Terms

I wish Nikita Singareddy‘s Negotiating the Terms existed when I looked to enter VC. There were few female role models from diverse backgrounds, and I didn’t know of the unique range of career pathways into the industry. NTT is that resource, and I hope it inspires and helps more women enter the industry. Even as an investor now, I turn to NTT to see how other women think about our work.

I’m so excited to share my own path to venture capital on Negotiating the Terms. Who knew that starting a little online shop with Janet Nguyen in high school would spark my love of (and career in) entrepreneurship and beyond… Big thank you, also, to Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship at Santa Clara University, Melissa Richer and The Ayllu Initiative, and more!

Originally posted on Linkedin.

Hidden costs

I went down a rabbit hole of research to understand the skyrocketing costs of insulin after reading this op-ed in the New York Times. Written by Dr. Danielle Ofri, a practicing physician at Bellevue Hospital in New York, she begins the piece by walking through the dizzying experience of managing her patient’s insulin for Type-1 diabetes: near-constant changes on what is covered, and how much is covered. As a result, her patient’s out-of-pockets expenses changed month to month, making it difficult for the patient to budget on a fixed income. This doctor was willing to go above and beyond to work with the pharmacist to figure out what was going on. Sadly, they had little success, and it struck me how few patients have advocates like Dr. Ofri on their end.

In my research, I felt the same dizzying experience as I navigated the pharma value chain, generics, drug patents, and the system of rebates and coupons that pharma manufacturers, distributors, PBMs and insurers play with to get drugs covered and drive up costs. All of this, at the devastating expense of their patients: people unable to pay the $1,000+ a month for their medication, people missing doses, people rationing their doses, and the black market, from people donating their doses once a loved one has passed away to people seeking alternative providers beyond our borders.

This research also led me to reflect on a company I recently reviewed. The company wanted to help low-income consumers access drugs at a more affordable cost, and a big piece of its model was using this system of rebates and coupons. That sounds promising at first glance, right? Lowering the cost of drugs means it’s more accessible, and then improved adherence, then improved health outcomes. But maybe not: the story behind insulin was a reminder of how some fixes can cover up the underlying dynamics that created these unjust systems in the first place. And exploiting a loophole (or something broken) here may mean something else must break down in another part of the system. Someone always pays. Sadly, it seems like it’s usually the consumer that has the least power in the system.

Also, related, I’m currently reading Elizabeth Rosenthal’s amazing An American Sickness. I don’t know why it took me so long to pick the book up, but I highly recommend if you’re interested in or working in healthcare.

Operating as if Beijing de facto called the shots

What I read this weekend: The Economist has a fairly rosy outlook on China’s ability to lead the world in science and innovation. An over simplification of their position, but essentially:

  • Advances in science require collaborating with the international science community, and China will not become the super power that it wants to be if it doesn’t abide by the community’s standards and conventions.
  • Rather than shunning their Chinese counterparts, Western scientists should carefully collaborate such that they can promote accountability and transparency.
  • At some point, Beijing’s grip on critical thought may hinder their ability to foster innovative thinking.

With my own Western bias, this line of reasoning makes a whole lot of sense. I find myself wanting to be as optimistic as the authors. But how does our own biases shape how we right size China’s ability to realize their ambitions? In 2016, China surpassed the U.S. in peer-reviewed science and engineering articles published (although the Economist claims these papers were lower quality). Combined with research coming out of the E.U., the West still leads but China’s growth rate suggests they could catch up.

The first question I have is perhaps the easiest to answer: what’s the timeline for the West to exert our influence, when Beijing has invested such significant money and brainpower behind the effort?

Then: how much soft power do we have, really? Are we preaching to our own? Meanwhile, Beijing has demonstrated its own form of influence in other ways, as it’s tried to do so with the Internet. And also, this. Basically, find other ways to set the rules, and then everyone has to play your game.

And are we thinking correctly about capability? Perhaps there are different ways of thinking and reasoning that lead to advances in science, and the West has just demonstrated one way that works. Also, I’d like to think that we all have access to our god-given human ingenuity, and this potential is free from the political system that govern our lives. We shouldn’t let our faith in our capitalist democracy become blind hubris. The Economist speaks a bit to this:

“But the idea that you can get either truly reliable science or truly great science in a political system that depends on a culture of unappealable authority is, as yet, unproven. Perhaps you can. Perhaps you cannot. And perhaps, in trying to do so, you will discover new ways of thinking as well as fruitful knowledge.”

Would it be more prudent if we just operated as if China will become a dominant power in science and technology? We could then be proactive about the potential implications. Meanwhile, we should continue to deliver and set standards for high-quality research. This includes more transparent and reproducible research. And finding alternative sources of funding: we frequently fund research through grants from organizations that may have a special interest in the outcomes, leading to conflicts of interest and questions the credibility of the outcomes. And we should invest much more in science and math education.

