What inspires you?
I’m a huge believer in the resilience of every single individual. The human spirit is so resilient and I’m constantly inspired by the stories of human strength and spirit all around me.
This inspiration really came from my own experiences as a child. I was a Navy brat, so moved to multiple schools and was constantly adapting to new situations. When I was 18, I was diagnosed with a form of childhood cancer, Hodgkin's lymphoma. That’s when my survival instinct really kicked in. I thought I was invincible, like all 18 year olds, and all of a sudden I was faced with the idea of death. I took an incredible amount of determination to get through every day--through the surgeries, nausea, lack of sleep, radiation therapy, you name it. Having faced my own mortality at a young age really gave me perspective on how resilient people can be, and it has helped me see all kinds of human strength around me.
That’s one of the main inspirations for starting Jumpstart. I have complete faith in the human ability to adapt, recover, and reinvent. There are a lot of things people need to recover when hit with a natural disaster, so we give them a small solution to the money problem so they can focus their efforts on rebuilding their lives, relationships, and communities.
I went to college to study engineering so I could build stuff. I wanted to design something and be able to point to that product and say that I designed it. I also like taking on big, hairy and scary problems. When I got into civil engineering I learned that the biggest challenges were in structural engineering, like building bridges, and those challenges were even greater when dealing with structures in earthquake zones.
And then, in 2005, everything changed. Hurricane Katrina hit and I quickly realized that there were many other aspects to natural disasters that were big, hairy and scary problems. For instance, the flooding, the city infrastructure, the neighborhoods, etc. There are so many dimensions of recovery besides safe buildings.
I thought about where I live: Oakland. This could be the next New Orleans. Suddenly, things got personal and I started focusing my attention on the gaps in disaster resilience. After all, what good are structurally safe buildings if no one sticks around to live in them?
How did Jumpstart get started?
I started looking at the financial structures around natural disasters and learned about catastrophe bonds, unique financial instrument which at the time were only between a government and a large insurance company, and the idea came to me: we need micro-catastrophe bonds for individuals!
Once I got this idea, I did some market research and saw that no one was offering this kind of micro-catastrophe bond, so I thought I should try it. To be honest, I wasn’t afraid to just try.
When you come face to face with your own mortality like I have, there’s nothing to lose by trying something big.
Has anything surprised you when launching the business?
We’ve had some bumps, but we had the biggest mid-course failure, which would have killed the business, if not for the kindness of a few angel investors who stepped in at the right moment.
Essentially, for our business model to work, we need to have deep pockets to make payments after a natural disaster. So our most important relationship is with the underwriter which for us is a syndicate at Lloyd’s of London, the world’s specialist insurance and reinsurance market and the largest surplus lines insurer in the US. We get all of the front end customers and build the tech, but it’s the Lloyd’s underwriter that bears the risk.
Originally, we had a different partner, and for two years we worked together on building the product shoulder to shoulder, our team and theirs. Then, eight days before our planned launch, someone higher up in their organization pulled the plug on the whole thing. This forced us to delay launch for another year and with very little runway (we didn’t even have a months worth at the time). We had to lay off eight employees and completely rebuild the team. This was a big surprise and I should have seen it coming -- I’m a calculated risk taker and there’s always a risk that a partner will pull out.
So we spent our last and final dollar buying a trailer that simulates an earthquake. We put our logo wrap on it and took it to InsureTech (one of the biggest conferences in our industry) and we made a show out of it. One of the people who took a ride was from a Lloyd’s syndicate and tweeted about how cool the trailer was. Sure enough, they became our underwriter and our initial failure became the (literal) vehicle to find our path forward.
We still have the trailer, by the way, and are taking it out to San Francisco block parties this fall.
How do you deal with risk?
Risk has been a huge aspect of my life. In fact, when I was ten, I went to sleep-away camp and (after doing a few things to make a fool of myself that week) my nickname became “trial and error”.
Maybe it’s from my personal experiences moving around or overcoming cancer at a young age, but I’m always the type of person who thinks “Why not try it? What’s the worst that can happen?” I might send my family into financial ruin, but it won't kill me or my family, so let’s do it.
What’s the toughest part of founding a startup?
What cannot be underestimated is the strain of a startup on a marriage. It has definitely brought me closer to my husband, but only because we’ve had to work through so many challenges that a startup brings. I have two kids and founding and running a company can be super draining on family life. This is the #1 thing I tell other founders. It’s probably not what investors want to hear, but we all must face vulnerability and work through challenges to make ourselves better people.
Has being a mom helped you as a leader?
Being a mom has helped me choose my battles. I have two willful children, so I’m always conscious of what battles I actually want to fight versus what I want to let go. Once in a while we will have cereal for dinner. That’s OK. But crossing the street against the light. Absolutely not OK. This kind of approach in my family makes it a lot easier in business to decide what’s important to let go of or fight. It helps me see the big picture and not take anything too personally.
