Lilian Chen of Bar None Games: “Don’t be afraid of asking for help”

We’ve hosted games for over 16,000 people, and one of the most touching experiences was for a woman’s 80th birthday party. As someone who is a senior citizen, she was isolated for many months and it was impossible for her to see any of her family in person for her milestone birthday. With our virtual […]

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We’ve hosted games for over 16,000 people, and one of the most touching experiences was for a woman’s 80th birthday party. As someone who is a senior citizen, she was isolated for many months and it was impossible for her to see any of her family in person for her milestone birthday. With our virtual event, she was able to invite friends and family from all over the nation to make her feel special. We designed a whole round of trivia just about her. Afterwards, she told us that she had never felt more loved or special in her life.


As part of our series about young people who are making an important social impact, I had the pleasure of interviewing Lilian Chen.

Lilian Chen is the Co-Founder and Chief Operating Officer of Bar None Games. She started her career on Wall Street, working at some of the top firms such as J.P. Morgan and The Carlyle Group, where she focused on investing in and advising consumer and technology companies. Following that, she attended Harvard Business School, where she started her first company, and subsequently worked on launching start ups as an Entrepreneur-in- Residence and Investor at venture capital firm FJ Labs.

As the COO of Bar None Games, Lilian works to bring joy to family, friends and co-workers everywhere when they can’t be together in person. The company has hosted 800+ games for 16,000+ people and 350+ companies, ranging from Fortune 500s to emerging start-ups.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us about how you grew up?

One of my fun facts is that growing up, I went to a different school for every year of elementary school. My family moved around constantly when I was a kid. As a child of Chinese American immigrants, I spent my youngest years in various Midwestern states, and when I was twelve, my family moved back to China to the bustling city of Macau, also known as the Vegas of Asia. I describe myself as a third culture kid — someone who spent developmental years shifting between a number of cultural environments. Many third culture kids struggle with identity, feeling constantly pulled between the many different cultures they have been brought up in and not finding many others similar to themselves. As a result of my upbringing, I have always longed for a sense of belonging, socially and professionally. In some ways, building Bar None Games, an organization solely focused on bringing people together, has been the ultimate culmination of seeking community and belonging.

Is there a particular book or organization that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

The book Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar by Cheryl Strayed is one that I always return to. Before Cheryl became the renowned author of Wild, she worked as an advice columnist for a digital publication. The book is a series of real letters asking for advice and Cheryl’s responses written under her pseudonym Sugar. The letters offer a vulnerable view into people’s lives that we don’t often see, showing us the problems and worries that people all around us are facing. Paired with Chyerl’s beautiful writing and her own set of life experiences, the book acts as a great reminder of what it means to be human. In times when I am struggling, reading passages in Dear Sugar acts as a grounding force. It reminds me that it is okay to struggle and in fact, it is human to do so. It is a reminder of all of the things that other people in life are experiencing, which often puts my own worries into perspective.

You are currently leading an organization that is helping to make a positive social impact. Can you tell us a little about what you and your organization are trying to create in our world today?

Bar None Games is focused on bringing people together when they can’t be together in person. The organization was founded in summer 2020, in the midst of the global pandemic which caused social isolation to extremes we have has never faced before. Rates of depression, anxiety, and loneliness skyrocketed.

My co-founder Spencer Fertig and I created Bar None Games to spread joy and human connection in an environment where it had suddenly and unexpectedly disappeared. The consistent feedback we get from our players about the happiness it brings people is what energizes us to continue building the organization each day. We have hosted events for students, who have told us that this was the hardest year they’ve had thus far as a graduate student and our event was exactly what they needed to lighten up their semester. We have hosted events for doctors, who have worked tirelessly around the clock and needed time to disconnect and laugh. We have hosted events for families spread thousands of miles apart, who have not seen each other in person in over a year and wanted a memorable way to celebrate Grandma’s milestone 80th birthday. By creating this space, we are creating human connections and positivity in the world during a time when it is sorely lacking.

Can you tell us the backstory about what originally inspired you to feel passionate about this cause and to do something about it?

Everyone has their own stories and experiences of how the pandemic impacted them. For me, I wasn’t able to sleep, my mind was usually filled with more negativity than positivity, and I just did not feel like myself. I tried a lot of things — a therapist, a career coach, meditation — but none of these resolved how I was feeling.

As I began opening up to others about this, it became clear that many others were also struggling. Human connection is at the core of our human needs, and this pandemic has forced us all to behave in a way that is not natural.

When Spencer and I started hosting games and being on a Zoom with big groups of people, the feedback that we got was overwhelming. We knew that we had created something that was special and magical, something that was really needed by others to bring light into their dark days.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

One of my favorite things about running our company is that we get to see different sides of leaders when they participate in our games. This holiday season, we hosted over 200 virtual events for companies of all shapes and sizes. One in particular sticks out, in which I was hosting an event for a Fortune 500 company. There were over a hundred participants on this event, and a portion of them were very vocal and participating in lots of playful banter. There were tons of laughs and we formed inside jokes with the events that unfolded during our event. Afterwards, I realized that one of the people who was the most engaged was the President of this large Fortune 500 company. When I put the pieces together, I was so impressed that someone so senior at the company became fully invested in ensuring that his organization could get together for a fun event. He was willing to be vulnerable in showing this lively side of himself, a side that most people in the organization wouldn’t typically see. Ensuring an inclusive and fun-loving culture comes from top down, and it was special to see such a great example of it at such a large organization.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

We’ve hosted games for over 16,000 people, and one of the most touching experiences was for a woman’s 80th birthday party. As someone who is a senior citizen, she was isolated for many months and it was impossible for her to see any of her family in person for her milestone birthday. With our virtual event, she was able to invite friends and family from all over the nation to make her feel special. We designed a whole round of trivia just about her. Afterwards, she told us that she had never felt more loved or special in her life.

