In celebration of Women’s History Month, we had the pleasure of chatting with Nanxi Liu. She is Co-CEO & Co-Founder at Blaze and former CEO and Co-founder at Enplug (acquired). She serves on the Board of Directors for CarParts.com (NASDAQ: PRTS) and is one of the youngest women on a public company board. Nanxi also holds a spot on Forbes’s 30 Under 30 list of innovative young tech leaders.
Although Nanxi is part of class 2012, it wasn’t until 2020 that she graduated after completing the American Cultures course during the pandemic. Her early exposure to entrepreneurship and founding her own businesses became her priority, and those experiences made her the leader she is today.
In this episode, Nanxi also talked about the different companies she founded, how she built up the confidence and skills to become an amazing CEO at such a young age, and why she didn’t let imposter syndrome bring her down.
Listen until the end to hear Nanxi’s advice for female leaders, why it is important to be surrounded by other successful women, and how to prevent CEO burnout.
The role of providing and accepting feedback in becoming a great CEO
“I don’t know if I was a very good CEO in the early days. I definitely think I got better. My Co-founders made me a better CEO. They were always very honest and transparent; gave me a lot of feedback. I think feedback from people and being willing to accept feedback definitely helps. From a young age, I was involved in a lot of activities where you constantly had feedback, and you constantly knew if you were doing well or not.
Feedback and interactions with different people help me recognize strengths and weaknesses that I have and easily identify other people’s strengths and weaknesses and how to bring them together.”
Thoughts on imposter syndrome when building a company
“I didn’t really think about it. I always just focused on my strengths and advantages that I could bring to the table whenever I went into a meeting, either with somebody I was trying to hire or an investor or a potential customer. I was never afraid to make the ask. When it comes to building a company, making the ask, not being shy about it, showing what you’re capable of and what your strengths are will help a lot.”
Advice to female leaders
“As women leaders, I’m super grateful for always supporting one another and having a group of awesome other women who are rallying around you, and you’re rallying around them. It makes it so much easier. And so, I’m grateful that I am always surrounded by amazing other women. It’s important to find that support system.
And I think the way to do that is always stepping up to wanting to help somebody. Whenever I meet somebody new, I just want to see how I can help them be more successful and achieve what they want to do and have zero expectations from there. That approach has really helped me a lot and has been really helpful in introducing me to people that I otherwise wouldn’t meet.
And so, the big piece is to find that community. And if that community is just one other awesome woman, founder, or leader, or maybe it’s a whole tribe of them, it makes a huge difference and makes a lot more fun in the journey.”
How to avoid feeling burned out when giving so much of yourself in building a company and helping people
“A big part of it is not feeling guilty when you just need to take time off. I actually have a really good work-life balance. I was always like, if I need to take a day just to play piano, read, go running, go hiking, I just do it. In the early days, I felt really guilty about it, but overall, it made me much more efficient, happy, and productive.
And even now, I do a bunch of trips, I go to places, even though I’m launching this new company. I understand the rigor of starting a new company, but at the same time, I also know if I’m not taking care of myself, it’s going to hurt overall. That’s how I approach it when it comes to giving and helping, not burning out. I think it’s all connected to how we treat our life, time, health, and body.”
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(Transcripts may contain a few typographical errors due to audio quality during the podcast recording.)
● One Haas Podcast
● Episode #: Nanxi Liu – Title
● (Add any relevant dates here)
[00:00] Sean: Welcome to the OneHaas Podcast. I’m your host, Sean Li. And today, we have a very special guest, Nanxi Liu.
[00:13] Nanxi: Hello.
[00:13] Sean: Nanxi, welcome to the podcast.
[00:15] Nanxi: Thanks for having me.
[00:16] Sean: I’ve been winding on this podcast, I think, about a year after I started it, partially because we have been getting amazing guests in Alumni on, and you’re like one of those entrepreneurs that I’ve always admired. And I’ve admired you because, personally, I’m from LA. Well, I’m not from LA, I’m from Michigan. But I lived in LA, you know, for 10-plus years. And ever since, I started my entrepreneurship journey in LA back in ’09, and then subsequently opened up a co-working space. I’ve heard your name around town a lot because you had built this amazing empire, pretty much starting in LA. But we’ll dig into that later. First off, you graduated in 2020, but you were the class of 2012, correct, for your undergrad at Berkeley?
