Not a Sprint, with Maria Yuan
Episode 118: Marathon, Not a Sprint, with Maria Yuan
Growing up in a politically engaged household and having a passion for civic engagement from an early age, Maria Yuan, Founder of IssueVoter, defines herself as someone who is “interested in fixing really big problems”. This week, we sat down with her to talk about how she was able to balance her work life in Finance and Investment Banking setting up IssueVoter, coming up with great ideas and being able to grow them, as well as how her background and her experience in being a Campaign Manager helped her when founding IssueVoter. Maria talks about civic engagement and its importance, how everyone can be civically engaged in different ways, as well as how her rapidly growing non-profit, IssueVoter works.
00:13 Kristy Wallace: Hello and welcome to the Ellevate Network Podcast. This is your host, Kristy Wallace, with my co-host Maricella Herrera. How's it going, Maricella?
00:23 Maricella Herrera: Good.
00:23 KW: Welcome back.
00:25 MH: Thanks. I think my brain is still on vacation mode. It's getting there.
00:30 KW: Yeah, yeah, that makes sense. You need some time to ease back into work.
00:37 MH: Yeah, also, I'm starving.
00:39 KW: Yes. So it's summer time here in New York City and we've just made it past our annual summit. And so we're gearing up for lots of really fun things this fall. I used to believe that the summer time was a downtime and it's... I actually say this all the time because there's no downtime anymore.
01:01 MH: No.
01:01 KW: None, it's insane.
01:04 MH: Well, it's good, I mean, it is insane 'cause we used to use... I remember I was using the summer time to plan and really focus on like other things instead of just running all the time, but you know we're scaling up, we're growing and that's good.
01:20 KW: Well, and very important that you say that because for any of our listeners out there that are looking to work for a mission-driven brand, that's having a huge impact and is populated with some pretty amazing people with some great work, you should check out the Ellevate network website in our career section, which lists the openings we currently have available, and we'd love to hear from you.
01:46 MH: Yeah, and if there's no openings now, although I'm sure there are, you can email us and that you'll find the email on the contact form on that site, so that we get your information in the right place.
02:00 KW: Yes, excellent.
02:01 MH: So I'm really excited about our guest today. This is an interview. I had a chance to talk to Maria Yuan. She is the founder of IssueVoter. We actually met Maria... Well, she's an Ellevate member, that's how we know her, but we met her at a non-profit panel last year. Our usual annual non-profit conversation with people who are either founders or involved in non-profits and want to share how others can also get involved in the issues that they care about. Her non-profit IssueVoter brings together information about the bills that are being...
02:40 KW: They're up for vote.
02:42 MH: Up for vote. Thank you, that's the word and makes a concerted effort to inform people who are interested in getting more involved in politics and also those who are not because her take is, we all have a voice, and we all can vote on these things but the problem is no one knows what is happening, and what are those bills that are passing.
03:03 KW: You know, I think this is so important, because I... So there's a lot that's happening and it is hard beyond maybe the major issues that you're paying attention to really see the full scope. But also we often hear about the bills after they've been passed. So you all hear, you know, this has already passed the Senate and is going to the President's desk or whatever the narrative is, and to really be the informed voter and to be able to engage with your elected representatives, you wanna be more in the know and more proactive and in front of the boat instead of behind it.
03:42 MH: Right. Yeah, so that's what she's doing, she's helping people get in front of the issues.
03:47 KW: Excellent, well, I cannot wait to hear from Maria and you Maricella, I always love it when you do the interviews. And join us here next week on the Ellevate Podcast.
04:07 MH: Thanks for being on the Ellevate Podcast today. I'm really happy to have you here and I'd love for us to start with you telling me a little bit about your career and how you got the idea for IssueVoter.
04:19 Maria Yuan: Sure, thanks for having me. So I was a campaign manager in Iowa where people are super engaged during presidential elections. But like most of us disengage during the off season and that's when the real work that affects our lives gets done. And I've always used the analogy that you would never pay and promote an employee without seeing any of their work. Yeah, that's what we all do when we vote and re-elect our representatives. And so, it was, you know... Some of that frustration led to the idea for IssueVoter. Congress introduces over 10,000 bills each session and how many at most people heard about? Maybe one, five, just a... You know, there's really the few that the news focuses on when meanwhile new laws are passing every week. And so that's really why I created IssueVoter.