Emergent behaviors

I enjoyed this wide ranging conversation between Marc Andreessen, Ben Horowitz, and Tyler Cowen, which covers their partnership, how Marc and Ben thought about a16z’s differentiation when they founded the firm, how VC has evolved, and what’s next for [insert your favorite tech or industry here]. There’s several gems in this episode (which somebody painstakingly captured on Breaker) and worth a full listen. Here’s one that I found particularly useful…

From Marc, in response to Tyler’s question, “Did you invent the tweet storm?”:

“I literally couldn’t shut up, so it sort of catalyzed. The big lesson for these internet platforms is […] emergent behaviors is incredibly important. The really successful platforms let users surface the behaviors that the creators of the platform could have never thought of. Twitter has had issues over the years, but […] the compelling ways people have used Twitter have been invented by users. […] It’s not just Twitter. It was true of the personal computer. It was true of smart phones. It’s been true for many of these Internet platforms. It’s a useful principle for product design: let the users innovate.”

Emergent behavior extends far beyond product, and is a useful principle across a number of domains. For me, top of mind are community building, advocacy and organizing, but I do wonder how one tracks and responds to these interactions in an offline environment. You’re operating in an environment wherein the data isn’t (1) readily available, and (2) as responsive, so how do you know when that behavior is indicative of a larger group behavior? What is real and what is noise? If you want to co-create with your community, how do you set up a response system for that kind of interaction?

In any case, as a person that’s constantly holding everything in her head, planning everything from A to Z, I appreciate the reminder to let go, enjoy the magic of improvisation, and make it up as I go along (with co-conspirators, if possible).

(P.S. I just realized that my blogs ask a lot of questions but rarely suggests a hypothesis or attempts to find the answer. I’m going to try to do that more in 2019.)

A case for optimism

What I read this weekend: I feel such heaviness from the vicious cycle of bad news and bad forecasts, from immigration policy, deteriorating social safety net and world order to climate change and automation. It feels like we’re only going backward. And some days, this weight compounds because these problems feel insurmountable. This Shouts & Murmurs piece does a great job of capturing the manic hum of doom and gloom.

I found this hopeful article that makes a case for progress, and in turn, optimism. The author cites Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now book and a few other notable thinkers on this topic, and an observation that really stuck with me is that this pessimism could ultimately affect the policies we choose to support and how we vote. I also listened to an interview with Vitalik Buterin (the founder of Ethereum), who believes that the most popular delusion or irrationality should be our belief in progress. I’m now thinking of ways to actively flip these negative scripts in my head, and to find scripts for hope, optimism, and progress even in trying times. I shared this reflection with my team and some friends, who shared their own awesome life hacks:

  • Don’t get caught up in the minutia of day-to-day news. It’s OK not to hear every update. Know the key themes.
  • Subscribe to articles about new discoveries and innovations in science.
  • Check out Gap Minder, which provides you with raw data about the world to react to,  rather than hearing about an issue from a news outlet that may have distorted the data to fit a specific narrative. Also, see Outlier’s series on data storytelling, where the team explores how data can mislead you.
  • Find and follow people that start from an empty whiteboard to re-design the world, such as Jeremy Rifkin and his thinking around a zero marginal cost society.

(Thanks Eliza, Larry, Ryan, and Markeze.)

So: what does give me hope? People that show up, as much as they can, like these wonderful humans that came together for the Families Together demonstration. We walked from Dolores Park to Civic Center to protest immigration policy in solidarity with our neighbors.

 

Experiencing power

I just spent an eye-opening ten days in Vietnam, filled with overwhelming amounts of food, tropical fruit, and great conversation.

I went in knowing that Vietnam was one of the fastest growing economies in the world.  And Vietnam’s middle and upper class were enjoying everyday evidence of this, from pizza to craft beer, while new skyscraper developments scattered across Saigon’s skyline. I also knew the other side of the story: one party rule, corruption, repression, and inequality.

But knowing is not as powerful as seeing, and I found myself startled by the poignant signs of unequal growth. Through out the entire trip, this feeling gnawed at me, and I struggled to articulate the current that ran through my reflections.

I found my first clue to make sense of this tension in re-reading Barack Obama’s extraordinary Dreams from My Father. He writes of his Indonesian stepfather’s sudden change in disposition when the family moved to Indonesia (bolded emphasis my own):

“Power. The word fixed in my mother’s mind like a curse. In America, it had generally remained hidden from view until you dug beneath the surface of things; until you visited an Indian reservation or spoke to a black person whose trust you had earned. But here power was undisguised, indiscriminate, naked, always fresh in memory. Power had taken Lolo and yanked him back in line just when he thought he’d escape, making him feel its weight, letting him know that his life wasn’t his own. That’s how things were; you couldn’t change it, you could just live by the rules, so simple once you learned them. And so Lolo had made his peace with power, learned the wisdom of forgetting…”

I’m flooded with reactions, but I’ll let this clue (and the others I’m finding) marinate for now and report back. Hold me accountable to it.

Some contextual reads, if you’re interested:

And a few current-ish events to know:

Informal (and inclusive) economies

In April, I spoke at Utopia’s San Francisco studio opening.