[01:03] Nanxi: Yes, that’s right.
[01:04] Sean: So, tell us a little bit about, I guess, yourself first, like where you’re from, where you’re born, and how you grew up.
[01:10] Nanxi: Yeah, sure. So, I was born in China. And right after I was born, my parents went to Europe to go do grad school. They couldn’t afford to take me. So, I stayed back in China. And for the first, basically, five years of my life, I was just living with different relatives—aunts and uncles, different grandparents. And I didn’t see my parents at all this entire time.
[01:35] Sean: Wow.
[01:36] Nanxi: And then my dad went straight from Europe to Colorado. And then my mom stopped by China, picked me up, and then took me to Colorado. And that was when I was five years old. So, I grew up for my early American years, I guess, in Fort Collins, Colorado.
[01:52] Sean: Wow. Where are you from in China? Where were you born?
[01:54] Nanxi: I was born in a little city called Zhenjiang. It’s little because it’s only 8 million people. So, nobody’s ever heard of it.
[02:02] Sean: Where is Zhenjiang?
[02:04] Nanxi: It’s in Jiangsu province. So, Zhenjiang is most notably known for its vinegar. So, it’s like all of China uses vinegar made in Zhenjiang.
[02:14] Sean: That makes sense. Is that close to Shanghai?
[02:18] Nanxi: It’s about—I would say, yeah—about three-hour drive from Shanghai. So, I definitely, every time I’m in Shanghai, go to Zhenjiang and see my family members. And then my dad’s side of the family is in Jiangsu, which I also spent a lot of time there. And that’s rural China. That is like the no running water China when I was there and no flushing toilets.
[02:40] Sean: How is your Chinese so good still? I’m curious.
[02:43] Nanxi: I love watching Chinese dramas, but I also, when I was growing up, have to credit my parents for ensuring that I still learn Chinese. And I went to Chinese school. I like Chinese school. I was a pretty competitive student. So, I was like, I want to be the best student at Chinese school. It was easy to do that because all the other kids really did not want to go to Chinese school. And so, it was not hard to be a good student there [laughs].
[03:10] Sean: And I guess, were there Chinese schools in Colorado?
[03:13] Nanxi: Yeah, there were. And there’s still aren’t great Chinese schools. It’s like Sunday school. You go every Sunday. It’s where all the parents get together, too, to gossip about their kids. Yeah, my parents were very much into that.
[03:26] Sean: I do have to ask, growing up in Colorado, what was that like?
[03:29] Nanxi: I think the things that I remember about growing up, less so my early years in China, but really, I feel like growing up in Colorado made a pretty big impact on me. So, we grew up in a neighborhood where it was all immigrants. And so, my carpool family group was a bunch of kids. And all their parents were also immigrants. And a lot of them were also born in a different country. So, from kindergarten through fifth grade, the people that I carpool with—my first two friends in America were actually two boys from Iraq. I’m still friends with them and keep in touch with them today. And then there is a boy named Dmitri who is from Russia. We had a girl named Cathy from South Korea. We had another boy named Kutsai from Zimbabwe.
So, these were the kids that I carpool with early on. And it was so diverse. And I think it was pretty awesome. This is not reflective of what the actual demographics of Colorado was at the time, but certainly, I feel like I just grew up in such a diverse international community. Loved it. And I think it wasn’t until I went to Berkeley that I realized that I was like really in a very not diverse state. Like, my high school, there was only a handful of Asians. And so, going to a Berkeley where it’s half Asian was definitely a different experience.
[05:00] Sean: Yeah, that’s interesting to bring that up because I grew up in Michigan. And I moved to Michigan kind of at a similar age as you—when I was seven. And it’s so funny you say that, because moving to California and going to Berkeley, you do realize it’s this shift from being a minority to the majority. And it’s hard to realize that—that it isn’t diverse when there is such a majority of Asians, in terms of diversity of thinking, diversity of just, you know, culture. And it’s something that I really had to, I think, just grasp with, deal with when I moved to California. It felt familiar. But at the same time, it felt very foreign [laughs].
[05:43] Nanxi: I wasn’t expecting that. I didn’t know what to expect. I had never been to Berkeley, prior to setting foot on Berkeley and moving in freshman year.
