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Elaine Truong on Leading A Tech Movement

"Embrace your identity"

· Podcast Transcripts

"In order to lead a successful movement, it has to be purposeful. It has to reach critical mass, and it has to outlast the trend and effectively be timeless." - Elaine Truong

Jeremy Au: Welcome to Brave Dynamics. This is your host, Jeremy Au. Leadership is harder than it looks. As a proven founder and Harvard MBA, I interview courageous entrepreneurs, executives, and investors every week. I also share my frontline experiences, coaching insights, and own professional development journey. If you're stepping up as a new leader, founding a startup, or venturing into the great unknown, this is the podcast for you.

[00:00:31] I’m happy to introduce Elaine Truong, the first product technical product manager at Facebook Singapore. Facebook connects 241 million Southeast Asians and one interesting difference is that 94% use Facebook through mobile.

[00:00:49] She's worked on connecting people in developing countries to the internet, 5G and virtual reality as well as the latest products by Facebook and Instagram. Elaine mentors startups around the world on product management and development for the Facebook Accelerator program. She is also on the Products A to Z committee at Grace Hopper Conference and is an advisor at #BuiltByGirls. She had previously launched Facebook's telecom infrastructure project and the associated Community Labs globally in partnership with Nokia, Intel, and telcos to promote open source hardware for telecom infrastructure solutions.

[00:01:31] Elaine is also an active tech community builder and an investor in startups and venture capital funds. She is on the board of SoGal Foundation, the largest community for over 100,000 female founders and investors across 50 chapters around the world. SoGal focuses on supporting diverse founders and funders to close the diversity gap in entrepreneurship and venture capital. She shared her product learnings with entrepreneurs in Cuba, Indonesia, Mexico, UK, and Singapore.

[00:02:02] She has cofounded Sprouts, consultancy to coach Singaporean startups on regional expansion to Southeast Asia. Recently, she coached Vouch.sg, a local Singaporean startup that builds localized chatbots for Southeast Asia.

[00:02:17] Prior to Facebook, she advised an IIT Bombay team that invented a device that costs less than 1 USD to eliminate smoke emissions from firewood cookstoves. It offers increased energy efficiency, reduced cooking time, and lowers harmful emissions. The pilot projects in Mumbai distributed over 2000 units. The team was a semifinalist at the DBS-NUS Social Venture Challenge, featured as a Next Generation Startup by Inc. Magazine and was a Kairos Society Top 50 company in 2014.

[00:02:51] Elaine is a member of the selective Sandbox community, a mobile society of trailblazers. They unlock human potential by bridging geographies and disciplines to create opportunities for meaningful conversation, collaboration, and discovery. She is also a global fellow at Kairos, a community that builds and funds companies to make life more affordable. They focus on critical life stages where old industries have failed to meet the needs of everyday individuals around the world.

[00:03:18] Elaine was born and bred in Los Angeles. She has a Bachelor of Science in Materials Engineering at UCLA, the University of California: Los Angeles. She enjoys traveling, reading, and learning Mandarin.

[00:03:31] Welcome, Elaine. It's good to see you.

[00:03:34] Elaine Truong: It's good to see you too. It's a pleasure. Thank you. Jeremy.

[00:03:37] Jeremy Au: You've had such an amazing journey and I've always been tremendously impressed by what you've done and what you continue to do. Why don't you tell us about your leadership journey so far?

[00:03:49] Elaine Truong: I'd love to share a bit more about my background. I grew up in a pretty small neighborhood in Los Angeles, and you can imagine that the more time I spent within the confines of suburbia, the more I wanted to break out of it.

[00:04:03] I actually used that as a forcing function to motivate me to learn more, to do more, and basically become obsessed with the idea of success. I studied the backgrounds of the different types of successful people, young people like Thiel Fellows or entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley to draw inspiration from. I looked at the patterns of what led to their success. To me, I think there's about three different categories.

[00:04:28] One, people who joined a rocket ship early on. As the company and idea does really well, they also grow with it as well. Two, people who are privileged enough to actually have the right connections and resources and are born in these situations.

[00:04:45] Lastly, there's people who, are really effective at leading a movement. They’re basically becoming known for that signature or trademark movement. When I talk about leading a movement, that's different from leading a single product. So, in order to lead a successful movement, I think it has to be purposeful. It has to reach critical mass, and it has to have the potential to outlast the trend and effectively be timeless.

[00:05:12] In order for someone to drive something, they also have to get really good at their craft. How this relates to me is that throughout my journey and my various roles at Facebook and organizing different startup communities, I've always stood for innovation and technology that benefits the world. That's the movement that I'm passionate about.

