At age 10, Kathy Gong became China’s youngest national chess master. At 17, she won a full scholarship to Columbia University. By 26, she’d left her family’s home in China’s Sichuan province, moved to Beijing, and founded her first company.
Strategic thinking is second nature to Gong, who is now one of China’s most prominent serial entrepreneurs. But what truly sets her apart is her relentless drive to bring that lofty concept down to earth, sink her fingers into every detail of her ventures, check her ego after every success, and ensure that every decision she makes helps mold a more sustainable future for China’s next generation of entrepreneurs.
This humble approach to innovation enabled Gong to launch many companies across a variety of industries. In 2015, she created Law.ai, a machine-learning company democratizing access to legal services through a robotic divorce lawyer called Lily and a robotic visa and immigration lawyer named Mike. Today, Gong is CEO and co-founder of Wafa Games, a mobile game developer that promotes digital dignity through gaming experiences.
In an interview with Quartz, Gong explains why startup founders who seek to “make the world a better place” sound stupid, the deep thinking skills she uses to avoid anxiety, and how she overcame “the most devastating period” of her entrepreneurial life.
1. What’s your big idea that other people aren’t thinking about or wouldn’t agree with? Why is it so important?
Everyone—presidents, CEOs, and passionate entrepreneurs—often say, “Let’s make the world a better place,” but they never define “better.” The world is a flat place, and we have no choice but to work together in facing some worldwide challenges such as world war, global warming, or impacts from technological disruption, whether some president likes it or not.
However, claiming a better world without a common understanding is like setting up a company and dreaming to change the world without even knowing what businesses to do. It is really stupid.
Our world leaders need to get their “vision” right before marching a “mission.” One mission I suggest to begin with is to completely revolutionize our textbooks and curriculums at school. We are still teaching our kids to make fire with stones when they are going to grow up to compete with AI for jobs.
2. What behavior or personality trait do you most attribute to your success?
Persistence and meditation. Life is too short to worry much, and yet long enough to make a difference. In reality, being smart and having many talents is overrated. Only persistence can move mountains within the years we have in a lifetime.
Deep thinking and meditation are extremely important, especially to an entrepreneur. Solitude is a good thing. It allows us time and space to answer some big and tough questions. What do I pursue in life if I can only choose 12 things, and willingly give up the rest? (My answers, for now, are creation and freedom.) What are the fundamental changes that are happening in our industry that one day might disrupt the current status quo?
3. If you could make one change to help women at work, what would it be?
First, I am continuing to thrive and achieve growth for our company. Nothing speaks louder than words if I can prove through my female teammates that a woman can have the freedom to choose and the capability to achieve.
Second, I am definitely hiring more capable women. I know it sounds cliche, but it works better than anything: When we have more female leaders, we will see more rising.
Third, I am always frank in sharing my failures, doubts, fears, and internal struggles while I am experiencing them and open to people’s advice. We all have vulnerabilities, and embracing them makes us stronger. We need to build a culture of transparency, and it is only then that constructive solutions can be achieved together.
4. At the start of your career, what do you wish you had known? What, if anything, do you wish you had not believed?
When I began my first career in 2007, it was at the beginning of the next wave of the internet boom, after the dotcom crisis but before the craze of the mobile internet. During that period, Facebook was kicking off globally; it started when I was a sophomore at Columbia University. However, it never came to my mind that the “mobile internet” was the next big thing, because career development in the finance and banking industries were the most pursued options by many of my peers, including myself. If I had known better, I would have started my career path very differently from the beginning.
Therefore, I wish I hadn’t believed that the best career options for me were in the finance and banking industries. Otherwise I would have had a huge head start in the internet tech industry.
Then again, a startup could “die” literally in 10,000 non-repeated ways. Frankly speaking, a “grand” idea alone means nothing. Mistakes that could have been avoided, missed opportunities that could have grasped, people who could have been loved better, and so on shape who we are today. In that regard, I do not regret.
5. When in your career did you feel most despondent, and what did you do to turn it around?
It was during the autumn of 2015 when we were running low on cash. It was the most devastating period of my entrepreneurial life. We could not deliver a reliable product after many months of debugging and rebuilding. Imagine that on every single attempt before launching your product, you find 100 bugs in it.
It all started from a decision when our last-round investor put a 30% evaluation-raise condition if a certain CTO was hired. As the CEO, I made a choice to go after the money instead of finding the right partner. I was thinking that we could fix this problem by assembling a strong supporting team for him after we got the investment.
It was the worst decision I have ever made, and he was the worst partner I have ever worked with. I wish that I was able to share more about the story with a happier ending—that I was able to turn it around. But I did not, and I could not. I had to disband the entire tech team to stop further bleeding.
Two key takeaways from the experience for me to share:
1. It is an absolute life-and-death decision to choose your partner(s) and co-founder(s).
2. It is also critical to know when to let go completely. In my case, it gave us a second chance.
6. A key part of success is building strong professional relationships. What practice do you use to cultivate them with your colleagues?
Each company has its own practices, and they reflect its value and beliefs. For us, there are a few key things:
1. We make sure that we hire the best talent. The best people know the best things to do and discipline themselves with the need of minimum management. We often wait out months—even on an urgent position, even when such a wait is directly translated into potential delay in our delivery timeline, even when we need to restructure the work flow—until we find that top player. We do not compromise on this one.
2. Every opinion is respected. We build our solutions based on the fact that we are different and that a chance should be given to everyone on everything. These opinions range from different views on things relating to how we work, whether one is comfortable about music being played in the office, or bringing your husband/girlfriend/kids into the office. Everyone should have a say in a decision that might affect every single person, and we also get to learn from each other, respect one another, and compromise in order to achieve a collective solution for a team.
3. Consistently challenge the status quo and oneself. The environment we work in is ever-changing, ourselves included. We keep friendly challenges as an open option. We should feel comfortable about challenges or being challenged. Only with that can we be adaptive in this ever-changing world.
7. What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
“Life is a marathon. Patience weighs more than passion.” This was from a great friend and mentor of mine, Deng Feng, founder of Northern Light VC. I disagreed when I was 23. Now I am 31, and I’ve started to understand. When one views life as a marathon, we are up for a long-term plan and are able to enjoy the run.
8. If there’s one thing men can do to improve women’s life at work, it would be…
View men/women relationships as an equal partnership, meaning men treat female colleagues as their partners at work, view girls/their wives as partners at home, and share the house chores, baby care, and family investment decisions.
The mountain I’m willing to die on… the peak of Mount Everest.
I wish people would stop telling me… all your friends are married and with kids. And then turn to me with sympathy.
Everyone should own… a freedom of choice.
This interview is part of How We’ll Win, a project exploring the fight for gender equality at work. Read more interviews with industry-leading women here.