What is your superpower?
Creating, or pulling together disparate thoughts, concepts, partners, and capabilities into a cohesive thing. I do this at work and when I’m cooking too.
My favorite way of cooking is when we are really low on groceries. I’ll pull out what we have from the fridge and pull together something creative, interesting, unusual, and (in some cases) delicious. I love creating "something from nothing," or combining disparate parties and random elements into one cohesive whole -- was too optimistic.
What’s your kryptonite?
Being too optimistic. This can be a strength, but I think it in part caused us to lose the deal with our first partner. I was blind to the risk because I wanted it to work.
What does a typical day look like for you?
I’m an early riser and have lots of energy in the morning. I usually wake up around 5:45 am and start with a short yoga practice or meditation. This helps me stay patient throughout the day. I try to do about 1 hour of work before the kids get up around 7:30. I also need this time to connect with our partners in London, who are already online.
From 7:30 - 9 am, I am busy with the family getting ready for school, making meals, etc. They are getting old enough to start helping with this, which is great :). I’m also very lucky to live in a neighborhood where I can walk my kids to school.
My husband is a video game programmer who works from home. Around 1-2 days a week we work side-by-side in the home office. The company office is about a 10 minute train ride away.
I always have unanswered emails in my inbox, so every hour or two I scan the incoming ones and flag ones I want to respond to. Occasionally I respond in the moment, but usually not. I try to save 2 hours of everyday to think about a problem that needs a dedicated chunk of attention (slides, writing a blog, product testing, etc) and getting that done.
What’s your team like?
We are fundamentally selling the idea of resilience, so if we cant walk that talk as a team, we have no business selling that. So everyone on my team has a degree of resilience, adaptability, self-sufficiency. That’s what I lead with in recruiting interviews. Taking initiative is the genesis of resilience so I have high expectations for the team to define roles for themselves and delivering on it.
That being said, choosing a team and hiring is one of the most important challenges. I’m very proud that we have a 90% acceptance rate of jobs offered. This means that people are inspired by the work we do and want to join the team. The hard part is figuring out the team dynamics and what's the right amount of rule and training; knowing who needs a long leash and who needs close monitoring.
Do you have any unusual routines or habits?
I love eating radishes for dessert.
It started when I was travelling to Germany and I ate radishes as part of the continental breakfast. I always thought this was a special treat, so I made a habit of having a radish as a treat during my breakfast. One week (one of those empty fridge weeks for creative cooking!), my daughters were having chocolate for dessert. I hate chocolate (weird, I know), so I had radishes and sour cream for dessert. Now it’s a thing.
What’s something you wish you knew more about?
My curiosity has no end. The thing I would want to learn more about is literally how to build stuff. I'm a structural engineer, so in theory I know how things are put together, but I’d love to experientially learn how to build something substantial. For example, I’d love to build an addition to our house, but from scratch--from the foundation digging to pouring to stud wall structure to the drywall, painting, and roof--I’d want to do all of the various trades of actually what it takes to build.
If you could give yourself one piece of advice 5 years ago, what would it be?
Time is your friend. There’s so much pressure in the startup world to have things done right now and the #FOMO that comes with that is real. There’s this constant feeling that if you don’t act now, you will miss the opportunity. Time is actually a really interesting asset and resource, and is in many cases interchangeable with other resources (money, social credibility, etc). I wish I had learned earlier that we can use time to our advantage.
What’s been your experience as a female founder? Any advice for women thinking about launching a company?
Among structural engineers, about 10% are women who have made it past child rearing. You would think being one of the few female mom engineers would have prepared me for the startup world, but it's different. Engineers are very equanimeous towards one another; you are judged on skills, intellect, problem solving, etc.
In contrast, I was not prepared for the endemic sexism in startups and the investor community. A few weeks ago, for instance, I was given feedback by an advisor who discussed Jumpstart with a VC in New York. The feedback was that Jumpstart would suffer because my personality was not aggressive enough. At first, I was really offended. But then I realized that’s actually a great characteristic, as I’m open to growing organically and using time to raise (like through crowdfunding) and educate people about what we have to offer. Clearly, that investor was not right for us, and I’d rather work with people who believe in our mission, people, and product.
So my advice: don’t swim upstream. Take your time and find the right fit.
If you continue to get this kind of feedback, stop trying to pitch those types of VCs. Find the ones that fit with your values and goals. Don’t push a stone uphill -- it’s only going to roll you over.
What’s coming up soon that super excites you?
Bringing back out the shake trailer! It’s been in storage for over a year and we’ll be taking it out for San Francisco block parties as part of the 30th Anniversary events for the Loma Prieta earthquake.