I first met Maggie Hsu when I was in college and I was at a NYC event that Mochi, a website for Asian American women, was hosting with Cleo, a South Korean makeup brand. Maggie is one of the co-founders behind Mochi and I had recognized her from the photo of her that was on the website. I was a staff writer for Mochi at the time and I remember feeling intimidated– Maggie’s a Harvard alumnus of both the undergraduate and the business schools and worked straight for McKinsey, one of the Big 3 consulting companies right after college graduation. She was also the director of strategy and business development for Hilton Worldwide and when I met her, the Chief of Staff to the Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh.
I shouldn’t have felt intimidated. Maggie was incredibly kind and she still is. I reconnected with Maggie recently to ask her if I could interview her for my career profile series on women of color, Tell Me More, and she promptly agreed, to my surprise. I hope you are as inspired as I am by her.
You have an undergrad degree in biology but worked in business at McKinsey after graduating. Did you know that was going to be your trajectory?
I didn’t. I knew I always wanted to be in business and as you know, at the time I was studying science so I thought I would go into something like hospital administration. For me, studying biology was less about learning biology and more learning about how to think in a certain way. I was interested in the scientific method and how to solve problems in a systematic way. That was my interest in the science side of it and most of my extracurriculars in college were business related so I knew I wanted to do something in business but I wasn’t sure what.
That’s interesting because when I started college, I had considered a biology major to do the very traditional route of being a biology major to go to medical school and I wasn’t sure if that’s something you considered.
No, no, I never considered it. I don’t have the stomach for it. Literally, (laughs) I can’t stand the sight of blood but the funny upside is that now I have a lot of doctor friends.
You’ve talked before about the importance of reputation and trust in business. What other skills do you wish you had early in your career?
I think when you first start, you’re learning so many things. You’re learning how to work at a company and learning about the world of business. This is specifically, I guess, towards a business career: People talk about having mentors and finding mentors. I think that’s good but I think it’s sometimes hard to know even where to start, what questions to ask.
So for me, I wish I had done this earlier is that I wish I had started going to different events– going to panels, conferences, listening to more podcasts. I think that people have so much advice that they want to share already and so that’s a good way to start. From there, I would have done this a lot earlier and developing my, not necessarily what I wanted to do when I grew up, but rather the type of people that I’d want to work with and then the types of companies that I believed in. There’s an exercise that I do now where I make a list of companies that excite you or that you would want to work for. But don’t just stop at the list. Ask what about these companies intrigue me and oftentimes, it might be the great products but oftentimes, on a more deeper, there’s probably something in their values, vision and mission that aligns with yours. Figure out what your core values are. It’s something that I got from working at Zappos for so many years, thinking through what are my values, what values do I want in the people around me, what kind of company do I want to work for and what kind of culture do they have.
Back to your comment about podcasts, is there any podcast that you would recommend?
Not specifically because I feel like people get information in very different ways so I would just say that if you’re interested in a topic, there’s probably a podcast on it. I’m currently in the block chain space and there are a few really high quality podcasts on it. that help you with something as basic as how to pronounce certain terms and that to me is how you say whatever term. In block chain, there are terms like ethereum, ETH, etc and just knowing how they’re pronounced to be able to talk about it is helpful. I wouldn’t recommend any specific podcasts but just base them on your interesting.
There’s a lot of talk about the bamboo ceiling and the glass ceiling that affects Asian-Americans and women. Since you’ve been in a lot of high executive positions, especially in a male-dominanted industry like business, what do you wish other women or Asian Americans know?
In any business industry, it’s important to have a community of people who are similar to you and support them. As an Asian woman, I like to support other Asian woman so I started Mochi. I hope that other Asian women are looking to support me but I also think that it’s important to not just focus on that because that isolates us as a group and makes us insular. Mentors as people can be people who are not Asian or not female. It is only by doing that because today that’s who’s in business and you need those people to support you while trying to get more people who have similar background into your roles. I would just say finding people across the organization who become your champions and you might connect on other things like sports or another hobby.
