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Esther Wojcicki & Ari Memar of Tract.app: “Confidence (In Yourself)”

Grit Team Purpose (Mission) Good Health (Physical & Mental) Confidence (In Yourself) Being a founder, entrepreneur, or business owner can have many exciting and thrilling moments. But it is also punctuated with periods of doubt, slump, and anxiety. So how does one successfully and healthily ride the highs and lows of Entrepreneurship? In this series, called […]

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Grit

Team

Purpose (Mission)

Good Health (Physical & Mental)

Confidence (In Yourself)


Being a founder, entrepreneur, or business owner can have many exciting and thrilling moments. But it is also punctuated with periods of doubt, slump, and anxiety. So how does one successfully and healthily ride the highs and lows of Entrepreneurship? In this series, called “How To Successfully Ride The Emotional Highs & Lows Of Being An Entrepreneur” we are talking to successful entrepreneurs who can share stories from their experience. I had the pleasure of interviewing Esther Wojcicki and Ari Memar.

Esther Wojcicki is an American journalist, author, educator and cofounder. Ari Memar is an entrepreneur with expertise in product development, operations and leadership. Together, the former teacher-student pair cofounded Tract to transform education and bring Esther’s world-renowned teaching philosophy to kids around the world.


Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! 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 got started?

Esther: When I was teaching at Palo Alto High School, Ari was actually my student, and like most students, we kept in touch throughout the years through email or visits around Thanksgiving break. It wasn’t until about two years ago that we actually started working together.

Ari: I was working at Uber, had turned 30 and was feeling unfulfilled in my career. It was this Ender’s Game type moment where I felt I had been working so hard for others throughout my career but was never in control. I also started thinking deeply about what I wanted to do for the next decade. I kept finding myself drawn to early education. It felt like the root moment where so many problems in our world could be solved at once. I thought of the most impactful educator I had ever met — Esther — and called to meet her for lunch. She invited me to join her nonprofit, and we’ve been working together ever since.

What was the “Aha Moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?

Ari: Day 1 of Zoom School. When school moved online, it kind of just exposed the weaknesses of a lecture-based, adult-driven curriculum. Kids not showing up. Teachers muting kids. When you’ve been in Esther’s classroom you know how magical a student-led classroom is. It’s wild, chaotic, fun, loud and the kids always show up. We needed an alternative, yesterday.

Esther is a fantastic visionary and education innovator but needs a business partner and leader to help bring her ideas to life. I knew that if we wanted to help all kids, this couldn’t be a part-time job for both of us. I left Uber, Esther retired from teaching, and we were off to the races.

In your opinion, were you a natural born entrepreneur or did you develop that aptitude later on? Can you explain what you mean?

Esther: I’m a natural-born entrepreneur, and I know that because I was born with grit and am always willing to take a risk. I didn’t have an easy upbringing, but I see that as an advantage that most children don’t have. I have a natural entrepreneurial mindset — it just comes as a result of wanting to make change for myself and those around me. I’ve had to fight hard for my success, but my entrepreneurial spirit empowered me to keep going.

Ari: Both. The confidence I have in myself today is the byproduct of my past experiences in school, extracurriculars, and work. As I met more and more entrepreneurs and had more real-world practice, I realized starting a business was really approachable. The only difference between me and the entrepreneurs I met was mindset: they had religion around what they were doing and were fearless. I think I always wanted to be an entrepreneur and had the raw ingredients to do so, but I don’t think it was until later in life that I felt financially secure, confident, passionate, and fearless enough to actually do it.

Was there somebody in your life who inspired or helped you to start your journey with your business? Can you share a story with us?

Esther: My real entrepreneurial journey began after I had kids. I come from a time when women were not given business opportunities — we were expected to stay home and raise a family. It wasn’t until I got involved at Google Education in 2005 that I used my entrepreneurial mindset to advocate for teachers and online education, and I am happy it has had a worldwide impact.

