When my face started changing after 25, I suddenly started being able to read it. Just like a music records store information as little holes, the faces store information line by line, crease by crease. And if I look closer now, there is not a person whose face looks like a blank slate. Life does surface.
So did mine.
Looking at My Face I Relived My Own Life
It starts with my father wishing for a boy, and instead having me. I didn’t really pick up on how disappointed he was until one day, when I was 5, I first went to the eye doctor. It turned out that all my 5 years of life I’d been seeing things out of focus. I had astigmatism. Blue-rimmed glasses were perched on my nose and, all of a sudden, I saw people’s facial expressions, including my father’s unhappy grimace. Actually, the world look abetter when it’s out of focus a bit, but doctors say 20/20 is where it’s at. So I started seeing the same thing most other people see.
The first ounce of confidence I got a as child was happenstance. One summer, when I was six, my parents got a hold of 50 pounds of corn. They boiled it in an enormous bucket and shipped it to the nearby bus stop. Who was going to sell this? They thought I fit the bill as a boiled corn salesperson. And thus my first business began. I was getting a share of all sales. 20%. Other corn-peddling ladies nearby sounded like double basses, yelling “Hot corn!” Chiming at the top of my voice, my sales pitch was still drowned. But people still came to me, often just to wonder how old I was. And I said seven. Being one year older made it all seem OK. And after I counted my share of the profit to total $10 of my very own hard earned dollars, I forever became convinced that being an entrepreneur is not that scary and not that bad at all.
Professor Told Me I Can’t
But parents tend to not dream that their kids become entrepreneurs. I had to have a profession, parents said. In eighth’s grade, computers sounded like the thing to change the world. So I signed up for an all-boys-but-not-by-design computer class, where I learned Basic. And that somehow qualified me to go to a programming competition. I drew a ticket asking me to write a program where a worm slides around eating apples and getting points for it. I made the worm move and eat, but the points were not adding up. “How could you not think of this, Ms. Vital?” said the professor judge. He was the first real professor I ever met . “You look like you are out of your element.” He tried to put it nicely, but it was obvious to me I was a terrible programmer. I still won that competition — being the only contestant in my class grade. I hid my diploma from my parents. I totally believed that day that the door to being a programmer closed forever.
Working Like a Man
Even when I was a teenager my dad still reminded me that he wished I were a man. I was dead set to prove that a girl is just good as a boy. My father was in the brick business. One day he offered me to be his brick sales person. Bricks or corn — it was all the same to me. I ran brick ads in every local newspaper, and the phone started ringing off the hook. I met potential buyers carrying one red brick in my purse. Sometimes they wanted me to drop it on the ground - just to make sure it didn’t break. And I did. I sold bricks by the thousand. It takes roughly 10,000 bricks to build a house.
Selling bricks, though, was not really a dream-come-true job. My aspirations were far away, in the Land of the Free. In the U.S., I thought, I could become anyone.
The first thing that happened in America was that I doubled in size. I stayed with a family. They were on a diet: Captain Crunch for breakfast, chips and salsa for lunch, with unlimited Tootsie Rolls. That converted into 30 pounds of extra weight.
I lost all 30 pounds once I moved on. I wanted to open a language school so more people could go study there. 30 students signed up. My teaching method was to only talk about things that people cared about. That way they learned faster. The little girls wanted to talk about Britney Spears, the boys wanted computers, and the older ladies wanted everything about foreign men. And I was happy to discuss it all, as long as they were learning the language. At the end of the school year, I made enough money to go to college myself.
My father has always said, “”Anna, learn Chinese.” With my father, I disagree on everything, except for this one. If there is one thing to learn in life, it’s the language of the world’s longest-living civilization. If they survived longer than any of our ancestors as a civilized society, they might know something we don’t. And it turned out they do.
The Chinese are an entrepreneurial folk. Once in China I set out for Shenzhen, the factory-city of millions of people who produce everything under the sun and work around the clock. The jewelry factory I visited was not exactly a posh place, but they patiently looked at my jewelry designs, offered samples, and over dinner of turtle soup at the local restaurant we sealed the deal for a trial run of my jewelry pieces worth about $5000. My first business investment. I called my brand Esperanza, which stands for “hope.” My hope was to succeed as a jewelry business. Five months later it failed.
My Old Book Venture
My hope to be an entrepreneur did not die yet, but it went into a coma. And by now I started law school. Law school was so expensive that I had to start another business to pay for school. The irony of it all was not lost on me.
My business was to make school more affordable for others - by selling used law books. Often $200 a piece, my books were shipping all around the country.
The first year of law school is the most important - that’s when you find out once and for all if you are any good at this. “Good” means “get a job”.
I got a job. And that job taught me how to look like you are busy when you are bored out of your mind. Looking busy is as draining as real work. Boredom leads to thinking. Thinking leads to wondering about things you never even considered, such as, “What if I could do a startup?” It’s like doing business, only the smart way.
Dream Job Crashed
A video startup turned up quickly to recruit me. It was a one-man show with a big dream to be a startup TV channel. It was completely rational to sign up for that job, especially because it paid nothing at all. But I got to meet real startup founders. And I saw their faces. I heard their stories. They were not that different from mine, and for once I thought that I can really be an entrepreneur and just make useful stuff.
It all imploded one day when I learned that the startup’s founder was sneaking around in my email. He suspected that I contacted people through my work email. He thought it was a big deal. What a jerk…
It was late at night in San Francisco when tried to explain to my friend what is a startup. A startup can be a one-person company or a 100-person company. So I could not really narrow it down. So I thought why not visualize it. It was 2010, the year infographics emerged. So making an infographic “What is a Startup?” seemed like the rightest idea. I was not a designer, but I knew some Photoshop. And just for fun, for all my friends to see, I made my first infographic.
It turned out I was not the only sleepless soul in San francisco who wanted to do a startup. One evening in Palo Alto I met a man, and he offered to be my co-founder the next day. He left Google to build a startup community with me. We gathered at the Fairmont for a startup show-and-tell, one thousand people at a time.
All this while I have been making infographics about startups. Just for fun. I thought it would be cool to make them into a book, except it was to be the best infographic book money can buy. I pitched my idea on Kickstarter. The good news is we raised $16,500, the not-so-good news is that was 16.% of our goal. But I don’t give up that easy. I am still doing the book. One infographic at a time. Now in 5 different languages.
That’s life in a nutshell, and here I have it visualized on my face. And next I want to visualize every useful thing in the universe. But I start with myself.
Photo by Anastasiya Kotelnyk