05:07 MH: Were you always interested in going into somehow an area related to politics?
05:13 MY: Yeah, that's a great question. Actually I wasn't necessarily. So I had a pretty straightforward... What would seem to be straightforward in traditional path. In undergrad I majored in finance, I then went to work in investment banking at JP Morgan. I was an analyst there, and while I was an analyst, I took a leave of absence to work on this campaign. And when I think back in hindsight, I realized that civic engagement and participation has always been something I was passionate about. It was just never something that I thought about as being a career path. So I still remember mock voting in second grade. My dad came from China where democracy does not exist. So I think our responsibility to be civically engaged with something I learned at a young age. Both my parents always voted in every election. It was kind of a no-brainer. And so as I got older, I started to realize, "Wow, like some people don't even vote." And to me, that was like the bare minimum of what you could do. And while I was in college, I participated with a group of students, kind of a subsection of the student government, where we actually introduced and passed a bill in the Texas State Legislature.
06:26 MY: So I have the experience kind of interfacing with government from the constituents side, and then I also interned for a rep while I was in college. And so I've seen from being a staffer the fact that every constituent contact really is tracked. And in Congress 88% of staffer say that electronic communication does influence their bosses decisions. And so that's something that I found really interesting, you know, because back then, very few people ever reached out to their representatives and so the few that did on specific issues, you know, really were heard, and I think that's happening now. I think what we see happening now is there are, like I said, kind of these big issues you hear about in the news and then everyone gets activated to call about those. But meanwhile, there's laws passing every week, and so people don't necessarily realize that they can have a say on a lot of things and you know you don't necessarily need millions of people jamming up the phone lines. That's not necessarily the most effective way to have your voice heard.
07:33 MH: So there's a bunch of stuff I wanna touch on from what you just said. I want to first touch on a little bit about the influence your parents had in you being so civically engaged. We talk a lot about that here at Ellevate, and especially Kristy, I know is very, very passionate about that with her kids and having them really see her driving change and really being involved and engaged in trying to at least have her voice heard. Can you talk a little bit about that influence?
08:02 MY: Sure, I mean, I think for me, it was just such a part of day-to-day life, I didn't even notice it necessarily. So I also did a lot of volunteering while I was young growing up. So that's another type of I would say civic engagement. And as I mentioned my parents always voted in a re-election. Interestingly, they actually never shared... They wouldn't really talk about who they voted for. So our discussions at home were not really political. They weren't about Democrats versus Republicans, or they weren't about some personality you see on TV that's running for office necessarily. It was just the fact that every election day, I knew that they voted, but I guess they're kind of old fashioned. They were always of that generation of the mindset that you don't discuss who you voted for. [chuckle]
08:53 MH: Oh my god, this is, sorry, this is fascinating for me. I always say that sort of the climate now here of everyone being more open and talking about politics and their family and with their kids, in a way reminds me of growing up in El Salvador during a war where everyone was just talking about politics to everyone and to their kids. So it's fascinating to me to know that you know they were implanting this like very clear seed of you having to be civically engaged and do the minimum, which is vote. But still not really discussing the whos and the whys and all the other things that comes with it.
09:34 MY: Yeah, and so I think... I mean, I think that definitely influenced me. And I think the other thing that influences my interest in civic engagement and government and kinda fixing democracy as it stands now is I've been interested and passionate about fixing really big problems and things at a large scale. So I'm not the kind of person... Part of it is my personality, I'm not the kind of person that's gonna be excited by a community project that involves 10 people, not that that's not a good thing to do, but for me, when I hear something like that, my immediate thought is, "Okay, 10 people, great. How can we expand this and have this in every single city?" So it's always to spend a way I think I look at things and I think I see inefficiencies very clearly and want to kind of have that natural tendency to want to fix inefficiencies, and so there's a lot of inefficiencies with the way that we communicate with our reps and the way that we get information. So I think it's not just the influence of my parents, but also obviously my own personality and what excites me, which led me to what I'm doing today.
10:43 MH: How do you come up with those big ideas?
