Mary Gao

Co-Founder of Immigrants Like Us

Mary is a Computer Science and Philosophy student at Harvard, and one of the cofounders of Immigrants Like Us, a legal-tech nonprofit that is building a free “turbo-tax” for immigration. After being on the founding team of Upsolve, a legal-tech nonprofit for Chapter 7 bankruptcy which helped discharge more than $200 million of debt for 3,000+ low-income families, she wanted to tackle another enormous broken system – immigration. In 2020, immigration to the US has never been more expensive and more complicated, but she wants to make it safe, transparent, and free.

As a child, she immigrated from China, experiencing first hand how difficult the system can be. In high school, she attended an international boarding school with 180 students representing more than 80 countries. In that environment, she learned the value of diversity, and the importance of trying to do good. She began university at NYU, studying Business and Political Economy. This led her to study abroad and visit 15 countries during that time, and along the way, joined Upsolve, and volunteered at refugee camps around Europe. After two years, she transferred to Harvard where she now studies Computer Science and Philosophy. Her aim in becoming technical was to use those skills to tackle social issues.

Where did the idea for Immigrants Like Us come from?

While working at Upsolve, I started thinking about how a technology solution could be applied to other access to justice problems. At the time in 2016, the Syrian refugee crisis monopolized headlines. So I started sitting in on immigration court hearings, speaking to lawyers, and immediately knew the system was a mess. At the time, I built an MVP for asylum applications, but it was not very good. Flash forward two years, I had volunteered with refugees across Europe, switched to computer science, and Upsolve was at the point of being self-sustainable and some teammates were looking to tackle another problem, so my other 2 co-founders and I settled on doing it all again – another legal-tech nonprofit, this time for immigration.

What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?

Now that school is finished, my typical day begins with a team standup (a really short meeting where we tell each other what we’re going to do that day). I make coffee or tea, and pick up my Moleskine agenda. Yes, I realize I’m a co-founder of a tech nonprofit, but I still really struggle with Google Calendar. There’s nothing like a physical notebook.

I live and die by my agenda. Most of the day, I’m just executing whatever is on my to do’s, occasionally I’ll have a meeting, but we believe meetings are innocent until proven guilty, and limited to 30 minutes generally, so they’re not a large chunk of my day.

For productivity, I’ve identified certain qualities of myself, and fight or aid them. For example, I’ve learned I’m heavily dependent on my environment. So I choose a nice space to begin work, and if I become unproductive, I pick up and move to another room for the next block of time. I’ve also learned procrastination for me comes in the form of not beginning, rather than not wanting to do the work. So I tell myself I’ll just do a couple of minutes of whatever I am procrastinating on, and next thing you know, it’s finished.

How do you bring ideas to life?

At Immigrants Like Us, ideas begin by being “guilty until proven innocent” (aka GUPI, rhymes with puppy). In our monthly roadmap meetings, we would discuss the merits of a new idea for our roadmap and decide upon it.

When actually executing an idea, I think about team and plan. The team involves making sure the right people are working on it, and the plan is about being thoughtful and thorough. The right people + the right direction = likely good execution.

What’s one trend that excites you?

One silver lining to the pandemic has been the recognition of essential workers/ organizations and how vulnerable many of our social systems are. I hope the world that comes out of the pandemic is built to be more sustainable and the social systems more robust, because clearly what we were doing before is not good enough.

What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?

Having very few key performance indicators (KPI), and realizing that outside of times when we’re fundraising, all that matters is getting users and building products. And even so, building products is driven fully by what our users say. In other words, meetings, conferences, social media, networking, etc. are rarely important, and only important insofar as it helps us with our core KPIs.

What advice would you give your younger self?

It’s okay to explore until you feel comfortable putting down roots. Unless you find your passion early on, there’s no need to become so pointy at a young age. It’s good to explore the world, understand yourself, and build up your soft and hard skills before you put down roots.

Oh, and absolutely do not start a startup unless you feel confident you can put in 5+ years into it. There is an infinite list of great problems and great people to work with, but that does not mean you have to do any of them/ are the right fit for any of them. If you can’t commit, it’s probably not the right time or right idea for you.

Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.

Nonprofits can have better SEO/ get users easier than for-profits in the consumer legal-tech space because while nonprofits don’t have millions to through at Google/FB ads, they can get valuable placements and free advertising from authoritative websites that are willing to link to nonprofits, but would never link to a for-profit.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

Keep reading. For me, I find reading a physical bore a task, but I find listening to audiobooks equivalent to listening to music. So, just by listening to audiobooks in the background while cooking or getting ready in the morning, I can still get through a book a week. I prefer nonfiction social science books, but reading any topic is better than not reading at all.

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?

We use MuckRack to contact reporters and learn about how to get PR. As someone who knows nothing about the world of journalists, it’s so valuable to see how to align your incentives with their incentives, as opposed to bombarding them with pitches they don’t want to hear. It’s also a great tool for getting up to date information on reporters (who are often freelancers and move around).

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

A failure I’m still working on is how to manage a team. We were wasting employee’s time (and our own money) by not having a clear roadmap with deadlines. It’s a completely different thing managing i.e. 10 people than it is just managing yourself. One thing we implemented was monthly road map goals which are essentially immutable, and all weekly goals are in service of the monthly road map. We also meet as co-founders once a year to set an annual road map. Just being super transparent with ourselves and our employees of when tasks must get done has really helped.

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

Aha I’ve got so many (I recommend storing all your business ideas somewhere for future reference). Idea: a virtual reality app that lets you draw and then can save that as a file type which can be immediately 3D printed.

What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?

Personal & professional: DJI Osmo Mobile 3, it’s a 3-axis gimbal for phones that makes making content for yourself or for your organization really easy. Especially if you don’t have a big content creation team, it’s such an excellent piece of technology that makes it super easy to get professional-looking videos.

What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive?

Notion. Notion is a product management web app that has truly figured out how to integrate the various to-do lists and calendars in your life. We have boards organizing structural components of our organization (i.e. Get Users, Serve Users, Fundraising, etc.). That is where we store all our organizational knowledge. We also have individual boards which are the tasks that each team member is working on in the near future. Mine is organized as a simple to do list, others have theirs organized as calendars, and others as kanban boards, just whatever works for you.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

Resilience: Hard-Won Wisdom for Living a Better Life By: Eric Greitens. This is a great book by a navy seal about how to cultivate resilience. There will always be failures, so more than anything else, we need to become resilient.

What is your favorite quote?

“The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars” ~ Jack Kerouac

Key Learnings:

  • Meetings are innocent until proven guilty, and limited to 30 minutes generally
  • One silver lining to the pandemic has been the recognition of essential workers/ organizations and how vulnerable many of our social systems are
  • In other words, meetings, conferences, social media, networking, etc. are rarely important, and only important insofar as it helps us with our core KPIs
  • Absolutely do not start a startup unless you feel confident you can put in 5+ years into it