What if you identify a BIG problem in the world, and you find yourself on the front line solving it, taking risks and doing the hard work? How do you stay motivated given the multitude of challenges we can face when setting and reaching big goals?
Maria Yuan, founder of IssueVoter, identified that most U.S. citizens are disengaged with our politics outside major elections. So she built a website that helps make our voices heard in Washington and keeps our representatives accountable.
But she’s just getting started. There’s a lot of work to be done.
What’s driving Maria to take on this extremely important, yet challenging mission?
Transitioning from Wall Street to politics to the startup world (and recently a student of Work Bigger!), Maria shares (1) how to get closer to your mission even if at times it feels out of reach, (2) what she does to build her creativity so she can solve the big problems, and (3) three things we can do right now to get closer to the work we want to do.
Give us some background. Where are you from, and where did you grow up?
I grew up in the Bay Area and Austin, Texas.
I didn’t consider a career in politics; but both of my parents emphasized voting since I was very young. Their generation had much higher civic engagement.
I remember mock voting in second grade, and I also believed it was one’s personal responsibility to vote.
In college, I had first-hand experience with our State reps. I was 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.
Can you think back to when you were 22? Tell us about your first job and where you started out.
After graduating from UT-Austin (Hook’em!) where I majored in Finance, I worked at JP Morgan in investment banking.
Wall St. was a pretty comfortable cultural fit for me – surrounded by goal-driven, high-achieving, hard-working, type-A people who rely on a balance of analytical and interpersonal skills to succeed.
I wasn’t a Caucasian male who attended an Ivy League University, but at that stage in my career, I saw the professional world was a true meritocracy.
Let’s talk about your mission. What’s the work you want to do?
I am passionate about fixing significant, systemic problems by leveraging creativity and determination to achieve world-changing results and impact.
Did you struggle to identify it?
It was always something I FELT deep down, but it wasn’t something I articulated in a single sentence until I participated in the Work Bigger Pilot program.
I realized that I’ve always wanted to tackle BIG challenges and make a lasting impact through my work. It makes sense that I’m drawn towards fixing Government, because it’s BIG in every sense of the word – the federal budget is nearly $4 Trillion annually and the Federal government employs over 2 million people. What other entity is set up to represent all 300+ million citizens of the United States, the world’s biggest economy?
I’m creative and determined, and growing up as an only child shaped my entrepreneurial, just-do-it approach.
Tell us more about how you use creativity in your work.
I don’t always know I’m being “creative.” It’s often in hindsight that I realize I’m a creative person.
When I’m coming up with ideas, they sometimes seem like “common sense” to me.
In elementary school, when I was around 6, I created my own version of a “spreadsheet” on paper – a grid of household chores and days of the week. I set “prices” for the chores, and my parents paid me (e.g., pick up newspapers and put them in a pile, $0.50).
This was my first foray into entrepreneurship!
Now, IssueVoter itself and the ideas I have related to IssueVoter are creative because nobody has done them before. These ideas come to me (1) while I’m talking, (2) while I’m doing something completely unrelated, or (3) when I’m actively problem-solving.
What experiences led you to your mission?
After a few years at JP Morgan, 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 will be able to use it!” I didn’t expect that someone to be me.
Tell us more about IssueVoter. What’s the benefit and how can we use it?
IssueVoter launched on November 9th, the day after the election!
It’s an innovative, non-partisan website that helps users make their voices heard in Washington with just one click. Users can also track how elected officials vote – holding politicians accountable.
With IssueVoter, you start by choosing issues that matter most to you, such as healthcare, education, or equality. Then, you receive alerts right in your inbox whenever there’s a new bill up for vote that matches your interests. We summarize it along with pros, cons, and related news, and one click sends your opinion to your rep.
Throughout the year, IssueVoter tracks how often your rep votes your way, building a personalized scorecard and helping you make a more informed decision at election time.
What’s the biggest challenge you face, especially when it comes to doing mission-driven work? How do you overcome it?
The hardest thing is “you don’t know what you don’t know.” I’m a connector, so I overcome this by having lots of conversations with people from a variety of sectors and skill sets.
Also, IssueVoter’s mission is to make civic engagement accessible, efficient, and impactful. But when it comes to mission-driven work, the mission is often so big and far in the future that it can be easy to not celebrate daily and monthly wins.
For example, having a Congress that is truly representative of the majority of voters isn’t immediately achievable. But we can count having users in all 50 states and sending thousands of opinions to Congress as steps towards that mission.
Separately, personally, I have started to track my 5 biggest wins and 5 biggest challenges at the end of each week. As people think about New Year’s Resolutions, there’s a lot being written about keeping a “done” list instead of a “to-do” list.
Many 20 to 30-somethings are still struggling to get clear on the work they want to do. What advice do you have for them?
- Ask yourself, “Would I regret not doing this?” If the answer is “yes,” then you owe it to yourself to do it.
- Remember, you can control your inputs/actions but not the outcome – do your best.
- Listen to and trust your gut.