She Grew Up With Nothing in Rural China — Now She Runs One of the Hottest Startups in LA
To an outsider’s eye, 25-year-old Nanxi Liu might be seen as a prodigy. She was an All-American cheerleader in high school, a beauty queen, earned enough scholarship money to pay her way through UC Berkeley, founded two successful startups before the age of 25, and recently made the Forbes 30-under-30 list.
But it wasn’t always like this for Liu, and her road to success is everything that encompasses “the hustle.” She recently gave us the honor to hang out with her inside her office to tell us her story.
Born in rural China to a household without running water, Liu was separated from her parents until she was 5 years old. Her parents at the time lived in the U.S. as grad students and couldn’t afford to bring Liu over. Liu told NextShark:
“Between my grandparents in rural China, I also lived with my aunt and uncle — they were in a small city. I called them mom and dad apparently. That’s what they tell me. They joke that the moment my mom came to China to pick me up to bring me to the U.S., I immediately stopped calling my aunt ‘mom’ and she was offended.”
A month before she turned 5, Liu was finally able to go to Fort Collins, Colorado, to be reunited with her parents. However, her family’s financial situation was still rocky.
“To pay for things my mom worked as a waitress at night; my dad was doing grad school. Eventually my mom started doing grad school. We lived off of their scholarships.”
As a kid, Liu was also on the free lunch program at school.
“It was kind of embarrassing even when you’re a kid. I remember being happier when my parents would give me a dollar to pay for lunch. Ever since I was young I was pretty socially and emotionally aware of where I was relative to other kids. When I went to a birthday for other kids they would have a house; for us we lived in subsidized university housing. It was always very apparent.”
“I totally didn’t realize that I was one of those kids until later on when I was in college and we would be doing these toy drives and take the wish list of these kids and then go buy the toys on this wish list. I was totally one of those kids and then the church would bring it. I remember asking specifically for Beanie Babies — I still have those two, except they were knock-off Beanie Babies. It’s in the basement somewhere.”
While these were tough times to go through at a young age, these experiences allowed Liu to understand the value of money early on in life. It also gave her the motivation to find ways to make money herself.
“I remember one Christmas my parents said, ‘We will get you one gift.’ I asked for the Linkin Park CD. It was the ‘Hybrid Theory’ CD. I remember asking for another, and they said, ‘Are you kidding? No, one CD.’ That was kind of how I was growing up and I’m appreciative because now I realize it’s hard to make a single dollar or 10 dollars; it’s not easy.
“I’m glad I grew up that way. When I was young I hated it. I was like, ‘I can’t wait until I can make money and do things that other kids can do or travel.’ We lived by this regional airport and I remember I would always run outside when there was an airplane running over and pray that one day I hope I can fly. Whenever I travel I remind myself and find myself like, ‘Oh I don’t want to travel.’ I remind myself, ‘Shut up Nancy, you are now in this fortunate position where you get to travel. Don’t ever complain.’”
According to Liu, her parents were hard on her and made her cry a lot growing up because they wanted to instill the value of hard work in her.
“I didn’t recognize that at the time, but my mom would remind me, ‘Not only are you an immigrant but you are an Asian female. You’re going to have to work twice as hard as anyone else to get to the same place.’ She started telling me this when I was 7 and started hammering it in my head. I get where she’s coming from. Especially being in Silicon Valley and tech, the double standards for female entrepreneurs, it’s very apparent.”
Liu was an overachiever throughout her life: she was an All-American cheerleader, was in student government and paid her way through UC Berkeley with scholarship money earned from piano and beauty competitions.
“Everything that I have I recognize as a privilege. I never think of it as being that I should have it but it’s that I was given the ability to have these things. For example, being able to go to college. When I was in college I did lots of activities because I was like, ‘I’m so fortunate to be here. How many people would die just to be here, just to be at Berkeley or to even go to college?’ When I was growing up, in high school and middle school, it was the same thing — to recognize that I’m in a position where I can do all those things so why not make the most of it and do it.”