Ari: My parents. They’ve always believed in me and been my #1 fan. Being an entrepreneur can be lonely and hard at times. You need support — people who unwaveringly believe in you and will pass no judgment if you epicly fail. My mom is an entrepreneur, she left her corporate job as an accountant to start a flower business and landscaping business. She never was “qualified” to start either company, but really showed me that if you love what you do and take care of your customers, the rest of the pieces kind of fall into place. Nobody is ever truly qualified to start a business. My dad spent his whole career in tech: startups and big companies like HP and IBM. He always wished he had started a company when he was younger. I had the itch, and I don’t think it would have ever gone away without starting a company in my prime years.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Esther: Peer-to-peer learning. And collaboration. It is the first for kids, by kids gamified learning platform online. It is in stark contrast with traditional education where kids are told what to learn and how to learn it, leaving no room for creativity or growth. We’re empowering teen creators to share their interests and ideas with kids 8+ in gamified ways while having a real-world impact.

Ari: Invisible learning that’s kid-driven, fun, and builds 21st-century skills. Tract is at the intersection of new media, peer communities, the creator economy, and education. The largest teaching platforms in the world are YouTube and TikTok. This shows you the power of creators, video, and user-generated content. We are so impressed by our creators, and we’d never try to flex any editorial control because their voice is so important in inspiring the next generation. Kids (and adults) don’t want to be spoken at, they want to be inspired. That’s why I’ve always believed the best education involves access to the best mentors and peer community. At Tract, we’ve avoided anything that smells like robo-learning and tried to find more ways to connect teacher with student and blur the line between student and teacher. If you are a curious tween, you can find others with the same passions as you, and an expert to learn from. I don’t think you’ll find anywhere else on the internet that is safe for kids, educational, human, fun, community-run, and dynamic.

You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

  1. Grit — People love the idea of being an entrepreneur, but most don’t realize the work that goes on behind the scenes.
  2. Humility — put status aside. There’s nothing that should be below you — do the hard work and be willing to do whatever it takes.
  3. Leadership — the ability to rally a team around your mission and empower them to achieve a common goal.

Often leaders are asked to share the best advice they received. But let’s reverse the question. Can you share a story about advice you’ve received that you now wish you never followed?

Esther: As a woman making investments in the early 90s, I got talked out of a lot of investments — from fellow investors, family members, and financial professionals who thought I didn’t know what I was doing. Fortunately, I trusted my gut anyways and purchased some stock in a few early tech companies that went on to succeed. But if I would have followed my gut, there would have been a lot more.

Ari: When I was younger there was so much emphasis on STEM; to the point where it was hard not to go to college for engineering if you were good at math. It felt like the “smart” thing to do. In hindsight, I wish I would have been more true to follow my own interests irrespective of how they came (or did not come) together to form a traditional major or career path. The most creative innovators are polymaths. They have a unique collection of experiences and interests that allow them to see a problem with a unique perspective. As I reflect on starting Tract, I think about my first job as an Arts & Science Camp Counselor, my peer tutoring in High School, my love of the Arts & Music, books I read, people I met, and my career as an Operations and Product leader. From the outside looking in, it may look random but each experience is a piece that built the larger vision.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them create a work culture in which employees thrive and do not “burn out” or get overwhelmed?

Esther: Trust and respect each other and make sure you’re all aligned and working as a team toward a common goal.

Ari: Hire the right people who share your value system and believe in your mission. When you have a strong purpose it’s unifying. When you are mission-driven it’s motivating. Burn out to me is the process of losing hope. We all get tired and need to recharge in our own individual ways, but there’s no recharging from lost hope. It requires a reset. You as the leader have to be the beacon of hope, an eternal optimist, and truly believe in what you are doing. You can’t fake it, your team and customers will see.

What would you advise other business leaders to do in order to build trust, credibility, and Authority in their industry?

Esther: It sounds simple, but in order to be trusted by others, you need to first trust yourself. Trust yourself and focus on empowering your team to be the best versions of themselves that they can be.

Ari: Listen. Care. Help. Follow Through. There are so many incredible people who I look to for help and counsel, and the common theme amongst all of them is that they are expert listeners and really understand things at a very deep level. That’s the first layer. The second layer is then to help others. You’re kind of just a talking head, unless you can show your expertise through your legacy. Your legacy is the people you’ve helped and impacted.

Can you help articulate why doing that is essential today?

Esther: The 21st century is the century of collaboration primarily because of tech. Tech has empowered our ability to transmit information and collaborate. Everyone is trying to do their best but without support, people will struggle. Good leaders support and empower those around them; without that support, people feel less able to be creative and innovate. If you think you’re alone, it is harder to be innovative. Focus on relationships and empowering your team and working together; you’ll feel more supported and you’ll do better.

