Vivienne Ming: The Transformative Power of Being Yourself
BY Adam Sandel
November 26 2013 5:00 AM ET
Vivienne Ming is a scientist, entrepreneur, wife, and mother. She’s founded three start-up companies, including the social gaming-focused Augniscient (acquired by Rabbit) and the professional networking-focused Conga. She’s used her background in neuroscience, data mining, technology, and business and her experiences as a trans woman toward her life's mission of recognizing and maximizing human potential.
Now, as cofounder and executive director of Socos (founded with her wife, Norma Ming, and former student Engin Bumbacher), she aims to revolutionize the way that student capabilities are measured and addressed. Ming is also the chief scientist at Gild, a technology recruiting firm that’s changing the way stellar talent is identified. The companies have similar goals.
"We’re looking at someone’s entire career as a student and a professional on their real merit, including nontraditional students and self-taught developers," says Ming. "Our society is being lazy with them. The goal is to do the hard work to discover them — using the concrete mathematical models we build to identify what that developer or student is really capable of."
Discovering that true potential that may be locked beneath a misleading exterior is a process with which Ming is all too familiar. Ming is transgender, and as a young person showed remarkable skills in science and math, and athletic prowess in track and football.
At the age of 12, Ming — then known as Evan Campbell Smith — realized she was playing for the wrong team. She didn’t want to be a boy. She kept the feelings to herself, but when she left home in Monterey, Calif., to enroll at the University of California, San Diego, isolation and depression began to take their toll, both socially and academically.
Ming dropped out of school, but an inner strength ultimately drove her to return with renewed determination. In 2001, Ming entered Carnegie Mellon University, where she would earn an MS in psychology, then a Ph.D. in psychology and theoretical neuroscience. Ming soon met and fell in love with fellow PhD candidate, Norma Chang.
"What drives success, and the most successful students, is internal motivation," says Ming. "Once you identify the intrinsically motivated people, you realize that fancy degrees can actually be a negative — that some of the people who have them are more focused on how others perceive them. In my personal experience, a lot of my problems were driven by my unhappiness with who I was.”
Despite the demanding work in Carnegie Mellon's doctoral program and the newfound love for Norma, Ming suffered from chronic insomnia. Happy in love and successful in school, Ming attempted to deny the inner turmoil. In 2005, Ming and Chang became engaged.
It was on Ming's 34th birthday that she told Norma about her desire to be a woman. After much soul-searching, the couple decided to stay together. Returning to California, where they’d accepted positions at Berkeley and Stanford, they were married in 2006.
Ming's transition was a gradual one, as the couple planned for a family. Their son, Baxter, is now 5, while their daughter, Thalia, just turned 2. The couple eventually mashed up their last names, Smith and Chang, to Ming — despite protests from both of their families.
"The perception people have of Norma sticking with me after the transition is, 'You’re so lucky — Norma is amazing.' Yes ,she is, but not because of this," says Ming. "We’re in love, we’re happier, and we’re better now. We’re very comfortable working together as wives, as mothers, and on our own projects."
Yet Ming is very aware of how people perceive her differently as a woman than they did as a man. "Before I came out, people always asked me math questions. But once I became a woman, they stopped. There’s unintended discrimination,” she says, citing male colleagues who would go to baseball games together without inviting her, even though the games were also business meetings.
Even CEOs of other companies and men in her industry treat her differently now.
"There’s a ‘jolly uncle’ phenomenon, where they kind of pat me on the head with a ‘she’s such a sweet girl’ kind of attitude, as opposed to engaging me as a business person," says Ming. "So I look for places where I can push for ideas or data that might disrupt their vision of me. I contrast that with my experience before my transition. I know what it’s like to be taken seriously."
Ming has been involved with StartOut, a group for LGBT entrepreneurs, since its inception, and she has plenty of advice. "People need to make hard decisions, but you’ve got to come out. Some worry about being out to VCs, but that’s not really an issue anymore. Confront challenges as they come. If you’re not taken seriously, go somewhere else.”
"After I transitioned, a lot of people said, ‘I like you so much more now,’ because before, I was unhappy. Making that change was a big part of becoming me. Whoever you are, as a gay man or a lesbian or a trans woman, embrace it. Turn it into an asset.”
The key to Socos’s success is its recognition of students’ unique assets. The key to Gild’s success is that it brings meritocracy to tech hiring. A key part of that is the algorithms that Ming has designed to scour the Web and find out what people are really good at.
"That applies to the LGBT community as well," she says. "Some of Gild’s big-name Silicon Valley customers are charged with finding underserved candidates. We illuminate talent and we don’t care where it comes from — which is a huge value proposition for the customers."
"What’s personally most important to me [at both Socos and Gild] is recognizing the inherent value of people," Ming says. "This applies to LGBT entrepreneurs or anyone else. If someone’s potential isn’t being recognized, that’s a terrible loss for society."
VentureOut is a monthly column profiling LGBT entrepreneurs. This series is a program of StartOut, the first national network of LGBT entrepreneurs here to help you accelerate your ideas. We’re StartOut, a national nonprofit with a network 8,000 strong — and growing. Connect with your community and experience events in San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles, Boston, and Austin. Visit StartOut and sign up for our events newsletter and accelerate your entrepreneurial goals. Learn more about how to join the LGBT startup network at StartOut.org.