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Closing the Digital Divide - A Q&A With Mary Lou Song

Mary Lou Song is the CEO & co-founder of FuelX, a direct response video targeting company. Before founding her own startup, Song honed her entrepreneurial and project strategist skills at Friendster. After graduating from Northwestern University’s Medill School, she obtained her Master’s in Media Studies at Stanford before became one of the first early employees of eBay. She is now a professor for Master’s students at Northwestern and sits on the board of advisors for Northwestern’s Farley Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation.

Song sat down with Medill graduate student, Reedhima Mandlik, to share her wisdom on building career paths, on what students should look for to succeed, and on finding happiness in work and in life.

What made you want to work at a place like eBay?

It was 1996 and students were very interested in the internet because it was this new technology that everybody wanted to use and to try and it was just coming into awareness as a consumer tool. I had always had an interest in communities and public service and public good — that’s naturally part of a Northwestern education, especially in journalism. I also knew that I wanted to work in the internet space and that I also had this interest in shopping, but I didn’t know how that was going to turn into a job.

So how did you find that perfect opportunity?

I just happened to be in the right place at the right time, and I met the cofounder of eBay and we started talking. It was everything that I wanted. It was the internet, it was shopping and it was community. When you ask from the universe and the universe delivers, you have to take that and run with it!

How do you know when what you’re doing is “it”, that you’ve found your calling?

It’s funny, right? Sometimes you don’t really know until you get there. There have been so many times in my life where I've wandered around just not feeling comfortable in my own skin, just thinking “I've got a job that isn’t really me” or “I'm in this role and it’s not exactly right”. But I think that if you’re really thoughtful and you write down the things that you need that it plants a seed for you to go find that. It puts an idea in your head that this is what you need.

It can be hard to know what you need right when you graduate, though.

Oh yeah, absolutely! Sometimes, so many times, students graduate and they’re worried about college debt and they think that the thing that they need is a really high paying job with a lot of financial security, but that’s not always the thing that drives us. It’s got to be about what’s your higher purpose, what’s your mission? Is your job why you get up in the morning? I think it’s really important for people to try to find that.

Are there qualities that you were looking for back when you were working for Friendster that have stayed the same now?

I think that the qualities that I'm looking for haven’t really changed. It is working with people who are motivated, driven, and very selfless. They think about the greater good. They are driven by their need to contribute and their desire to grow and to learn. I find that when I surround myself with people like that, I am my happiest and I am at my best.

How does that change how you see work?

It makes everything really great. Sunday nights for me don’t suck. I have never dreaded coming into work on Monday. I don’t dread it because I am surrounded by people who have those values and those attributes. They have those intangibles. And that’s how everybody should feel.

What questions should innovators be asking themselves?

How do you use the media for a greater good? How do you use media to engage the disenfranchised? How do you use technology to close the digital divide? How do you enable more people to participate? When you talk about your ideas and you’re pitching your ideas, you want to show that more people have this problem. It’s not just you, it’s not just your problem. It’s a problem that a lot of people have.

What’s the key to work happiness?

It’s a two-piece formula. The first piece of that formula is career happiness, job happiness, making sure that you’re working on something that you really truly believe in. the second piece is working with people that you truly love. And that’s the hardest thing to find. Some people spend their whole career looking for that. You shouldn’t feel guilty about sking yourself those questions. It’s so important. That’s what you want for every one of your fellow alums. I want everyone to graduate from Northwestern pursuing their dreams and working with people who also pursue those dreams. There’s that kind of camaraderie that happens, that bond that you create.

What’s one thing people going into NUvention should know?

Sometimes when you’re working on projects, people are so worried about being the project leader. And I worry about working with people who are only concerned about being the leader. I like working with people who say “I am happy to contribute to the success of this regardless of what role I play.” And I think that it’s so rare to find it so when you do, those are your people. Those are the people you want to work with. Especially on a startup. Not everybody can be a leader, so can we all be contributors? Because that’s valuable. Its super valuable. A leader can’t lead if there’s no cohesion across that team. There has to be that base level of trust. There has to be that alignment of goals and values.

Any advice for future leaders?

Don’t hire your friends. Maybe more important than that is don’t be afraid of failure because even when a company fails there are so many incredible life lessons that come from that experience and those lessons are invaluable. So even in failure there’s something positive that can come out of it. You grow from it, you learn from it and you’re stronger from it.

Common mistakes that students make?

I think that there’s this perception that the best ideas or best products or best startups are built around your own personal needs, and I think that there’s so many opportunities to have impact. I think with NUvention and entrepreneurs its actually interesting when students study other people’s problems and try to them with technology. I think we get so wrapped up in trying to generate the million-dollar idea and it comes from thinking about your own problems, but that’s not really that interesting. I like it when I see NUvention students who are focused on somebody else’s problems and it’s a problem that they observed in businesses or environments that they're not close to.

Finally, what lessons have you learned from your experiences with company culture that you think is important for people in the space to know?

I think the biggest one is that you really have to look for people that bring out the best in you and work in an environment that brings out your best qualities. It’s not just the skill set or the topic or the material, it’s really about what kind of environment do you like working in and what are the intangibles that you need in a work environment that you need to be your most productive. That’s really a challenge for people to figure out. But if you can do that, if you can figure that out and find it and be lucky enough to work in an environment that does bring out the best in you and you’re happy because of it, that’s one in a million. x

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