10:45 MY: It's so funny, I don't know, I think... [chuckle] Well, for me, I mean, for me with IssueVoter at least, I felt like it was common sense. I couldn't believe someone else hadn't already done it. So the way... I hadn't really talked about how Issue Voter works, but I can kind of mention how it works which explains why I think it was common sense. So the way that IssueVoter works is you choose issues you care about like the environment, or technology, or education, or civil rights. And then we send customized alerts before Congress votes on those issues that are...
11:05 MY: And not necessarily just a few covered by the news and then we translate bills into layman's terms along with bullet points of what both sides are saying. We're intentionally non-partisan. And so that might have been some of that influence from my parents, where we didn't really talk about parties or it wasn't... The conversation about civic engagement in politics wasn't about parties. One click sends your opinion directly to your rep's office. And that's influenced by my experience working for a rep and really knowing that whether you send your opinion electronically or pick up the phone or write a letter it all is one tally mark at the end of the day. And we're the only site that provides a personalized score card that tracks whether you're actually being represented. So the idea there is to help people become more informed voters at the next election. And so to me this process is like common sense, 'cause it's like, well, how are you gonna tell people to contact their reps if they don't even know there's a reason to contact them in the first place?
12:16 MH: Right.
12:19 MY: And after you send all these contacts, what's the point if you don't actually see what their voting record is, and whether they voted the way you wanted them to or not? So kind of having this full circle process to me was very much just common sense, so I was very surprised that even today before IssueVoter, you'd still have to go to a separate website for each piece of this like you'd go to one site to see who your rep is. You'd go to another site to read about legislation. You'd go to another site to figure out how to contact your rep. You'd go to another site to see their voting record and I don't expect anyone to do that. I don't expect anyone to do all of those steps. I think that's ridiculous. So people are busy. I don't expect people to become policy experts, and I don't expect people to make this like their full-time job which is what it basically would be because historically, it has been so hard to get this information.
13:11 MH: Right. Have you seen a lot more interest in the last year or little longer in IssueVoter than before? Has it picked up in any way?
13:22 MY: So the interesting thing is, well, the interesting thing with timing is that we had a planned launch date, which was the day after the November 2016 election. And so it wasn't a reaction to the election because of course there's a lot of development and the hard work that goes into launching a site before it launches, but that was our planned launch date. And so it's hard for me... So yeah, we're a relatively new site. In our first year, we already have live partnerships, we have users in all 50 states, we've sent nearly half a million opinions to Congress and engagement has been really strong. People on IssueVoter have sent on average over 20 opinions each in the first year. And so I think that when you ask how do... Or is there more of an interest? Is their engagement... There definitely has been. But I don't have a benchmark really from our site to compare that to pre-election.
14:20 MH: Do you have any tips for women who want to get more involved in interacting with their elected representatives or even engage in the political process? What would your main things be?
14:31 MY: People can get involved on an individual level or they can donate. Mainly, I think, the resources that people have are either time or money and so with time you can volunteer for campaigns and organizations and issue areas that you care about. With money, of course, you can donate to those same organizations but of course as an individual, making sure that you're registered to vote, marking election days on your calendar, not just the general election, but also primary and local elections, and of course signing up for IssueVoter.
15:03 MH: Absolutely. So you said you started your career in finance, you did banking and then you went off to work and campaigns and then to founding a non-profit. So can you tell me a little bit about how that journey went and what skills you think you brought from the first part of your career that helped you build what you have now with IssueVoter?
15:27 MY: Yup, that's a great question. So as I mentioned, I started out in investment banking, and worked as an analyst and then I did internal strategy. Went to business school, went back to the strategy group and then my most recent role has been at Credit Suisse managing their virtual recruiting efforts. And so that was a program, actually a very new program which I helped build and scale that reached out to students at all of the colleges, where Credit Suisse did not do college recruiting on campus. And so we ended up interviewing hundreds of people virtually, we did webinars and I was able to have the experience of growing that program from something like 50 schools to over 200. And so I would say that that experience actually was very entrepreneurial as was being a campaign manager. So when you're a campaign manager, you also really are tasked with very specific goals and outcomes under a short period of time, have a very lean team and lean budget and have to reach as many people as possible. And so I'd say that both of those experiences were very entrepreneurial, which have helped me in what I'm doing right now with IssueVoter. Also, I can mention that the very first version of IssueVoter was something that we built while I had a full-time job and so it's something where... It got to the point where I was so... This idea had been on my mind for so long, that I couldn't not do anything about it.