[05:51] Sean: What did you study at Berkeley?
[05:52] Nanxi: So, I did a double in business at Haas. And then, also, political economy. I sort of tacked on my last years. And I remember going in and applying for the major. And I was like, “I’m ready to graduate this semester.” And they’re like, “You can’t do that. You can’t apply for the major in graduate the same semester.” So, I said, “Okay, fine, instead of spring 2012, I’ll make it summer 2012.” So, I got to do the political economy major.
[06:19] Sean: Well, I actually never knew until you just told me before this interview that, even though your class is 2012, you actually didn’t graduate until 2020. Tell us about that.
[06:27] Nanxi: That’s right, yeah. So, I actually started one of my companies my senior year. I started, actually, a couple of companies my senior year.
[06:35] Sean: [laughs] I was going to say—yeah.
[06:35] Nanxi: Some of them worked out.
[06:36] Sean: A couple, yeah.
[06:37] Nanxi: Some of them did not work out. Some of them worked out. And so, schools sort of became a fun thing. I enjoyed it. But I would say it wasn’t a priority at that point. So, I was missing one course, the American Cultures course. And I just delayed it until I was going to take it the summer after my official walking-in graduation. But then, of course, I started my business. And that became the priority. And then I tried again. And then it was always like something came up. So, I, in total, I think enrolled in the AC course at Berkeley three times and paid the tuition—full tuition—for it three times. Same professor every single time. And it was just—And I’m sure he just thought it was hilarious the third time. I didn’t complete it the third time. You’d think third time is the charm. It wasn’t.
And it was finally the fourth time, during COVID, when all the colleges started offering the classes online that I was able to take online class at San Jose City College to fulfill my AC course. And it was a fantastic course. The professor was great. I think it was like the most studious I’d ever been as a student for any Berkeley-related thing, because I got good grades at Berkeley, but I never went to class and did the bare minimum to get an A. Before this class, I did all the readings well in advance of the class. And finally, I got my degrees in 2020. And my sister started as a freshman at Berkeley that same year. And so, I joked with her, you know, I was just waiting to graduate the same year she started. That was the whole point.
But the reason I actually got really motivated to get it in 2020, COVID, of course, made it easier for me to find a course that was available that worked with my schedule. But the other thing is I had joined the board of a publicly traded company. And at the time, I already knew, you know, they were just taking over site. I learned that I was one of the youngest, if not the youngest, women on a California public board. And so, it was while they’re doing the background check, they’re asking all the questions, I already know they’re taking a risk to bring on somebody really young. You know, oftentimes, you bring on board members that had been CEOs of other public companies. They have a lot more experience. And here I was, 30 years old. And in the background check, they’re like, did you graduate? What school did you graduate from? Because they have to file that with the SEC. And then it’s on your bios and all the proxy statements and all the filings. And I was like, “I do not have degrees, actually.” But I told the general counsel, I was like, “Don’t worry, I will have the degrees basically by the next proxy filing. You can then list that I graduated from Berkeley. But as of now, I have not.”
[09:24] Sean: That’s hilarious, actually, because I was like, wait, why wouldn’t you just carry that flag of “I was one of those really successful entrepreneurs who dropped out of college [laughs]?” But, no, that’s really interesting.
[09:35] Nanxi: I know. I’m sure there’s shareholders already who were like, “Okay, so you’re already bringing this person that doesn’t really come from an automotive background.” It’s a car-related company. “And she’s super young. And you’re telling me she didn’t graduate from college?” So, I didn’t want to freak them out too much.
[09:51] Sean: That’s so funny. But let’s go back to Berkeley for a second. You know, you had started Nanoly. And that was already a really successful startup. I’ve always actually want to asked you what push you to go start Enplug while Nanoly was still going and successful? Can you share with our audience what Nanoly was, and then also what Enplug was?
[10:14] Nanxi: Yeah. So, Nanoly Bioscience, I started my, basically, first semester, senior year, one of the various companies I started in college. So, for Nanoly, we develop polymers that eliminate refrigeration for temperature-sensitive proteins. So, that includes enzymes. It includes therapeutics, biologics. And, really importantly, it includes vaccines. And so, we work with companies that have these molecules where, even if they’re shipping it domestically, they might have issues of ensuring that molecule is within that temperature range, so that, by the time an end user has to use it, it still works. And so, I started that senior year. And it was not something that was in my expertise. I had met my co-founder at a bar during the winter holidays. And we started talking. And I said, “Let’s start a company together.” And we literally started the company the very next day.
