Don’t be afraid to speak up or walk away. From the #metoo movement, we know that girls and women are too often put into unsafe, compromising situations. “No” and “Stop” are complete sentences. But when you’re raised to respect your elders or to be a people pleaser, it can be much harder to speak up than one would think. It’s so important to make your voice heard — especially when you’re feeling uncomfortable, even if it makes others uncomfortable. Your feelings matter. Knowing when to walk away is wisdom. Being able to is courage. Walking away with your head held high is dignity. To find that wisdom, courage and dignity, you have to believe in yourself.
As a part of our series about “Why We Need More Women Founders”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Krista Kleiner. Krista Kleiner is a former Miss Philippines International, humanitarian, and founder of The One Heart Movement. After she saw firsthand Filipino nurses risking their lives on the front lines fighting COVID-19, she had a vision to offer these nurses a global message of gratitude for their bravery and sacrifice during these difficult times. Krista’s #OneHeartHandoff social media campaign took the world by storm in February 2021 and continues to gain momentum, having garnered over 20 million hits on social media from the likes of TikTok sensations Charli D’Amelio and her sister Dixie D’Amelio joining the movement to spread messages of love to their millions of followers.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
During a trip to the Philippines when I was six years old, my mother took me to a national children’s hospital where my aunt worked as a nurse. After seeing children struggling in the hospital wards and in the streets, I started saying a prayer to myself — “Please help me be the best that I can be so I can help and touch as many people as I can while I’m here.” That prayer has guided me throughout my life.
Both of my parents are teachers and they helped me fall in love with learning at an early age. They encouraged me to try everything! From elementary to high school, I danced, swam, played tennis and piano, became a blackbelt in taekwondo, and much more. At 16, I even became a published author on leadership.
After high school I attended UC San Diego to study psychology with the goal of helping people. But by sophomore year, I decided to take an offer to sign with a major TV network in the Philippines. I saw the world as the ultimate classroom and wanted to explore the power of media. So, I took a leap of faith and pushed myself out of my comfort zone to forge my own path.
I’ve had the opportunity to reach millions of people as a TV host, actress, performer, international beauty queen, humanitarian and ambassador. Some of the biggest brands in the world have trusted me to represent them. But my highest honor has been embodying the hope and pride of an entire nation as Miss Philippines.
I even pursued my dreams of becoming a songwriter and recording artist — all before the age of 21. By 2020, I had visited 28 countries, performed across the planet, met thousands of people from all backgrounds, and volunteered for important causes like diversity and children’s health. Through it all, I’ve been deeply moved by how people come together through music and dance.
When the global pandemic hit last year, I asked myself, “How can I help?” This inspired me to launch my own nonprofit called The One Heart Movement. It’s an organization committed to fostering unity and well-being through the power of community love. With a focus on elevating our shared humanity, we’re raising support for those in need — starting with our nurses and children who have lost a parent to Covid-19.
My parents have been great lifelong models for how to bridge differences and diverse backgrounds. Reflecting on all of this, I can’t help but feel like my entire life has been leading to The One Heart Movement.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
I recently had the chance to meet someone whose story inspired me — Rosalie Castro. Rosalie is a nurse that works between Los Angeles and Seattle, and she is one of the unsung heroes who inspired me to create The One Heart Movement. She tragically lost her twin sister, who was also a nurse, while fighting on the frontlines to save others. Learning of Rosalie’s loss moved me so much that I tracked her down and met with her in person. I was thrilled to be able to donate funds and gifts to her and her family in partnership with Giveback Heroes and Draper Goren Holm.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I never thought I’d start a nonprofit organization from scratch during a global pandemic. Originally, I had planned to develop an event to raise awareness and support for our healthcare heroes and the families of those who died fighting on the frontlines of this pandemic. I reached out to leading nonprofits but was having a hard time getting them to share my same sense of urgency. One of my mentors suggested I start my own nonprofit — so we did! Becoming a social entrepreneur has been my most challenging and fulfilling adventure yet!
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 about that?
I have been blessed with many wonderful people who have stepped up to support and guide me along my journey. Words will never be enough to express my gratitude towards my incredible family and friends. This includes every single person on the Board of Directors and the Advisory Board of The One Heart Movement who have shown up in such meaningful ways.
One special person stands out — my dear friend, mentor and trustee of The One Heart Movement, Dr. Tess Mauricio. After living and working in Asia for six years, I returned to California in my mid-twenties to face a new challenge. I had to rebuild my network and career from the ground up. In this #metoo era, countless incidents of inappropriate conduct left me feeling beaten down and scared to put myself out there.
About five years ago, a friend showed me videos of Dr. Tess online and I gained instant admiration for her. I reached out to ask if we could meet and she said yes! Through difficult times in my life, she has graciously lifted me up. Simply knowing her makes me a better person. She is a shining example for me on so many levels. With her guidance, I feel empowered to live my best life and serve the world the way I have always wanted to.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. According to this EY report, only about 20 percent of funded companies have women founders. This reflects great historical progress, but it also shows that more work still has to be done to empower women to create companies. In your opinion and experience what is currently holding back women from founding companies?
For far too long women have faced unparalleled pressure, from raising families and juggling careers, to fighting misogyny and dealing with glass ceilings. From an early age, I’ve learned a lot from my father who is a leading expert witness on discrimination, harassment and wrongful termination cases. To this day, women are still being held back by traditional social and family structures that are rooted in gender bias.
The pandemic has made it even tougher for women to take care of their children and pay the bills — let alone, start their own company. I know how intimidating it can be to become an entrepreneur in a business world largely dominated by men. There are not enough female role models as top entrepreneurs in mainstream media and not enough encouragement for girls at school and at home.
