Episode 31 | Holly Liu: Being the Exception
I remember the year we decided to do our company, YouTube sold for over a billion dollars in 2006. And we were like, 'Maybe it's time. Maybe the climate is ready to take in some more entrepreneurs at this time.'
Below is an abridged audio transcript of Episode 31, the eighth episode for Season 3 of Rock The Boat: Against All Odds, edited for clarity.
Our guest today is someone who challenges the norms on many levels, as a gaming entrepreneur and an Asian American female founder. Her name is Holly Liu. She’s co-founder of the mobile game company Kabam, known for games like Kingdoms of Camelot, Marvel: Contest of Champions, and Star Wars: Uprising.
Holly served various roles at the company including Chief Development Officer, Chief of Staff, and most notably oversaw the worldwide People and Culture function at a time of exponential growth.
Just to give some context - the gaming industry is huge. It’s a $90B industry. 50% of American adults say they play video games. The perception is that it’s a predominantly male industry, which is true in terms of employment. But when it comes to players, it’s actually a near 50-50 split between men and women gamers (50% of men vs 48% of women).
Bringing more women into the gaming industry has been a large focus for Holly. At Kabam, she encouraged the recruitment and retention of women with its female-friendly hiring practices. While the industry standard for women working in the gaming space is 17%, at Kabam it was 22%.
In this episode, we talk to Holly about:
How gaming found her (not the other way around),
Some of the challenges she faced as the only female founder at a gaming company, and retention of women,
Her perspective on diversity within the tech industry, and
What she thinks is the secret Asian American superpower.
I. Holly's Origin Story
Lynne: Holly spent most of her childhood in Palmdale California, which was a predominantly white community.
Her parents were both teachers and, like most immigrants, they knew the importance of stability. They , and always encouraged Holly and her sister to start with good grades as a foundation for everything that came next.
Holly: My father would always tell me growing up that it's easier to go from Harvard to McDonald's than from McDonald's to Harvard meaning you gotta go as high as you can in terms of potential, in terms of something that can kind of make money and I think for Asians that is a bit of a base.
And it could be because most of our parents came here without a lot of money and the money provides that stability in that freedom to live the life that you were born to live in some ways.
Lynne: In spite of her parent’s big focus on education, Holly also honed her creative side.
Holly: I pretty much found myself in a lot of projects. I really enjoyed weird projects and this will be dating myself, but it was in the 80s. We really didn't have much technology. So, often times the technology that was around me for things was like paper, tape, glue. And I realized during my summers, I would spend a lot of time on either some type of project in class. Like one time, we lived on a cul-de-sac and the kids got together. We decided to make a newspaper for the cul-de-sac
Lynne: Despite some external resistance to it, she kept at it and always adapted the situation to fit her creative needs.
Holly: My dad just called me a trash digger. So that's really another word for resourceful is trash digger. And then I remember my next-door neighbor. Her dad was a carpenter and for some reason we'd have like all this leftover wood. You know Chinese immigrant families. We love holding onto things and we would make things like little stools and then we'd paint them.
II. Into Adulthood - The Uncertainties that Lie Ahead
Lynne: Holly ended up at UCLA for undergrad, which is often known as the University of Caucasians Lost Among Asians because Asians account for such a high percentage of the population. For Holly, it was an eye-opening experience to be among so many other Asian Americans.
Holly eventually graduated from UCLA with two majors -- one in Communications and the other in East Asian Studies -- along with one minor. But she hadn’t really figured everything out yet so she decided to travel.
Holly: I decided to go on a trip to Europe but I didn't I didn't really want to ask my parents for money because I didn't think that they would approve of it and. Likely, they would have given me money just to like blow for the summer plus a couple of months. So I ended up getting a student loan and at the time the student loans were like a 3% It was just really cheap.
Lynne: When Holly came back from the trip, she ended up interviewing for a job in business process risk consulting.
Holly: Being a consultant is really great, but you don't know what your impact is. You just kind of leave a piece of paper there and you go and you know what happens to that and you have no responsibility and therefore, you don’t feel like you make a lot of impact. And so I kind of felt like it just wasn't necessarily something I wanted to spend the rest of my life doing.
III. The Digital Revolution
Lynne: She knew she was interested in technology and was meant to be building things. So she left her job and went to UC Berkeley to get her Masters in Information and Management Systems, right after the dot.com bubble burst. After graduating, Holly went on to become an interface designer at AOL.
Holly: I loved it there. It was great. I loved designing products for people. I designed the AOL media player. I was even on with a color Safety and Security team helping them do anti-spyware antivirus.
One of the things that I would do some side projects, which is really great. And this is how I found my co-founders is I was doing side projects with them for years. Not just one of them was one of my colleagues from AOL another one. I met like right after grad school and we're doing all these side projects together and there was almost this kind of rebirth of what we call the Web 2.0 at that time.
Lynne: AOL was a huge company though and things still weren’t not quite fast enough for Holly.