And for Enplug, sort of a similar story, I was always just getting introduced to awesome people, brilliant people. And so, my summer of junior year, I was an intern at Goldman Sachs in their investment banking group. And one of my fellow interns there who, then, went on to work full-time at Goldman, he met a guy while he was, I guess, in Hong Kong. And he said, “This guy is looking for a co-founder and a CEO for this company that he’s starting. And I thought of you. And I think you guys should just meet.” And I was like, “All right, I’ll meet him.”
I think, first, I had a Skype conversation with my co-founder, David Zhu, who I’m actually seeing for lunch on Sunday. So, talked to him for a little bit. And then he went up to Berkeley. And we met at my sorority. This is, I think, the week before graduation. And he talks to me about Enplug. And he’s saying, “Hey, I want a software, really smart software that can power screens and show interactive, dynamic content on screens.”
And so, we talked for about 45 minutes. He tells me he is basically a college dropout, got accepted into MIT, didn’t go because he became a professional poker player. He was making millions of dollars playing online poker. I was like, “All right, this person’s really smart.” And he’s a good person. And immediately, I was like, “All right, let’s do this. I will start this company with you,” after that meeting.
[12:37] Sean: That story is amazing. Your background was in business. And you had started this biotech company. What was the shift like from that, from Nanoly to Enplug, basically a software media advertising company of sorts?
[12:52] Nanxi: Yeah, I would say what’s interesting, even though they’re in very different industry, I would say what I contribute to the company and how I operate with the team and the value I provide to the company is quite similar. I think for Nanoly, it was the direction, getting a team together, convincing PhD students from the best schools in the world to trust this person who’s only ever taken one chemistry class to join their company and to work for them full time and to get funding for the company. So, that’s what I did for Nanoly senior year.
Similarly, for Enplug, it was about getting together a team, building MVP, convincing investors and customers to buy our product. And so, in both those cases, I would say it’s a sales and strategy value that I bring. And so, it wasn’t all that different.
Now, in terms of the product development cycle, completely different. In biotech, it is years and years. I served on a board of a publicly traded biotech, I would say, company, called Kindred Biosciences. And it had raised a lot of money, had spent a lot of years building a product. But it took a long time. I mean, some of the products are nearly a decade or more bring it to market. Ultimately, we had a successful acquisition. We were required by another public company in the same space. But it’s just the sales cycles are so long, and the product development cycles are even longer.
So, for Enplug, what was really refreshing is that your sales cycle can be as short as one phone call, and your product development cycle can also be really fast. I mean, before Enplug was acquired, every single week, we were making new releases. Every Tuesday, there would be new feature releases that were shared with our customers. It was fast-paced. It was really exciting. So, from that perspective, I think I prefer the software—building a software company. The impact that Nanoly has is at a different scale. It is we are saving lives. For digital science, maybe you can kind of argue, you know. We have safety messages on screens and manufacturing facilities, and that saves life. But it’s not as direct and, I feel like, not as immediately recognized as a positive social impact.
[15:09] Sean: Nanxi, I have to wonder, and I have to ask for any, and probably, all listeners out there, as a 20, 21-some year old, how did you build the confidence and the skill sets to be such an amazing CEO [laughs]? All right. To be able to have that ability to convince people make the right hires. How did you learn these things at such a young age?
[15:36] Nanxi: I would say I don’t know if I was a very good CEO in the early days. I definitely think I got better. My co-founders made me a better CEO. They were always very honest and transparent, gave me a lot feedback. I think feedback from people and being willing to accept feedback definitely helps.
And so, I think, just from a young age, I was involved in a lot of activities where you constantly had feedback and you constantly knew if you were doing well or not. For example, in the early days, it was piano. And with piano, every single week, when you have your piano lesson, you get feedback, like, “You’re playing that wrong. You need to play that loud. You need to play that softer. This is classical, you’re playing it like the romantic style. Don’t do that.” So, there’s constant feedback. And so, I think I was always very receptive and open. Okay. All right, this is how I improve. And I think a constant striving for improvement ensures that I’m pushing myself to always learn and adjust.
