Miss California 2013 Explains Why She Loves the Startup Scene

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Winning the Miss America pageant has been a long time goal for San Francisco native Crystal Lee. After multiple attempts to win the Miss California title, Crystal finally won the crown back in June. That accomplishment further put her on course to fulfill her dream of winning the Miss America title.

As a Stanford Graduate with two degrees, a techie, and winner of past titles including Miss San Francisco and Miss Silicon Valley, this makes Crystal a force to be reckoned with. There has arguably been no other Miss California winner that has been as passionate in the startup and tech scene as much as her.

Crystal made it all the way to the finals during this year’s Miss America Pageant but came in second place, losing to Miss New York Nina Davuluri. Regardless, Crystal has remained optimistic and thankful for all she’s accomplished. She is currently dedicating her time advocating to get more women involved in fields of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) as one of her key focuses through the duration of her time as Miss California and beyond.

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We recently had the chance to catch up with Crystal between her travels. In this interview, we discuss why she’s so enamored by the startup scene, the lessons she’s learned competing for the Miss America title, and when she wants to start her own company.

It’s been a long time goal for you to win the Miss America title since you became  first runner up this year. Do you feel any sadness for not winning the title?

I think there will always be a part of me that is going to wonder what it would be like if I was to be Miss America. However, I’m also a firm believer that everything happens for a reason and being Miss California is such an honor that I really don’t have very much sadness in my heart. If anything, I’m more excited to take the title that I’ve been given in June and to really make my year count. I’m really, I’m glad the Miss America program is an annual thing, so this too shall pass. I will get over it. I think the country will, you know, move on to other new occurrences and new developments and with Miss America 2015 and Miss America 2016, it’ll just continue to snowball and I had my time in the spotlight. I’m excited and grateful for that rather than disappointed.

You were an intern at Dropbox once which is one of the factors that have inspired you to start your own business someday. What are some things in the startup scene that are so appealing to you?

I’m actually fascinated by the wearables industry now. A lot is, Fitbit is doing a lot and I’m wearing my Fitbit, it’s pink because it’s an acknowledgement of the breast cancer awareness month of October. Women’s health is something that I’ve always been passionate about. I was a Human Biology major in school. I think ultimately what fascinates me most about entrepreneurship is just the fact that the ceiling is so high. It is so limitless. The fact that you can just come out of school, take something that you’re passionate about and run with it and dedicate yourself whole-heartedly. An environment with that supported is unprecedented. As recent as 50 years ago, that wasn’t the norm, so I just really like having a lot of different opportunities in front of me. A part of it is overwhelming because I don’t know what to choose but I would definitely say that within tech there’s so many avenues to run with that. I personally would like to see technology and day to day functionality with wearables being, you know, one of the newest examples of being able to integrate technology into consumer devices. I think it’s really cool.

So, what you are saying is, Fitbit is one of your most favorite startups at the moment?

At the moment Fitbit is really neat. There are a lot of other startups that I think are really hot and up and rising. I would say, because I’m a consumer, I obviously like Fitbit because I use it but there are also companies like, you know, ZenPayroll which is a new payroll company that is more of a B2B rather than B2C type of business and there are lots of opportunities within B2B that I don’t quite know as a consumer yet but I know has a lot of potential to change the landscape of the way business and commerce is performed.

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What are some current female leaders that you look up to?

I look up to Marissa Mayer, the CEO of Yahoo who used to be one of the earliest employees at Google. I look up to Sheryl Samberg of course. She wrote Lean In. But aside from those two women who are some of the most well known female figures in the Valley, I would say there are a lot of female CEOs at smaller companies who are also making a lot of wonderful change at a grass roots level. One woman that comes to mind is Jennifer Pahlka. She runs Code for America and she matches engineers with projects for local governments, local municipal governments, to get engineering and technology implemented at a level where you can streamline a lot of the processes in government that are currently more tedious and slow than they have to be. So, that’s really neat to me.

What do you think women as individuals can do in order to be more prominent in the male dominated business space?

I think women just really have to choose the lean in. I think women ultimately are going to be faced with a lot of difficult, challenging decisions, as are men, especially when it comes time to start a family, but ultimately I think it’s just about being able to help them. We have to actually intentionally provide certain resources or certain frameworks in the office place to help women feel like they can, you know, find support there. As soon as she feels like her boss is more supportive or that company culture is supportive of her taking the stand to basically participate more in projects or to speak more, speak up more in the boardroom, I think that’s important. As Miss California, a big part of my platform is encouraging younger girls between the ages of 7 and 15 to really consider science and technology, engineering and mathematics as viable career options.

Have you personally faced any sort of challenges because of your gender or your race?

Yeah. I’ve actually been pretty pretty lucky. If I’ve ever been excluded from certain things that the guys in the team do it’s probably because I just don’t like basketball as much as they do and I just physically, I’m not as interested in, you know, doing a dunking contest. But I grew up in San Francisco where it’s been incredibly diverse. I’ve been very fortunate to not encounter any of the racism that one might expect, but it’s not to say it won’t happen. But I’ll be ready for it because it’s not always there to just assume that you can look at the world through rose tinted glasses. It’s going to be a tough fight no matter what and being who I am, as long as I don’t let that keep me back, it won’t keep me back.

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