There are few things more dreaded than public speaking, in no small part because those who have it thrust upon them may have no previous experience communicating with a crowd. So it stands to reason that introducing public speaking at a young age would do wonders for the skill and confidence of students.
As part of showcasing women founders that started here, I had the opportunity to interview an impressive young entrepreneur, Emily Han, who started Make a Statement to provide free workshops, competitions, summer camps, and online resources to youth across the globe. In addition to her organization’s tremendous mission, her personal story of using public speaking to master a new language and regain confidence after immigrating to the U.S. is impressive.
Mary Juetten: When did you start?
Emily Han: I started Make a Statement when I was 14. After four years of being trapped in the mindset that I am not good enough because of my accent or my background as an immigrant student, I finally learned how to embrace my journey and celebrate my uniqueness at the age of 14. I hoped to utilize my ten years of public speaking experience to empower others who are afraid to speak up for themselves and their beliefs.
In the summer of 2015, I moved to California from ShenZhen, China at the age of ten. As a professionally trained moderator since elementary school, I was enraptured by the promise of a new journey of dreams here in California. Yet, I struggled with assimilating into a new environment in a new country, and I gradually lost my confidence. My mom enrolled me in Speech & Debate lessons, hoping to strengthen my oratory skills while retrieving the confidence I once possessed. After years of competitive experience in Public Forum Debate, I finally obtained the ability to speak English fluently with a barely perceivable accent. I then discovered a disposition towards a moderator, a debater, an entrepreneur, a political activist, and more —- all through public speaking.
My background really inspired me to think outside of the box: what can I do to prevent others from going through the lonely, enduring journey of self-rediscovery? How can I pave the way for students who struggle with public speaking? Recounting my monumental move to a new environment, I really wish I received guidance when I needed it the most, which is why I strive to provide the help I once desired to those who can perhaps see a piece of themselves reflected in me.
Juetten: What problem are you solving?
Han: As I recognized the importance of public speaking throughout my journey, I also identified the lack thereof, especially in the school curriculums. Teachers at school drill us in conventional subjects such as math, science, and history — you name it — but they don’t teach us how to effectively communicate and present ourselves in front of others. Despite being the most important life skill that is applicable to every profession and industry, public speaking education is extremely underrepresented, which results in an environment that is only designed for natural extroverts to thrive in. As a problem solver, I want to help the students who are not exposed to public speaking education and create tangible impacts on youth with my knowledge and unconventional experience.
Juetten: Who are your customers and how do you find them?
Han: When I first started Make a Statement, the initial target customers were elementary school students as I believe that public speaking education should start at a young age. The initial plan was to contact local elementary schools and Boys & Girls clubs to hold interactive, after school lectures. However, when the pandemic hit, we transitioned onto online platforms, therefore changing our target audience to high schoolers and college students who are interested in strengthening their communication skills and learning about Speech & Debate, Model United Nations, Mock Trial, and more.
Establishing a stable audience base is one of the most challenging aspects of creating a startup, and Make a Statement faced that obstacle. At first, there were barely any attendees at our workshops. To see two people show up at a webinar that was planned and rehearsed for weeks was a bit demoralizing, but I continued on with our journey regardless. After partnering up with existing organizations, I saw a steady increase in Make a Statement’s exposure to the general public through social media marketing and large scale promotions through Slack communities. So far, we have reached about 700 students from 25 countries and 25 states, and none of these successes would have come without the failures we encountered.
Juetten: How did past projects and/or experience help with this new project?
Han: As a four-year Speech & Debate competitor, a three-year Model United Nations competitor, and a trained moderator, I have abundant experiences and strong interests in public speaking, allowing me to design adaptive curriculum for students across various age groups.
Additionally, my leadership experience also helped me along the way: my six years of experience as a class president and four years of experience in leading various clubs and projects allow me to effectively organize the Make a Statement team, which is constructed of high schoolers all across the nation. I deeply believe that leadership is about building trust between the leader and the team. Thus, I aim to create an encouraging environment that promotes members to take initiatives, therefore exercising their leadership skill sets as well.
Despite not having previous startup experiences, I transferred all the knowledge I have garnered throughout my public speaking journey to students enrolled in our program. When in doubt, I simply think about what I wish I had known in middle school to students across all age groups from various countries.
Juetten: Did being a female have any impact on your decision to launch and during your startup?
