WHEN WE ASKED LUCY TO TELL US ABOUT HER LIFE SHE SAID, “I ALWAYS LIKE TO START WITH MY MOM AND HER STORY.” AND WE’RE SO GLAD SHE DID.
HER MOTHER’S STORY
Her mother grew up in a rural part of Vietnam on a farm, the oldest of 13 kids. She dropped out of school in 4th grade in order to help on her family’s farm. She worked until she was 15, when she was married off and soon had 2 small children. Her husband then had to leave to fight in the war with the Americans against the Vietcong, leaving her alone. He was taken as prisoner of war, and was gone for over 10 years.
In order to save money to flee the country, Lucy’s mother left her siblings with their grandparents and went to Saigon to work. People trying to leave Vietnam had to pay fisherman to smuggle them on boats, and the first two attempts her mother made landed her and Lucy’s siblings in jail. By their third attempt to leave, Lucy’s mother was pregnant with her. Due to rough seas, and running out of food and water, her mother contemplated taking her children's’ lives and her own. She passed out from exhaustion and later woke up to screaming. They had reached a shore.
They washed ashore in Malaysia, and were taken into a refugee camp by the government. As her due date approached, Lucy’s mother was transferred to a refugee camp hospital in the Philippines. After Lucy’s birth, the Catholic church sponsored her family to go to the US. They were relocated to Iowa, but being a tropical girl, her mother hated the cold. She was also fiercely against the church imposing their religion on the family. So, she packed up their bags and escaped to San Jose, California.
The entrepreneurship and innovation hub of Silicon Valley helped shape Lucy’s childhood. Her family was very poor when she was growing up, and her mother working multiple part-time jobs while going to ESL school at night. Determined to make a better life for her family, her mom put herself through cosmetology school, and was able to start her own business. With her older siblings both out of house, Lucy from the age of seven, helped run the business. She would book appointments, sweep floors, handle financial statements, take inventory, and other things her mom was lacking the skill set to handle.
"I now look back with a lot of gratitude, because I am able to use those skills now for everyone else that I work with. She taught me how to hustle. She taught me about resilience. I think it is really in my DNA given that she was pregnant with me during a lot of her struggles."
During adolescence, Lucy was lost. She had trouble finding her way and was lacking in the resources she needed to achieve success. "By the time I was a sophomore I really had to get serious,” she said. “I had this ‘aha’ moment where I realized my mom got us here for a reason. I needed to take advantage of this opportunity. I needed to go to college."
Her mom wasn't resourced enough to support her with homework or school, so Lucy took care of it herself. “I had to fight for those resources,” she said. By volunteering at the school’s counseling office, she was able get access to scholarships early, and more importantly, take an active role in her education. She got into college, first attending UC Berkeley before finishing her education at Santa Clara University. After school, she started her career in finance. She worked in marketing, and eventually moved into private wealth management.
Even in high school, she had been trying to find ways to support marginalized population communities like her own, that didn't have the infrastructure or the access that others did. In high school and college, she acted as a mentor and volunteer, and found a similar outlet during her time in finance. During her time at the marketing for a financial services firm, she began to notice that not a lot of women knew anything about their finances and so did something about it.
“They never had that education, they relied on husbands. We had widows coming in asking about what was left behind what was invested, where estates and trusts were- things that could protect them, their future, and their kids. We need to educate women, especially young women so they can have power over their financial future.”
She co-organized the Girls Going Places conference to teach girls about financial literacy, economic parity, and entrepreneurship. “They should be paid as much as men and be able to empower themselves through entrepreneurship,” Lucy said. In two years, they brought in 1,000 girls from all over the state of California and paired them with professional mentors. It was a huge success, and even when she left the firm, she was able to develop a financial literacy program that is still run in middle schools throughout the Bay Area.
In addition to finance, she was buying real estate at nights and on the weekends. Her real estate passion came from helping people in her community that were being preyed upon by others due to their lack of education. “People who weren’t in a position to buy a home were qualifying for loans,” she emphasized, “they were being tricked into enormous interest rates. I was the advocate and would make sure they were being treated fairly.”
After this time of constant hard work from the age of seven onwards, she took a break. She went through a very difficult divorce, and took the opportunity to travel the world. “I did this whole Eat, Pray, Love thing,” she joked. ”I went to Barcelona, Bali, and Southeast Asia.” It was a healing experience. “I really wanted to experience life through the eyes of another,” she said, avoiding fancy hotels, and instead traveling off the beaten path. She was able to travel “home” to where it all began in Vietnam, and it was a wakeup call to just how differently people in other countries live.