How do you define “Making A Difference”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

One of my favorite quotes is from Maya Angelou, who said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” To me, “making a difference” means creating a long-lasting impact on other people’s lives and having them feel a certain way. At Bar None Games, we strive to make people feel happy, connected, and not alone in this world. Oftentimes, our events are the highlight of someone’s calendar that they’ve been looking forward to for weeks or months. We go out of our way to make sure that every single person finishes an event with us feeling like their last hour was full of joy and laughter.

Many young people would not know what steps to take to start to create the change they want to see. But you did. What are some of the steps you took to get your project started? Can you share the top 5 things you need to know to become a changemaker? Please tell us a story or example for each.

1. Find a partner who you trust. Starting something new is very challenging and lonely, and you want to ensure that you have a great partner to share the highs and lows with.

2. Don’t be afraid of asking for help. There are many in your life who want to see you succeed but may not know how to help. Reach out to them to ask for advice, support, or other forms of help.

3. Share your story. Vulnerability can go a long way. Make it personal with why you chose to build something around your chosen mission. This can help inspire many others into supporting your cause too.

4. Be ready to expect that things may not always go according to plan. Being flexible is important, as you never know what unexpected events might happen which could cause your plans to drastically change.

5. Keep people at the heart of it. It’s inevitable that things will get hard and just don’t forget the reason why you decided to pursue this path — the people.

What are the values that drive your work?

Always put the people first. This drives what we do in every single aspect of the organization, both externally and internally. We put the people who play our games first, ensuring that we do everything possible to make them happy. If our client has a request for a custom round or do a toast at the end, we always make it work. We also treat our hosts with respect and try to make their jobs as stress-free as possible. When we have to make hard decisions, we ask ourselves what the right thing to do would be, putting the people above other considerations in the organization.

Many people struggle to find what their purpose is and how to stay true to what they believe in. What are some tools or daily practices that have helped you to stay grounded and centred in who you are, your purpose, and focused on achieving your vision?

On a daily basis, I use Headspace to practice meditation. It helps me stay focused and when things are challenging, it helps to calm my mind. Headspace has a lot of different tracks, such as performance-focused or anxiety-focused, which enables a user to customize which type of practice to do on a daily basis. On an annual basis, at the end of each year, I reflect on the past year and set goals for the upcoming year. Career coach Steve Schlafman’s Annual Life Review template has been the basis of how I perform my personal reflections, and I always get deeper insights about myself and my goals after I complete an annual life review.

In my work, I aim to challenge us all right now to take back our human story and co-create a vision for a world that works for all. I believe youth should have agency over their own future. Can you please share your vision for a world you want to see? I’d love to have you describe what it looks like and feels like. As you know, the more we can imagine it, the better we can manifest it!

In my vision for the world, no individual feels the weight of loneliness any longer. People feel like they are loved and embraced, even if from afar. Individuals who live hundreds of miles apart can still feel laughter and joy in their regular lives together. Families and friendships that were previously dependent on regular cross-country trips to maintain the memories can create new memories in other manners virtually instead.

We are powerful co-creators and our minds and intentions create our reality. If you had limitless resources at your disposal, what specific steps would take to bring your vision to fruition?

I would love to be able to design a broader variety of experiences to bring people together virtually when they can’t be together in person. Some ideas that spring to mind are virtual reality and asynchronous experiences.

I see a world driven by the power of love, not fear. Where human beings treat each other with humanity. Where compassion, kindness and generosity of spirit are characteristics we teach in schools and strive to embody in all we do. What changes would you like to see in the educational system? Can you explain or give an example?

I am a firm believer in a world that accepts people of all races, sexual orientations, and genders. The current United States education demands for broader education on the history of inequalities that many groups of people have faced starting from centuries back. Our education system needs to be more inclusive in what it teaches. It is a failure of our education system that many children who grow up in the United States are not aware of a lot of the injustices faced by many minority groups, including African Americans, Native Americans, Asian Americans, LGBTQ+, and more.

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

Oftentimes, it can feel like a black or white choice of whether what you are doing in life feels like it’s making a positive impact or not. Should I go quit my job to work for the non-profit? Should I dedicate every weekend volunteering for a cause that hits close to my heart? For some people, these are decisions that are easy and simple to make, but for many, the choice is not obvious. Perhaps the need to pay back a student loan means that a non-profit salary would not be sustainable. Or perhaps doing a set of well-rounded and diverse activities on the weekends is important for one’s own mental health.

For these young people, I would tell them that the choice does not have to be black or white. It’s okay if your positive impact comes in smaller doses or if your positive impact happens later in life. At the right time in life, different opportunities will present themselves to contribute to your positive mission. Keep believing in your mission and don’t forget the dream. And when the opportunity presents itself to make a bigger change in the world, take it and run.

Is there a person in the world with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Amanda Gorman. She has moved millions with just her words, and her passion for change is inspiring. I first fell in love with her words in 2020 when she appeared on John Krasinski’s Some Good News, in the middle of the pandemic when we all needed more hope in the world. It’s been amazing to see everything that she’s done since then!

How can our readers further follow your work online?

The easiest way is to go to our Bar None Games website (https://www.barnonegames.com/) and sign up for our email listserv. We also keep our Instagram (https://www.instagram.com/barnonegames/) and Linkedin updated (https://www.linkedin.com/company/bar-none-games).

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

Thank you, Sonia! It has been great chatting with you.


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