It’s a rare Wednesday afternoon that Ernestine Fu can fit an interview into her schedule. The 19-year-old from North Hollywood is more likely found working in the ASSU offices as the Executive Director of Student Services Division, or writing passages for a book she is co-authoring with Former Dean of Stanford Law School Dr. Tom Ehrlich. She might also be busy doing research for the paper she is publishing on global construction capacity and the effect of global climate change on coastal infrastructure with Stanford CIFE Director Martin Fischer and Disney’s Chief Scientist Ben Schwegler or in pitch meetings at venture capital firm Alsop Louie Partners where she works part-time.
Yes, you read that right. On the eve of her 20th birthday, the Civil and Environmental Engineering major is in fact the youngest ever venture capitalist.
At 10 years old, Fu got her first business card. She started a small business in her community that brought together other youth and community members for things like charity work, benefits, performance and bake sales — an organization Fu describes as “just very mom and pop.” At 15, she started the non-profit Visual Arts and Music for Society. Originally local (her hometown of North Hollywood), Fu’s first “legal” entrepreneurial effort quickly grew into a national (and now international) organization sponsored by groups like Chamber of Commerce and CBS Studios. And last year, Ernestine founded the Frugal Innovation Initiative, a campaign to improve health, education, and overall livelihood of people in developing countries using minimal resources and costs at USC. The project she helped develop is in the process of becoming a full-on center there.
Rather than the diva attitude you might expect from someone who has ‘overachieved’ in such an influential way, Fu was the picture of humility and charm, wearing a simple pink tank and jeans and joking about her obsession with GoogleCalendar. It is precisely this instant appeal that her mentor, Tom Kosnik, considers one of Fu’s best attributes.
So what makes this young entrepreneur tick? Her Campus sat down with Fu and Kosnik, Fenwick and West Consulting Professor, Stanford Technology Ventures Program to understand the importance of being Ernestine.
Tell us a little bit about yourself and your background. How would you describe yourself?
EF: Last weekend, I was talking to [former Apple Exec and current entrepreneur, author and speaker] Guy Kawasaki. As I was explaining my various projects and experiences, he said ‘Wow, are you an overachiever?’ I thought of that term as having negative connotations at first, but a definition of ‘overachiever’ given by Princeton University is ‘someone who attains higher standards than the IQ indicated,’ and I actually don’t mind that definition. I went to a high school in which I was expected to do my best and effectively juggle a medley of challenges at once. In order to get into the program you have to be in the top 99.9% of the IQ scale—not to say that the test is completely accurate—and you are expected to excel in a lot of different things. That taught me so much at an early age. In addition to being passionate and at least somewhat intelligent, I think it is really important that I love everything I’m doing.
TK: Something you should say though, Ernestine, is how the heck do you end up a venture capitalist at 19?! I might be a 17-, 18-, or 19-year-old Stanford student going, “Okay I may not make it at 19, but hey! Maybe I could make it as a venture capitalist before I graduate!” So tell that story, your story about how you got to Alsop Louie [Alsop Louie Partners—the VC firm where Ernestine works.]
EF: Sure! So, in terms of working for the VC firm, it definitely wasn’t something I expected to do in college. I mean, I didn’t even know what VC was until I got to Stanford! And then, all of a sudden, I realized, oh my goodness! I’m surrounded by entrepreneurship! And I learned so much about that...one thing I realized is that I actually started an entrepreneurial career pretty early on. So I guess you can say that I have pretty specific ventures I’ve done — the first one at 10 years old, the second at 15 and the last just last year.
TK: And now you’re working for the venture capital firm Alsop Louie! When did you first hear about the Gilman Louie (Ernestine's primarily go-to partner and mentor at the firm, the other being famed entrepreneurship guru Stewart Alsop) opportunity and how did you get involved with this?
EF: So I first heard it at a [social mixer] in which there were a lot of high profile VC’s and Stanford entrepreneurs who had already graduated. One of the partners was there, and I didn’t approach him, I didn’t even know who he was! We ended up talking and he asked if I’d like to just casually grab lunch and talk about my experiences, really just get to know each other. I thought why not?...He told me about a position that I should apply for, the one in which I’m currently working. I had to go through 6 rounds of interviews but I ended up getting hired with Gilman Louie, who has a lot of experience under his belt doing things like developing [Super] Tetris and leading the CIA’s first VC fund, so he’s a pretty big deal in the Silicon Valley!
And what kind of work are you doing there [at Alsop Louie]?
EF: A lot of times when you first join a VC firm when you’re really young, you generally do things like the ‘dirty secretarial work’ or, you know, less stimulating work. But it’s really exciting because I actually get to sit in on partner meetings, something that’s very rare for someone so young. I also get to pitch start ups to the partners [like Jim Whims (launched PlayStation for Sony in North America) and Bill Coleman (Founder/CEO of BEA)], so if I see an interesting Stanford startup that needs funding*, I get to listen to startups pitch and then pitch projects I see to the partners, so that’s really interesting.
TK: And that’s not usually something you get to do until you have a PhD, or until you’ve been to business school, so you’re 26 or 27 years old. Ernestine’s actually out there meeting partners and pitching ideas, so that’s very rare. And that’s a very important part of the process.
So how do you feel like that works with school? Do you find yourself not having enough time to do everything you want to do?
EF: I like to keep myself busy — when I first met Tom [Kosnik] he told me to take the Enneagram test and I’m a type 7, so I’m really enthusiastic and like to keep myself busy. One thing that’s important — advice I would give to anyone thinking about his or her potential career — I think it’s very important to wake up in the morning and actually be excited about what you’re doing. Have a personal vested interested. I have an active role in all of the things I’m involved in because I want to have an active role. I really like what I’m doing! I think that’s the most important thing. I still go to class, get to hang out with friends. I try to make the most of every moment — sometimes I even block off time to just chill on Wilbur Field. I like to lie in the sun and work on my book. Or I just do things like talk with Tom, go to interesting events at Stanford to hear speakers or do scientific research on climate change and coastal infrastructure with Martin Fisher (Director of Stanford CIFE) and Ben Schwegler (Chief Scientist at Disney). I do a lot, but I love what I do!
TK: Out of 6,000 students I’ve met, graduate and undergraduate, Harvard, Stanford, you name it—she’s in the top half of 1%. She can develop trust instantly. When I first met her, she came up and she locked eyes, she told me this is what I want to do, can you help me do this. And I was instantly convinced! I said yes! She can cross the gender, culture and generational chasms. She just shows up and people want to work with her. They want to help her because she helps them. These opportunities, the things that Ernestine’s been able to do—they exist for everyone, but she’s been able to accomplish them because she’s willing to just go for it. A lot of students are cautious to a fault...Ernestine is a perfect example of what can come from just trusting yourself, taking a breath and going for it. If you do that, you’ll be amazed at what you get.
It really is hard to imagine a more fitting name than Ernestine for the young entrepreneur. Her sincerity and passion for what she does is immediately apparent, and her confidence and poise are unmatched. It’s clear that this ‘earnestness’ that has driven her successful career, but for the ever-eager Ernestine Fu, this is only the beginning.
*If you have a start-up that needs funding or would like to chat about undergrad entrepreneurship, contact Ernestine in the ASSU Student Services Office (Old Union, 1st floor.)