[00:05:31] Previously, I worked on cutting edge research projects from deploying internet access in the Philippines to supporting all kinds of diverse and female founders around the world. I've tried really hard to focus on my craft and constantly learn and improve and iterate through feedback.

[00:05:49] At Facebook, we have a slogan called, "Nothing at Facebook is someone else's problem". That's basically leadership in a nutshell: identifying opportunities and problems, rallying people around a bigger movement, and doing something about it. Everyone has to find their own movement that they can lead themselves, one that they can uniquely contribute to and are passionate about.

[00:06:11] Jeremy Au: I really resonate with your leadership journey. Authentic leadership is the combination of craftsmanship as well as the larger movement and pushing for something that's bigger than ourselves.

[00:06:23] So what's interesting is that you made a choice to move to Southeast Asia for the next phase of your leadership journey. Why is that?

[00:06:31] Elaine Truong: I moved from New York about five months ago, and previously I was living in Los Angeles and San Francisco for the majority of my life. I say that the two things are the location and the timing is really opportunistic.

[00:06:47] Southeast Asia has been a really interesting region for me. I lived here six years ago when I was working for a startup in material science. When I was first working here and learning about the startup and venture capital community, I remember there was only two accelerators and a few resources for entrepreneurs.

[00:07:10] I think that has just totally changed in the past few years. Now coming back, I see friends founding their own venture funds, getting really good support for that, as well as founding their own startups, their own accelerator programs. You see this ecosystem really building out and supporting each other.

[00:07:30] Southeast Asia has a lot of opportunities. There's over 650 million people in Southeast Asia so there's a really large population of people who are mobile-first and really tech-savvy young people. There's a lot of potential here for growth in product opportunities like commerce, messaging, etc. in order to meet the demands and needs of increasingly tech-savvy and a mobile population with increasing disposable incomes. Things are just changing so dynamically here, and I always like to put myself in a position where I can learn a lot. Southeast Asia is one of those few places where this is a really great time because so many things are changing.

[00:08:14] For me as a Technical Product Manager (TPM), the problems around scaling to 10 or so different countries is really what draws me here as a learning opportunity. This might be interesting for those who are based in the US and have reached the maturity and want to break into the Southeast Asian market. In the US for instance, we commonly build for the US or similar markets to start off with, and these are typically more mature markets.

[00:08:42] But for Southeast Asia, there's entirely new challenges that we have to think about, like regulatory hurdles, less infrastructure. Some countries don't even have roads so logistics can be painful. There's actually a lot of operational differences between various countries and startups need the right operational processes, the right products that can scale, the right database architectures in order to expand beyond just one to two countries.

[00:09:11] One of the movements that I'm really passionate about, and a lot of people in this region are excited about, is supporting the growth and scale of Southeast Asian startups. Singapore is a really good hub to think about regional expansion and a few of my friends and I actually founded a consultancy to equip startups with the right skills, frameworks, processes, anything they need in order to support their expansion across Asia. Startups in Singapore have to think about the global market from day one because Singapore is too small. So, we're working with the pilot right now with a late seed/ Series A startup. We'd be happy to talk to others who are interested.

[00:09:51] There is a high barrier that startups face in Singapore to expand internationally because they have to think about operational conditions changing. They have to think about local processes or local tactics that may vary between different countries: language differences, translation, cultural differences, trying to capture an incredibly diverse set of audiences and cultures as well as religions. There isn't going to be a solution that caters to everyone. The ability to build products for a really great experience to the customer in such a diverse space and different locations is something that I'm really excited about.

[00:10:33] Jeremy Au: So why is leadership so important in the tech industry?

[00:10:38] Elaine Truong: Leadership is so important in tech because there's so many opportunities out there and problems for us to solve. If everything was functioning really well in the world, then we wouldn't need leaders to drive towards solutions and build new products or processes. This is a critical part of program and product management in my role around identifying gaps in the system, and planning for what should come next and how we should approach strategic planning, and how we can proactively mitigate issues instead of a reactive approach.

[00:11:17] I think leadership is also super important because different perspectives can spur innovation and creativity. We should challenge the norm and play devil's advocate in team discussions, but in a respectful and polite way of course. I always try to seek out opinions that are different from mine and come up with hypotheses and ways to test assumptions. In tech, it's always about learning through failure so that we can then recalibrate our perspectives.

[00:11:44] Another saying at Facebook is that "Data wins arguments" or "Code wins arguments" and that just points to how rigorous and diligent we try to be around backing up assumptions, stating our assumptions and creating hypotheses and experiments to either validate or invalidate them.

[00:12:03] Jeremy Au: How did you personally get started in technology? Talk us through it.