In 2007, Lucy had another ‘aha’ moment. She wanted to stop putting effort towards one-off conferences and projects, and instead, find a way to scale impact. She took advantage of learning from many different organizations over the years. She worked at a startup, and had the opportunity to learn and understand technology, and then leverage that power to catalyze positive change around the world. She also started her own holistic wellness business, hosting pop ups and retreats with the goal of helping busy professionals find a work-life balance. “If they can find balance and light within themselves, they can shine that light outwards,” she said. She always made sure proceeds from her projects were going to social change initiatives all around the world. “I always knew that I wanted to be able to invest or finance underrepresented founders from all around the world, people that would never otherwise have access to make a difference.” She realized however, that she didn't want to just be donating. Instead, she wanted everyone in her community to get involved in improving the world.
Lucy and her boyfriend Ryan, realized that they had tons of amazing friends, and combined, they had access to thousands in their network. They wanted the game-changers to get to know one another so they started hosting private cocktail parties in their homes of 15 people, but that quickly turned into 115. They knew they had to scale back, and focus in on their real interest of talking about passions and interests, while minimizing the talk about work. They wanted to take the pressure of the “pitch” away from people, and encourage them to share more about themselves- creating engagement at a deeper level. At the end of 2015, they decided to grow this hobby into a business focused on care of people, diversity, and inclusion, StartUpRising.
They are continuing cocktail parties, as well as implementing quarterly Jeffersonian dinners in the style of renaissance-era salons where people can discuss and debate on a topic. “Everything I've ever done has been focused on empowering, when you get a group of innovative minds get together, magic happens,” Lucy gushed.
“Now, the community leaders are rising up and want us to spearhead initiatives with them. A lot of people want to make a difference, but don’t have the capacity. These people are CEOs, founders, and VCs but no one has capacity to lead the efforts. For so long there has not been that one person that's taking charge, but now you are looking at her. Let us be that vehicle to drive what it is you want to create in the world.”
StartUpRising is using a multi-pronged approach, and launching many initiatives at once. Their goal is to show that great solutions come from anywhere. They are partnering with organizations to create programs centered around diversity, such as an upcoming “Bring a Future Leader to Work” day with Big Brothers/Big Sisters. They are also working with Prototype Thinking Academy to create a rapid prototyping technology to teach employees how to build solutions and take action on diversity inclusion.
Another piece of the puzzle is connecting founders and funders through hack-a-thons, demos, shawcases, mentoring, venture scouting, co-working days, summits, and speaking recruitment. They want to ensure they are providing resources for diverse groups of under-represented founders, and eventually spread this support around the world.
Q: At your parties, you said you like people to focus on 3 things: passion, purpose, and interests. What are yours?
A: At the end of the day, it comes down to human rights. That is what I'm passionate about overall: human rights, equality, and social justice...This is just a condition of that. Why is there not enough diversity and inclusion? Well let’s look back. Let’s think about the whole history of mankind: “Why women are relegated to second class citizens? Why are African Americans, Latinos and Southeast Asians also treated as second class citizens?
I listened to Reverend Jesse Jackson speak once, and he hit it on the head when he said, ‘we are at the next phase of the Civil Rights Movement.’ And that’s access to resources, capital, and education. We have to fight for that and lead the way, not just wait for others to do it. It is not about getting these initiatives perfect, but experimenting, learning and taking action.
Q: When did you realize that you had found your calling?
A: It was a number of things. I’ve had a very rough childhood in terms of poverty and lack of resources. At every stage of my life, I have always had to fight and overcome something. I was very ill before I got divorced, and I lost 5 babies, I’ve never had it easy, you know? It helped me to be stronger, but it also helped me to question my path and my purpose.
I’ve had a lot of traumas and have a lot of respect life and death. When you look death in the face as many times as I have, I no longer have fear. What's the worst that could happen? Someone is going to tell me no? I don't care, and it's incredible. When you look at life that way you realize, “I only have so much time, and I want to live it fully.”
In 2013, I was drugged, raped and nearly died, and that was another turning point. I remember convulsing, fighting for my life, and asking myself “Is this worth it anymore? I have suffered so much and have had to fight so much- for myself and others- and I don't know if i have it in me to fight anymore.”
Consciously in that moment, I realized I had so much work to do still. That was really it. The sad thing is, this person got away. Our justice system is a joke. It is rigged, and it is a failure to women and minorities, as you can see with the Stanford case right now. And that is kind of what happened to me. This person got away, even though his DNA came up in another person’s case as well. Something has got to give.
“This is f***ing bulls**t.” This is why I do what I do, because it is a human right’s issue. We must get more women into leadership across all sectors and more under-represented entrepreneurs + changemakers solving the world's biggest problems: that is when real change begins.
It is about creating more equality in the workforce and in education- all of these broken pieces have to do with human rights.