Han: Luckily, I grew up in an embracing environment where gender inequality was not the largest issue I faced. With this mindset, I have always believed that females are just as capable as any other genders and vice versa. Nonetheless, the issue of gender inequality was magnified when I joined Speech & Debate, and I felt like I had a disadvantage in rounds due to my identity, which subsequently impacted my decision to launch Make a Statement: I kept on doubting whether I am qualified enough to promote public speaking education when there are others out there who sound naturally assertive when they talk due to their physical heights and voices. Nevertheless, I am lucky enough to have a group of supportive friends and mentors whose encouragement helped me to negate these pessimistic thoughts.
Juetten: Any challenges that you found are particular to female founders?
Han: When people think of male founders, they tend to picture someone who is assertive and sometimes aggressive in a good way, both of which are not often correlated with female founders. Because of these stereotypical values, female founders are statistically proven to have a harder time landing investments and expanding professional networks. We often hear about successful startup stories surrounding male founders, but not as many successful stories about female entrepreneurs.
Juetten: Startups are an adventure — what’s your favorite startup story?
Han: Growing up in China, the startup story that has basically been built into my mind is that of Jack Ma. Ma’s consistency and optimism really motivated me when Make a Statement faced difficulties. He once stated that the difference between successful entrepreneurs like Mark Zuckerberg and others is that they always look at the future with an optimistic view, believing that their product is capable of changing the world. When everybody negated his startup idea, Alibaba, Ma never gave up. In the end, Alibaba really revolutionized eCommerce across the globe. Whenever I think of the countless obstacles Ma has faced throughout his life, such as getting rejected from Harvard ten times, all of my difficulties seem negligible.
Juetten: How do you measure success and what is your favorite success story?
Han: To me, entrepreneurship is all about solving real life issues and producing tangible impacts to those who are the most in need. Thus, rather than measuring success by the magnitude of the impacts a company creates, I tend to determine the success of a company based on the values it brings to a specific group of people. For instance, my favorite success story lies in Ma’s creation of Alibaba. Recognizing the growing need for an “internet,” a concept many deemed ridiculous, that combines the various eCommerce into one centralized location, Ma was motivated by the positive user feedback he received. Since then, Ma’s work with Alipay, TaoBao, and other software truly revolutionized the era of technology.
Juetten: Tips for early-stage female founders?
Han: First and foremost, confidence really makes a difference! Keep in mind that you are just as capable of achieving the same amount of successes as anyone else. Believe that you can be the protagonist of “the successful story” you want people to hear about, and it will really come true in the end. If I could go back in time and tell my middle school self one piece of advice, I would ask her to be the most confident version of herself despite her differences and insecurities. When I rediscovered my confidence, all different opportunities just magically started revealing themselves.
Secondly, recognizing the existing gender inequalities in the workforce, it is important to reach out to other female founders for guidance. Always look for ways to expand your network through platforms such as LinkedIn and don’t settle for less than what you deserve. Female empowerment is an ambitious goal but it stems from every single one of us. Whenever I come across an inspiring female founder’s profile on LinkedIn, I would almost always send a connect request with a personalized note, describing what I find the most unique about their work as well as a coffee chat request. It has helped me grow my network immensely, and I was able to gain not only career advice but also life lessons from people who were once in the same position as I currently am.
Juetten: What’s your next milestone and any long-term vision for your company?
Han: The focus for Make a Statement in the next few months is the upcoming Speech & Debate Tournament that is designed for novice debaters who want to learn more about tournament structures and judging procedures. I aim to make this a costless, beginner-friendly environment in order to cultivate students’ interests in Speech & Debate activities and other public speaking activities. Different from other tournaments, I plan to imbed Hackathon elements throughout the event, inviting Keynote speakers and experts in various fields to empower youth in public speaking, politics, and business.
My vision for Make a Statement in the next year is to add elementary students’ in-person teaching plans back on our agenda in a post COVID-19 world while continuing hosting monthly workshops and creating free resources guides that are available for all. Additionally, I plan to expand Make a Statement through the establishments of Chapters around the world. Chapter Leads will receive full access to curriculum slides, recordings, and other resources they need in order to bring public speaking education to their own communities.
Thank you to Emily for sharing her unique experience. Her tenacity and vision is something to both admire and emulate. It’s easy to see the negative but strength and perseverance is what makes a successful founder. #onwards.