I was talking recently with one of my friends who also works in business asking her if she had any questions she’d like to know the answer to. She was wondering how to be confident and assertive in a room where no one looks like you. I know you talked before about doing power poses to feel confident but is there anything else?
(Laughs) That’s one sort of trick but I think the actual assertiveness is knowing your content. I naturally feel confident when I know what I’m talking about and I think most people do. You over prepare and find your time to speak. I went to Exeter for high school and they teach the Harkness method, which means that in your classes, you’re not getting lectured at and instead, you’re in a round table like a conference room so no one raises their hands and you have to jump in.
So like a Socratic circle?
It’s Socratic yeah, but it’s for high schoolers, which is crazy. The teachers don’t even call on you. In business school, the teachers are still calling on you so it’s Socratic. At Exeter, it’s literally like a conference room conversation and I was terrified. The first year I was there, I maybe had something to say but I didn’t know what to say or someone would say it before I would get to it. There was this one thing that I would always do and I would participate by saying, “Let’s take a look at the text; it has an interesting context”. I would bring everyone back to the text and we would read a sentence that I identified. I would say something about it because for me, that was a way of making myself less nervous because I knew the first moment would just be reading the text.
I would say that assertiveness and confidence take practice. It doesn’t come easy. People typically don’t give you the opportunity to speak if you don’t pipe up so you have to find a way to enter the conversation and have your unique voice. Maybe that’s something like a distinct advantage that you can add so if you’re scheduled to present, it’s easier because you have your presentation moment. If you’re not scheduled, maybe there’s a topic that you know that most people aren’t going to know that well and you can jump in there.
It’s really hard for people, especially Asian Americans, to talk about the failure they’ve faced. What is an unexpected setback that you faced?
I completely agree that talking about failure and vulnerability is very tough. I’ve talked about this before but when I was in Las Vegas at the Downtown Project, we did a layoff. It was a very tough moment in my life because it was very personal. I had previously been in larger finance companies in New York so if someone gets fired or let go, that’s it. You don’t see them. This time, it was my friends and vice versa, they thought I was a friend. It was a very difficult time and I guess the failure leading up to that is the business got to a point where this had to happen. In retrospect, how could we have avoided that situation in the first place?
Most valuable or life-changing advice that you were given?
Something that my former boss, Tony Hsieh at Zappos, told me was the value of relationships and he knows so many people. Not just because so many people know him because he’s a prominent CEO but rather because he takes the time to know lots of different people and so I think one philosophy that I try and do is to respect other people– be interested in who they are and their story because you never know how stuff gets back to you not because they wrong you but generally, try and help other people. Maybe that’s the advice: help other people and respect other people. When it’s time when you need help, like I’m facing with this business idea that I’m working on. I’m meeting with people to talk about it and all these people are willing to meet with me because in the past I’ve helped them with no intention of needing anything from them.
You sometimes don’t know how far your reach is. Like in Vegas, especially, it’s a very small town so I would be out and talking. Someone would be like, “Oh yeah, I saw you at the bar the other day and you were talking to someone.” People see. It’s like those celebrity stories. On Quora, you can be like,”When did you meet Obama” and people would say how cool he was but he’s talking to the security guy at the hotel. I think in today’s day and age, a lot of that stuff, whether good or bad gets amplified and comes back around.
Something that I’ve noticed is that you’ve talk a lot about communities throughout our interview and you’ve done a presentation on hospitality for Cornell where you talk about engineered serendipity.