In the race to succeed, the odds are stacked against women, especially as you add the impact and trauma of gender discrimination, sexual harassment and sexual assault that women endure over their lifetimes.
Can you help articulate a few things that can be done as individuals, as a society, or by the government, to help overcome those obstacles?
When I was 16, I co-wrote and published business articles on how to prevent discrimination and harassment. Since then, we have gained more awareness around these areas but still have so much room for improvement. The systemic solutions remain the same: equal pay, state-sponsored childcare, extended family leave policies, mentoring programs, more investments in women-led businesses, and mainstream media and education to encourage women of all ages. We must help empower and encourage the next generation of female founders.
This might be intuitive to you as a woman founder but I think it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you share a few reasons why more women should become founders?
Simply put, women know how to lead and create in unique ways that make the world better. Growing the global economy means investing in women-run businesses. Put women in charge and organizations become safer with less gender discrimination, sexual harassment and sexual assault while performing better across key metrics. Building the wealth of women will not only help them achieve financial independence but also empower the families and communities that they support.
When I picture the best entrepreneurs in the world, I think of great Renaissance women like Oprah with her media empire and philanthropic endeavors, and Angelina Jolie in her roles as an artist, humanitarian and activist. More successful women will create more role models and mentors for women, men and future generations.
Is everyone cut out to be a founder? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful founder and what type of person should perhaps seek a “regular job” as an employee? Can you explain what you mean?
To be a successful founder, you have to believe in what you are doing, see the bigger picture, take care of yourself, be good to your team, and do the work. I also think it is crucial to build the right team to support your vision. Things won’t always be easy but having a solid team will help keep you and the company moving in the right direction. Your passion and efforts will attract the support you want and need, so this is also a must. Lastly, it’s natural to be afraid of the unknown. But don’t let that fear stop you from going for your vision and stay flexible to make necessary pivots to keep moving forward.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
1. Don’t be afraid to speak up or walk away.
From the #metoo movement, we know that girls and women are too often put into unsafe, compromising situations. “No” and “Stop” are complete sentences. But when you’re raised to respect your elders or to be a people pleaser, it can be much harder to speak up than one would think. It’s so important to make your voice heard — especially when you’re feeling uncomfortable, even if it makes others uncomfortable. Your feelings matter. Knowing when to walk away is wisdom. Being able to is courage. Walking away with your head held high is dignity. To find that wisdom, courage and dignity, you have to believe in yourself.
2. Let go of limiting beliefs.
For so long, fear and doubt held me back from reaching my full potential. I’ve realized that over the course of my life, experiences have added up into a type of mental programming that limited me. Thankfully, I’ve discovered a calling so meaningful to me that it’s helped me believe in both myself and what’s possible. By surrounding myself with the right people, I feel like many of those mental blocks have been lifted, allowing for a special and powerful flow to come through. This leads me to my next point…
3. Build a circle of people you trust.
I can’t emphasize this enough. Surround yourself with caring, smart people who believe in you and support you. You can recognize them by their compassion, integrity, wisdom and constructive feedback. That also means staying away from those who drain you. Having the right team and people in my life has made all the difference. For me, growing has meant learning to let go of people and situations that are toxic. This has helped me make room for people that are a beautiful fit in my life with complimentary energies, values and goals. Creating a loving tribe of friends and family has given me an incredible sense of peace, empowerment and momentum.
4. Your greatest success can come from your toughest times in life.
At the age of 24, my entire life collapsed when I chose to leave my marriage and home to stay true to myself and my values. I was forced to move countries and also leave a career and friends behind. That dark period led to my rebirth as a better human being with more heart and soul. “Having it all” and then quickly losing it grounded me with greater empathy, purpose and clarity.
5. Make time to be outside to get fresh air, sun and to go for walks.
After we launched our global social campaign, I found my energy went from being more productive than I had ever been in my life to feeling really depleted. I was eating and sleeping in healthy amounts again, so I was surprised to feel this way. It wasn’t until I took time to go to the beach, be in the sun and go for walks that I started to get my energy back. Taking care of our mental and physical health are vital. Fresh air, Vitamin D and movement are important and make a big difference, as does having furry friends by your side, like my dogs Kobe and Kingston.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
My definition of success is defined by the positive impact I can make on the world. After turning my focus from what the world could do for me to what I can do for the world, my goals and priorities in life quickly shifted. That’s why I’ve devoted my life to bringing people together and uplifting underserved communities.
Supporting numerous charitable organizations over the course of my life has been deeply fulfilling. Now with my own nonprofit, I’m fervently utilizing my experience and relationships to engage people to work together to create meaningful impact. Every day, I remind myself to never give up and keep giving back.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I’m fortunate enough to be living out that vision and dream. I created The One Heart Movement for that exact purpose — to serve as a vehicle to make the most amount of good for the greatest number of people.
At the end of last year, I had an epiphany moment. If we can’t find a way to see past our differences, we will continue to be held back from having the positive growth and progress that’s possible — and needed. It became my mission, and the mission of The One Heart Movement, to find ways to unify us so we can better overcome our obstacles. While our current focus is to support our nurses and children who have lost a parent to Covid-19, we are mindfully building a community that will support many other causes along the way and in the future.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
If I had to choose one person in the world, it would be my biggest role model: Oprah Winfrey.
Oprah has made a huge impact on my life ever since I was in middle school. I saw how she transformed her personal pain into an incredible ability to connect with others. Just learning how she overcame so many obstacles throughout her life gave me the confidence and hope to face my own challenges. She has been my example for turning pain into ways to connect, heal and uplift others, largely inspiring my life’s path of service.
I would love to thank Oprah in person, from the bottom of my heart. And I would love to work with her to spread light and love in the world.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.