You’re Going to Wear a Lot of Hats. When your organization is in the startup phase, you tend to play many roles at once, as your team hasn’t acquired all the talent it needs yet. I remember one night this last summer, I realized I was playing the role of CEO, an HR manager, and then some. I was onboarding volunteers, coordinating communications, and reaching out to strategic partnerships in addition to my responsibilities as CEO. This agility and need to transition quickly through projects are skills that I wish I would have prepared for much more.
As part of our series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading My Company”, we had the pleasure of interviewing Christine Nguyen.
Christine Nguyen is a WashU student by day and a nonprofit leader by night. She is the founder and CEO of Limitless Foundation, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit fighting for equitable and accessible healthcare, in loving memory of her uncle Cuong Ngo. Christine has worked in the nonprofit sector, legislative offices, political campaigns, startups, and venture capital firms. Outside of Limitless, she is currently using her experience to serve as president of the WashU Catholic Student Union and as an engagement manager for Consult Your Community (an organization that provides pro bono consulting services for small businesses).
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. I know that you are a very busy person. Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you grew up?
I grew up in Edmond, Oklahoma, a suburb right outside of Oklahoma City and 1.5 hours from the Greater Wynnewood Exotic Park for any Tiger King fans. I grew up less than a mile away from my cousins on my mother’s side, so my family has always been an integral part of my life. We are all very close friends and talk to each other daily. I was the textbook definition of an overachiever growing up. I participated in traditional dancing at my Vietnamese Catholic Church, speech and debate in high school, and volunteered at countless organizations.
What were your early inspirations that set you off on your particular journey?
The most significant event that pushed me towards my particular journey was my uncle’s death on February 9th, 2018. My uncle fought a long and hard battle with stage four colon cancer, and I watched him throughout this journey growing up. Seeing his experiences first hand with public insurance options, the hospital system, and more really opened my eyes to the struggles many patients but society doesn’t talk about. Furthermore, it allowed me to see the intersection of inequality in the healthcare space, as my uncle’s language barriers often made it difficult for him to receive the care he needed. After his death, I volunteered at the Stephenson Cancer Center all summer and started to lobby for healthcare reform with the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network. I made it a personal mission to fight for patients like him every day.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
When we first started, one of the funniest mistakes I made was making the onboarding process for volunteers longer than needed. We sought to replicate the model of larger nonprofits we worked with as students completed with an application, onboarding modules, etc. However, we found that many individuals in our community were extremely busy and didn’t have time to read through extended modules or fill out applications- they just wanted to get involved. Meanwhile, our executive team was exhausted with how much work the launch phase took. We had reached yearly KPI’s in our first few weeks and were getting more support from our community than we could have ever imagined. These two factors coupled meant that we spent aggressive hours on Zoom meetings figuring out projects/plans/tasks for our organization and executive team. I wish we were joking when I said that one of my office hours went from 8 pm to nearly 3 am the following morning that summer. The biggest takeaways from that experience were make getting involved as easy as possible, clearly communicate expectations and schedules, and work smart not hard. We are working on making more of our modules accessible on YouTube and our website so that volunteers can contribute to our work easily, even when their schedules are busy. As a team, we now have a set meeting and communication schedule to avoid those nightmarishly long Zoom calls. That way, we know when we each have lighter/heavier workweeks, given that we attend four different universities across the country. In addition, we are automating many of our projects so that more of our time and energy can be spent meaningfully connecting with different organizations along the way.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
This journey would not be possible without is Paula Warlick, the grassroots manager of the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network Oklahoma chapter. Paula was the first person in the healthcare space who took a chance on me and taught me so much of what I know about public policy and healthcare reform. One story I have is Paula invited our Chief Analytics Officer, Alyssa Regier, and me to Oklahomans for Step Therapy Reform. It was incredibly icy outside, and Alyssa and I struggled to get there because of traffic on the highway. Paula took care of all the logistics, writing letters to our school to get us out of class that day, scheduling meetings with our legislators, and even getting us ACSCAN-OK pins. Alyssa and I were so new to the legislative space and were very intimidated. However, Paula quickly showed us how to meet with legislators, explained what meetings typically looked like, and even accompanied us to our first few. She’s the reason why I feel confident enough to articulate my opinions on public policy, inspired to organize young voters, and articulate enough to explain the complex issues of healthcare. Paula still contributes to our organization by showing us key partnership opportunities and connecting us with other leaders in the healthcare space.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
One story about the hard times that I faced when we first started our journey was September of 2020 for our organization. While we had much time to work over the summer, given that most of us were working jobs rather than studying for courses, the school year’s beginning was a transition for the organization. We needed to figure out methods for balancing school, work, and Limitless, given that Limitless is not anyone’s full-time job in our organization. We had already collected the donations for September drop-offs; however, the executive board member that was supposed to deliver them to the organization was a second-degree contact for COVID-19. We had to learn to be flexible, confront the challenges that the pandemic would inevitably bring, and mobilize our resources and original plans quickly.
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
I get the drive to continue, even when things are hard, by remembering why I started in the first place. I think about my uncle and what an inspiration he has been for me. I think about the patients and the struggles that they endure. I think about inequality and the intersection of inequality. My passion for this cause is what gets me up every morning, and my work will never be done until we live in a world where accessible and equitable healthcare is a reality for all.