And then, in high school, I was doing lots of different organizations and extracurricular activities, volunteering at different places, different leadership roles and student government, was elected Colorado’s youth governor. And throughout that process, I’m interacting with lots of different people, people that are my age, my peers, people that are younger than me when I was teaching dance, people that are much older than me when I was the youngest intern for the Colorado State Legislature. And so, I think having the feedback and interactions with all of those different people, I think, made me just be able to immediately recognize strengths, weaknesses that I have, but also be able to identify easily what are other people’s strengths and weaknesses, and how to bring them together.
So, similarly, in college, it was that same family. I’m around some of the most brilliant people I’d ever met in my life. I’m around teachers and professors in the world. And I’m getting involved in lots of school activities, one of them being ASUC. And I was elected executive vice president for the ASUC, which, when you’re serving, is one of the most humbling experiences in your life, because every single day, you feel like you’re not doing the right thing. You’re getting yelled at by your own party and you’re getting yelled at by the other party. And so, that was a great learning experience where it was always trying to find compromise and just trying to do your best and knowing you’re probably failing miserable, or you certainly feel like you’re failing miserably, but you just kind of take it a day at a time. And so, I think that taught me, sometimes, no matter what situation, things are going to work out. Sometimes, it’s not, but you have to try and just try to do your best.
And I think the confidence, probably, came just because I had interacted so many different people—people that I worked really well with, people that I had to learn how to work well with. The exposure to different groups, ideas, backgrounds, I think, was really helpful, so that when I did pitch investors and really successful people—I had interacted with so many people in my life that, from a young age, when I was 16 and interning for the Colorado state legislature, interning directly for the Speaker of the House of Colorado, I wasn’t intimidated. It was just sort of natural, like they’re all people that want to do the best thing. And you are there to also help and try to make the people around you successful. So, every time I just went in with that mindset, I made it less intimidating.
[19:01] Sean: That’s really interesting. So, I was, along those same lines, about to ask you, again, for any aspiring entrepreneurs that are listening, and from a CEO to another, I still deal with imposter syndrome to this day once in a while. And I’m just really curious if you can think back to when you started. You were probably 20, 21 at the time. Did you have any imposter syndrome? And if so, like, how did you overcome imposter syndrome in these situations, as such a young CEO?
[19:28] Nanxi: I think I didn’t really think about it, because for me, growing up, all the time I was always the outsider. I was always like very different. And so, when I started as a CEO role, it didn’t really feel that different. It was like I’ve always sort of been the outsider going into a group that generally was always smarter and more experienced than me, because I always wanted to spend time with people that I admire, that had accomplished more than me. So, again, always the newbie or the new person on the block, the outsider, the one that lacks the experience and expertise that everybody else had. Even for ASUC, most of the folks that, you know, serve in the executive role, they were previously senator. I didn’t serve as a senator. I was a sophomore at the time and had just been introduced to the ASUC and ran. So, definitely, people in my own party didn’t like that because they didn’t feel like I went through, you know, all the hazing to deserve to run for the party an executive position.
So, I think, going into CEO role, I didn’t feel that, even though, certainly, I was always very aware when I walked into meeting with an investor that I looked very different than them, that I was probably one of the younger people pitching them, and I didn’t have the successful companies I’d already sold, that I can talk about. It was like I just finished college and didn’t even graduate, but, you know, finished the four years, did the four years there. And so, I didn’t let that really stop me. And I think I always just focused on, all right, what are my strengths? And I knew there are some strengths and advantages that I could bring to the table whenever I went into a meeting, either with somebody I was trying to hire or an investor or a potential customer.
And I was never afraid to make ask. Like, there was an investor that I met at a conference who’s standing in line in front of me. And I pitched him at this conference. And he became an investor. Well, first, before that, he asked me some of my background. I mentioned I played piano. And there was a piano there. And he was like, “Will you play piano right now?” And I was like, “All right, sure. I’ll do it.” And I played. He was impressed by it. And so, he was like, “You know, I invested in you because you mentioned something that you could do. And then I basically forced you to do it publicly in front of all these people, and you weren’t afraid and you played the piano. And it was good. And that’s why I invested.” So, I would always say, I think when it comes to building a company, making the ask and not being shy about showing what you’re capable of and what your strengths are, is going to help a lot.
