Shuo Chen is an incredibly impressive individual
I was recently lucky enough to have the opportunity to sit down with Chen and discuss all sorts of things, from her pride in being a fourth-generation Chinese American to her incredible evolution as an entrepreneur.
And when I say “incredible,” I’m not at all exaggerating. Just take a look at what she’s up to right now:
Chen is currently a General Partner at Innovation Overflow Venture Capital (IOVC), where she’s invested in 60-plus seed-stage startups focused on the future of work, is a UC Berkeley College of Engineering and Singularity University faculty member, where she has taught and mentored hundreds of students since 2010, and serves as a voting member on the Mental Health Commission of California.
Prior to these roles, some of the startups Chen has invested in have been acquired by Instacart and Goldman Sachs, she’s worked with NASA and Amazon, served as a board chair for Decode, an innovation-based community hosted in partnership with Stanford and UC Berkeley, and even co-authored a book on financial regulations in 2019!
I can’t tell you how excited I was to chat with Shuo. Her enthusiasm and confidence and depth of intellectual curiosity shone through in every aspect of our discussion.
Here’s an overview of what we discussed. I learned so much in throughout the conversation, and I believe any person who is interested in venture capital, personal growth, and how you can help life others around you up as you rise in the business world is going to love this conversation.
What’s a day in the life of Shuo Chen look like?
“So I’ve always had more of a sporadic schedule. I am just by nature, a very energetic person. I can function pretty well on not much sleep.
I used to just have back-to-back meetings all day and then keep on going until really late at night.
However, over time, I’ve learned so much about how to structure a better schedule for myself and for the way that I work.
What I try to do now is wake up early — ideally before everyone else is up! I’ll have a cup of tea, give myself time to reflect on what my top priorities are for the day, and hopefully get my inbox to zero.
I try to do deeper work earlier during the day, rather than meetings. Those early in the day hours are some of my most productive hours. Later on in the afternoon is when I start to get tired, and that’s when I try to do meetings. After that, I focus on any follow-ups or to-dos that came as a result of those meetings.
Of course, toward the end of the day, I try to set aside time for exercise, walking my dog, or spending quality time with family, like enjoying outdoor time in nature.
I try to have no screen time at all for about an hour prior to going to bed. That’s really the ideal schedule for me. I don’t know how well I’ve managed to stick to that schedule, because I’m spontaneous and haven’t always been so good at sticking to routines, but that’s what I’m striving toward!
Here’s something I learned years ago from a mentor. It’s something that brought me a lot more peace of mind. It’s the concept of a weighted average week.
Instead of, say, trying to achieve the perfect day every single day, which is way too much pressure, she taught me to think about my week as being weighted over time.
Maybe I’ve done a lot of great work today and maybe tomorrow I’ll squeeze in time for good exercise, and then the day after that I’ve done a better job at focusing on family and quality time with my significant other, so that, over the course of the week, I will have hit all the major things that I wanted to accomplish.
This approach has significantly taken the pressure off of having to have a perfect day everyday, and it’s enabled me to focus on different priorities throughout the week.”
How did you get started in venture capital? I can’t imagine that there are a lot of kids who say, “I’m going to be a venture capitalist when I grow up!”
“Yeah, that’s true, though I think it would be kind of cool if that were a thing!
And I say that because I really do feel like representation, especially for young girls, really matters a lot.
I think I’m incredibly lucky to have been exposed to some really cool role models when I was growing up, because I would have never imagined being an investor was even a possibility for me had I not had that exposure.
When I was young, I was always a very curious child. I would get myself in trouble a lot, but would also get to work on cranking out different solutions to problems that other people usually gave up on, or thought were impossible to solve.
That curiosity led me down a path of exploration where I didn’t really know what I wanted to study, so I took classes here and there trying to figure out what I wanted to do, and then that took me down the path of entrepreneurship, where my business partners I together had started a company that started selling into large universities and a large banking Institute.
After our startup exited, I went into work on Wall Street, and found myself really missing working with startups and founders, so, about seven years ago, I came back to the venture side.
But to touch back on the idea of representation, having more role models for young kids as they’re growing up would be so cool. I like the idea of someone listening to this and telling their kids, ‘You know, there are so many cool careers out there. Let me give you a sense of what’s possible.” That would be so cool.
Venture capitalist is accessible, but it’s not necessarily easy to access. Those are two slightly different things. And I say that because I’m a former founder and now I invest in founders, so that has certainly made the accessibility piece easier.
When we look at companies, I can relate to what it was like when I was running a company myself, whereas I think for folks who come from more traditional backgrounds, where they didn’t have the luxury of getting exposure to venture capital during their earlier operating days, they might not have had the same ease of accessibility if they wanted to become an investor.
Because of that, one of the things that I do outside of my full-time investing role is serve on the board of a nonprofit that we helped co-found that features a venture fellowship program for folks who have 10-plus years into their respective careers.
These people maybe never had exposure to a mentor, or perhaps have heard about venture and want to get involved in some capacity. We help those folks make a career switch, or at the very least help them learn more about what venture capital is like and how to get involved.”
That’s awesome! At Cardone Ventures, we talk to small business owners and entrepreneurs every day, and I think that there’s a lack of understanding in the small business world of how they can leverage technology like blockchain. How does the mindset of a small business owner shift in order to see that opportunity?
“I’m so glad you asked that question because it’s all about how do we give small businesses a competitive advantage? I love that mindset. I think a lot of it is about digesting or breaking down a big idea into digestible pieces.
For example, with something like blockchain, I think there’s a lot more conversation now in mainstream media than ever before about it as a topic, but still very few people have taken the steps to go beyond, say, buying Bitcoin or buying Ethereum to ask themselves, ‘How can I leverage these as tools in my respective business?’
