Michelle Chao of ‘Phoenix Tailings’: “If you want something done right, do it yourself”

Help others as much as possible. Nick always says his mother told him, “Nobody who ever did anything great did it alone, and it’s the people around us who make us great” The more we help each other and build strong networks, the more greatness we can achieve. As a part of our series about strong […]

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Help others as much as possible. Nick always says his mother told him, “Nobody who ever did anything great did it alone, and it’s the people around us who make us great” The more we help each other and build strong networks, the more greatness we can achieve.

As a part of our series about strong women leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Michelle Chao.

Michelle’s mission is to create a world free of the waste that is devastating the environment today.

This passion drove her to study material science at MIT, and start her career in metals with the top additive manufacturing startup, Markforged. Seeing the problem of waste when metals are produced inspired her to found Phoenix Tailings, the first re-mining company leveraging cutting edge material science to harvest metals from post-industrial waste.

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?

Growing up, I’ve always been fascinated by the science and engineering that fuels the world. I would spend my free time in high school volunteering at the local university running simulations of novel chemical structures and summers in labs researching ways to increase solar cell efficiency. This experience eventually led me to pursuing a bachelor’s degree in materials science at MIT. While I learned immensely from my coursework, it was really the experience of leading the MIT solar electric vehicle team that inspired my entrepreneurship journey. I found that I thrived in a fast-paced environment using a limited budget of time and money toward accomplishing an aggressive goal — designing, building, and racing a safe and efficient vehicle from the ground up. After graduating, I jumped right into a start-up company called Markforged. I led the R&D efforts of metal materials for a novel metal 3D printing platform utilizing the fused filament printing process and powder metallurgy for a range of metals such as stainless steels, tool steels, and inconel and copper.

I also grew up loving the outdoors and natural beauty of our world and decided early on that I wanted to dedicate my life to finding a way to preserve what I care about so much. This passion grew even more as I’ve gotten the opportunity to travel, explore, and enjoy incredible natural vistas through hiking, biking, and climbing. So when Thomas, Nick, Anthony and I started talking about how we could re-think how we create metal from the ground up, by eliminating the hazardous waste in the environment, it was clear that Phoenix Tailings was the way I could finally achieve my vision of a zero-waste world. As the co-founder and COO of Phoenix Tailings, I am able to drive this innovation forward and sculpt a world where we create new metals, economically and environmentally.

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

Unlike most other deep tech start-ups, we didn’t spin out technology from an academic lab. Instead, we began in my co-founders’ backyard. I remember one of the most interesting and exciting days was on a sunny Saturday morning in 2019. We had just finished putting together a new version of our homemade reactor made from repurposed household items, parts from the local hardware store, and a creative amount of tape. Even though it leaked and hissed a bit (which made my business co-founders very nervous), that day, it worked. We were able to separate and extract two components out of a mining waste material known as red mud: iron metal and a rare earth element conconcreate. For me, this was really the turning point for us. It marked a shift from just a few people with an idea tinkering around to the beginnings of a start-up company.

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 hope my co-founders won’t mind me sharing this! After we had decided to form a company, we needed to come up with a name and that naturally led to many many discussions. There was one particular brainstorming session that I missed. Here my co-founders came up with what they thought was an amazing idea: combining the phrase “red mud” (which is a colloquial name for the mining waste material we were working with), and the word “recycle,” which is what we intend to do with this waste material. The result was “Red-cycle”…..

The lesson here is not to leave a couple of young guys alone and brainstorming names for too long! But in all seriousness, this story really highlights the value of having a diverse founding team that enables greater creativity and brings in perspectives that would otherwise be easily missed.

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’m truly grateful for my mom. She taught me to be considerate and aware of how my actions impact others and the world around me. As a kid, I’d tell her about all the different dreams I had for what I would do “when I grew up” — doctor, astronaut, president. I distinctly remember she’d always reply that all that matters was to find something I enjoyed doing and that did some good in the world, big or small. It’s a philosophy that has been with me to this day and really helped make me the person I am today.

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?

