Tina He does not stay in her comfort zone. Though she excelled at her design internships and had job offers from large tech companies, she chose the unfamiliar path of venture capital. Since then Tina has learned the importance of market fit and operation for ideas to be empowered at a large scale. We speak about Tina's purpose to help creators manifest meaningful projects, the advantages of having multiple pursuits, and the need for positive reinforcement to gain confidence.
What do you do?
I'm currently on the investment team at New Enterprise Associates, a global venture capital firm that invests in all sectors and stages. It's really exciting to see the best companies emerge not only from all over the world, but also from all different stages of formation. You can see what very successful companies look like in baby form. The journey is the opposite of glamorous—quite dirty and painful—but that's what makes it super worthwhile.
This is your first full-time role out of college. How did you decide on venture capital (VC)?
I wanted to challenge myself while I'm young and still have energy. I had a return offer from Facebook where I had interned prior. Facebook has a very good work culture, but it's within a comfortable bubble. I want to be somewhere that pushes me out of my comfort zone. Venture definitely does. Every day I'm learning something new.
During the career decision process, I started this project called Alcove with one of my best friends. A lot of people make these decisions without thinking about it too much. They think, I studied business and other people who studied business went into banking and consulting, so I'll do that too. Or I studied computer science, therefore I should want to work at Google. It's fine to think this way to an extent. When you're younger, you feel lost and want to follow a path. But that moment of having to confront what you truly want and value is going to come at some point. The cost of doing it while you're younger is significantly lower than when you're older. That's what made me want to step outside of my comfort zone.
I started reflecting on what my values were. I had three values which I wrote them down, then I mapped each of my job options to those values. One of my top values is contribution. It's actually pretty hard to pick an industry that can do that, but I think venture is one of the industries where it's possible.
The second is knowledge. Venture provides too much information sometimes. I get to learn about a new industry almost every week.
The third is growth. I really value growth over everything else. I've never touched finance before this job, and now I have to do financial modeling, which is crazy. Even if I end up not liking parts of the job like finance, it's something that I'm glad I know and it will be handy for anything that I do in the future.
When you're younger, you feel lost and want to follow a path. But that moment of having to confront what you truly want and value is going to come at some point. The cost of doing it while you're younger is significantly lower than when you're older.
On your website you had written that your mission is to empower the creation of purpose-driven ventures, built by thoughtful makers with compelling narratives. What was your process in being able to verbalize this purpose?
I think it comes out of all my experiences and with time. I iterate on my mission statement a lot. Not everyone has to have something like that. It's very easy for it to come off as very self-promotional. But I also think it's an easy way to connect with people that share similar ideas. That's why we are here, able to have this conversation, so I encourage more people to think about that stuff. It can guide you when you're very lost and discouraged. It's like that Nietzsche quote, "He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how."
In terms of the process, I've always cared about creative liberation. I think everyone is a creative. I believe in the power of organization and systems that make things more efficient, but I think we also hit a point where the human side needs to be emphasized. Tech and businesses should be built to elevate human experience and help more people live the life they want to. That's why I love technology so much. It's a powerful tool to disseminate information to more people so they can create the things they want to and live the life they want to.
When you create something, it's most meaningful when you can actually help people. In our modern society, help at a large scale is usually manifested through corporations. That's where venture comes into play. A lot of creatives are repelled by the idea of money and mixing that with their creative purity. That's kind of where I was, to be honest. Then I realized in order to really help people create or make people feel like they are empowered to create, you need a bigger platform.
How do you think your purpose will change over time?
Though I'm passionate about positive change, I've realized that just saying it is not enough. One should learn the perspective of the opposition. People are very drawn to others who are similar, and sometimes it can become an echo chamber. That's something that I want to challenge.
Sometimes I talk to people who just don't care about the purpose of work or the meaning of life. I wonder, "Why do they think that way? What drives them?" I am trying to understand this world a little better by having those conversations with them. Changes can be made by benefiting more parties and understanding each of their incentives.
What's something surprising you've learned since working in VC?
My entire way of looking at the world has shifted a lot. As a creative person, I was very sensitive to how experiences are designed, but I would never think about the operation and structure. Questions like, where would this product make the most sense and what kind of market condition would really allow it to take off?
Thinking about these factors now makes me more well-rounded when I look at things. I consider if something is just a fad or if the founder understands the nuances of their market and can make an amazing mission come to fruition. I've seen so many mission-driven founders with great ideas that have a hard time executing. One, they might be missing parts of that puzzle that they're not paying attention to. Two, the problem they're solving might not yet be a problem.
When I evaluate opportunities now, the things that I used to find very interesting have become less interesting, especially businesses with great branding. They're quirky and fun, but after seeing a lot of them they become repetitive.
But companies that never really caught my eye before have become extremely interesting. Like, how do you design a better insurance experience for employees and how does dental insurance work and how do people file for loans? All these things involve so many boring regulations and systems and documents, but have become fascinating to me.
How does NEA promote ethical technology?
It's very hard to balance profit and social good. The two usually don't go well together, but I think it's moving towards the right direction.
