rt Talks | Isabella Liu

Describe yourself

A love for creation is at the core of my being. As future architects grow up, they are always at a table sketching away. As future dancers grow up, they are always prancing through their mother’s kitchen. When future biologists grow up, they are always out catching bugs and examining lizards in their back yard. A future entrepreneur, when I was growing up, I created mini companies, lunch time trading systems, and acorn currencies. 

This love for creating relationships, companies, and social impact has driven my work. Today, I’m the Founder and CEO of Elix Incubator, an internationally recognized social impact incubator for teen entrepreneurs. Elix has been a leader in teen social innovation for about two years now, and we have a proven track record of creating powerful ventures and aspiring entrepreneurs. At Elix, we help fund, launch and consult social enterprises founded by teens in underserved communities both in the US and abroad. Our portfolio currently includes over twenty companies in IoT, 3D printing, refugee relief, and much more. The founders of these companies are diverse, hailing from Costa Rica to Thailand. By investing in social enterprises, we allow social good and sustainability to compliment each other– building a better future for our world. 

Outside of Elix, I am also an avid debater, decision analyst, and baker. I also dabble in nanotechnology. 

·         Is there any story that inspired you to start your own initiative? Describe it.

After debating complex social issues for years and watching my peers fully understand their gravity, I began to ask my debate team to generate solutions for our topics, not just arguments. Surely enough, my team came up with excellent remedies to global problems. However, we had no platform on which we could pursue our bold solutions. 

I then began building a hybrid pitch-debate competition for social issues. After realizing this wasn’t enough, I started to pivot. Encouraged by my mentors to build an incubator, I founded an incubator for non-profits. My team and I quickly realized that our model was unsustainable and that the idea was too heavy to get off the ground. Pivoting again, my team and I founded Elix. By incubating social enterprises, we achieve financial sustainability while still grappling with issues that generate both social and financial returns. I have been amazed by what my peers can imagine and then accomplish. They have exceeded my wildest expectations. 

·         What is one thing you find to be true that most people would disagree with?

I watched a TED Talk by Dan Pallotta (The way we think about charity is dead wrong) that changed the way I think about non-profits. His message was clear: for nonprofits to scale, recruit top talent, market their impact, and truly solve huge issues, they must be given the bandwidth and overhead to do so. After listening to his talk, I was surprised to find myself agreeing with him whole heartedly. Thus, I believe that non-profits should be allowed to fail, have huge overhead costs, and compensate their executives generously. 

It’s the only way we’ll be able to solve global issues. 

·         What were some of the biggest lessons that has impacted the way that you work? What was the lesson, and what was it like before and after?

Like many young founders, I used to make decisions out of fear and anger. The outcomes of my choices were immediately gratifying at best and destructive at worst. The health of my organization depended on my ability to change this bad habit. 

I began to pursue decision analysis. Beyond the analytical models and statistics I learned, the key lesson from this training was that you should never make decisions when you’re frustrated, tired, stressed, or upset. My primary mentor, Ernesto Diaz, has reiterated this to me too. 

I’ve learned to only make decisions when I’m in a centered state of mind. While some decisions can’t wait until you’re not angry anymore, they can always wait until you’re calm. When I make decisions with this in mind, the quality of the reasoning and the long-term outcome are exponentially better. The internal operations of Elix are stronger, and our external pursuits are more successful. Ultimately, learning to lose your ego and be a leader is totally dependent on your ability to make calm decisions. 

·         If you were to do (some venture) again, what would you do differently?

Elix is an incubator so our primary line of work is developing, funding, and consulting start ups. In doing so, we break our incubatees down into Cohorts (groups). In our Cohort 1, we only incubated six ventures and focused on founders with skills. Though we saw incredible success in the impact measures and financial returns in our first Cohort, it was, frankly, like herding cats. My team quickly learned three things: 

  1. Founders with a passion for their idea and a loyal team are better than Founders with skills.
  2. Incubatee proximity to Elix HQ has nothing to do with venture success. 

  3. Communication. Is. Everything.

If I were to do Cohort 1 all over again, I would keep these three lessons in mind. That would mean recruiting (not individuals), recruiting incubatees with the best ideas (even if they’re on the other side of the world), and creating a uniform communication system for all incubatees.  

·         Other than deciding to work for yourself, what was the single most important decision you made that contributed to your success?

The single most important decision that I’ve ever made for Elix was hiring my leadership team. I think it’s a common mistake for founders to try to do everything. The truth is that this is simply unsustainable. On the flip side, Harvard Business School reports that 60% of startups fail because of “people problems.” Understandably, it’s scary to bring new team members into a start up.

