Elaine Truong is a social entrepreneur and engineering student at UCLA passionate about using technology and innovative design to make a lasting impact on the world. She likes to describe herself as someone in the “art of creating experiences,” which motivates her to organize global conferences, hackathons, and networking dinners. She is the Director of Corporate Relations at Millennium Forward Meet, an international conference to mobilize social entrepreneurs towards the United Nations’ Millennial Development Goals in Sydney, March 2015. Since 14 years old, Elaine has pursued several entrepreneurial endeavors, starting out leading a human rights nonprofit and later founding a socially conscious jewelry company that employed female entrepreneurs in Namibia, Nicaragua, and Uganda. She was interviewed by various press outlets like Seventeen, Pasadena Star News, Audrey, and Mochi magazines. Her most recent development is ReVolt, a dirt-powered battery that charges cell phones in Kenya, which was selected as a Clinton Global Initiative University commitment in 2013 and 2014. Elaine believes in businesses that do well by doing good, hoping to tackle the world’s most challenging problems and making a positive impact on those around her. She values people and relationships over anything else, whether it means surrounding herself by role models she admires or hosting enjoyable events. She is an active participant in the Baller Dinner, Kairos Society, and Network EverAfter communities, and loves to attend technology and social entrepreneurship conferences. Instead of focusing on how networking can further her ambitions, Elaine prefers to approach others by asking how she can help them with their projects. When she’s not in the lab or attending her engineering classes, one of Elaine’s favorite pastimes is traveling. She likes to joke that in case she doesn’t make it to Forbes’ 30 Under 30 list, she has her personal list – to travel to 30 countries and leaving each destination better than when she first found it. In her spare time, Elaine practices yoga and is excited about trying new things.
Where did the idea for ReVolt come from? What does your typical day look like?
About two years ago, I was leading a team to implement an efficient stoves project in Kenya to relieve respiratory problems, which was one of the most problematic issues in the region. I learned about alternative energy methods and the living conditions rural Kenyans endured. Children who use kerosene lamps to study at night would have trouble breathing due to all the soot, which is the #1 killer among young children in the region. Then through Argos Society, an engineering consultancy I co-founded in my 2nd year of college, I learned that off-the-grid Kenyans would have to walk 7-10 miles three times a week just to charge their cell phones. Realizing this problem, I partnered up with a scientist at Harvard who is leading our technical team to develop a dirt-powered battery appropriate to charge a cell phone.
My typical day during the school year starts at about 6 am when I practice yoga and prepare for my day ahead. No caffeine needed. Working on a startup gets my adrenaline pumping enough! Everything is already planned out in my Google Calendar, which I make sure to fill with activities each hour. If I don’t have a morning class, I’ll answer emails, messages, and do homework. After about four hours of engineering lectures, I’ll visit the lab and discuss updates and goals with the technical team. Lunches are usually reserved for business meetings or catching up with friends. In between classes, I’m often found answering emails and speaking with my co-founder while trying to get as much homework done as possible. After a networking dinner or event later that night, I’ll head back to my apartment to either work on a grant application or more homework.
How do you bring ideas to life?
There are two things I learned that works best for me: surround myself with the right people and knowing what to focus on. Relationships with others are so important and as many quote, “you are the average of those closest to you.” I try to meet inspiring people everyday who I can help and learn from. By building a community that you can rely on, it makes all the difference when you’re launching a new release or just seeking feedback on an idea. As I got more involved with Clinton Global Initiative University (CGI U) and Baller, I found that I was constantly motivated and more persistent in putting myself out there.
Second, it’s really important to know what you value, which can set the agenda for you to focus on. If I don’t understand a project or a decision doesn’t align with my values, than I won’t pursue it. Knowing what you value also makes it easier to take a step back and assess if there is a genuine, thought-out purpose behind what you do.
What’s one trend that really excites you?
There’s a huge wave of hackathons that’s taking over universities across the US and it’s amazing! I believe in the power of hackathons and it’s unbelievable what young people can create in 36 hours. An attendee at LA Hacks combined gesture control technology and a smart keyboard so that users can literally motion letters with their hands instead of using a physical keyboard. There’s a lot of exciting potential from hardware, and it’s been a blast organizing UCLA’s first hardware hackathon coming up in January 2015.