During her senior year in college, Liu was hanging out at a dive bar in Colorado when a cute guy caught her eye. Liu told Forbes:
“My friend tells me, ‘That’s Balaji Sridhar, he’s a talented biochemist.’ Balaji comes over to me and we start talking. He is fluent in five languages, he was an Intel Science competition winner in high school, studied at MIT, pursued an MD and Ph.D. – obviously very smart. I said to him, ‘I don’t care about dating you because my bar for dating a guy is lower than my bar for working with someone. You’re at the higher bar — let’s start working together.’ This is midnight at a dive bar and we’re talking about stem cell research and collagen regeneration.”
Liu partnered with Sridhar to found Nanoly Bioscience, a startup that develops polymers that allow vaccines to survive without being refrigerated. The company won the coveted Young Innovator Award sponsored by Microsoft and Nokia and received funding from Intel, Dell, Duke University and Colorado State. Although she remains on the board of directors to this day, Liu says she stepped down as CEO after she graduated to focus on projects where she had more of a background and could contribute more.
While Liu’s college years were filled with great achievements, they were also filled with tragedy. Her mother, who was one of her biggest influences in life, passed away from complications arising from cancer. From there, she wondered what to do next with her life. She told Forbes:
“I recognized that even if I had made zero money, the worst that could happen is I crash on the couches of my friends. I can do that. The downside of not making money doesn’t look so terrible. Right now, I could have zero dollars in the bank and it wouldn’t impact me — I’m much more about the experience. My friends were shocked that I didn’t take a full-time job in investment banking where I would have made $150,000 in my first year after college. I thought, ‘$150,000, so what? I’m not going to change my life because of that.’ I care about building something impactful that could potentially make me $150,000,000.”
The summer after her graduation, Liu went on to launch Enplug, a startup that focuses on creating intelligent digital displays, as a co-founder. It went on to raise a total of $3.7 million in funding from notable investors like Bill Gross, Howard Marks and Troy Carter.
During the early days of the startup, all five co-founders were crammed into a house in Los Angeles. Liu had to share a one-bedroom, one-bathroom apartment with four other men. While her co-founders lived privileged lives, with one even driving an Aston Martin, they believed that moving in together would be a good team-building exercise that would also allow them to be smart with their money.
“The early days, especially when we were working out of the house, that was really interesting and very much I felt like I was in a reality TV show or something. The first time we were featured in Fast Company. They had this article on us on the homepage, like the first thing you see, the big banner was our article. It was 1 a.m. when I discovered it. I ran to everyone’s rooms and knocked on the doors and said, ‘Everyone get together.’ We opened it on a big screen, connected our laptop to a big screen, bam. This is a good moment; we took a selfie with all of us.”
While most well-funded startups are busy spending money left and right, Liu and her team focused on staying scrappy. As the startup grew, they eventually rented a house in Bel-Air, hiring new team members and giving them a stipend and free room and board for compensation. The team currently has an office in Culver City and has grown to over 30 people.
Even with her laundry list of accomplishments, Liu still remains modest.
“I almost never use the term ‘successful’ for myself. For me it’s kind of a term someone else would use for me. I’m in the early stages of where I want to get to and the impact I want to make. There are people that really have made significant impact on people and I’m nowhere close to that.”
When asked what is the biggest lesson she’s learned so far in entrepreneurship, she said:
“The team is most important. Absolutely critical. Next is when it comes to building software, you have to have a great product and build a great product. If you have the right team you can build the right product.”
“Instead of focusing on trying to get sales, focus on building the best product. We also learned that in order to win in an industry, you have to be the best software in the industry. If there’s any competitor that’s any better than you, you’re just never going to win, you have to be the best one. That’s how we think about, that’s how we build our product. That’s something I learned in the past few years.”
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