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THE YCEO: Success Begins by Being Able to Tell Your Own Story

Industrial designer Linda Jiang offers her best advice for taking a career leap.

When you’re operating in a saturated market, what can you do to truly set your product apart? That's the question that Linda Jiang asks herself every day as the head of industrial design at Essential Products.

Since joining the startup, founded by Android platform inventor Andy Rubin, as the company’s fourth employee in 2016, 27-year-old Jiang and her team of two designers worked to develop and ship a smartphone that could connect with customers and compete with heavy hitters such as Apple, Google and Samsung.

In addition to overseeing the design of the Essential PH-1 -- and the world’s smallest 360-degree camera -- Jiang also had a hand in the sales, marketing and manufacturing of the phone. And in a field where 85 to 90 percent of industrial designers are male, Jiang says she has learned that having her unique perspective is what truly makes an impact.

Jiange shared her insights about why you should never be afraid to ask about what you don’t understand and why you should never hide who you are.

I think part of design is having to trust your own intuition. Design is such a subjective thing [and] you're constantly trying to push for your own ideas and what you think is going to be trending. And then you have to make sure everyone is on that same train of thought and believes in what you are pitching. I do that on a day-to-day basis. You can't just say this is what I believe in or this is where I think the company should go. You have to tell a story and make sure that people get where you're coming from and understand the plot that you're trying to create. A lot of what I do is creating the story of our product. I think throughout my career, one of the things I had to learn coming out of school was 'how do I tell my story?' [If you are able to do that] people will feel like they understand you a little bit better and where you're coming from.

What was a mistake you made and how did you move forward from it?

I feel like one of the biggest mistakes I made was early on in my career. Coming out of school, I would join these meetings with a lot of senior designers or senior engineers. I felt like I had to prove myself or kind of pretend like I knew more than I did. Just so I can feel like I'm equal to them or impress them. But I think most people see past that. They understand that you're a junior and they understand that you're still learning. So I feel like doing that was actually giving myself a negative reputation. I quickly learned that if I don't know what an acronym means, ask. Don't try to hide it to try and keep up with the conversation. It's just not beneficial for anyone.

How have you grown and changed as a leader throughout your career?

Coming out of more corporate setting, everyone kind of had their own role and their own part to play. Since coming to to a startup like Essential. You have to do more than just your role. You have put on a lot of different hats and do a lot of different jobs that are outside of your daily tasks. I've really learned from having mid-level to junior designers underneath me. At first, I always felt like I had to handhold a little bit. Now I've come to realize that they are really strong designers. We hired them for a reason. And I can give them my full trust and just let them do their thing -- and I can do my thing. And I think that's great, because it allows me to do all the other parts that I have to play and do other jobs and tasks that that are waiting. That I've really grown into -- just learning how to lead and trust my team.

Over time, how has your view of success and failure changed?

I think in the beginning, my idea of success was each time we launched a new product. It was really satisfying. But I now realize it's actually more satisfying when I get through a meeting where everyone in the room is on the same page and we are totally collaborative. It's those little things that make me feel like I'm in a very successful stride. You're not only looking towards the finish line of just launching this product. All those day-to-day interactions that go super smoothly and you realize just how much you can really collaborate with your teammates. That makes it much easier actually to get to the end goal.

One of the mentors that I worked with, she had been at my previous job at Motorola for five years before I joined. And when I first joined, I think she noticed I was having a hard time keeping up in meetings. Her advice was, just be yourself. Don't be afraid if you don't know the answer to a question. Don't feel like you have to play it off as if you know or anything like that. Don't be afraid to act like the young girl that you are. At first, I thought, what do you mean by that?

At the time, it was it was such male-driven company. In our meetings it would be like five to six senior engineers, all male, who had been there for 10 plus years. And I felt like I had to adjust myself to fit within that meeting scene to be taken seriously. I was 21, I had just graduated college. She told me [that] a lot of them appreciate a fresh perspective and personality, so don't hide or change yourself. I took that to heart. After that, everything became easier. It was easier to work with them [Because I am] I'm different and I bring a fresh take.

What would you say to someone who is about to leave the corporate world for a startup gig?

Joining Essential was a really big leap. Coming out of a really large corporation, I had a bunch of other offers at a time that were very like comfortable, stable jobs with a very clear plan for growth. But when the opportunity for Essential came up, I'm thought, okay, so we're making products in such a saturated market where we have brand, no name and it's brand new. Nobody knows what's happening. But I'll do it. At the time it was crazy to me. But for me, it was just like, I'm still young and I have nothing to lose. If this fails, I can find another job. It's probably crazy, but I'm going to give up on all these offers and just dive head first into a startup that at the time was three people. I think if there's any advice I could give anyone out there, it’s to consider your own situation. But any chance [you have] where the opportunity is to succeed or grow, then what do you have to lose? Then I say go for it. Especially for all the young entrepreneurs and all the people out there debating between the safe route and a hard route.

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