“Taking The Leap” with Maria Yuan, Founder & CEO IssueVoter

In this piece by Maria Yuan, Founder & CEO IssueVoter, a non-partisan platform with a mission to give everyone a voice in our democracy by making civic engagement accessible, efficient, and impactful, she gives us a deeper look into passion, perspective, drive, and lends her expertise on when to “take the leap.”

What inspired your passion and IssueVoter?

Growing up, I didn’t consider a career in politics. However, from a young age voting was always emphasized by both of my parents and perhaps this is what instilled the passion in me.

I remember mock voting in second grade and saw it as a personal responsibility. In college, created at a leadership program, my vision was 100% voter participation. During my college years, I also had quite a bit of interaction with our State reps. I was part of a small group of students who lobbied the Texas Legislature to introduce and pass a bill creating the first student seat on the University of Texas System’s Board of Regents. In another role, serving as an intern, I saw first-hand that Representatives really do track every constituent contact, yet such a small percentage of us actually reach out.

After college, I worked at JPMorgan in Investment Banking. I learned to take risks; I also learned it doesn’t hurt to ask. I asked for a leave of absence to work on one of the most targeted races in Iowa – an open seat in a swing district that many hoped would turn the 25D-25R split in the State Senate. And that’s where the idea for IssueVoter began.

I think it’s unfortunate that voter turnout has dropped. The last mid-term election in 2014 reached a 72-year low at just 34%. However, I also saw that the real work that affects our lives happens between elections.

About ten years ago, I remember sitting in my office working on my laptop thinking, ‘There’s so much focus on elections but there should be an easy way to track what our reps are doing throughout the year. Someday technology will get there. Someone will create this and I will be able to use it!’

From your experience, why is it so important to be passionate about your venture?

Nearly 10 years later, the idea that someone would create a solution to easily track what our reps are doing still stuck with me. It both astonished and frustrated me that something still didn’t exist; so, I decided to create it. My passion for the problem arose from personal experience – a powerful motivator.

IssueVoter a non-partisan website that helps you make your voice heard in Washington and track how often your elected officials vote your way. Users receive targeted alerts before Congress votes on issues they care about. IssueVoter puts legislation in layman’s terms, along with what both sides are saying. You can then send your opinion directly to your rep – in just one click – and track your rep’s votes and bill outcomes – helping you make an informed decision at election time.

Everyone will tell you that entrepreneurship is hard; there are ups and downs and days you feel like throwing in the towel. IssueVoter’s mission is to give everyone a voice in our democracy by making civic engagement accessible, efficient, and impactful. Our vision includes a more informed electorate and truly representative democracy, and that keeps me going. The potential for huge impact and change inspires me. Civic Engagement needs a scalable solution. We’re turning slacktivism into activism between elections, answering the question, “You just voted, now what?”

But when it comes to mission-driven work, the mission is often so big and far in the future that it can be hard to celebrate daily and monthly wins. For example, having a Congress that is truly representative of the majority of voters isn’t immediately achievable. But we can count having users in all 50 states and sending thousands of opinions to Congress as steps towards that mission. The personal connection and my diversity of both government/political and private sector experience give me a unique perspective – marrying knowledge about how the legislature works with realistic solutions in which individuals, even those who aren’t activists, will engage.

Passion provides perspective (that others may not have), fuels your drive (getting you through tough times and making quitting not an option), and helps you see the big picture. (When founders get caught up in details and process, they can miss opportunities by focusing too narrowly.)

What kind of hardships come along the way when you’re so personally attached to the mission of your venture? What rewards are there?

I’m good at seeing both sides (a great trait to have when running a nonpartisan site), so in terms of hardships vs. rewards:

  • There’s a risk of “passion projects” not scaling or becoming sustainable. One of the reasons businesses fail is simply because people move on. If you ask successful business owners what they did differently a common answer will be, “I didn’t quit.”
  • It can be hard to take your mind off work, but the fact that ideas are always marinating can lead to creativity and breakthroughs.
  • You may lose friends, but you’ll gain new ones. Forming friendships with other founders for support throughout the journey is incredibly helpful.
  • You have to accept that nobody is going to be as dedicated and committed as you are. Recognizing that early on helps you maintain perspective.
  • And finally, because you’re passionate, there are a lot of intrinsic motivators in addition to extrinsic ones that everyone experiences.

How did you know it was time to take the leap and quit your day job in order to run IssueVoter full-time? What advice do you have for others facing the same decision?

I don’t think you ever know when it’s the “right time.”

This past winter, after I had already left my full-time job, I heard Sallie Krawcheck, CEO and Co-Founder of Ellevest, say at an event that you should have at least a 2-year runway.

Beyond the logistics of whether quitting is financially feasible, I’d offer this advice:

  1. Ask yourself, “Would I regret NOT doing this?” If the answer is “yes,” then you owe it to yourself to do it.
  2. Remember, you can control your inputs/actions but not the outcome – do your best.
  3. Listen to and trust your gut. That might sound vague, but your “gut” takes in thousands of data points, consciously and subconsciously, and those come together to inform a decision.

I hope that you’ll follow your passions and that I’ll be reading about your ventures in the future!