As we celebrate Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, TaiwaneseAmerican.org is pleased to continue with our series of interviews highlighting some accomplished community members who have pursued interesting paths in their professional careers or personal projects. We launched these interviews during Taiwanese American Heritage Week, and we’ve selected these individuals particularly because their stories include how a Taiwanese American community organization has shaped their experience or life path.
We are so pleased to close our series with Maggie Hsu, whom we have known since her days as co-founder of Mochi Magazine, an online magazine for young Asian American women. Today, she serves as Vice President of Business Development for Downtown Project. Downtown Project has allocated $350 million to aid in the revitalization of Downtown Las Vegas and encompasses a collection of over 300 investments and operations across small business, technology and real estate. Hsu is also the Chief of Staff to another well-known Taiwanese American, Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos.com and founder of Downtown Project.
Meet Maggie Hsu, one of the most influential Taiwanese American women we know.
Maggie: Thanks for having me, Ho Chie! I grew up in Massachusetts, went to high school in New Hampshire, and then back to Massachusetts for college. I had always been interested in business but decided to study biology at Harvard. Studying science teaches you a type of hypothesis-driven problem solving that applies to any profession. After Harvard, I worked at McKinsey and Company, and then went back to Harvard Business School.
Growing up on the East Coast, I wasn’t explicitly aware of my Asian American ethnicity. I had close friends of various ethnic backgrounds and went to Chinese school every Sunday, but it rarely came up. In middle school I actually spent a year studying at Taipei American School in Taiwan. During that time, I connected with my extended family and became immersed in my Taiwanese heritage. I eventually founded Mochi Magazine, an online magazine and blog for young Asian American females.
H: We’ve been a big fan of Mochi Magazine since the beginning. Can you tell us a little about the initial seeds of the idea?
M: The concept for Mochi originated before my senior prom in 2004, when my friend and I were looking through Seventeen and other teen girl magazines and couldn’t find any Asian or Asian American representation in any article or advertisement. We actually sent Seventeen an e-mail and they politely but dismissively responded. After hearing back, we joked that we should start our own Asian teen girl magazine but didn’t take the idea too seriously.
Four years and many conversations later, I started Mochi Magazine with a fellow Taiwanese American female, Stephanie Wu. A key motivation behind starting Mochi was to increase sisterhood and support across the Asian American female community. We wanted to develop a resource for girls like Rayne, an adopted Chinese girl who I have mentored since high school (and still mentor today, 12 years later).
Mochi covers topics relevant to any teenage girl – such as relationships, fashion, beauty and college – but does it through a unique lens. For example, we might have an article on eye makeup, but one that addresses monolids. Or we’ll have an article about relationships, but one that addresses interracial relationships. It’s worth noting that mainstream magazines have also evolved significantly – if you look through one today, you’ll see a much broader range of ethnicities, demographics and perspectives represented.
H: What have been Mochi Magazine’s proudest moments?
M: My favorite Mochi moment is actually from 2008. We were publishing our inaugural issue and wanted Brenda Song to be our first cover star. She fit our demographic, would be an inspiration for our readers, and was already famous – which would all bring legitimacy to our fledgling magazine. The only problem was that no one had her contact information.
Simultaneously, we were building out an Editorial Advisory Board of inspirational Asian American women in art, media, entertainment and journalism. We figured it was a long shot but asked each of our board members if they had any connections to Brenda. Thanks to their advice and connections, we were in touch with her publicist within a few weeks, and Brenda almost immediately agreed to be featured as our first cover star. I was honestly shocked. Up until then, I don’t think I quite believed in my own idea. This was the first of many examples of the power of a supportive Asian American female community.
H: I’m curious about what life was like for you growing up in the East Coast and how your involvement with Taiwanese American organizations influenced you.
M: After returning from my year in Taiwan, I really wanted to stay connected to my heritage. My older brother was in the Intercollegiate Taiwanese American Students Association (ITASA), but since I was in high school at the time, I wasn’t eligible to join. Luckily, my high school, Phillips Exeter Academy, had a Taiwanese Cultural Society (TCS). Exeter was not for the faint of heart – I would be in class and field hockey practice from 8am-6pm, have orchestra and club meetings from 6-8pm, shovel down dinner, and then do homework in my dorm room until midnight or 1am each night. There were so many times when I felt overwhelmed, but Tuesday evening TCS meetings were always a welcome respite. TCS was my second family during those four years – it saw me through everything from college applications to the beginning and ending of my first real relationship.
When I entered college, I became heavily involved in Harvard’s TCS as well as ITASA. A lot of our activities in both organizations were more social and cultural, but they were also both fantastic environments in which to gain leadership skills. For example, freshmen traditionally organize Harvard TCS’s annual Winterfest. As a team of four freshmen, we were tasked with preparing food for about 300 attendees. Since none of us really knew how to cook, let alone cook Taiwanese food, we called a bunch of local “aunties” and asked them to come help out. It was my first experience with large-scale project management (and delegation!)
H: Speaking of large-scale project management, you’re now doing some very interesting professional work with another successful Taiwanese American, Tony Hsieh, Founder CEO of Zappos.com and Founder of Downtown Project. Tell us a little about that.
M: Downtown Project was started by Tony in 2012 in conjunction with the relocation of the Zappos.com headquarters from Henderson, Nevada to Downtown Las Vegas. Tony allocated $350 million of his own net worth to aid in the revitalization of Downtown Las Vegas, and today Downtown Project encompasses a collection of over 300 investments and operations across small business, technology and real estate. One of our core principles is around “serendipitous collisions” at the city-scale – the idea of people from diverse industries running into each other and idea sharing, similar to what you might find on a college campus or at a company water cooler. We’re looking to increase the virality of ideas and subsequently the pace of innovation in and across cities.
That principle resonated with me so much that I cold e-mailed Tony in 2013 looking to get involved. He surprisingly wrote back a few days later inviting me to come out to Las Vegas and see how I could contribute. I immediately fell in love with the people and the city.
My role changes constantly, but I know that each day will bring a different, interesting challenge. Tony is about bringing your full self to work, being authentic, and not being afraid to pursue your passions – no matter what they are. Most importantly, he has taught me to embrace failure. Coming from a tech background, he emphasizes the principle of constant testing and iteration. This idea that failure is okay is a very non-traditional Asian American value and took some getting used to.
H: If you could give some advice to young people regarding career paths or the pursuit of passion projects, what would that be?
M: Your resume doesn’t have to be perfectly packaged. Even if you have a clear career goal, be open to opportunities that might not seem to directly tie into that goal. I recently came across a quote from Anderson Cooper about his own career: “The path to success is often meandering. It can appear to be a series of random events and only in retrospect can one look back and connect the dots.”
My resume isn’t simple to understand – it is nonlinear and cuts across industries and functions. However, each step I took was based around my passion of bringing people together, whether through hospitality and event planning, or facilitating idea sharing across companies, or bringing together and energizing communities. You need to trust your own intuition about what is the right career and life path for you.
H: Thanks so much for being such an inspiration and for the work you do. And thanks for your time today!
M: Thank you! If any of you are ever in Las Vegas, please reach out – I’d love to show you around downtown.