When you look at ethics, each person might have different values. For someone who's living in a repressed authoritarian country, freedom of speech might be most important, but here we almost take it for granted.
I do think education or healthcare or climate change are all unambiguous good for humanity, so we invest very heavily in those three categories.
You have a wide array of creative pursuits such as writing, photography, fashion, and design. How do these come into play at your job?
They give me a different perspective that people in VC don't normally get exposed to. Increasingly, all those different subjects converge. The more interesting people that I meet all know a variety of subjects. I can't really articulate exactly why that's better, but I think what's most important about knowing different things is knowing how much you don't know. That humbles you to be very open-minded about different perspectives.
Knowing different subjects help you have conversations with everyone and be the connector. Connectors are extremely important to increase empathy in the world and help people have productive conversations. A lot of writers or content creators I look up to are able to do that extremely well.
A lot of creatives are repelled by the idea of money and mixing that with their creative purity. That's kind of where I was, to be honest. Then I realized in order to really help people create or make people feel like they are empowered to create, you need a bigger platform.
How do you prioritize creating your own projects and empowering others to create theirs?
Right now my job is still demanding a lot of skills that I've never had, so I am focusing on honing those skills. But I can see myself down the line spending about 30 percent of my time making my own ideas happen and 70 percent helping others make their ideas happen. Ideas are very cheap, but also easily dismissed. A lot of times it just takes one person to find an idea interesting and be open-minded about its possibility.
Right now we don't have this culture of it being totally fine to have numerous side projects. I hope more people can be proud of their side projects and be multi-faceted rather than focused on one thing. I often see people who work very standard paths lose their creativity a bit. Not saying that it can't be restored, but I do think it becomes more difficult.
Which feels more important, creating your own vision or helping others create their vision?
I think helping is more important. Unless I have a real solution that can push the boundary of knowledge further, it's hard for me to argue that my creation is better than others'. Helping, on an ecosystem level, enables people to move towards change.
What did you grow up wanting to do?
Either a writer or a detective, which is kind of my job right now, but a lot more difficult. I love figuring out stuff; it's intellectually fascinating. With writing, I love that when you write it means you understand something well. Sometimes I feel like I'm struggling to write because I don't understand the topic so I have to go back and do more work, but it pushes me to learn something even faster.
Now that I'm talking about this, I'm realizing wow, I'm actually doing what I wanted to do. But it's really hard [laughs].
What did success mean for you growing up?
Contributing and making people feel better about themselves. Some of my superheroes are either businessmen who were able to create brands that make someone believe that they're better than what they think they're capable of—Nike being a good example—or writers who are able to make people feel like their voices are being heard.
In the past I was in a phase of verbally encouraging people, because that gratification is almost immediate on my end. If I make someone feel empowered, I feel good. But that's almost like taking a hit or eating chocolate; it's not long lasting. Recently I've been thinking more of how I can help in a way that's more impactful. I think this is also a process of self-actualization—do I really care about helping that I am fine with no recognition, or is my desire to help ego-driven?
How do you usually break down time spent on work, friends, hobbies, health, and self-care?
Health is something I cannot compromise. I need to work out, I need to meditate. With friends, I can never spend enough time with them. I love work but when I work so much, time flies and it can quickly become months since I've talked to some of my friends. I want to be better at showing up to things.
I lean towards being a workaholic, but dedicating more time to work doesn't mean you're more productive. Though there are periods in life when you have to sprint a little bit, it's okay to take a walk or jog as long as you're continuing on.
When have you felt lost about what work you want to do or your purpose?
When I'm doing things I'm not good at. If you're doing something that you're good at and you get recognized for it, it's very hard to not feel fulfilled. Most of the time that's what fulfillment is.
But there are also times, like me right now, where you need to learn something that might not come intuitively. I'm not as genuinely excited about the mechanics of investing as other investors, which doesn't make me better or worse—there are different metrics we all look at. But there are basics all investors need to master, even if you're a superstar in one or two things. When you're building out the basics in your life, some of those will be harder to learn than others. So as much as you want to optimize for your strengths, there's also merit in recognizing your weaknesses and working on them.
When you're building the basic skills in your life, some of those will be harder to learn than others. As much as you want to optimize for your strengths, there's also merit in recognizing your weaknesses and working on them.
When you feel lost, you either don't feel challenged enough but you're too afraid to try something new, or you're doing something that you're not good at yet and you don't get recognition because you're not good at it.
What would you recommend for people who feel lost about what they want to do?
Have confidence. When you feel lost, you either don't feel challenged enough but you're too afraid to try something new, or you're doing something that you're not good at yet and you don't get recognition because you're not good at it. But I truly do believe everyone's good at something. It's genetically true; you're better at certain things than other things. Find that thing so you can continue to get that positive reinforcement.
Sometimes you do have to suck it up. Be aware that you have your strengths, but remember that working on weaknesses is very uncomfortable. That really helps.
Going back to the why as the guiding force is crucial. It's not easy to do, but it's essential to recognize that most things, like advertisements or products pitched to us, are not going to make us happy unless you figure out that why. All the things that brand themselves as positive like exercise or meditation—if you don't know why you're doing those things, then you're just following the book.