How I Became A Founder: Searchlight.ai’s Kerry Wang

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Kerry is the CEO and co-founder of Searchlight. Growing up as a twin with her co-founder Anna taught her firsthand how easily people get judged by appearances. At Searchlight, she helps companies build the best teams by hiring the people beyond their resumes. Kerry graduated from Stanford with a B.S. with distinction in Human Biology — Innovation, Entrepreneurship, and Human Behavior and a M.S. in Computer Science — Human Computer Interaction. Prior to Searchlight, she worked as a Product Sales Lead at Google, a management consultant at McKinsey, and a JavaScript instructor at Code for Cape Town in South Africa.

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Searchlight.ai co-founder Kerry Wang.

Frederick Daso: When did you first gain interest in being a founder?

Kerry Wang: As long as I remember, I’ve wanted to build things. At first, I wanted to be a biotechnologist building novel drugs (both of my parents have Ph.Ds in Chemistry). I was too impatient for the 10-year timeline of getting a drug to market, however. Stanford gave me platform to pivot to computer science. I created my own undergraduate major in Human Biology called Innovation, Entrepreneurship, and Human Behavior, before getting my Master’s in Computer Science.

Daso: What were the key experiences that helped you be in the position you are today?

Wang: Founder of TalktoBaby: When I was a sophomore at Stanford, I built an education platform geared towards helping parents of children aged 0–3 improve literary outcomes. I dedicated my college nights and weekends for 15 months and turned down a software engineering internship at Google to do it, and it was the best way to learn how to be the founder and leader I want to be.

Course Assistant for Stanford’s Intro to Human-Computer Interaction: One of our core values at Searchlight is “Learn and Teach Everyday”, and almost all of our team members have been teachers in the past. My own teaching experience taught me how to break things down to first principles and communicate in a way that other people can understand.

Student in Technology Venture Formation: After living largely separate lives for 4 years, Anna and I reconnected and partnered together for a startup project in grad school. This is when we realized we had different yet complementary skillsets and started a company together.

Daso: Who were the important individuals or groups that contributed to your professional success, and why?

Wang: Anna, my co-founder/CTO/ twin sister is the most important individual who’s made this all possible. We’re working on the mission of building great teams together.

Other people I want to thank (and this is far from a complete list):

1. Laura Bilazarian, a formidable founder/CEO herself whose war wounds I’m lucky to learn from

2. Nancy Wang, a mentor I met at McKinsey who inspired me with her own founder journey

3. Y Combinator, as they taught me how to go 0–1 in building Searchlight and connected me to a community of founders for support

Daso: How did you prepare for yourself to become a founder?

Wang: One of the things I realized on the job is the importance of being a good storyteller — whether it’s talking to potential hires, customers, or investors. In hindsight, there were things that unexpectedly prepared me for this: my rapid reading habits during my childhood, acting class in high school, and my The Power of Story Class at Stanford.

Daso: Were there any particular clubs at school that were good resources for breaking into your current field?

Wang: During our last year of grad school at Stanford, Anna and I took a class called Technology Venture Formation that helped put us through a 10-week realistic scenario of building our team, creating a business plan, and pitching our startup to a panel of venture capitalists. We were the only two-person team in the class’s 27-year history and graduated at the top. This was Anna’s first experience working as partners, and this is when we realized we had all the tools to build something together.

Daso: What do you think stops most people from becoming a founder?

Wang: I think opportunity cost stops most people from being a founder. It takes 5–10 years to build a great business without the guarantee of a great outcome — financial or otherwise. My biggest advice to aspiring founders is to pick a problem that you go to sleep thinking about because the drive to solve that problem makes it all worth it.

Daso: Looking back, would you change anything about your professional path?

Wang: I started Searchlight after grad school, and it’s given me the greatest growth trajectory I could have imagined. While there are challenges to being a relatively young founder, I wouldn’t change my decision to forego a corporate job to build something I believe in.

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Forbes Under 30 Contributor, 2016 LinkedIn Top Voice, Venture Fellow at Rough Draft Ventures

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