I’m very passionate about this. This is something that Tony talks a little about and I’ve thought about. How can you encourage these great connections and these great moments where two people come together or groups of people come together to create something? It’s really hard to prescribe that and say, “You’ll all meet up and create XYZ” but if you get the right people in the room, the right ambiance and conversation structure, all these amazing things come together that you couldn’t even have predicted. Whether it’s thinking about a great college, university or workplace, there are all these other people and you’re sharing ideas. But sometimes you’re stuck in these silos. You’re working on the same projects so it’s less serendipitous. That’s why I love conferences and my friends joke that I’m a professional conference goer. You go to conferences and you can sit in on some talk to hear what other people are working on. It may inspire you, even if you have nothing to do with that. There are these moments of non-linear thinking so it’s pretty cool. There’s a book, Where Good Ideas Come From, that talks about how you have a lot of these innovations that come together because there are two different fields.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
Lots! But mostly guys.(Laughs) I think I had a lot of pressure and it wasn’t necessarily from my parents. It was just that I felt this was what I had to do to stack up a lot of brand names on my resume and because I think the names gave validation to me. I would hope that if I could do it again, not that I think it was a bad way of doing it but rather I would’ve just doubled down on what I’m passionate about and moved towards that 100%. I’m someone who’s done a lot of different things which is good, but at a certain point it would’ve been nice to develop an expertise on something. I’m still trying to figure that out, what I’m trying to be when I grow up.
It’s funny because I was talking to my friends and I was like, “I’m nervous to do this interview. She’s from Harvard undergrad and the business school, did the whole McKinsey thing… Meanwhile I graduated, took a gap year and am doing med school. I just feel so young.”
I’ve had people look at my resume, gurus, who’ve looked at my resume and they’ve said, “This makes no sense.” I respect Anderson Cooper, who’s a news reporter and anchor, a lot and he has this quote about how the different things he’s done. He said how in retrospect, it was those things that made him the person he is today because of all those experiences.
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From ringing to the NYSE Closing Bell® to sharing personal stories on the gold carpet, we thank you, the Asian community, for coming together to celebrate this year’s #A100List Honorees with us and our partner, @aarp! We urge everyone to continue to support each other’s stories, companies, campaigns, and successes all year ’round. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ And if someone has already inspired you this year, head to goldhouse.org/nominate to nominate them for the 2020 #A100List. Nominations close Dec 1, 2019.
You’re involved with the Gold House, a collective “of pioneering Asian founders, creative voices, and leaders dedicated to systematically accelerating the Asian diaspora’s societal impact while enhancing the community’s cultural legacy” as a principal co-founder. Can you talk more about Gold House?
Gold House is a non-profit that came together a year and a half to two years ago. The core of Gold House is very similar to the core of Mochi: Asians supporting other Asians. The thought around Gold House is that we [Asian-Americans] want to be more visible across more industries. We started specifically across entertainment. There needs to be financing around entertainment so it’s made. In order for something like Crazy Rich Asians or Always Be My Maybe to be made, you need talent. How do you create talent? You need to have good actors and actresses and we’re really helping with that. That’s been the premise around Gold Open, which is one of the initiatives that helps insure that these films have a good box office opening day. At the end of the day, money talks. If these films do well, studios will make more of them. There’s a whole engine around supporting these films and a site, GoldOpen.com that shows all the different films and plays that have Asian-American roles and leads so the thought is that people will support that. Put your money where your mouth is.
Will Gold House branch into other industries as well?
Yeah, definitely. On the founders’ side, we’re doing some stuff with chefs and the food side. Since we’re a non-profit, we hope to represent a number of different verticals.
What are your hopes for what you want to see in the future for Asian Americans?
I just want us to be represented fairly and accurately. We should be seeing ourselves. Back to the original idea behind Mochi, which was inspiring Asian American women to pursue their passions regardless of what they are. They don’t have to be lawyers, doctors, doctor-lawyers etc and it should be anything. They should have the ability to pursue anything.
What would you do you like to do on your days off?
I don’t have too many days off and I travel a lot to see my friends. I recently adopted a German Shepherd and we’re going to adopt another one so I will be training my dogs since they are extremely smart and they need more training.
What are you currently reading?
The Art of Gathering. It’s this incredible book by Priya Parker. It talks about how to bring people together and she’s a conflict resolution mediator who’s worked in India, the Middle East and Africa. She’s brokering conversations between countries that hate each other and her book is about how to have great dinner parties.
Interview edited lightly for clarity.