As a part of my series about the “How Business Leaders Plan To Rebuild In The Post COVID Economy,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Megan Ruan.
Megan Ruan is the Co-Director of Gold Rush, a nationwide accelerator built to amplify Asian entrepreneurs and help empower the next generation of C-Suite Asian leaders. She is responsible for program strategy and execution to create a unique, mentorship-driven experience for diverse founders.
Megan partners closely with major media publications, investor networks, and diversity & inclusion programs to provide selected founders with brand amplification through twice-yearly Gold Rush sales; access to investor and business development partnerships; and inclusion in a diverse, cross-industry cohort of like-minded entrepreneurs. Since the program launched in 2019, Gold Rush has worked with 50+ early stage companies across health & wellness, fashion & beauty, food & beverage, and more. The Gold Rush accelerator is a venture of Gold House, the largest nonprofit collective of Asian leaders in the country dedicated to enabling more authentic, successful, and healthy lives for the community.
In her day job, Megan is an investor at The Johnson Company, the private investment office for the Johnson & Johnson family. She is responsible for investing in private equity, venture capital, and real estate funds across the globe, as well as managing broad strategic goals and asset allocation targets. Prior to The Johnson Company, Megan was an analyst at Morgan Stanley.
Outside of her professional endeavors, Megan is an avid yogi and New York Times crossword puzzle enthusiast (she’s completed it every day for the past 6 years). Despite her Midwestern roots, she has grown to love New York City, where she is currently based.
Megan earned dual degrees with distinction from Yale University in Economics and Psychology and was a member of the Psi Chi International Honor Society.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I grew up in a small suburb of the Twin Cities in Minnesota. For most of my childhood, I was the only person of Asian descent in classrooms, after school clubs, sports teams, etc. It wasn’t until I started college at Yale that I made my first close Asian friend, and not until my first job at Morgan Stanley that I found my first Asian role model (aside from my parents).
After graduating, I moved to New York City and was introduced to the nonprofit organization Gold House, the nation’s largest collective of Asian leaders. It was the first time I started to feel a true sense of belonging in my heritage, and the Gold House community quickly became family. I took on a volunteer role building its business accelerator for Asian entrepreneurs, Gold Rush, from the ground up with my co-director Mikkoh Chen. Since its establishment in 2019, Gold Rush has become an emblem for change, working to build a more equitable ecosystem for companies with Asian leadership. We help founders amplify their brands through media-promoted online sales that lift topline revenue, accelerate their businesses by matching them with the right investors and advisors, and find community by becoming part of a fast-growing tribe of Asian entrepreneurs. My background from my day job as an investor also comes into play, since I have experience evaluating companies as potential investment opportunities as well as helping founders in their early stages succeed.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
The first Gold House event I ever attended — a small supper gathering of Asian business leaders in which I was most certainly out of my league — I spent the subway ride from Midtown to the Lower East Side frantically scanning the guest list trying to memorize each person’s name and occupation. When I walked into the venue, however, everything I’d just tried to cram disappeared and I ended up asking the first person I spoke to, a stunningly-dressed woman named Michelle, what she did for a living. (She kindly told me she was the Editor-in-Chief of Allure and I tried not to blush as I felt like Meryl Streep sans Anne Hathaway in The Devil Wears Prada). It turns out Michelle Lee is one of the kindest people in the world and is probably one of the only people who could have reacted as graciously as she did (she also later became one of our founding Gold Rush advisors), but the moment will forever stick with me as a reminder to do my homework in advance.
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
The podcast Unlocking Us with Brené Brown. Brown is the author of three New York Times №1 bestsellers — Daring Greatly, The Gifts of Imperfection, and Rising Strong, which reflect on how being vulnerable allows us to overcome fear and self-consciousness in order to achieve our potential. She’s spent the last 20 years researching concepts like courage, vulnerability, shame, and empathy, and recently launched Unlocking Us as a platform to explore ideas, stories, experiences, and literature that embody the universal experiences of being human. I’ve found it to be incredibly grounding as I balance the work of amplifying early stage businesses that are in fast-moving and often fragile states of growth, with building a sustainable founder accelerator from the ground up.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
Gold Rush was founded on a very straightforward mission: How can we build a more equitable ecosystem for Asian entrepreneurs? Our vision has always been to help create a more equal playing field for Asian founders and business leaders, from access to fundraising dollars to equal representation in boardrooms to exposure in mainstream media. When we started in 2019, Gold Rush was among the only programs dedicated solely to advancing entrepreneurs of Asian descent. As is often the case with pioneers — we are the ones we’ve been waiting for.