Ari: I think most people want servant leaders who have real empathy for the global world we live in. Good people will not follow tyrant leaders for too long. You have to constantly be in that servant mindset, looking for ways to help and modeling the right behaviors for your team.

What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?

Esther: The most common mistakes I’ve seen are CEOs and founders who blame others for their mistakes, and who are so unapproachable that people are afraid to speak up. The majority of startups fail not because the idea was bad, but because the people failed to work together effectively. They did not have collaboration or communication skills. To avoid this, focus on developing your own social-emotional skills because that impacts the way you treat other people.

Ari: I think most CEOs & founders don’t spend enough time taking care of themselves. I exercise daily. I eat healthy. I spend time (uninterrupted) with loved ones. I make time to read. I consider myself an amateur biohacker. One day we will be able to have a much more responsive and invasive look into our body chemistry and how it impacts our thinking and energy. But for now all we can really do is tweak our routines, diet and exercise in hopes of reducing stress and increasing our energy. It’s easy to let a workout slip or miss an important family event when your work is always on. It’s hard to stop thinking about work, when there’s still so much left to do and your work is so meaningful. I am in no ways an expert at this, but I’ve come to realize how critical it is. I’ve seen crash landings when life or work gets hard.

Ok fantastic. Thank you for those excellent insights, Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview about How to Successfully Ride The Emotional Highs & Lows Of Being An Entrepreneur. The journey of an entrepreneur is never easy, and is filled with challenges, failures, setbacks, as well as joys, thrills and celebrations. This might be intuitive, but I think it will be very useful to specifically articulate it. Can you describe to our readers why no matter how successful you are as an entrepreneur, you will always have fairly dramatic highs and lows? Particularly, can you help explain why this is different from someone with a “regular job”?

Esther: When you have a “regular job,” you’re only responsible for a small portion of the bigger picture. Yes, you have stress, but you can let it go at the end of the day. It doesn’t personally impact your mood, your character, or who you are. The highs are when you are successful; the lows are when there is conflict or something hasn’t worked out and it’s your fault. Being the leader is a huge responsibility. It is like steering a ship. You don’t want to hit the rocks and if you do, you need to figure out how to move forward.

Ari: When you’re an entrepreneur, you’re responsible for everything. Your business becomes an extension of your values and who you are. When the company takes a hit, you take a hit. Bad reviews or negative feedback become a personal attack. When you’re in a “regular job” it’s easier to compartmentalize or disassociate with the company values or decisions. You can’t do that as an entrepreneur. That makes the highs higher, and the lows lower.

Do you feel comfortable sharing a story from your own experience about how you felt unusually high and excited as a result of your business? We would love to hear it.

Esther: I’ve always had big ideas, but really needed someone like Ari who could help make them happen. Having Ari agree to be the CEO and join me on this mission was a highlight of my career.

Now I’m motivated and excited everyday when I see the team we’ve built, the creator community we work with, and the kids that are engaging on the platform and writing me real-time feedback from all around the world.

Ari: Esther believing in me and joining me in starting Tract is a high I am still riding. Never in my life would I have thought I would be running a company with my old teacher. I was in her class when she was first recognized as a once in our lifetime educator. She had just won California Teacher of the Year. I still see her in that same light. As a celebrity. Our generation’s Maria Montessori. One of the few innovators in education in the 21st century. Having the right people believe in you is enough fuel to take you to the moon.

Do you feel comfortable sharing a story from your own experience about how you felt unusually low, and vulnerable as a result of your business? We would love to hear it.

Esther: We’re both always working. I have crazy energy late at night, so the hardest thing for me is balancing hours. But I’m up and energized because I’m so excited about what we’re working on. I’ve been involved in a lot of education startups, and have seen a lot of ups and downs, and I’ve never felt more confident in a company’s chance to really make a difference in education than I do about Tract.

Ari: There are a few new challenges that I’ve come across as a first-time entrepreneur, one main challenge being how hard it is to “turn off” work. There’s always more we can be doing, there’s always better ways we can do something — that’s a hard mental state to manage. I’ve found the biggest help to be surrounding myself with other entrepreneurs who are in the same mental state and can offer sound advice on ways to stay present and wind down. It can make it hard to manage relationships with loved ones. It can make it hard to stay offline.