So, how are things going today? How did grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
Our organization met all of our KPI’s for 2020. We redistributed over 5,000 dollars worth of in-kind donations to different hospitals, treatment centers, clinics, and organizations. We now have volunteers from across the United States and are quickly preparing to expand our operations.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
I think what makes our nonprofit stand out is that we are made by the community for the community. We started our operations out of quite literally my bedroom closet storing donations in there until they were ready to be distributed. We don’t have the resources to hire a full-time team, yet we are still making a significant impact in our community. Our revenue comes from small donations from numerous community donors rather than one large event. I’ll never forget a conversation I had with a donor who told me she continuously donates to our organization with the money she plans to give back to charity/the community because she knows that we will use every single cent for our mission. I hope that even as we expand, we will always be able to hold donors’ trust and community support in this manner.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
I would recommend my colleagues clearly schedule and establish a work-life balance. Each week, I make a list of priorities of what needs to be done in my life: schoolwork, Limitless, work projects, house chores, etc. I then meticulously schedule a time to complete each of these objectives. By actively planning time to run Limitless, I know that I’m growing my passion project while giving myself time to rest. An organization is only as good as its leaders, requiring maintaining healthy habits and an excellent work-life balance.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I’ve used my success to bring goodness to the world by focusing our donations and redistribution to organizations that may not have been traditionally reached. We serve organizations with an emphasis on those with high volumes of low-income patients, BIPOC, and other marginalized groups in our society. Through targeted practices, we were actively seeking to address inequality in the healthcare space.
Wonderful. Here is the main question of our discussion. What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my company” and why? Please share a story or example for each.
- Have A Good Team Behind You
You need to be able to trust every single person on your executive team. Make sure your work styles complement one another and that you have established communication. Working with friends can and will be difficult, and it requires discerning and separating your work relationship from your friendship. For example, Alyssa and I have been best friends since high school. We make it a goal when we spend time together, not to talk about Limitless the entire time. Our friendship is built on so much more than our work in this organization that we sometimes have to separate our passion for it from the countless other things we have to catch up on when we see one another.
2. Don’t Be Afraid to Ask For Help
You’re not going to know everything when you start. You’re not going to know everything one month in. You’re never going to know everything you need to know. Countless obstacles will come up in your organization that you may not know how to answer. Don’t be afraid to ask for help, whether that’s a trusted colleague, an Internet search, or a book. When we first started our organization, I wanted to ensure we got every step right in the path to becoming a 501(c)(3). Through an introduction by one of my favorite professors, I connected with an incredible community leader working in the nonprofit sector. She carefully took her time walking through each step of the process and navigating me to additional resources. Without her, we could have made many costly mistakes in the process.
3. You’re Going to Wear a Lot of Hats
When your organization is in the startup phase, you tend to play many roles at once, as your team hasn’t acquired all the talent it needs yet. I remember one night this last summer, I realized I was playing the role of CEO, an HR manager, and then some. I was onboarding volunteers, coordinating communications, and reaching out to strategic partnerships in addition to my responsibilities as CEO. This agility and need to transition quickly through projects are skills that I wish I would have prepared for much more.
4. Results Take Time- Stop Comparing Yourself to Everyone Around You
In the nonprofit space, there are amazing organizations of all sizes working on countless causes. When I first started, I found myself comparing Limitless Foundation to other nonprofits from local community ones to large national ones. When we were in events with other larger or more experienced nonprofits such as Thinksgiving, I remember feeling a bit insecure about our qualifications. It took me a while to give myself a much-needed pep talk. You can’t compare yourself to every other player in the field. You can’t compare yourself after six months of operating to organizations that had existed before you were born. By comparing yourself and setting unreasonable standards for metrics of success, you are positioning yourself with failure. Take pride in the accomplishments of your organization, no matter how big or small. You belong in this space, and you will get there one day; just give yourself time.
5. Remember Why You Started
No entrepreneur journey comes without burnout. There are going to be days where you wonder why you continue to work on this project. There are going to be days where the workload seems too much. There are going to be days where you have conflicts with others. On these days, I remind myself to take a deep breath, remind myself of my passion for healthcare, and why I fight for patients every day. I give myself the grace to take a bit of time off while reflecting on moving forward and why I need to move forward.
Now that you have gained this experience and knowledge, has it affected or changed your personal leadership philosophy and style? How have these changes affected your company?
Running a small nonprofit has definitely changed my personal leadership philosophy and style to be more flexible. Before this experience, I definitely could be uptight sometimes about deadlines, expectations, and other KPI’s. However, given how many moving pieces there are in a nonprofit, perfection is an unrealistic standard. I’ve come to be more understanding of my teammates, less hard on myself and my work, and more community-oriented in my work inside and outside of Limitless.
This series is called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me”. This has the implicit assumption that had you known something, you might have acted differently. But from your current vantage point, do you feel that knowing alone would have been enough, or do you feel that ultimately you can only learn from experience? I think that learning from mistakes is the best way, perhaps the only way, to truly absorb and integrate abstract information. What do you think about this idea? Can you explain?
Knowing these lessons alone would have helped along the journey, but experience is the best teacher. Each of these lessons will look different in your organization depending on the size, the problem you’re tackling, your team, and countless other factors. While I think that you can learn from the wisdom of others in the field, making these mistakes and many others are inevitable. However, make sure you give yourself the space to learn from these mistakes and use them to make your organization better.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
The movement that I would start would be mobilizing young voters to make a change in their community. I think Gen Z is definitely the activist generation, and I’m excited about what they’ll do to change the world around them. I believe Gen-Z operates under a very action-oriented framework, asking themselves what they can do to improve the world around them. I wish that I could offer them the resources, mentorship opportunities, and motivation to get their passion projects started.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Readers can follow Limitless Foundation our social media pages and checking out our website.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!