[00:12:09] Elaine Truong: Yeah, so I started by working on cutting edge research when I was in college, and basically studying the most abstract concept that I can think of, which is nanoscience and materials engineering. Sounds really fancy right? So, I was actually an artsy child growing up and before I went to college, I really wanted to be a journalist.

[00:12:28] But when it got to college, I wanted to challenge myself by developing new skills outside of my foundation, and I decided I wanted to study engineering. It really is such a crazy discipline because materials engineering focuses on powers of 10, which is about scale. So you can think about from the tiniest, invisible electrons and atoms that we're all made of to the largest scale that you can think of, which is basically outer space and developing new materials that can withstand space. So, it really touches on all levels and all degrees of scale.

[00:13:04] From that point on, I wanted to become more grounded and more down to earth literally and at the same time, I wanted to be part of an industry that's dynamic and innovating quickly. So that's how I joined Facebook about four years ago and since then I've worked on pretty abstract projects like building my own smart city in the middle of Seoul, Korea, and connecting people in remote parts of the Philippines to just basic 2G and 3G connectivity, which is something that's really meaningful to them, even though it's very commonplace to us.

[00:13:37] I think a pattern that I see in how I made my life decisions is that I pursue things that were just curious or interesting to me. That's how I pursued material science and nanomaterials, and I always wanted to push the boundaries.

[00:13:52] Jeremy Au: Amazing. What hurdles did you personally face in that journey and how did you overcome them?

[00:13:57] Elaine Truong: I think curiosity is definitely one important driver of my decision making, but it has to be paired with purpose or intention. A lot of things in the world are interesting, but if we spend our time pursuing something only because it's interesting, then we lead ourselves down an unstructured path.

[00:14:17] This led me to work on projects that were interesting at first, but I never ended up finishing them since I didn't have a real passion for them. So, I overcame this by just learning from my failures and analyzing what went wrong. And it was that curiosity alone isn't strong enough. It has to be paired with purpose and intention. I needed real passion for what I'm doing in order for me to contribute uniquely and to not get burned out and to contribute over a sustained amount of time with increasing demands and increasing scale.

[00:14:50] We need to find an area that we can become really good at and pursue excellence and be reasonably ambitious. With that, we can then lead and drive a movement.

[00:15:00] I’d say that another hurdle is just general self-awareness and realizing that the version of myself that I have in mind can vastly differ from what others perceive of me. So someone just told me once flat out that "You're not inspirational". In order to be perceived that way, I needed to act a certain way. I needed to vocalize or communicate in a certain way. I thought that I was vocalizing but I wouldn't have known this valuable piece of feedback if I didn't seek it out.

[00:15:34] I think it's really easy to get set in our ways once we've achieved some amount of success and we think we know what we're doing. We can also be resistant to change because what we've been doing has worked for us so far. But I think it's also super important to always be seeking out ways to improve, even though it's never easy to receive difficult feedback, no matter how senior or experienced we are.

[00:15:58] Jeremy Au: What support or resources are available for others considering a similar journey?

[00:16:04] Elaine Truong: What really helped me was first starting out with figuring out my values and what I stand for. I found Cal Newport's methodology in his blog and his book "So Good They Can't Ignore You" to help a lot in terms of asking myself the right questions. Once I had a sense of what I'm curious about, what my purpose is, what my vision is, then I would look at what the gaps and opportunities that I would be excited to tackle.

[00:16:33] It’s good to figure out a way to get yourself in the door and leverage existing strengths to start off with. It's good to be scrappy, to take calculated low risks and increasingly over time, take higher stakes and gradually increasing your risk appetite. So that's how I started off.

[00:16:54]For people who want to go into product or program management or the tech industry but aren't really sure how to break into it, I'd say to start off with a side hustle that you can do on top of your job. You can learn a lot by doing, and it's best to have a controlled environment when you're doing something new, so you're not worrying about making ends meet.

[00:17:14] So I wouldn't advise to quit your job just to try something new without something lined up. Once you've identified where you want to go and what you need to get there, decisively drive projects in your everyday job so that you can build up the skills and can learn by doing.

[00:17:30] There's also a lot of good content out there around industry practices. Stripe has this really great guide on scaling engineering organizations, and I'm a big fan of First Round Reviews newsletter as well on building great products.

[00:17:44] For people interested in investing and coaching startups. First, build relationships with people that you can trust and consider other methods of investing, like investing in a fund as an LP or a small contribution in an AngelList syndicate to start off with.

[00:18:01] Of course, it's also good to have foundational investing knowledge and know-how to hedge bets and manage risks. And you can also approach risk management or portfolio management in the same way that you would approach product management where we're looking at a lot of different assumptions, testing a lot of different hypotheses and hedging against larger risks.