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “Five Things You Need To Successfully Ride The Emotional Highs & Lows Of Being An Entrepreneur”? Please share a story or an example for each.

1. Grit

2. Team

3. Purpose (Mission)

4. Good Health (Physical & Mental)

5. Confidence (In Yourself)

We are living during challenging times and resilience is critical during times like these. How would you define resilience? What do you believe are the characteristics or traits of resilient people?

Ari: Resilience means commitment. It means experiencing an extreme low, then waking up the next day with the same energy and vigor you have at the high points. While successful startups may look like overnight success stories, behind the scenes is a group of really resilient people who have already experienced a lot of lows before their latest high.

Esther: Have grit. If you make a mistake, learn from it, recover, and move on. Everyone makes mistakes, no one is perfect. Second, a positive attitude. Be willing to revise multiple times with the same passion.

Did you have any experiences growing up that have contributed to building your resiliency? Would you mind sharing a story?

Esther: When I turned 17, my parents offered me a choice: become financially independent or get married. I wanted to go to college, so I stuck with my grit and worked hard to achieve my goals.

Ari: I wouldn’t say there was a defining moment or experience — I think I was just born resilient. From a very young age I’ve always had a hard time stopping a project or task until I excelled at it. Whether that was putting together a lego structure, juggling a soccer ball, or beating a video game. I’ve always had drive and the ability to get back up.

In your opinion, do you tend to keep a positive attitude during difficult situations? What helps you to do so?

Esther: We both keep a positive attitude 100% of the time, shockingly! I do it because I realize that my mindset is the most important asset I can have in all situations, especially in difficult times.

Ari: We do, and it’s all about perspective. The more you read, travel, and become aware of the challenges and struggles that exist in the world, the more perspective you have. And if things get tough, it’s okay to feel stressed and uncomfortable, but it’s not okay to feel like you’re stuck in that low. There’s rarely a mistake or situation in our line of work that is unrecoverable. I try and always stay positive, and keep perspective of our challenges and how trivial they are relative to others facing much greater adversity.

Can you help articulate why a leader’s positive attitude can have a positive impact both on their clients and their team? Please share a story or example if you can.

Esther: A positive attitude is everything. A leader’s behavior is contagious across the organization — whether that’s a classroom or an office. I have hundreds of examples from years of teaching when things did not go right for the student newspaper facing the deadline. You just have to see it as a challenge. It was 11 pm when the computer with several pages onit died. It was tough but we stayed until 2 am and re-did those pages and cheered when we were done.

Ari: Your culture is defined by your leader’s actions, not words. Your internal customers (your team), external customers and stakeholders are always watching. If you have poor communication or lack trust, there are ripple effects run through the organization.

On the flip side, when you lead with enthusiasm, trust, transparency and good communication, the impact goes beyond your team culture. Customers don’t want transactional products and companies with no values. They want brands that stand for something. People behind the brands are inspiring and seeking positive real-world changes. Your attitude shows in hundreds of micro-interactions every day. It doesn’t matter who you meet with, they will remember how you made them feel.

Ok. Super. We are nearly done. What is your favorite inspirational quote that motivates you to pursue greatness? Can you share a story about how it was relevant to you in your own life?

Esther: Bill Gates: “Tomorrow’s Leaders Will be Those That Empower Others.”

Ensure you have well-developed social and emotional skills, and, if you don’t, take courses and continue your education to learn how to best empower others. That’s how you drive change and can really make the biggest impact. I want all people to be the best versions of themselves. My goal: help to empower them.

Ari: Lao Tzu “Knowing others is intelligence; knowing yourself is true wisdom. Mastering others is strength; mastering yourself is true power.”

I want to be the best version of myself. I want my future kids to be the best version of themselves. Life is so much richer when you love yourself, love what you do, and what you do helps others. Humans are complicated. We can always learn more. We can always be better. There are so many opportunities ahead of us. Challenges that need to be overcome in the next century. It all starts with each individual.

How can our readers further follow you online?

Esther: Instagram, Facebook LinkedIn

Ari: LinkedIn

tract.app

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!

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