Now, 10 months into a program that has grown exponentially since it started, it’s humbling to see the enthusiasm and dedication our team of 6 volunteers (and counting!) pours into this work.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
Listen to my team. I think too many leaders feel they need to have all the answers and put on a brave face for their employees. Although well-thought-out plans and preparation are important, it’s essential to give team members frequent opportunities to weigh in. Empowering others to speak up, critique processes, and make suggestions also helps you identify blind spots and optimize how you can use their skills to fill in gaps. This practice is not only important at consistent intervals throughout a business’s life cycle, but even before bringing new members onto the team — I’ve learned that you can save a lot of stress by asking honest questions to ensure that you and your potential new hire’s goals are aligned before they sign on.
Especially for teams that are in their formative months and years, the ability for leadership to be humble, recognize individual strengths, and use them intelligently is crucial to smoothing business volatility. My co-director and I make sure to do regular pulse checks to see how our team is doing, both in work and life, to make sure everyone is feeling energized by their tasks.
Thank you for all that. The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. For the benefit of empowering our readers, can you share with our readers a few of the personal and family related challenges you faced during this crisis? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
Like so many others when shelter-in-place began, I found myself stuck alone in a New York City apartment, isolated from friends, family, and co-workers. It was tough to wake up each morning and know that my physical existence would be confined to a 900-square-foot space. It was even harder mentally, and the best way I coped was by spending most of my day with friends or family passively on Zoom or FaceTime. Even if we averaged less than five words an hour, it was nice to have their virtual presence.
When I left New York to go home to Minnesota, I realized that there was a potentially more worrisome threat: racism-driven abuse against Asian Americans. By early April, my newsfeed had become a continuous scroll of headlines about Asian businesses being boycotted, families being stabbed in suburban grocery stores, and innocent people having acid poured on their heads in alleyways. I even watched one appalling video of an elderly woman being drop-kicked by three teenagers in my hometown of Minneapolis — for no apparent reason other than her Chinese ethnicity. Although there isn’t much I can do to protect my family physically, I’ve been spending as much quality time with them as possible, to mitigate the psychological stress.
Can you share a few of the biggest work related challenges you are facing during this pandemic? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
As a business accelerator, we prize in-person interaction. For our founders, investors, and advisors, the ability to meet in person, share stories, and form individual connections is essential. Our networking sessions, dinners, and meet-and-greets are hard to replicate, but we have made use of Zoom, Slack and other tools as much as possible to create a continuous experience for our Founders.
From a business continuity standpoint, Gold Rush is lucky that our six-person team is well-versed in operating remotely — we’re spread across five different cities! The biggest challenge has been to monitor the team’s psychological well-being. Since we are all volunteers, balancing our day jobs can be a tightrope walk, and the lack of physical boundaries to help keep work and life separate means we need to be intentional in order to avoid burnout. This means starting every team meeting with a pulse check and making sure to touch base individually throughout the week to make sure that even if we can’t solve one another’s problems, at least we can be aware and supportive.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. What are a few ideas that you have used to offer support to your family and loved ones who were feeling anxious? Can you explain?
Fear and anxiety are the body’s natural response to uncertainty — something we have no shortage of in this environment. A mental device I’ve found helpful is to imagine myself as an astronaut in a space shuttle (illustrated delightfully in this video). I can pretend I’m on a mission that temporarily takes me away from familiarity and forces me to define new physical borders for activities within a small space. Compartmentalization helps create artificial boundaries that give the mind and body cues to more productively exercise, read, and work. These newly formed habits, combined with ritualizing time to connect with friends and family, have helped immensely in getting me, and my loved ones, through the lockdown.