[00:18:23] SoGal foundation has a bunch of programming and practical content for entrepreneurs as well, like getting startup press. But we also have Fempire, which is an angel investment community focused on educating the next generation of investors through round tables and discussions of the next deal.

[00:18:42] It’s also important to seek out individuals that you admire and study their career paths like I did. Think about what skills I need to develop in order to be successful and how I can apply that given my own situation.

[00:18:57] Jeremy Au: You've been learning Mandarin recently. How have you been learning Mandarin?

[00:19:01] Elaine Truong: I've been learning Mandarin through a tutor each week. What's funny is that I am Chinese- American. My parents taught me a dialect of Chinese as well as enrolled me in Chinese class for a few years when I was growing up. But somehow, I've just repressed those memories of my life and I just completely forgot how to speak the language or understand it. So I'm just starting from scratch and from ground zero and so far, it's been really fun.

[00:19:32] Jeremy Au: What's a book that you've read recently that was fun to read?

[00:19:37] Elaine Truong: I like to alternate between non-fiction and fiction books. I think fiction is really great to keep us creative and help our imagination grow.

[00:19:46] I recently read "Pachinko", which is about a poor Korean family growing up in rural Korea, and this is during the time where Korean and Japanese relations are not very good and very tense.

[00:20:04] I'm a big fan of war novels. One of my favorite books is "All the Light We Cannot See", which is about World War II. Within this world of so many challenges and difficulties, they still manage to come out of it a better person or there's still that optimism and hope. That's what is really inspiring about war novels to me.

[00:20:29] A really good nonfiction book that I read recently was called "David and Goliath" by Malcolm Gladwell. It's basically about how underdogs and those who appear to be disadvantaged can actually win by being creative with new strategies, new tactics, and playing to the assumptions of who they're fighting.

[00:20:50] I think that this also relates to startups versus incumbents in markets where there might be a lot of players that know the market really well. But for startups who want to break into a market, there might be some creative strategies and new tactics that they can try to differentiate themselves.

[00:21:13] There’s a lot of lessons learned here for leadership as well, because great leaders recognize that there isn't just one or two ways of accomplishing something and that it's possible to accomplish an end result without sacrificing many trade-offs.

[00:21:28] Typically when people are discussing through trade-offs or options, they tend to think of it as black and white. most people think that there's only two doors: an entrance and an exit. But I think with a little creativity and skill, we can find a third door and we can basically create our own way and challenge what has been the status quo.

[00:21:51] Jeremy Au: Who's one of your role models in real life?

[00:21:55] Elaine Truong: I'd say Bob Iger, the former CEO of Disney, and he wrote this really great book on leadership and how he's been cultivating leadership over time. People who stand out when they're just starting their careers are people who are constantly pursuing the best, and they're constantly pushing themselves and others around them. This might mean holding ourselves as well as our team to very high standards and refusing to accept mediocrity.

[00:22:26] Another lesson from that book is also to be humble. Like Jia Chuan said in your previous podcast, leadership is about other people and how we can inspire other people to grow into leaders of their own instead of ordering people around in a very classically direct and authoritative way of leadership.

[00:22:47] Jeremy Au: Awesome. If you could time travel back 10 years, what advice would you give to yourself?

[00:22:53] Elaine Truong: Embrace my identity more and to be more in tune with it.

[00:22:58] As we're growing up, a lot of us prefer to live in the future or anticipate something and get really excited about it instead of living in the present and getting to know our past. I'm definitely guilty of this and I'm always excited about the next thing that's coming and it's very easy to be caught up in that.

[00:23:16] A lot of us may also prefer to be someone that we admire instead of leveraging what our unique background and identity is. There's actually this really great article in The Atlantic called, "Your Work Peak is Earlier Than You Think". And that's like a very depressing title, but it ends on a positive note.

[00:23:36] It's about the peak and decline of our career successes and why some successful people are unhappier as they progress through life. And the author also mentions a Hindu teaching about the stages of life, which is about eventually reaching enlightenment or how we can throw out obligations, relationships that we don't need, as we grow older, kind of like a reverse bucket list.

[00:24:00] It's really important to apply to leadership because in order to lead a movement that we're passionate about, something that we can identify with and sustain ourselves with, we need to be able to offer something unique that no one else can. How we do that is by connecting with our identity and connecting with our strengths and leveraging that to offer something unique.

[00:24:23] Jeremy Au: Awesome. Elaine, it's been an absolute pleasure chatting with you again.

[00:24:27] Elaine Truong: Yeah, it was great chatting. Thanks, Jeremy.

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