“Don’t be afraid to do what you like. Especially in high school and college, it’s easy to be pulled into other people’s dreams and define yourself according to what others find legit or interesting. Take time to try everything and test yourself, the world’s your oyster!”
Grace Gee, 22, is Co-founder and CEO of HoneyInsured, a health care recommendation engine , which was part of the 2015 Y Combinator Fellowship program.
Years in tech industry? 8
Who or what inspired your career in tech? How so?
My little brother, John, is so smart and better at me in all things math/ physics/ engineering-related. He was a math genius and as kids I was lucky to get direct access to such a combinatorics / number theory / graph theory teacher. The first time I took a CS course, I finally beat him at a quantitative topic and taught him machine learning and data analysis! Of course, John later caught up as well and we even took several college courses together. If it weren’t for his daily nagging about probability or all the weekly math/computer science competitions we participated in to PK each other, I wouldn’t have become the math nerd I am today. Thanks bub!
What’s been your best hack ever?
Most people don’t realize it, but if you’re young, get rid of your stuff! Stuff complicates life. Last year I threw away or donated everything that couldn’t fit into 1 suitcase and it changed my life, no kidding. Put your books on your computer, keep only a week’s worth of clothes + 2 dress clothes. Anything besides that, your computer, and bed (sleep is important!), should be gone. Don’t get stuck in the whirlwind of accumulating stuffs, buying stuff to organize your stuffs, getting more space to put your stuffs!
What has been your greatest career challenge and how have you handled it?
Shutting down my first startup. It was my baby and I worked 20 hrs, 7 days a week on it. In the midst of raising money at full speed and between meetings with investors and mentors, we slowly came to the harsh understanding of our industry’s nature and political challenges. Physically it was tough. I had lost 8% of my weight within 3 months. My doctor said I had the body of a “marathon runner” – thin with super lean muscle. Psychologically, I was rock bottom. It was bittersweet for me to say goodbye, but I’m thankful for the opportunities to learn from my users and mentors. I’ve met folks who stay in RVs and buy drugs from India and Canada. A couple used our plan to have their first babies (twins!) through in vitro fertilization. Their stories continue to humble me.
What is your biggest career success to date?
Founding HoneyInsured. Almost two years ago from a small apartment in Seattle, my co-founder Eugene and I set out to research health insurance plans and how people should buy the cheapest insurance for the best value. We believed that the bonanza of open health insurance pricing data should be made useable for any one wanting to make an informed decision. Along the way, we published a research paper, got cited in Congress and Senate testimonies, built a website, and even coordinated with the government to enroll people. We’re proud of what we built, but more importantly, we’re inspired daily by the individual health journeys of our users.
What advice you would give to women who are starting out in the tech industry?
1. Strive high, and keep your expectations low. Especially in startups, where the end-goal takes years and there’s a lot of grinding, keeping expectations low just makes you a happier person in general. At such a young age, there’s nothing to lose except your time as a young person, when age can be an excuse. I didn’t expect much when I called up CMS to become an Authorized Partner of Healthcare.gov or when I co-authored my paper on insurance company competition. But I knew I had some great mentors, an awesome cofounder, and nothing to lose.
2. Don’t be afraid to ask. This is my biggest problem. Even given the immense amount of support I’ve received throughout my startup journey, I’m still some times afraid of judgment and rejection. But then I think of that late-night resource email from a fellow Thiel fellow. Or the Sunday Google hangout with a mentor who never fails to support or be critical of my data endeavors. Or the small intro that was supposed to be a meeting that turned into a 6-hour lunch and dinner that turned into advice that changed the course of HoneyInsured that also culminated in a longtime friend. Just ask, then the rest is up to the other person.
3. Carve your niche in which you’re the expert.
4. Find people who share your values.
Who are your role models?
I love this question! My role models change but they all played immense roles in my tech adventure. Any time I faced ‘imposter syndrome’, I find a role model who excelled in my area, focus on their accomplishments, and let the negative thoughts swoosh! away. In high school when I applied for Intel STS my role model was Erika DeBenedictis, the 2010 Intel STS champion who found ways to make space travel fuel-efficient. I even pinged a cold email to her and jumped when she offered to review my paper! In college, I admired my peers – fellow problem set partners, Victoria Gu, Joy Ming, Alisa Nguyen for starting Developers for Development and Amy Yin for founding Harvard’s Women in CS. I worked with girls for many of my problem sets/ projects and never felt judged because of my gender. Before I even applied for the Thiel Fellowship, I knew of Eden Full and Laura Deming to learn that startups are cool ways of creating impact. Through my role models, I gained the confidence to know that I can own CS.
If you could go back in time, what’s one tip you’d give your younger self?
Don’t be afraid to do what you like. Especially in high school and college, it’s easy to be pulled into other people’s dreams and define yourself according to what others find legit or interesting. Take time to try everything and test yourself, the world’s your oyster!
What do you do when you’re not kicking butt at work or school?
Being a noob at rock climbing, taking long walks, reading books.
Flats, heels or kicks?
Prefer none, but otherwise flip flops!
Best career advice book? Poor Charlie’s Almanack, it’s about Charlie Munger, Warren Buffet’s partner and best friend. I learned that doing well in business is the same thing as being a nice and likable person. I also enjoy reading people books – their every day stories, hard-earned values, humble work ethic inspire me.
Who are the women in tech that you most?
Sheryl Sandberg, Professor Sweeney, Ruthe Farmer, my fellow female Thiel Fellows. They have the toughest jobs of being a minority or advocating for minorities in white and male-dominated fields, yet they rock it!