What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?
Ever since I learned about Simon Sinek’s “golden circle,” I have been questioning everything I do and seeking a purpose behind every decision and thought. Transitioning from my serial entrepreneur background, I constantly reevaluate myself and seek much more meaningful experiences out of my ventures. It can annoy the entrepreneur in me that’s itching to execute, but the long-term effects of simply discussing, “Why?” are immeasurable.
What was the worst job you ever had and what did you learn from it?
I have been fortunate enough to have some extraordinary work experiences. However, I used to work in fashion and PR and interned for a few companies in high school. It was glamorous and fun to attend red carpet events, meet celebrities, and whatnot. But in the end, I felt like there was little value to the work I was contributing. I question a job where the highlight was a photo opportunity with a famous musician. From these experiences, I learned to find value in everything I do, and to clarify my purpose before pursuing a job or opportunity.
If you were to start again, what would you do differently?
If I could rewind a few years of my life, I would try to immerse myself into entrepreneurial communities by attending conferences at a younger age. I didn’t realize the amount of supportive communities out there for young people like the Harvard Project and Thiel Fellowship until only recently. As a young entrepreneur, it can be extremely easy to be distracted by school and lose momentum. Being in a community and interacting with like-minded people will seriously accelerate your venture.
As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?
There’s no argument that founding a venture is unbelievably difficult and an experience where you’ll endure a rollercoaster of emotions, but at the end of the day, the most important thing to realize is that one should never give up. Giving up can be tempting, but embracing failure and seeing bad experiences as learning opportunities instead of regretted situations will change your entire mentality. I realized that I’ve become a much more optimistic person that never takes failure seriously. When I went through a co-founder divorce, I was discouraged for a day at most. I suddenly felt liberated as if I discovered something new or I had opened a door of opportunities. I bounced back extremely fast, meeting with new co-founders the next day and continuing to maintain my relationship with my ex-co-founder. Remembering to never give up and changing my perspective on failure are some of the most valuable lessons I have experienced.
What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business? Please explain how.
I find it incredibly valuable to seek feedback from mentors and people whose opinions matter to me. When we were just starting out with ReVolt, it was all completely new to us and our lack of knowledge showed when we were being interviewed by a potential partner. However, instead of being discouraged about the unfortunate impression we made, my co-founder and I immediately made sure we thought out all responses and did our research. We actively look to meet people whose questions we can’t answer or is willing to challenge our ideas.
What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?
A very recent failure was Argos Society, a grand idea of creating an engineering consultancy for entrepreneurs in developing countries. We realized that we didn’t have the capital or skills to sustain the idea and the commitment needed to achieve those resources were beyond what both of us could contribute. We overcame this obstacle by choosing one project out of the three to focus on, re-branding our entire vision, and launching ReVolt.
What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?
Over the past few years, more and more Kenyans have had access to technology. Over 90% of Kenyans currently own a mobile phone, which they use for apps to play games, email relatives, or check cabbage prices. There’s incredible potential for mobile app development in Africa, especially with virtual currency and ways farmers in the fields to send funds to family far away.
Tell us something about you that very few people know?
Even though I’m a STEM student and love all things engineering and technology, I’m actually a huge art lover. Going to museums to view Impressionist exhibitions is one of my favorite indulgences. I also enjoy classical architecture, ballet, and live orchestral performances.
What software and web services do you use?
Evernote, Google Calendar, Slack, Google Drive
What do you love about them?
Slack is a fun way to communicate with teammates and I love how well-thought-out the features are. It integrates with Google Drive and you can hashtag any discussion topics. Evernote is secure and well-designed while my diary of events is documented on Google Calendar, which allows me to color-coordinate and prioritize.
What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?
Leaders Eat Last by Simon Sinek
Every entrepreneur and executive should read this. I’ve used the methods Simon suggests in the book and it’s improved the influence I have had on others as well as my relationships with them.
What people have influenced your thinking and might be of interest to others?
Bunker Roy, Richard Branson, Bill Clinton, Simon Sinek