VentureOut – Highlighting LGBT leaders in business.
Powered by StartOut. Written by Adam Sandel.
Vivienne Ming is a scientist, entrepreneur, wife, and mother. She’s founded three start-up companies, including the social gaming focused Augniscient (acquired by Rabbit), and the professional networking focused Conga. She’s dedicated her backgrounds in neuroscience, data mining, technology, and business towards a life goal of recognizing and maximizing human potential.
As Co-Founder and Executive Director of Socos (founded with her wife Norma Ming and former student Engin Bumbacher), she aims to revolutionize the ways that student capabilities are measured and addressed. Ming is also Chief Scientist at Gild Inc., a technology recruiting firm that’s revolutionizing the ways that stellar talent is identified. Both companies have similar goals.
“We’re looking at someone’s entire career as a student and a professional on their real merit, including non-traditional students and self-taught developers,” she says. “Our society is being lazy with them. The goal is to do the hard work to discover them – using the concrete mathematical models we build to identify what that developer or student is really capable of.”
Discovering the true potential that may be locked beneath a misleading exterior is a process with which Ming is all too familiar. She was born Evan Campbell Smith, who as a young man showed remarkable skills in science and math, and athletic prowess in track and football.
At the age of 12, Evan realized he was playing for the wrong team. He didn’t want to be a boy. He kept the feelings to himself, but in high school, and when he left his home in Monterey, California to enter U.C. San Diego, his isolation and depression began to take its toll — both socially and academically.
He dropped out of school, but an inner strength ultimately drove him to return with renewed determination. In 2001, he entered Carnegie Mellon University, where he would earn an M.S. in Psychology, then a PhD in Psychology and Theoretical Neuroscience. He soon met and fell in love with fellow PhD candidate Norma Chang.
“What drives success, and the most successful students, is internal motivation,” says Ming. “Once you identify the intrinsically motivated people, you realize that fancy degrees can actually be a negative – that some of the people who have them are more focused on how others perceive them. In my personal experience, a lot of my problems were driven by my unhappiness with who I was.”
Despite throwing himself into his demanding PhD work, and his newfound love for Norma, Evan suffered from chronic insomnia. Happy in love and successful in school, he attempted to deny his inner turmoil. In 2005 they were engaged.
On his 34th birthday Evan admitted to Norma that his secret desire was to be a woman. After much soul-searching, the couple decided to stay together. Returning to California, where they’d accepted positions at Berkeley and Stanford, they were married in 2006.
The transition from Evan to Vivienne was a gradual one, as the couple planned for a family (their son Baxter is now 5, their daughter Thalia is now 2). They eventually mashed up their last names Smith and Chang to Ming — despite protests from both of their families.
“The perception people have of Norma sticking with me after the transition is, ‘You’re so lucky – Norma is amazing.’ Yes she is, but not because of this,” says Ming. “We’re in love, we’re happier, and we’re better now. We’re very comfortable working together as wives, as mothers, and on our own projects.”
Yet Ming is very aware of how people perceive her differently as a woman than they did as a man. “Before Icame out, people always asked me math questions. But once I became a woman they stopped. There’s unintended discrimination,” she says, such as male colleagues who’d go to baseball games together — assuming that she didn’t want to go — despite the fact that the games were also business meetings.
Dealing with male VCs and CEOs can present its own challenges. “There’s a ‘jolly uncle’ phenomenon where they kind of pat me on the head with a ‘she’s such a sweet girl’ kind of attitude, as opposed to engaging me as a business person. So I look for places where I can push for ideas or data that might disrupt their vision of me. I contrast that with my experience before my transition. I know what it’s like to be taken seriously.”
Ming has been involved with StartOut since its inception and she has plenty of advice for LGBT entrepreneurs. “People need to make hard decisions, but you’ve got to come out. Some worry about being out to VCs but that’s not really an issue anymore. Confront challenges as they come. If you’re not taken seriously, go somewhere else.”
“After I transitioned, a lot of people said, ‘I like you so much more now,’ because before, I was unhappy. Making that change was a big part of becoming me. Whoever you are, as a gay man or a lesbian or a trans woman, embrace it. Turn it into an asset.”
The key to Socos’ success is its recognition of students’ unique assets. The key to Gild’s success is that it brings meritocracy to tech hiring. A key part of that are the algorithms that Ming has designed to scour the web and find out what people are really good at.
“That applies to the LGBT community as well,” she says. “Some of Gild’s bigname Silicon Valley customers are charged with finding under-served candidates. We illuminate talent and we don’t care where it comes from – which is a huge value proposition for the customers.”
“What’s personally most important to me [at both Socos and Gild] is recognizing the inherent value of people,” she says. “The applies to LGBT entrepreneurs or anyone else. If someone’s potential isn’t being recognized, that’s a terrible loss for society.”