I Grew Up Poor in a Rich Person's World -- Tales of a Serial Entrepreneur


I stopped asking for presents at age 8. That's when I understood that my family was poor, and that I couldn't ask for much, because the answer would be "No."

It's these memories that stand out in sharp relief -- the shame of handing my lunch lady that brightly colored free lunch ticket instead of cash; of making excuses to avoid going out with friends; of never inviting friends to my house because the appliances didn't work and there were holes in the wall.

I still catch myself in tears sometimes when I remember the pain of feeling different from my friends, who were children of doctors, business executives, professors.

I also recognize my immense privilege. I grew up in Irvine, a city with a median household income of $90,000+, almost double that of the United States. It is also one of the most educated, with 65 percent of the city's residents possessing at least a Bachelor's degree. In Garden Grove, the city my family lived in before Irvine, the median household income is $59,000 and only 19 percent of the city's residents are as well educated.

This privilege afforded me safe streets, excellent public schools, fresh food -- things so rarely available to people of low-income backgrounds. As a result, I am now equipped to close the opportunity gap as opposed to falling victim to it.

How Poverty Affects My Life as an Entrepreneur

My family background brought me challenges, but also hard-won strengths.

The Challenges

My safety net has larger holes than most.

My family cannot back me up if I fail. My parents have no extra funds, my sister is only beginning her career, and my brother is still in high school. I have had to
. Still, I know that I'm always three months away from financial disaster. One wrong decision, one lost client, and everything can come tumbling down.

I have limited time to "make it".

I'm making conscious bets with my money. I've lowered my cost of living by sleeping in a nook of my apartment's common room -- more than adequate but less than comfortable. I've dipped into savings when the time needed to launch new services has meant time I wasn't using to generate immediate revenue. I can only take these risks for so long. I'd like to build a family of my own. My parents will need support when my mom can no longer work. I'm scared as hell of a future in which I don't have enough to take care of the people I love.

I lacked skills I didn't even know I needed.

Networking was a foreign concept to me, as was career management. While my peers in college understood that they needed to make strong relationships with professors and with each other, I was never so deliberate. When I applied for jobs, someone had to teach me how to do informational interviews. I was fired from my position outside of teaching, partly because I wasn't aware of organizational politics. If it weren't for my more savvy peers, I could have experienced severe setbacks in my career that would have prevented me from doing what I do now.

The Strengths

I'm motivated to solve problems of inequity.

I am empathetic to people with the greatest needs. I honor and respect people who experience poverty. My life is dedicated to taking down systemic barriers to education innovation because I'm a living example of education breaking cycles of poverty. No child should have to be lucky in order to have the opportunities that I have had. It's the pain of my own childhood that drives me forward.

I can navigate two worlds.

I can navigate a space with people who are in the top 1%. I speak the language, read the books, take the trips, graduated from the top university. I also understand a version of what it's like to grow up poor. I feel the pain, know the strengths, experience the pride, remember similar experiences. Having a foot in each world will hopefully lead to an opportunity to bring them closer together.

I make things happen by sheer force of will.

There is no one I admire more than my mom. As a child in Malaysia, she and her six siblings often had only a single bowl of rice to eat each. Her parents would eat nothing. As a young adult, my mom immigrated to New York City. She sent the money she made back home to her family. When my dad suffered from a stroke, rendering him unable to work, my mom kept our family together. I asked her once how she did it all. She said, "I had no choice. My children needed me." My mom makes things happen by sheer force of will -- I do, too.

How Poverty Affects Our Startup Community

My experience growing up poor is not unique, but it is also not common in our world as entrepreneurs. Only one in five entrepreneurs come from low-income backgrounds; only one in a hundred come from families that are part of the working poor, have been chronically unemployed, or have experienced homelessness. This affects us all.

We're investing time and money in solving problems that are not necessarily the ones of greatest impact.

Entrepreneurs are generally driven to solve the problems they themselves have experienced. The problem with the vast majority of entrepreneurs coming from middle or high income backgrounds is that the problems they choose to solve are not necessarily the ones of greatest impact. How many more apps do we need that provide on-demand massage services? How many more boutique law firms do we need that serve wealthy clients?

Your job is not to solve your problems. Your job, being privileged, is to not take it for granted and go solve some real problems.
-- Pablos Holman of Intellectual Ventures Lab

To even be aware of those real problems, however, requires knowing about them. And knowing about them requires being co-founders, partners, friends, with those who have experienced them.

We're making decisions for people who are not at the table, causing harm despite good intentions.

Evaluate impact; acknowledge intent. Entrepreneurs can have the best of intentions, yet take actions that have the worst of impacts. This often comes from not understanding, truly, the needs of the people they are trying to serve. High profile examples of well-intentioned people causing harm to low-income communities include a
allowing competitors to drive existing local farmers out of business and the
which funneled half a billion dollars into a solution that now sits unused in countries around the world.

The only way to prevent this is for people experiencing the problems to be co-designers of the solutions. We need entrepreneurs from low-income backgrounds equipped with both the empathy and the skills to create these solutions.

We're leaving human potential untapped.

Team. Team. Team. It all comes down to team. We systematically pass over people who are whip-smart but couldn't afford college, vivacious hosts but speak with a "low-class" accent, and go-getters but outside of our social circles. When we do this, we pass over people who could have been the next star employee, partner, or founder.

We can do better.

An Entrepreneur's Commitment to Equity

This is my public commitment to equity. Hold me to it, because sometimes I will be too tired or too afraid to stand up for what is right -- I will need your help to keep me going. I also invite my fellow entrepreneurs to make their own commitments to equity. We can't do this alone; we can only do this together.

I commit to looking beyond my immediate network.

This is a
as there are so many intersections between class, race, and gender. I will use this resource to recruit entrepreneurs for the opportunities I come across, from speaking engagements to funding options to potential partnerships. I can only find the best people by casting a wide net, not one that is made more narrow by prematurely limiting it to my own network.

I commit to a "culture add" and not a "culture fit".

"Culture fit" can sometimes be
. I will define culture as actions that arise from
. I will not define culture as what people like to wear, eat, do to socialize.

My organization will also honor individual identities. We are not "class-blind" or "race-blind". Instead we bring our whole identities into our work. We share our stories, food, music, frames of reference. We acknowledge the unique value each of us add.

I commit to constantly improving.

There are things I don't know I don't know. There are ways I will negatively impact others despite the best of intentions. There are times where I will break my own commitments. My work as an entrepreneur will never be perfect, but I will seek to learn and to improve. No feedback can be too harsh, and no change can be too small.

I commit to meeting people where they are.

I will not judge someone for holding views widely different from my own. I will not assume that I am always right. I will treat everyone as a potential ally in this work. Our journey towards embracing equity is a long and personal one and the only way we can walk together is if we take steps to meet each other where we are.

I commit to accepting nothing short of equity.

Yes, I am just one person, but this is why I collaborate with others. Yes, some people "make it", but I'm not satisfied until everyone can reach their fullest potential. Yes, this problem is way bigger than education/safety/health/economic opportunity, but small steps make a big difference and I commit to taking that small step.

These are my commitments; what are yours?

Written for The Startup Couch: We aim to positively influence startup founders, so that they can continue to do what they do best: create game-changing innovations.