Holly: The problem with working with a big company is that in my three years there nothing was released. So what happens is with a big company, your audience weirdly enough doesn't become the end user. The end user becomes these executives through all these reviews and you have a lot of layers of reviews.
And I think one of the most disheartening things as a designer or builder is to build something at somebody else's enjoyment, right, but if you never know if that person can enjoy it, it becomes really disheartening.
Lynne: Holly’s itch to build couldn’t wait any longer. Her frustration at AOL, coupled with the overall tech climate in 2006, led her and her co-founders to take the plunge and start something.--And one more thing.
Holly: I remember the year we decided to do our company YouTube sold for over a billion dollars in 2006 and we were like. Maybe it's time. Maybe the climate is ready to take in some more entrepreneurs at this time. And I think subconsciously, my whole team is Chinese-American and lo and behold like one of the founders of YouTube is Asian American and I think it helped inspire us and like, 'Oh somebody that looks like me can do it and maybe we can do it too.' Like maybe we can make something as impactful as YouTube around the world. Maybe maybe we can we can be successful in starting this business.
Lucia: This speaks to the power of representation. There were so few Asian American role models at the time but seeing one successful founder - Steve Chen of YouTube - made Holly believe she could do it too.
Lynne: It was exactly this inspiration that motivated Holly and her co-founders to follow their dreams. Together, the four co-founders would end up co-founding Kabam, which was called Watercooler back in 2006.
The founding team of Kabam was entirely Asian, actually entirely Chinese - which lent itself to some huge benefits and shortcomings.
Holly: Some of my most proudest moments are when all the old Kabammers or Kabam alumni come to me and say like, 'This has been one of like the highlights of my career.'
There's this one woman who joined the exec team and she's like, 'You know, the reason why I joined is actually because it was an Asian founding team with Asian leadership and you don't see that here. And this is the reason why I joined.' And I was like, wow.
Lynne: Having an all Asian leadership team had its shortcomings too. Their competitive spirit kept the successes coming but it also came with a certain type of leadership style, a humble one, sometimes a bit too humble.
IV. Race, Gender, and Games - “Onliness”
Holly: I remember people would ask me, like, what's it like being a female founder? And I would just kind of give them a blank stare. Like, I dunno. It's the same thing. I'm just a founder. I don't know what you're talking about.
And then as the org got bigger, it's certainly began to change. Like, we had performance reviews. I couldn't be Holly the founder and in fact as an org gets bigger, being a founder becomes less and less relevant. You hear about like, how do you scale, how do you do this? Like how do we level up our game?
And you and I both know as founders, you're the one that was there at the beginning,
so you're constantly under this pressure of like, I'm not good enough. Like maybe somebody else can do it better than me.
And you feel that way constantly. But at the same time, I think the biggest challenge for any founder out there is knowing that they are the right person.
Lynne: For Holly, being the only woman on the cofounding team meant facing the reality of certain hard-wired stereotypes. And this was made all the more evident in the male dominated world of gaming.
Holly: I realized no matter how well I performed, I always had to try to break this barrier in their heads of what it kinda looked like. And that's when I realized like, 'Oh crap.' Like I might not view myself like different, but because everybody else's viewing myself as different and they have all these stereotypes around it that I have to navigate and I have to recognize this is a problem
Lynne: Similarly, Holly says there are hurdles that Asian Americans in general- male or female - face when it comes to leadership roles. There’s a name for this: the bamboo ceiling.
Holly: If you look around, particularly in the tech space, it's about 50/50 in the workspace like Google, Facebook. But if you look at the management team, it's definitely not represented at all.
And you can't be what you can't see. So if we spend our time thinking about the highest ranking East Asian American in a tech company, it was really hard for us to come up with a name. The closest we got was the CTO of Uber. He was Vietnamese American. He's no longer there, but everybody else, everybody else like. Um, Jerry Yang from Yahoo, uh, Jensen from Nvidia. They all founded their companies. And I think there's something about that where you spend your time. I think subconsciously many Asian-Americans might feel like, well, it's pretty clear if you continue to play by the rules, you just can't get so far.
Lucia: Holly also thinks that women, particularly Asian American women, have an underestimated superpower that can be used for good.
Holly: There's so many other stories where Asian American women have played a pivotal role because people assume, they underestimate, and I think we can turn it into a superpower.
I would say it was the Asian American women that really were the whistleblowers on the Me Too movement in Silicon Valley.
Lucia: At her core, Holly is a creator, designer, and lover of projects - which is something that everyone, Asian American or not, male or female - can relate to.
Holly: You're creating stories that get broadcasted to every little boy and girl and just imagine, just imagine the impact that you can have on somebody.
And the more that we have diversity of people, the more we can help other people achieve their dreams.
As a woman in a highly male-dominated industry, Holly is a great inspiration to do what you love and to build something great. Holly has generously offered to pay it forward and serve a resource to Rock the Boat listeners. We’ve included links to her social media below if you have any questions about being in the gaming industry, starting a company, or just want general feedback. Reach out!
Read more of Holly's thoughts on her blog.
And check out Kabam's website.