Maria Yuan is the Founder of IssueVoter, a non-partisan platform that helps users make their voice heard in Washington and track how elected officials vote – holding politicians accountable and informing decisions at election time. How awesome is that?!
IssueVoter's mission is to give everyone a voice in our democracy by making civic engagement accessible, impactful, & efficient. IssueVoter launched November 9 – answering the question, “The election is over, now what?” for thousands of Americans – and has been featured in Forbes, Fast Company, MTV, & more.
Maria’s professional experience spans politics and campaigns, recruiting, social enterprise, investment banking, strategy, and corporate development. Maria has consulted companies, social enterprises, and nonprofits, including San Francisco Conservation Corps, PlaNet Finance, Big Brothers Big Sisters, and Urban Outfitters.
She's served on the boards of Gibney Dance and The University of Texas Co-Op, and was a founding member of Friends of the Children NY’s Young Professionals Board. Maria earned an MBA from The Wharton School at The University of Pennsylvania and a BBA from The University of Texas at Austin.
In this interview with Startup Savant, Maria lets us into her a world a bit, shares some of her core thoughts on advocacy and gives us some of her secret entrepreneurial sauce. Enjoy!
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself, Maria and how you got the idea for IssueVoter?Growing up in the Bay Area and Austin, I didn’t initially consider a career in politics, but from a young age voting was always emphasized by my parents. I remember mock-voting in second grade and saw it as one’s personal responsibility.
In college, I had first-hand experience with our State reps as part of a small group of students who lobbied the Texas Legislature to introduce and pass a bill creating the first student seat on the University of Texas System’s Board of Regents. I also served as an intern for a Rep, where I saw first-hand that Representatives really do track every constituent contact, yet such a small percentage of us actually reach out.
After graduating from UT-Austin (Hook’em!) where I majored in Finance, I worked at JPMorgan in Investment Banking. After a few years at JPMorgan, I took a leave of absence to manage one of the most targeted races in Iowa: an open seat in a swing district that many hoped would turn the “25D-25R” even-split in the State Senate. And that’s where I first envisioned the idea for IssueVoter.
I distinctly remember sitting in the office on my laptop and thinking, “There’s so much focus on elections, but there should be an easy way to track what our reps are doing throughout the year when the work that impacts our lives gets done." And thinking, “Someday, technology will get there. Someone will create this and I'll be able to use it!” I didn’t expect that someone to be me.
What are your visions for your business? Where do you see it in the next 5 years?Our mission is to give everyone a voice in our democracy by using technology to make civic engagement accessible, efficient, and impactful.
In 5 years, I hope that because people have used IssueVoter, they (1) will see and understand the work that happens throughout the year (passing legislation) that affects our lives, and (2) realize the importance of voting for reps who truly represent us. In 2018, voter turnout will not have been at an all-time-low like it was in 2014, the last mid-term elections. And we’ll have seen increased voter turnout in 2020, the next presidential election.
What makes IssueVoter unique from others? How did you find your competitive advantage?Here's how we’re unique:
- You can use IssueVoter and share an issue on your favorite social network without revealing your personal opinion. These days, especially on social media, so much seems public, but we learned that the majority of people do not want their political opinions to be.
- No need to download another App; alerts are delivered straight to your inbox! And once you’re a member, you can send your opinion to your rep directly from these alerts without logging in at IssueVoter.org.
- Our scorecard is truly customized, showing how often your rep agrees with you on the bills on which you sent your opinion, and incorporates all/any of the issues on one site.
What attitude/habits helped make you successful while starting IssueVoter?From a young age, I was taught not to quit; I’m determined. Also, I believe the hardest thing about doing something new isn’t simply learning or doing it, but the fact that “you don’t know what you don’t know.” I’m a connector, so I overcame this by having lots of conversations with people from a variety of sectors and skillsets.
What was your biggest business mistake and how you did you come out stronger at the end of the day?The costliest mistakes so far relate to paying people who didn’t deliver. I won’t go into details, but on the flip side, this past summer I had a college intern who was absolutely amazing - better than many people I’ve worked with who've graduated with years of work experience.
As a business owner, what's your greatest fear and how do you keep it under control or harness it?I'll share a personal fear. Most business-related fears you hear are things like, “I won’t be able to pay my employees,” or “Competitors are going to take market share,” which are definitely legitimate, but I hope a personal one is more engaging and universal.
It’s the fear of rejection. Mine is not non-existent, but it’s not so great that it prevented me from putting asks out there. The main thing to remember is to separate yourself from your business and never take anything personally. As a Founder, this can be hard, but you have to put hundreds of asks out there, so there’s bound to be rejection.
How do you stay focused on a day-to-day basis? Do you have a key motivator?I'm not a morning person, and in the past, reading productivity tips about CEOs waking up at 5am used to make me think that I should do the same. In 2016, I decided that I could ignore that advice. However, in 2017, I’m actually going to give it a try. I've also learned that the typical “workout first thing in the morning” isn't for me.
It takes away from time when I’m really focused and productive: shortly after I wake up in the morning and afternoon/early evening. I take my dog Cotton out 3 times a day, which helps force me to get fresh air and get a change of scenery.
What advice would you give to our readers who want to start a business in NYC?
- First, ask yourself, “Would I regret not doing this?” If the answer is “Yes,” then you owe it to yourself to start.
- Then, talk about your idea a lot to a variety of people (people you know and don’t know, and from varying sectors and skillsets) to gauge feedback and refine the idea. Remember, you can control your inputs/actions but not the outcome – do your best.
- And finally, listen to and trust your gut!
IssueVoter provides a sample lesson plan for teachers at any grade level to use IssueVoter as a resource in their classrooms. For a free copy email firstname.lastname@example.org.