When it comes to learning something new and incorporating it into your business, you need to find something that you can commit to. Attend a live event. Actually show up. And once you show up, ask the speaker a question. Follow up with the speaker afterward.
You would be surprised how many people are openly sharing their contact information online, or how easily reachable they are on platforms like LinkedIn.
And the average listener would also be surprised to learn how few event attendees will typically reach out to speakers after an event!
I can tell you from firsthand experience that if I’m speaking to an audience of, say, one thousand people, and even if I encourage people to reach out, I’ll maybe get a handful of people — around a dozen, maybe — who will actually follow up with via email, even if I’ve shared my email broadly.
And out of that dozen people, maybe like two to three, will follow up again afterwards.
So, what this really tells you is how few people are taking the initiative to proactively have a conversation.
I think if you find a technology area or a particular concept or a new business model to be really interesting, find events that are relevant to that space, make sure that you show up to the event, ask a speaker you’re interested in learning more from a question, be memorable in engaging with that question, and really follow up with them. Odds are, you’ll make considerable progress.”
What would you say is the biggest takeaway that you’ve had over the last seven years? Is it true that the first year is the hardest?
“You know, I think that people think it gets easier over time, but the reality is that I feel like every year we’re tackling new challenges, and that’s exactly what makes this job so much fun. I think investing in entrepreneurs is inspiring in so many ways.
One thing is that we get to work with some of the most inspiring and smartest people around.
Secondly, we get to learn from their best practices and, in return, share our experiences with them, hopefully helping other early-stage entrepreneurs and founders avoid the same mistakes that we had made in the past.
Third, investors, what they really do is put their money where their mouth is and invest money into what the future can and should look like. That’s a responsibility that we take very seriously, because if we want to build a future that is more inclusive, that is more innovative than we really have to think long and hard about what we’re doing now so that we can get there in X number of years.
I think we spend a lot of time thinking about things like, ‘What can the future look like?’ ‘What should the future look like?’ ‘What criteria are we following?’ ‘If we want to see a future that is diverse, are we investing and backing diverse founders?’
So I think I’m incredibly lucky to get to do all of these things. In fact, the other day I was having a conversation with a very close friend and we were talking about if we had to summarize our jobs in burbs, what would be some of the top things that we would say? I think, in my job, the top things are to meet people and to learn.”
When you think about your role compared to the other team members in your organization, how would you prioritize what you’re excited about on a day-to-day versus what you’re not excited about doing?
Over time, I realized that there are things that I’m incredibly good at, but there’s also many, many other things that I am just horrible at!
Finding the right business partners who can check your blind spots and who can really support you in those ways are so important.
I am not very good at having really short conversations with people. I love getting to know people. I love understanding how they grew up, who they are, how they were shaped to be who they are today.
And I love background stories! Like, what didn’t make it into your pitch deck? What almost made it? How does that work? I love that stuff.
At the same time, I think my business partner is really good at keeping us on time and making sure that we hit the milestones that we need to in a reasonable timeframe, so I think being able to identify strengths and weaknesses and realizing what you’re good at and finding someone else who can help check for those spots are so important.
I’m incredibly lucky to have met my business partner and to be able to work with them over all of these years, and that reminds me of another thing that I think is important to think about when you’re a business owner or becoming an entrepreneur.
This is one of the first things in my entrepreneurship class at Berkeley. I tell folks that oftentimes in entrepreneurship, the average time it takes to create an exit, whether it’s getting acquired, going public, or even just getting to a place where you’re hitting to stable revenue and you have somewhat of a scalable business model can take, on average, about 10 years — that’s is longer than the average American marriage!
What that says to me is that in many ways finding the right business partner is harder than finding the person you want to marry, because you really have to be certain that this person is the right fit across so many different ways.
So, especially for students, I like framing it this way, particularly for the college and graduate level students, because I think it’s important to think about life and career in terms of decades vs. just months or years.
Such good advice! So, what’s next for you and your career over the next 5 to 10 years? What are you excited about?
Well, I’d say that venture capital is really a long-term commitment, and that you wouldn’t really go and become an investor unless that’s what you knew you wanted to do for at least the next decade.
So, with that in mind, for me, as far as I can see ahead, continuing to be an investor and hopefully growing into being a better investor and adding more value to the entrepreneurs that we do work with is definitely a long-term career goal, outside of my full-time role on the venture side. Learning and becoming better is vital.
Additionally, I definitely want to continue to give back by educating people. I’ve always taught part-time outside of my different roles, and I do think it is an extremely rewarding experience for all parties, because now I feel like I learn way more from my students than I’m teaching them sometimes!
And, at least in my faculty role at Berkeley, I guess, I’m teaching about 60% undergrads and about 40% grad students, and my undergrad students were born in, like, ‘04 or ‘05, so they’re incredibly young but they’re incredibly inspiring. Many of them have had prior startup experience or have even exited from companies or have interned at all of these amazing companies. It’s amazing.
I look at them and I feel so much more optimistic about where the future of the world is going. They’re very mission-driven. They are extremely passionate about what they do. They’re energetic about changing the world for the better. I only hope I can continue to give back to them as they continue to inspire me. I learn so much from my students.
As you can see, Shuo Chen is an incredibly accomplished person, but she’s also an incredibly inspiring person, someone who is committed to their own personal growth, as well as the growth of others. Connect with her on LinkedIn, where you can enjoy all of the great content that she shares.
To hear our conversation in detail, check out the Work/Woman podcast, where I get the opportunity to speak with incredible people like Shuo, Kindra Hall, and a host of other women in the business world who are forging their own paths and bringing others up with them.
And if you’re looking for ways in which you can inspire, motivate, and propel your team forward, check out my book, TeamWork, where you’ll learn strategies for building, engaging, and managing great teams!