For our third interview in the series, we interviewed Dianna Yau, a travel-loving young professional based in San Francisco, CA. She’s been to over 70 countries and currently works full-time at Facebook.
Upon meeting Dianna a few years ago, the first thing I noticed is her refusal to make small talk. She’s the kind of person who looks you in the eye, asking often difficult or deep questions to figure out your story. Being incredibly well-traveled, she’s an excellent storyteller and has created solid friendships all around the world. She is genuinely curious to know about the human story. Today, she discusses what incited this curiosity in her.
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JF: What’s your three-minute autobiography?
DY: I grew up in Queens, NY, one of the most diverse places in the world. One article counted over 800 languages spoken in Queens alone. This was reflected in my friendships growing up-my best friends across middle and high school were Afghanis, Koreans, Dominicans, Colombians, and Puerto Ricans. I always grew up in this diversity, but I never thought the rest of the world was different. In high school and college, people started developing ethnic cliques despite having more diversity. This is when I asked myself, “How can I rebuild the type of diverse friendships I had in elementary and middle school?”
A friend from West Point was going backpacking in Europe the summer of my freshmen year. Over a text message he asked, “Want to join?”
Never having been anywhere else except China with my parents, this opportunity exhilarated and scared me at the same time. I promised myself while entering college, if you’re given an opportunity that scares the hell out of you, do it. So I did.
In just 20 days across 10 cities, I met people from countries I didn’t even know existed. I lived out of a red Jansport bookbag and traded the luxury of a closet full of clothes for a mind full of experiences and learning. I slept at train stations and passed up comfort for adventure… Every part of me beamed with curiosity and wanderlust. I was the world’s child, not just American or Chinese.
This empowered self stood… next to the challenge of finding the perfect job after graduation and finding my life’s passion. I studied economic development wanting to help people. However, the money and prestige seemed to be in management consulting and finance. And my young self thought that what society deemed as prestigious must be good for me and the world.
I did the consulting gig and realized it might fit the majority of society, but I instinctively did not feel [personally] aligned to the industry’s values and impact. Only through traveling did I have the space, experiences and courage to realize this and ask myself over and over, “What do you really care about in this world?”
Today, I’m staying true to my life passion by working at Facebook to bring the next 4 billion people on the internet. At the same time, I’m growing emerging markets through building and bridging global startup ecosystems. My friend, Charu, and I started “Silicon Valley Abroad” with the aim of providing mentorship and knowledge to emerging market entrepreneurs and organizations.
JF: I know that you’re doing some really interesting stuff at Facebook. Could you tell us a bit more about that?
DY: I’m a program product manager at Facebook’s Internet.org team. Our mission is to connect the next 4 billion people on the Internet. It’s not just about connecting the people that are already on the internet. The quest is, “how do we educate people who don’t have access to the internet, that can’t afford it, or that don’t find it relevant?” We want to get them on the internet to access the world’s wealth of information and connect people.
My work in emerging markets has taken me to Rwanda, Bangladesh, countries in the Middle East, Central Asia, Cuba, Iran, Venezuela, and a bunch of countries where people would ask me, “Why the hell would you want to go there?”
JF: What has been one of the most difficult obstacles you’ve had to overcome leading up to now?
DY: This is still something that many of us are trying to overcome: finding the balance between your passions, what’s practical to pursue, and money…that sweet spot, with a heavy emphasis on passion. Many people aren’t sure where to divert all their energy and talents. Life becomes one big rat race– chasing and going to the best school, to the highest paying job, promotions. You begin living life on other people’s terms. I don’t want that. I find fulfillment in solving global social problems. Right now I’m focused on economic empowerment, which is directly connected to startups in emerging markets and internet connectivity.
JF: What does it feel like when you’re in the trenches of not knowing how to strike this balance between passion and practicality?
DY: It feels like…eating a gallon of ice cream in one sitting. Each individual spoonful tastes good similar to how each accomplishment (great school, big money, prestige) feels great. Then at the end of that gallon, you don’t feel full nor as happy as you thought you would. I had the same unfulfilling feeling when I graduated from Columbia University and took a management consulting job.
JF: Describe one of your favorite places in the world.
DY: My favorite city to live in is, Berlin. It’s a very unique place. Historically it was the poorest part of Germany-no one wanted to live there then. Since then it’s burgeoned into a unique culture of hipsters, art, foodie heaven, parties at nightclubs that go on for the entire weekend and karaoke parks (Mauer Park). The mentality of the people are also down to earth. No one gives a damn how they’re judged and they express themselves freely.
JF: Imagine yourself walking down the street in Berlin. What does it look like there? What are some things you see around you?
DY: The first place I’d drop into is Kreuzberg, Berlin. On my left is my favorite Sudanese restaurant, across the street, there’s a Turkish baklava place. it feels like the whole world commences and intersects in one neighborhood. After a full belly, I’ll take the train over to Mauerpark. On a sunny day you’ll find a crowd of 300 people watching karaoke in the park. Three to five guys will be selling beer and drinks to the audience. The same folks will pick up the beer bottles after and recycle them for .25 cents per bottle, an additional revenue stream.
The fashion is also unique; the real hipsters wear casual, black clothing, almost gothish looking. In order to get to the most famous club in Berlin, Berghain, the secret is to dress down in black and have an “I don’t give a F&^%” expression across your forehead.