Utopia is an urban design and innovation firm that looks to re-imagine slums, and to develop tools to help people design their own city. A group of us were asked to speak about considerations in city design and beyond, and we had the opportunity to openly interpret this prompt:

  • Barry Pousman (Institute for the Future) shared the narrative power of VR to start movements and raise philanthropy
  • Karen Mok (Citizens Advisory Council of the SF Grants for the Arts) talked about the frictions in public arts funding, and why it’s important to invest in a vibrant arts community and cultural policy
  • Lance Cassidy (DXLabs, Singularity U) shared his work at DXLabs, and how they’re enabling people and companies to consider and design for the distant future

I shared something very close to my heart: my community in San Jose.

Slide from my talk: my favorite tofu house in San Jose, with prices that have not risen to match inflation or the rising cost of living in the Bay Area

Like other refugees that immigrated to the United States after the Vietnam war, my parents didn’t have much when they arrived. They slowly built a life for themselves and their families, and I credit much of this to our community and the informal economy we created to make ends meet. What does that mean? Rather than transact in cold hard cash, we traded in goodwill and services. Together, we bootstrapped toward a more tolerable quality of life. 

Like: when I hit someone’s car, and the local mechanic basically fixed that car for free because my mom helped his son find a job. I was fresh out of college, and I would’ve otherwise wiped out my savings. I’m not unique: 44% of Americans are unable to cover a $400 emergency expense out of pocket.

Like: when my uncle–a doctor in the community–gives free health advice. In return, his patients share what they can. We get the sweetest, most mouthwatering oranges from one of his patients.  This is so compelling when you compare it against the exorbitant cost of being healthy and well in our country.

Certainly, the informal economy also allows for bad actors. You don’t have to look hard to find the hundreds of vulnerable domestic workers that are unseen by the government.

But in the best way, our informal economy acted as a de-facto social safety net that we, the people, built. A safety net of our own design.

So my case to the room:

  • How might we consider the informal economy in our design, while providing the necessary social protections?
  • How do we create space and policy that reflect and enhance dynamics of these arrangements?

Eat your vegetables: a reflection on meditation

I’ve never met a vegetable that I didn’t like, and I credit this to the magic of Vietnamese cuisine and my mother’s cooking.

She grew up in the cooking traditions of Huế, the former imperial capital of Vietnam. To accommodate royalty, its people had a fierce devotion to perfectionism, and you can see this conscious attention to quality in every part of its culture. When I think of food from Central Vietnam, I think of dishes that are focused on nuance and the details, with a particular gift for illuminating the flavor profile of vegetables. Take my mom’s bún bò Huế (Huế-style beef noodle soup) for example: you blanche a mixture of raw bean sprouts, mint, basil, banana flower in a steaming bowl of 12-hour lemongrass and beef broth. Vegetables were/are dank.

I remember reading books and watching Disney channel shows about American families, and was struck by how much other kids seemed to hate vegetables. Vegetables were a dramatic point of contention between kids and their parents, and I remember lying to my friends about hating broccoli to fit in.

All this to say, my relationship with what is good and healthy for my mind, body, and soul started off easy. And this became my experience with self-care: mostly easy. There was nothing a good run, a face mask, or treating myself couldn’t fix.

But sometimes, the things that are good for you can be difficult and unpleasant

I joined venture capital a few years ago, and I wish I could say it’s been smooth sailing. I feel like I’m continually battling the decision fatigue and emotional roller coaster of (1) making (many) sound decisions and (2) being thoughtful about how to best support and empower entrepreneurs. And day after day of this stress and anxiety, I found it harder to recover. Things that used to get me back to baseline–like say, the sheer physical exhaustion from a run that gives you that incredible runner’s high–no longer worked. Nursing running injuries, I feared what would happen if I could no longer run.

Continue reading “Eat your vegetables: a reflection on meditation”

Xi Jinping’s impact on Asia Pacific and beyond

What I’m reading this weekend: At the end of February, the Chinese Community Party abolished the two-term limit for the presidency, effectively allowing President Xi Jinping to lead China in perpetuity. It always seemed to me (read: my untrained eye) that autocrats took incremental, almost unnoticeable actions to amass power, as to not raise any alarms and to sustain the pretense that they rule at the will of their people. China’s monumental decision to amend their constitution may be another sign that today’s autocrats are feeling more emboldened, and Xi joins the list of authoritarian strongmen taking bold moves— tangible and symbolic—to grab and sustain their power. Why does this matter? For a number of reasons, but here’s one: at the end of the seesaw sits human rights and civil liberties. I recall a conversation with a group of activists shortly after Trump’s election, who predicted that internal discord within the United States would pull attention and resources from issues abroad and create a vacuum for bad political behavior*. As a result, it could meaningfully unwind the work that activists around the world had done to fight inequality, and curtail social and political repression. And so it goes.

I have been following the tensions in the South China Sea, with a particular interest in how Vietnam is navigating these dynamics, and looked to understand how Xi Jinping’s unyielding power would affect the region (and beyond). If you’re interested, here’s a hodgepodge of content that I came across this week, providing both good context and commentary:

* This is not to say that the U.S. doesn’t act badly, but that’s another conversation for another day.