[22:02] Sean: I think that is probably the best answer I’ve ever heard. And I say that because, as you were talking, I immediately realized what you’re getting at. When people feel imposter syndrome, people feel imposter syndrome because they think they should act a certain way that other people think they should act, right? It’s like, “I should be this way,” versus, no, just be yourself. Like, you are not imposter to yourself. You are this type of CEO because this is who you are. You lead this way. That’s who you are. Don’t try to live up to somebody else’s standard as to, “Oh, you should be this kind of CEO, that’s—,” whatever, right?
[22:39] Nanxi: That’s right.
[22:39] Sean: I think that is an amazing insight. You don’t have to worry about imposter syndrome, just being yourself [laughs].
[22:45] Nanxi: Yes, exactly.
[22:48] Sean: That’s really great advice. That is actually so simple [laughs]. Sometimes, I’ll tell you this, I’m asking this question because I’ve always started and ran lifestyle businesses, as I call them. Bootstrap on my businesses. I never had to fundraise until this time, you know, starting Clever. And I’m just like, a tech CEO should be like this, should be this way, should act this way. You just made me realize, why? Why am I trying to live in someone else’s shoes when it’s like I’ve clearly been able to start business myself and I know what my strengths are? And instead of trying to pretend like I don’t have weaknesses, I should embrace them and go seek ways and mentorship and advice to fill in the gaps. And that’s just a much easier way to live [laughs], embracing—
[23:39] Nanxi: Completely agree.
[23:42] Sean: So, kind of on that note, and since it is International Women’s Month, what advice do you have for female leaders today?
[23:48] Nanxi: Yeah. So, Enplug and my new company that is now my main thing that I focus on, Blaze Technology, my co-founder is Justyna. She is brilliant. She was our CTO at Enplug. She’s my co-founder and co-CEO at Blaze. And so, we’ve always run the company together. And I think, one of the things—I mean, we already touched upon it, but I think, as women leaders, one of the things I’m super grateful of is always just supporting one another and having a group of also awesome other woman who are rallying around you and you’re rallying around them. It makes it so much easier.
And so, I’m grateful that I was always surrounded by amazing other woman. In fact, I was looking at my bachelorette crew. Almost everyone in my bachelorette crew is CEO of a successful company. And I’m really grateful for that. And I think it’s important to find that support system. And I think the way to do that is, for me, always stepping up to wanting to help somebody. My goal whenever I meet somebody new is I just want to see how can I help them be more successful and achieve what they want to do and have zero expectations from there. I’m not looking for, “Hey, I’m going to give you this. And then I hope you give this back to me,” or whatnot. It’s always just super open-minded just there to support.
And I think, in my life, that approach has really helped me a lot and have been really helpful in introducing me to people that I otherwise wouldn’t meet. And so, the big piece is find that community. And if that community is one other awesome woman founder or leader, or maybe it’s a whole tribe of them, it makes a huge difference and it makes a lot more fun in the journey.
[25:31] Sean: Couldn’t agree more, especially on your point around helping others without expecting much in return. That’s something I can see why you’re so successful, because I have this in my philosophy, I’m like, in terms of hiring and treating employees, you want to build people up, right? Not hold them down. I do wonder, a pitfall that I’ve run into is—at least I’ve seen with other people in being helpful—is how do you prevent burnout? Like, how do you burnout when you’re just out there, you know, giving, giving, giving [laughs]?
[26:02] Nanxi: I think I’m also thoughtful of, if I give, I know it is my strength and it’s going to be a good use of my time, because maybe there are some asks that people have where I’m not going to be the best person. So, it’s going to take me a really long time to go and try help them, and the method that they need. And so, I am generous in giving where I know this is my expertise, it’s not going to take much time.
And I’ll make that connection. Oftentimes, it’s making an introduction. Oftentimes, it’s when people ask me to recommend speakers for different panels or events. I actually have a spreadsheet of anyone that I meet at an event. And I actually will write notes of, you know, what they’re looking for. And, literally, on my Google Sheets spreadsheet, there’s one where it’s awesome woman founders and entrepreneurs, so that, anytime somebody’s like, “I’m looking for some great woman entrepreneurs in New York,” I have my list of awesome entrepreneurs that are up and coming that I had just met, that I can recommend to them, or if they needed folks in San Francisco or LA. And so, actually being methodical about it, I think, makes it a lot easier. And then there are some asks where I’m like, “That’s outside of my expertise, so I can’t help you there.”