For the most part, people are just minding their own business. In some other places, you have people looking at each other out of the corner of their eye, looking each other up and down. In Berlin, people don’t care.
JF: How do you think traveling has transformed the way you think and live?
DY: Traveling has made me who I am today and who I will be tomorrow. If you’re a globetrotter, you have this heightened sense of living life to the fullest. A traveler is a life long learner who learns through observation, experience and people. A traveler asks, “How can I give?” because they have experienced so much kindness through their journeys.
Traveling makes you a life long learner–when I hear accents and people speaking different languages, I’m dying to ask “where are you from?” I want to know their life stories, how their culture has formed who they are, how they view my culture. You realize that everyone is made up of their experiences and stories, and these have somehow shaped by them. You become an aficionado of people’s history and try to map it to the world’s history.
You want to uncover the world’s secrets after visiting some extraordinary places like Angkor Wat in Cambodia, or Bagan in Myanmar and ask, “How the heck did these people build this?” You visit special places like the music room in Ālī Qāpū in Esfahan and think to yourself “if only walls could speak, think about the stories they would tell of the people who have sat here”
As a traveler who travels not just to see the beautiful places but also to understand human suffering, and injustice in the world, you’re constantly asking, “How can I help?”
When I went to India the first time, I was exasperated by the poverty I witnessed, but realized it was not necessarily equivalent to unhappiness. On the contrary, some of the happiest and generous people I met were the people I came across in Dharavi slums in Mumbai. Multiple times, my friend and I got invited in for chai. It got me to ask, “Are we really happy with all the riches we have or is it like Biggie Smalls says ‘mo money, mo problems’?” That trip alone made me a minimalist and pushed me to always ask, “How can I give back?”
JF: What’s something you think many people have on their minds but are afraid to say?
DY: People are afraid to admit their own passions. Many people have a sense of what they care about it. Some are afraid to say it out loud given fear of judgment. Others are afraid that if they admit it, they will feel pressured to chase after it. Most are afraid that their passions won’t help them achieve fame and fortune.
I had a friend from Latvia who took the courage to quit his job working at a startup and become a musician. I don’t know what’s going to come out of it, but I’m so grateful that he had the courage to do it because very few people do. The fact that he took that step is a way to inspire other people to follow their passions. A lot of people think that if they follow their passions, they’ll end up broke.
The key is finding out what a sustainable way is to make a living out of what you love, and it takes creativity. It’s not going to be a path that’s already been paved. For example, a lot of people go into consulting or banking to make money because they are sure that if they get that job, they’ll be paid a lot of money each year. Whereas, if you’re going into a more niche field, you think it’s unsustainable because it’s a path that few have taken and structured. Sometimes you’ll be surprised by how the world comes to your aid when you’re true to your passions.
One of my friends in San Francisco is really passionate about helping the homeless population here. He quit his high salaried job and invested all his money to create Miracle Messages-a way to reconnect the homelessness population to their families. How it worked- he’d shoot videos of homeless people speaking about their lives and talking about their families, post it on FB and have people tag people who might know where their families are. One of the videos went viral. Now he’s been invited to be a Ted Fellow and got all of these opportunities because he was following his passion. We need more people speaking out and following their passions to show, following your passion is always the right path. Not always the clearest or paved path, but the path that makes you a fulfilled human being.
JF: What’s the best advice you ever received? From whom?
DY: Advice that changed my life was “travel solo.” During the first Euro trip I went on, I met a female solo traveler who traveled all throughout Europe and I was inspired by her fearlessness, sense of adventure, intelligence and confidence. I said to myself, “Wow, I want to be like that and I want to travel far.” No matter what it took, [I decided to travel solo so that] I wouldn’t have to depend on other people to dictate where and when I should go. If I had the independence to go anywhere, any time, the only thing stopping me from seeing the rest of the world is myself.
Because of the solo travel, I’ve met all of these amazing people that I wouldn’t have if I had traveled with someone else. I’ve had the luxury to travel to 70 countries simply because I haven’t had to wait on people to live my life. You get rid of the bottlenecks; fear of being alone and vulnerable and permission from others to live a more fulfilled life. For solo travelers, vulnerability is your key to connecting with people. People love helping people. You let people in when you’re vulnerable. And people will amaze you with their generosity, and unconditional kindness. This is why I’m a huge proponent of being an open book about the good and bad things in my life.
JF: Solo travel really restores faith in humanity, huh?
DY: Exactly. That’s so true…restoring faith in humanity. A lot of people are afraid to put themselves out there, but the more places I go, the more proof I see that people are, for the most part, kind and empathetic. Maybe it’s because you don’t expect the kindness from strangers, but every time I travel I’m always amazed by humanity.
JF: What legacy do you hope to leave behind one day?
DY: One of the biggest things I want to make happen is to make the world more interconnected. One of the ways I’m doing that now– I’ve been traveling to emerging markets and building startup ecosystems and bridging them to Silicon Valley. From places in the Middle East, like Iran or Jordan, to places in Central Asia, which very few people go to, I want to connect them to each other to lay the bricks for their own SIlicon Valley.
Through sharing information, mentorship, and resources will help them realize that the startup revolution transcends borders. What makes me feel fulfilled at the end of the day is when I’ve helped connect awesome people that collaborated to do really awesome things together. I’m a huge believer that we get much further by working together rather than against each other.
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Do you have any questions for Dianna? Share them in the comments!