Obviously, we can’t know for certain what the Post-Covid economy will look like. But we can of course try our best to be prepared. We can reasonably assume that the Post-Covid economy will be a trying time for many people across the globe. Yet at the same time the Post-Covid growth can be a time of opportunity. Can you share a few of the opportunities that you anticipate in the Post-Covid economy?
There’s no question this pandemic has put our generation’s social norms to the test. Since the beginning of shelter-in-place, we have been forced to leverage tools like FaceTime and Houseparty as replacements for their IRL counterparts. It’s clear these substitutes are far from equivalent to the real thing, and I see huge potential for app builders and AR/VR developers to accelerate their timelines to making more life-like options available. From an enterprise standpoint, tools like Zoom and Slack have so far been in the right place at the right time, but they are far from blanket solutions to our need to simulate true in-person work environments. As one of the pillars of the Gold Rush program is community, I foresee making use of the next generation of social media and enterprise tools to enable faster, broader, and more meaningful connections for our Founders, no longer bound by physical distance.
In addition to the death of social interaction as we know it, the pandemic has put a choke hold on scores of revenue streams. The most nimble companies are those that will end up surviving — and thriving — on the other side of this, and many will do so diversifying their opportunity sets — expanding product lines and target markets, pushing into new consumer demographics, and shifting to more efficient digital fulfillment models. One of Gold Rush’s criteria in selecting companies is to choose those with the potential to become category leaders, and in this environment, that means outliving the competition. I am excited to see the ingenious ways our Founders adapt to the challenges of this new world.
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?
This pandemic is undoubtedly going to create lasting change in our day-to-day lives. It already has. We’ve seen a slew of companies, starting with Twitter, declare work from home a permanent option for their employees. Tech was the first to do this, but the economic savings of keeping a significant portion of the workforce remote will not be ignored by other industries. Working from home will become an indelible part of “quality of life.” Though it won’t happen overnight, remote work will also begin to shift people’s desire to concentrate in big cities; whereas living in midtown Manhattan or the Mission in San Francisco once seemed irreplaceable, many will now look to relocate to places with more affordable costs of living and less risk of becoming a future pandemic hot zone.
On a personal level, the pandemic is encouraging us to be more mindful about how we spend time. Without a daily routine defined by moving from place to place, we’re having to shift mental gears without changing our physical location. Gold Rush recently co-hosted a panel on this topic with the storytelling platform Unveil Our Story, in which several of our Founders shared tips and “mental vitamins” for staying sane and productive. Humans are social creatures and need a way to compensate for the validation and comfort lost through artificial distancing. My hope is that society finally learns to prioritize mental health and take proactive steps to preserve it.
Considering the potential challenges and opportunities in the Post-Covid economy, what do you personally plan to do to rebuild and grow your business or organization in the Post-Covid Economy?
With almost every business adjusting to remote ways of delivering their product or service, Gold Rush needs to match these efforts by creating virtual ways to connect. My co-director and I have already started to adapt our programming and networking plans to allow Founders to connect with investors, advisors, and each other from anywhere in the world. We’re working on partnerships with organizations that take a “digital-first” approach to business development and strategy, so that we don’t fall behind in new marketing and e-commerce techniques. We’re also using this time to take a good, hard look at what we’ve built so far and evaluate which elements to keep and which to refresh — like a virtual spring cleaning. At the end of the day, we’re all craving human connection, and we want to make sure Gold Rush provides that, whatever form it may take.
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
Focus on what you can control and take things one step at a time. We’re in a state of flux right now, trying to prepare for two futures at once: one in which social distancing becomes the norm and re-opening continues to progress, and another in which a second wave devastates our health and economy and we’re forced into hibernation until a vaccine emerges. Truthfully, no one knows which is more likely to occur, and trying to game the odds is probably a waste of mental energy.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“I wake up each morning unsure whether I want to save the world or savor the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.” (E.B. White)
This quote reminds me that, even when my work is my passion, it’s important to find balance. Being tireless in one’s efforts is wonderful, especially when building something from scratch, but pausing to appreciate what you’ve accomplished is equally necessary. Making sure I do both helps me stay motivated and avoid burning out.
How can our readers further follow your work?