Here’s the secret, though: hiring the right leaders allowed me to do what I do best. When I was able to focus on my role as CEO instead of taking on the role of every executive in Elix, our productivity and efficacy sky rocketed. What’s more, I found a confidant in my COO, a fellow strategist in my CFO, a genius in my CPO, and a media mastermind in my CMO. 

I hired peers who shared my vision for Elix and drive to innovate. By looking past my immediate friends and network, I took a leap of faith. Trust me when I say that it paid off. 

·         And which was more rewarding: making your startup a success, or being able to continue keeping it successful?

I built something that’s meant to last when I built Elix. Keeping Elix successful has required a staff expansion, further investments, and a huge time commitment (~40 hours a week). However, the strong infrastructure we’ve built will last long after our founding team is gone. One day, I see Elix being the pinnacle of teen innovation and entrepreneurship. This is the vision my team is working toward, and this is what I’m most proud of.

·         How did you get funded or what creative strategies did you use to collect fund?

In truth, finding funding was the most difficult part in getting Elix off the ground. In the very beginning when things were very tight we even went door-to-door. However, my CFO and I have since devised a strategy that merged techniques used in conventional venture fundraising and non-profits. I’ve included a graphic that details our basic strategy below.

·         What habits helped make you successful?

I invest with my time and let no minute go unused. In taking the time to approach my day with the intention to engage fully, I am building—relationships, habits, and, ideally, a legacy. There is no shortcut to creating these intangibles. Indeed, the process tests my patience and my intentions, making it all the more important.

Thus, I swear by a rule of building everyday interactions into meaningful ones. For four years now, I’ve been building during the stray moments of a day. As a freshman, after crew practice, I spent ten minutes on the technical rowing machines while my teammates stood in line for the showers. Initially dubbed by my coach as “incapable of learning to move my body in a rowing motion,” I climbed from barely making the team to a spot in our club’s best Novice boat.

Every Thursday lunch for the past two years, my best friend and I have read a scientific report and emailed the authors with questions. It’s an unassuming exercise, but this practice has landed us lab tours, a meeting with a Nobel Laureate, and an invitation to execute our own research at both Stanford and the California Academy of Sciences. I’ve come to understand that fortune doesn’t favor the bold—it favors the thoughtful.

In Elix, this two minute rule plays itself out in many ways. First, it’s given me the habit of having a lunch time check in with each employee every week. When I understand what my team is thinking, I can better lead the company as a whole. Furthermore, the idea of using every moment of the day has allowed a high school team to harness time during our breaks, before school, and at lunch. This habit, above all, has given a team of students the bandwith needed to lead an international incubator. 

·         What mindsets helped make your successful?

See above answer. 

·         What was your biggest mistake?

Making decisions of anger or fear was my biggest mistake as a young founder. I’ve touched on this in an answer above too.

·         How did you deal with failure?

Dealing with failure isn’t easy, but it’s simple. You’ve just got to get back up and try again. Resilience is the number one trait I look for in all of my incubatees. 

·         How did you learn from failure?

It’s important to analyze why you fail. In entrepreneurship, it’s said that if you’re going to fail, you should fail quickly. While that’s true, it’s also vitally important to fail smartly. After any failure, you should reflect on what went wrong within yourself and your organization. However, don’t be upset by the factors outside of your control. Just learn to factor them into your strategy next time. 

·         What was unexpected?

This may sound silly, but I didn’t realize how hard it would be to be a CEO. Managing people and creating strategies have always been my best skills so it really surprised me when I felt the pressure of leading Elix. Dealing with an international incubator with over twenty five employees and over twenty social enterprises is hard work. There are a lot of moving parts. 

·         What did you learn?

Dealing with all of these moving parts taught me how to break down any problem, no matter how complex, into manageable pieces. To me, the trick is fleshing it out with a trusted mentor or friend when you’re in a steady state of mind. I cannot stress enough how important it is to make decisions and reflect during periods of peace. 

·         What would you have done differently?

As I’ve already answered what I’d do differently if I were to start Elix again, I’m going to assume you’re asking what I wish I could have done differently in life. 

Prior to founding Elix, I wish I had learned to always be totally accountable to everyone around you. This especially includes being honest with others and yourself about the state of your organization. Problems can’t be solved if they’re not talked about. Solutions can’t be generated if leaders aren’t accountable. And at the end of the day, leaders are supposed to be the last ones off the ship. 

I think the best manifestation of an accountable and selfless leader is in the Buddist proverb “The Monkey King’s Bridge.” This story, in particular, has guided my leadership style. 

·         If you could time travel back to day one of your startup and have 15min with your former self to communicate any lessons you’ve acquired with the intention of saving yourself mistakes and heart ache, what would you tell yourself?

Start small. Good things come to those who build with intention.

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