And overall, I think the burnout relates to—because I have a lot conversations with my friends about burnout. And I feel really grateful that I don’t feel burnout. I think that’s like rare, right? And I know that’s rare, but I think a big part of it is not feeling guilty when you just need to take time off. And so, I actually have a really good work-life balance, and I always felt like I did, even from when I first started Enplug. And everyone I remember in high school was like, “If you keep on going at this pace, by the time you’re in college, you’re going to feel so burned out.” Then, when I was in college, people were like, “When you go into the work life and you’re going doing all these activities, you’re going to feel so burned out.” And I never felt burnt out because I think I was always like, hey, if I just need to take a day, just play piano, read, go running, go hiking, I just do it. In the early days, I felt really guilty about it. But I think, overall, it made me much more efficient and happy and productive. And even now, I do a bunch of trips. I go to places, even though I’m launching this new company. I understand the rigor of starting a new company, but at the same time I also know, if I’m not taking care of myself, it’s going to hurt overall. The net is going to be negative.
And so, that’s how I sort of approach it when it comes to giving and helping, not burning out. I think it’s all connected into how we treat our life and our time, our health, our body. And I’ll just add one more thing, I think, that makes a big impact for me, was I lost a parent when I was, I feel like, young. I was 21. I lost my mom. She had cancer. And I think that also—And she was sick for a couple of years. And I just remember her always saying, she’s like, “Wow, if I knew I was only going to live this short life, I would’ve done this, I would’ve spent more time with you, guys. I would’ve spent less time stressing at work. I would’ve traveled more.” And I think that really stuck with me, that, no matter what, at the end of the day, it is the time that you spend with friends and the fulfillment you get. Yes, I get lots of fulfillment from work, but that’s certainly not the only place I get it from. I get a lot of fulfillment from volunteering, from music, from travel, and from producing TV shows, et cetera. And so, I think that also made a very strong imprint on me in how I approach life, living, and how hard I am on myself.
[29:40] Sean: Is that something that you’ve built in the culture of your companies as well? I’m actually wondering, how do you communicate with your teams when you need time off to say, “Hey, look, I need to take a step back,” without instilling worry? Sometimes, as a CEO—I’ve talked to other CEOs as well—I feel like, sometimes when we communicate that we need a break, it signals potentially the wrong signal to your co-founder or the team that, hey, like something is wrong. Do you have any thoughts on that?
[30:13] Nanxi: Yeah, it’s interesting. I think the culture of however hard people work or the hours, I think, always gets reflected of what are the CEOs and co-founders doing? You don’t even have to communicate or say anything or write anything down. It’s simply how much time do you take off, how long are you in the office for, is the strongest signal.
So, in the early days, we lived and worked together in one house, the co-founders and the employees. So, it was 24/7, but that was sort of what I enjoyed at the time, and I would want to do, because when I was at Berkeley, we would do these hackathons. And these hackathons would be, you know, 36 hours of no sleep. All you’re doing is just coding, whatever app you’re building, and then presenting it completely sleep-deprived to a panel of judges at the end of this 36-hour marathon. And so, I loved stuff like that. Sometimes, it was like 48 hours or 72 hours. But I really loved stuff like that. And so, in the early days of impact, I remember I was like, “All right, engineering team, this weekend, we’re going to do a 48-hour marathon sprint and get this feature out.” And we did some of those.
But we also hired people from the professional world. Again, this was my first full-time job. I had never worked full-time at another company. So, like I said, I don’t know if I was a very good CEO in the early days. And I remember my co-founders are like, “You know, some of the engineers are kind of pissed. This is just like, they want to have their weekends to do other stuff. Yes, you might want to be Enplug 24/7, but this is not what they want to be doing.” I remember when I got that feedback, I was like, “What do you mean? You’re telling me they want to do something else on the weekend? Not the company?”
