This may come as strange advice from someone who majored in electrical engineering and got a PhD in math modeling of computer security, but I tell students I encounter to spend the remainder of their time in college filling their minds with the best of the humanities their school has to offer

ANN MIURA-KO is a partner at Floodgate, a venture capital firm specializing in micro-cap investments in startups. She has been called “the most powerful woman in startups” by Forbes and is a lecturer in entrepreneurship at Stanford. The child of a rocket scientist at NASA, Ann is a Palo Alto native and has been steeped in technology startups since she was a teenager. Prior to co-founding Floodgate, she worked at Charles River Ventures and McKinsey and Company. Some of Ann’s investments include Lyft, Ayasdi, Xamarin, Refinery29, Chloe and Isabel, Maker Media, Wanelo, TaskRabbit, and Modcloth.

How has a failure, or apparent failure, set you up for later success? Do you have a “favorite failure” of yours?
As a 12-year-old, I stood on a stage next to my brother, who confidently pointed to me and announced, “This is Ann Miura. She will be playing a Chopin Nocturne in C sharp minor.” I stood next to him, mute, and then strode over to the piano and started to play. Even though I could play a piano recital in front of many people, [my brother spoke for me because] I was absolutely terrified of speaking in public. Compounding that fear was the fact that I spoke Japanese at home and, while I was very confident of my abilities in other subjects, English was never particularly a strong suit. In high school, I decided to confront these insecurities headfirst by signing up for the speech and debate team and devoting almost all of my extracurricular hours to this endeavor. Two years in, finishing up my sophomore year in high school, my parents pointed out that this experiment had been a miserable failure. While other teammates had racked up trophies and accolades, I had a losing record and not much else to show for the time I had put in. My parents, rightfully concerned that I had put all of my eggs into a very sad and empty basket, suggested gently that I change course starting junior year. “Perhaps fencing?” my mother suggested, clearly unaware of my complete lack of athletic skills. “I hear that if you’re good at fencing, you can get into a great college!”

While their intentions were sound, my parents didn’t take into account that I absolutely loved debate. I loved the competition. I loved constructing arguments. I loved the preparation. I loved everything about it, and my losing record had yet to dampen my ardor for it. I begged for a summer to figure out a new approach. While my mother labeled me stubborn, I spent the entire summer between my sophomore and junior year of high school holed up at the local library researching next year’s potential debate topics. I doubled or even tripled the effort I had previously put in by reading philosophy books, sociology texts, journal articles—literally anything I could get my hands on. I promised my parents that I would quit debate if I didn’t place in the first two tournaments of the year.

That summer was an absolute gift to me. I learned more about myself and how I might find success than in any moment where I have actually experienced a more traditional measure of success. First, if you love something enough, it is far easier to really commit to something. Through true commitment and hard work, you can out-prepare the competition. When I walked into my first debate round in the fall of my junior year, I had already won the round before my opponent spoke a single word. I had out-prepared and out-planned my opponent. For every argument he gave, I had thought through a multitude of responses. There were literally no surprises. Second, I learned that I alone know my personal capabilities better than anyone else. It is so difficult for people to measure grit, determination, hard work, and human potential. When given the chance, we can potentially see them more clearly than anyone else. We just need to make sure we listen and hear that inner voice. I went on to take second that junior year in the state of California and won the national Tournament of Champions my senior year. I myself couldn’t have predicted that in the summer of my sophomore year.

What is an unusual habit or an absurd thing that you love?

I am absolutely nuts about office supplies. My mother’s side of the family has a small office supply store in Kanazawa, Japan, and I spent summers as a kid manning their store. I loved comparing the latest and greatest pencils and pens. I knew the model of the pencil case with the greatest set of features including a built-in pencil sharpener, matching rulers and scissors, and hidden compartments for candy or money. I loved the smell of a new notebook whose binding had yet to be cracked for the first time. I loved that people in Japan used stamps in place of signatures and came to this store to replace a stamp they may have lost. Today my obsession for the very best pens (Muji 0.38mm gel pens and Pilot Juice Up 0.4 mm gel pens) and notebooks (Leuchtturm1917 Medium Hardcover) is an echo of those hot summer days I spent in my uncle’s office supply store. I’m only mildly embarrassed by how much I love to take notes on paper with an endless supply of colored pens and pencils at my fingertips.

What advice would you give to a smart, driven college student about to enter the “real world”?
There are two pieces of advice I typically give to students who are in their final year of college. This may come as strange advice from someone who majored in electrical engineering and got a PhD in math modeling of computer security, but I first tell students I encounter to spend the remainder of their time in college filling their minds with the best of the humanities their school has to offer. While classes I took in digital circuits in 1995 have long become outdated, the timeless lessons on fundamental human nature (e.g., John Locke, Thomas Hobbes), the rise and demise of great societies and the inspirational examples set by real-life heroes (e.g., Alexander Hamilton) found in the literature and history classes I took are ones I draw upon even to this day. In a world where we emphasize the creation of new products through rapid iteration and experimentation, we often forget to step back and make sure that the future we are racing to is one we truly want to create. The practice of judgment and reasoning found in philosophy (e.g., Kantian ethics), history, and literature are skills we should continue to hone even when we are out of college, but if we do not start the practice there, it is a process that is difficult to pick up after the fact.

Second, in the first month of starting to work in New York City, my manager at work dispensed free advice that he told me was deeply personal but profoundly important: Develop a philosophy of giving as soon as you enter the working world. He said that I should develop this philosophy when I had few obligations outside of the student debt I had taken on. He suggested that I commit to a percentage of my income and that I consistently donate that amount to charities of my choosing every year. What I didn’t realize then but have come to know in my life is that charitable giving is as much a habit as it is a conscious act. While in any moment, it may feel like there are countless other places where you could use those precious dollars saved up for charitable giving, simply making and keeping such a personal commitment can carry tremendous meaning. I kept that promise to myself from the time I was first working out of college, even into leaner years in graduate school, and my husband and I have reaffirmed that commitment together for our future.

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