Suffice to say it’s been a very buzzworthy election year full of important debates on countless topics. As millennial women, we’re huge proponents here of political activism and voting. So when we heard what Maria Yuan does, we just had to interview her. Maria is the founder of an online platform called IssueVoter, which is changing the way we learn about what’s on our ballots and helps us stay updated all year long. Because the thing is, a lot happens long before new laws are passed.
“I first envisioned IssueVoter while working on the campaign. I have a distinct memory of 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,'” Maria recalls. Little did she know that she’d be the person creating just that platform years later. Today, IssueVoter lets you track the causes that matter most to you and make immediate contact with your legislators when you need your voice to be heard.
In an election year, it’s easy to focus on November 8 at the expense of making ourselves heard on an ongoing basis—Maria’s enterprise is changing the way we think about activism.
HER STARTING POINT
QAs an undergrad, you studied business and finance and you minored in Political Communication. Then you got an MBA in Social Impact and Entrepreneurship. Did you always know you wanted to start your own platform? Were you always interested in working in politics?
AGrowing up, I didn’t consider careers in politics, but from a young age, voting was always emphasized by both of my parents. I remember mock voting in second grade and saw it as one’s personal responsibility. In college, at Leadershape, my vision was for 100% voter participation. It’s been sad seeing voter turnout go the other way instead, with last year’s election at a 72-year low—just 34%.
Also while 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 Jim McReynolds, where I saw first-hand that Representatives really do track every constituent contact, yet such a small percentage of us actually reach out.
QWhat was one of the first internships/jobs/gigs you took after graduation? What did you learn there that you couldn’t have learned anywhere else?
AI worked at JPMorgan as an Investment Banking Analyst. I learned to take risks and that “it doesn’t hurt to ask.” As a second year Analyst, I asked for a leave of absence to enter a campaign training program in Washington, DC. When training ended, I was sent to 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 the idea for IssueVoter began.
QYou worked on a State Senate campaign in Iowa. Can you tell us more about that? What drew you to working on the campaign trail? And what did you learn working there that led you to IssueVoter?
AI first envisioned IssueVoter while working on the campaign. I have a distinct memory 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.” And also 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.
Nearly 10 years later, the idea was still stuck with me, and both astonished and frustrated that something still didn’t exist, I decided to create it. Sure, there are websites to research legislation (but they require a lot of searching and don’t provide simple summaries), sites to send your opinion to your rep (but they require filling out long forms each time and having to think of your own message), and don’t get me started on petitions… (which are merely a list of names, and the signer has no way to easily track outcomes…)
HER BIG BREAK
QTell us more about IssueVoter. How does it work?
AIssueVoter is a non-partisan website that helps you make your voice heard in Washington with just one click, and tracks how often your elected officials vote your way – keeping politicians accountable and helping you make a more informed decision at election time.
How IssueVoter works:
1. [It helps you] stay informed year-round. [You’ll] receive targeted alerts before Congress votes on issues you care about, summaries of bills, and we offer pros, cons, and related news for context.
2. [It makes] your voice count. You can send your opinion directly to your rep in one click.
3. [It] keeps politicians accountable. [You can] track your rep’s votes and bill outcomes to help you make an informed decision at election time.
QWhat do you hope to achieve with it?
AOur mission is to give everyone a voice in our democracy by making civic engagement accessible, efficient, and impactful. I hope to build a product that people didn’t even realize they needed before they had it. Before Facebook, we weren’t sitting around thinking: “I need a profile of myself online so that I can connect with friends.”
QHow did you prepare to go it alone on a path toward entrepreneurship? Any things you didn’t expect or tips you’d like to share with a woman considering starting her own platform or company?
AI first started IssueVoter while having a full-time job so that felt like an easier lift. I’d offer this advice:
1. Ask yourself, “Would I regret not doing this?” If the answer is “yes,” then you owe it to yourself to do it.
2. Remember, you can control your inputs/actions but not the outcome – do your best.
3. Listen to and trust your gut.
QTell us what a workday in your life might look like. What’s your morning routine? How do you organize your work hours? What do you do after hours?
ALately, I’ve become more aware of my productive times of day, and so it’s no surprise that I always loved school—you have complete control over your own schedule, you get to constantly learn and try new things, and you’re surrounded by smart, passionate, and interesting people. An entrepreneur’s lifestyle is not that different!
I am not a morning person, and in the past, reading productivity tips about CEOs waking up at 5am used to make me think that I should do the same. Now, I have no desire to do so and can ignore that advice. I’ve also learned that the typical “workout first thing in the morning” is not for me. It takes away from time when I’m really focused and productive: shortly after I wake up in the morning, late afternoon/early evening, and later at night. I take my dog Cotton out 3 times a day, which helps force me to get fresh air and get a chance of scenery. I try to work out at least 3 times a week. Every day, I take vitamins and meditate. I just started a new 30-day challenge and am on Day 18.
QWe’re in the midst of a presidential campaign. What do you think women should be thinking about as they prepare to vote?
ARemember why you vote. What issue(s) do you care about? IssueVoter just launched a social media campaign where you can share the reason you vote to encourage others to show up on election day. Head to whyivote.us and upload your picture to share across social media with the tags #whyivote + @issuevoter. We’ll also feature users’ photos and stories on our blog.
Contrary to what you might expect, the campaign is “evergreen”: you still care about those issues year-round, so #whyivote becomes #whyivoted. After the election, IssueVoter helps you answer the question, “I just voted…now what?”
Second, there’s so much focus on the Presidential race, I urge people to pay more attention to the rest of the ballot! Ballot Ready is another new startup that can help you see and understand who is on your entire ballot ahead of election day.
QWe often have a hard time talking about mistakes, but we all make them. What’s one you can share with our readers? How did it affect your work and your perspective?
AI have made the mistake of staying in a job too long. Once I got comfortable and no longer felt challenged, I also became bored and unhappy. In hindsight, I didn’t leave sooner out of inertia (being comfortable is easy, which is nice sometimes) and fear of the unknown. Being an entrepreneur, I doubt I’ll ever stop learning. But now, I’m conscious of knowing when something isn’t working and careful not to go down the wrong path too long.
QIt’s difficult to strike a work-life balance when you’re running your own company? How do you make time for yourself?
AThere is no such thing as “work-life balance”, and that’s okay! To elaborate, while I was in business school, I had the opportunity to take Stew Friedman’s course, Total Leadership. Instead of work-life balance, he taught “work-life integration” and explains: “When the goal is work/life balance, you’re forced to play a zero sum game. The idea that “work” competes with “life” ignores that “life” is actually the intersection and interaction of four major domains: work, home, community, and the private self.”
For example, when I’m going to an event to talk about IssueVoter, it intersects work, life, and community because I get to talk about something I’m passionate about, which also happens to be my work (and I realize this is not the case for everyone and am so grateful I get to dedicate my time to a passion), it benefits the community, and I enjoy meeting people, so it doesn’t feel like a chore. Another example: One way I relax is by walking my dog. While on walks, I might get an idea for IssueVoter. I don’t aim to keep a clear separation between “work” and “life.” Being an entrepreneur, you’re constantly thinking about your company, so embrace it!
QAnd finally, what do you wake up looking forward to? What’s next for your career?
AI look forward to furthering IssueVoter’s mission and exploring new ideas! I’m someone who, throughout my entire life, has pursued multiple endeavors at the same time. For example, in elementary school, I took dance, piano, art, and acting classes. At JPMorgan, even working 80+ hours a week, I served on nonprofit boards. Nobody can predict the future, but I do know I’ll be busy!