Certainly, the company evolved. As time went on, we became very family-oriented. Later on, we would actually do team vacation, right before COVID. We’re super happy that we did it before COVID hit. We took everyone and their spouses or significant other to Mexico, to Puerto Vallarta. And it was a full vacation, four days, like no work, no meetings, nothing. It wasn’t like a fake “We’re going to go do a vacation.” No, it was full-on vacation. People did whatever they want. People hung out. And we paid for their significant others to be there as well, because we wanted to make sure we weren’t taking time away from their families.
And that was, I think, a very good summary, that was a good, great reflection of what the company had evolved to, which was that people have other lives—they have families, they have kids, they have hobbies. And we would support them. We were part of a lot of different sports leagues in LA. A lot of folks were friends outside of work. And we’d hang out outside of work.
But it was definitely an evolution since the early days, where we all lived and worked together under one house, to shifting to being much more of a culture where it’s really emphasizing work-life balance. And part of that is because my co-founders and I really cared about work-life balance. My co-founder, Justyna and Bruno, they love scuba diving. And they loved traveling around the world to go scuba diving. And so, that was a signal to other teammates that, hey, you can take vacations. It’s okay to take time off. And you would rarely see me in the office past 6:00 or 7:00 p.m. And I would go in, maybe, like 8:00 or 9:00, maybe later. And so, people understood, if you get your work done, that’s fantastic, and you’re contributing to the team, both from a product, work perspective, and the culture, then that’s great. I don’t need you to be pulling 100-hour weeks.
[33:57] Sean: Yeah, I like that message a lot because you basically went from feeling guilty about it and saying like, “No, this is the culture we want to build, so, I’m going to lead by example, that I don’t need to feel guilty about stepping away from work to have time for myself [laughs].” Because that is kind of the culture that a lot of people are instilled in, right? Is that you feel guilty if you’re not running your business or doing work or being a CEO. It’s like, no, if that’s really the culture we want to promote, we should be promoting that ourselves without feeling guilty about it. That’s a really good message.
[34:30] Nanxi: And everyone, every CEO is going to be a little different. I stopped comparing myself to other CEOs where they can just work 24/7, seven days a week, and just think about their business. I admire them for that. I can’t do that. So, I don’t try to do that.
[34:46] Sean: I 100% agree [laughs]. All right, in our last few minutes, I have some lightning-round questions for you, just to end everything on a light note. What are your favorite books? What are you reading lately?
[34:59] Nanxi: I’ve been actually averaging reading one book a week this year, which is much higher than in past years. But let’s see, some of the books that I’ve really enjoyed reading recently. One of them, Thinking in Bets by Annie Duke, the awesome poker player, I really like that book. I also really like the Almanack of Naval Ravikant. I thought that was fantastic. I really enjoyed reading—there’s some fun fiction books that are just hilarious. One of them—it’s super entertaining—it’s called Devious Lies. If people haven’t read it, the Crazy Rich Asians trilogy is fantastic. I had so much fun reading those books. They’re great. They’re great fiction. What else? Oh, I just read—this is what I finished last week, What It Takes by Stephen A. Schwarzman, the Founder/CEO of Blackstone. And that was fantastic. Incredible leader, and I love what he does, not only in building businesses, but his philanthropic and civic engagement, I really admire.
[36:14] Sean: Favorite place to travel?
[36:16] Nanxi: Right now, it’s any ski resorts and just snowboarding as much as I can. So, I love anywhere there’s some great mountain and some great snow.
[36:29] Sean: I think that about wraps it up. This is really fun conversation. Thank you so much for your time, Nanxi.
[36:34] Nanxi: Oh, Sean, thank you so much for having me. Thank you for what you’re doing for the Berkeley and the Haas community. This is, I think, such a gift for all students and alumni.
[36:45] Sean: Really appreciate that. Thanks, Nanxi.
[36:47] Nanxi: Thanks.
[36:50] Outro: Thanks again for tuning in to this episode of the OneHaas Podcast. If you enjoyed our show today, please remember to hit that Subscribe or Follow button on your favorite podcast player. We’d also really appreciate you giving us a five-star rating and review. If you’re looking for more content, please check out our website at haas.fm. That’s spelled H-A-A-S.F-M. There, you can subscribe to our monthly newsletter and check out some of our other Berkeley Haas podcasts. And until next time. Go Bears.