Network, network, network. Hands down, the biggest thing holding women back is the lack of a strong network. The largest challenge for anyone to found a company is finding the right team of people to work with and support you. Typically this comes from your network of friends, colleagues, and the connections with whom you’ve developed a high level of trust. I’m incredibly fortunate to have my co-founders Nick, Thomas, and Anthony to rely on when the going gets tough and share in the celebrations of our successes. A strong network doesn’t just help with finding a business partner but also with many of the challenges a start-up faces, such as fundraising, sales, and recruiting. Often these strategic relationships are built on common ground, which can be harder to find when you have come from different backgrounds, different priorities, and interests. This is why groups like Techstars & Barclay’s Founder First program are great since they bring together like-minded individuals who can freely help each other succeed!

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?

#GiveFirst is the Techstars motto, which is the absolute best way to help overcome these obstacles. Creating supportive communities that provide opportunities that break out of the traditional lone networking process is the key to enabling successful women-founded companies. I had the honor of participating in a spectacular community of female founders through a program hosted by Barclays and Techstars, which provided an incredible opportunity for connections and open conversations that would have been difficult to develop otherwise. Individually, if we all reach out to each other to help a female founder make a connection, provide advice, and support in small ways, we can accomplish great things as a society.

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?

If you want something done right, do it yourself. I don’t say that in regards to men not being capable. I say it because we as women naturally see different problems in the world than men, and we cannot sit back and expect others to solve these issues. We need to step up and solve that problem, inspire that change, and change the world. That is why more women should be founders because to truly impact the world, we need to solve the problems that others are scared to fight.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a founder. Can you explain what you mean?

“I will found a company once I have the chance to learn more and build the right skills.” I hear this frequently from my friends who want to be founders but are scared to jump in. You won’t know everything about your market, technology, or sales process, and that’s quite normal. It is crucial to identify those gaps early on and find a way to quickly bring that knowledge in either through learning it yourself or bringing the right expertise into the team. As founders, we’re continually learning, adapting, and developing. Frankly, that thrill is what gets me excited every day!

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?

I recommend that everyone thinks deeply about what they want to achieve in life. I was given the advice, “When you are on your deathbed, looking back at your life, what are your metrics for success, and how would you know you have achieved what you wanted?” If your answer to this question is: A stable job, stable paycheck, spending a lot of time with family and friends, drinking or partying, being a founder is not what you want. It is a hard job, filled with long hours, sleepless nights, and stress. It requires drive, relentlessness, and work ethic. If you answer with: Changed the world, helped thousands of people, cleaned up the ocean, saved the planet, then you should be a founder. The most rewarding thing you can do is to be a founder because while it is a grind, you also have the highest highs possible working with some incredible people and actually can achieve those lofty goals.

Founding a company is 100% unwillingness to give up and a passion for doing something other people believe is impossible. If you have that, you will be a great founder.

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. Never fear failure. Just take the leap and learn. That is the best piece of advice possible and hardest for me to internalize as an engineer.
  2. Ask for help early and often. — There’s so much you don’t know and far too much to figure out on your own. It’s not a sign of weakness to ask for help or advice.
  3. Help others as much as possible. Nick always says his mother told him, “Nobody who ever did anything great did it alone, and it’s the people around us who make us great” The more we help each other and build strong networks, the more greatness we can achieve.
  4. Find a great startup lawyer early! You can avoid many mistakes with a solid lawyer early on. It’s just easier than redoing things after the fact.
  5. Learn basic finance! As an engineer, we didn’t cover this as much. However, knowing how finance works and how the finance world thinks is imperative to being a founder! (Money comes in handy)

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

The human population is growing and with it, the demand for more raw resources to support the growing need for additional infrastructure. This resulting increase in construction and manufacturing only generates more waste. Through Phoenix Tailings, I’m very excited by the opportunity we have to fundamentally change how primary metals are sourced and hope that we can play a critical role in creating a future of a zero-waste world.

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.

The world could use more compassion. Everyone has their own unique life story and experiences which frame their current behavior and actions. If we take a moment before reacting to consider another person’s perspective, there will be fewer misunderstandings, fights and unnecessary suffering.

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.

Disclaimer — we reach for the stars here at Phoenix.

  1. Mary Barra, General Motors — The first women CEO of an automobile company would be incredible to speak with!
  2. Barbara Smith, Commercial Metals — She’s incredible and as a woman in metals, I’d love to learn from her.
  3. Kathy Warden, Northrup Gruman — I admire her so much and her personal advice especially on the challenge of rare earth metals in the defense would be incredible.
  4. Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX — one of the most inspirational people in the world who I’d love to meet!
  5. Rita Lane, Apple — She’s the VP of operations and I’d love to learn every bit I can from her!

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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