17:08 MH: So was it like a side hustle or was it just more of a passion project at that point?
17:14 MY: How would you define the difference between those two?
17:16 MH: I don't think there is.
17:16 MY: I don't know.
17:19 MH: True. Very, very right. So you've been actually working in very intense industries, in very intense settings between banking and then like you said kind of doing what you can as a campaign manager, now as an entrepreneur. How have you been able to do that? How do you recharge? How do you make sure you're moving forward in something that's pretty challenging and big?
17:45 MY: That's a good question. I've always been very results driven. So the thing that keeps me going is the big picture, the vision, and seeing results. And so I think that probably the more challenging thing for me as an entrepreneur is when things feel like they're not happening as quickly as I would like them to. And some of the process aspects of entrepreneurship in building a company, but it is the results that drive me. And also right now just something that really keeps me going is hearing from our users. And I'm not... And also actually you asked the question about... And I like how you framed it. You asked I have had experience working in pretty intense environments like investment banking, where you're working 80 plus hours a week sometimes. And I would say that in a way that's actually helped me now be more efficient. And actually not try to work all the time. So I think I'm actually very good at still making sure that I am seeing my friends that I'm getting sleep. I really don't like the term work-life balance, it's one of my pet peeves when people say work-life balance.
19:08 MY: But I would say that I do make sure that I'm not burning myself out because the other thing that I've learned is that building something like IssueVoter is not something that's gonna happen overnight. I think people, a lot of times you hear about startups and overnight success stories when really none of them are overnight. I think that even something like Twitter, they were around for about six years before they really became kind of a household name and people don't always on the outside, see it that way. So I think that reminding myself that it's definitely more of a marathon than a sprint helps me also not gets you frustrated when I do feel like things are not happening as fast as they could be or should...
19:57 MH: That is...
19:58 MY: Or not. I shouldn't say could be fast as I want them to be, 'cause I want everything to be happening yesterday.
20:03 MH: As any good entrepreneur wants them to. That is actually great though. And I hate the term work-life balance too because there is no balance. We've kind of stopped talking about it, and more about work-life integration and just figuring how you do both and there's no clear cut answer. And it's great that you know enough about what you're trying to do and that you have been in these other industries, and situations where you can... Where you know you need to give yourself a break or you know that you need to have patience and it is a marathon and not a sprint.
20:36 MY: Yup.
20:37 MH: Thank you for that. One last question before we go. You said you were working on IssueVoter before leaving your full-time job, what was the catalyst that made you take that leap?
20:50 MY: Well, we won NYC BigApps. And I think for me, that was a great point of validation, not just winning a competition, but the fact that the judges from NYC BigApps were people like the head of Civic Tech at Microsoft, the head of Cornell Tech, the CTO for New York City, and so really having people that have a lot of experience in both technology and government validating that IssueVoter was something that they wanted to see in the world and see grow and expand with something where it made me sort of step back and think, "If I don't do this now, am I gonna regret it?" And I would say that's how I've made a lot of decisions in my life is just asking myself, "If I don't do this, would I regret it?" And if the answer is yes, then I do it. And so it was early 2016, and so it was an election year, and we already had a live site and we're getting pretty... It wasn't publicly launched, it was just kind of a friends and family, some people, we had early people that were testing it, by getting good feedback, and then also winning NYC BigApps, and I think all of those things combined led me to that point where I asked myself, "If I don't I go full time on this now, will I regret it?" And the answer was yes, and so I did.
22:11 MH: That is awesome and I'm glad you did. Thank you so much for being with us today.
22:18 KW: Thanks so much for listening to Ellevate. If you like what you hear, help a girl out. Subscribe to the Ellevate Podcast on iTunes, give us five stars and share your review. Also don't forget to follow us on Twitter at Ellevate NTWK, that's Ellevate Network, and become a member. You can learn all about membership and all the great things that Ellevate Network is doing at our website, www.ellevatenetwork.com. That's E-L-L-E-V-A-T-E, network.com. And special thanks to our producer, Katharine Heller, she rocks. And to our voiceover artist, Rachel Griesinger. Thanks so much and join us next week.
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