Three Lessons From My Asian Upbringing That Made Me A More Resilient Founder

Vivian Shen is the founder and CEO of Juni Learning, an online learning platform that prepares people for the real world.

A Chinese proverb that I love advises: “If you plan for one year, plant rice. If you plan for 10 years, plant trees. If you plan for 100 years, educate mankind.” As a first-generation Asian American, and growing up as the daughter of a research professor, the value of education and the importance of learning was never lost on me. In fact, it is ingrained in my culture that the greatest priority is receiving a well-rounded, quality education.

As a child, my attention span in school ranged from moderate enjoyment to complete dissociation, but despite my pushback, I was encouraged to excel in school and pursue traditional extracurriculars. Art, music and language classes were all inked on my schedule, and I was on the path to fitting into the mold my parents had created for me.

Yet, looking back, the values upheld in my household granted me the agency and work ethic required to be a woman in STEM. Now that I have the privilege to reflect, I recognize three significant ways that my upbringing helped carve out my path to becoming a successful entrepreneur.

The most important role models throughout my life at every stage were my parents. Both born and raised in China, they were among many who were tasked with taking the gaokao​​ exam, known as one of the hardest exams in the world. In the United States, we have countless choices to define and express ourselves in the pursuit of higher education—in China, the only way to pursue your chosen path is by nailing the gaokao.

Leading up to the written test, my dad, rather than cowering in fear from the biggest test of his life, immersed himself in the pursuit of knowledge to achieve the highest test score he could—going so far as to study flashcards while exercising to not waste a moment of the day. Yet, despite his determination, he scored toward the bottom of the pack.

Instead of shying away from his ambition and accepting defeat, he put the test score at the back of his mind and focused on excelling in the verbal interview portion. I can only imagine the pressure he felt knowing that the state of his future relied on this single interview, but I am also not surprised at his resilience. He strengthened his resolve, kept his goal at the forefront of his mind and impressed the interviewers, earning his way into Stanford for his Ph.D.

As a founder of a new company, it is easy to let the pursuit of perfection hold you back. While starting my company, I experienced many setbacks, including shifts in the rollout timeline, building out the team and the upheaval of the pandemic, but remembering the resiliency that my dad practiced his entire life, I understood that not only is perfection unrealistic but that mistakes and roadblocks are actually part of the process. I hope all founders have the chance to face setbacks and use those moments to learn and grow.

2. Even the things you think aren’t worth the effort may prove beneficial.

Growing up, there were many activities my family encouraged me to take part in that I didn’t necessarily enjoy. My mom enrolled me in every program I showed interest in, dropped me off on time and lovingly forced me to practice commitment and follow through even if my interest waned. Fast forward to today, and the art and design classes from my childhood flourish in my day-to-day life at Juni, and the Chinese language lessons have been a game changer in my journey. She knew that engaging in a variety of hobbies would benefit me, even if I was unaware of those benefits at a young age.

Keeping an open mind to experiences is important in life, but for entrepreneurs, having a well-rounded skill set can be the key to success and differentiation. Nothing can rival the importance of a founder’s commitment to growth and personal development when building a strong business. Once you cultivate knowledge of not only your industry but also the fields that surround your interests, you will see almost immediate improvements in your creativity and clarity of vision.

3. No matter how far down a road you go, you can always turn back.

According to the Silicon Valley Bank Startup Outlook Survey, as of 2020, only 28% of startups in the U.S. have at least one female founder (pg. 4). Knowing that slim margin, the prospect of me becoming an entrepreneur was never at the forefront of my mind. During my time at Stanford, I began my career as a software engineer, but as my career progressed, I recognized that taking the path laid out for me wasn’t going to satisfy my ambition.

With continued support from my family, I took a huge risk by leaving my secure job to pursue my passion for building better education for kids. Having the constant accountability from my mom and the encouragement to dream from my dad, I understood the risk of breaking the mold but was confident enough to backtrack to achieve my goal. Your 20s are a major inflection point if you allow it to be, and focusing on your dreams can pay out in the long run if you are willing to dedicate yourself to an alternate, perhaps less charted, path.

Whether it be a shift in your overall career trajectory or iterating on your startup vision, having the support and self-confidence to take the big risks is critical to personal and professional growth. Enter every phase of your career with the peace of mind and confidence that you have approached each opportunity with the best of your capabilities and understanding. Diagnose what is missing within your current professional landscape, and build something you believe in.

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