Z Holly is an MIT-trained engineer, tech entrepreneur and adventurer. After a decade in tech, she founded two university innovation centers – at MIT and USC – that have launched dozens of venture-backed startups. She created the first ever TEDx event in 2009. She currently hosts The Art of Manufacturing podcast.
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Time Stamped Show Notes
(click the time stamp to jump directly to that point in the episode.)
- [01:08] – Krisztina loves adventure and crazy stuff
- [01:27] – She loves discovering unidentified talents and ideas
- [01:37] – Krisztina’s non-profit: Make it in LA
- [02:38] – Value Bomb Drop: Don’t follow your passion, follow your curiosity. And say yes to opportunities
- [03:36] – Krisztina shares her experience working with entrepreneur inmates at a maximum security prison
- [06:20] – By following curiosity Krisztina built relationships
- [07:40] – Worst Entrepreneurial Moment: I suddenly realized I didn’t have the support of my team
- [09:35] – I decided to come back to the team and explained what happened
- [10:09] – Listen to your gut when you’re hiring
- [10:13] – Admit your mistakes and be liberal in being vulnerable
- [10:18] – You have to be in constant communication with your team
- [11:03] – Entrepreneurial AH-HA Moment: I was working on my skydiver’s license and it was my 8th jump 3500 ft from the ground; I was spinning wildly, and my parachute never opened. I had the presence of mind to pull the reserve
- [12:48] – Bounce back from the tough times
- [14:28] – What is the one thing you are most FIRED up about today? The future of manufacturing
- [15:05] – The Art of Manufacturing Podcast
- [16:11] – The Lightning Round
- What was holding you back from becoming an entrepreneur? – At first, nothing. But now, knowing how hard it was
- What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received? – It’s good to take risks if for no other reason than to be that brave person to take them
- What’s a personal habit that contributes to your success? – Ask questions and listen
- Share an internet resource, like Evernote, with Fire Nation – Matrix – ITA Software by Google
- If you could recommend one book to our listeners, what would it be and why? – Endurance
- Imagine you woke up tomorrow morning in a brand new world, identical to Earth, but you knew no one. You still have all the experiences and knowledge you currently have – your food and shelter is taken cared of – but all you have is a laptop and $500. What would you do in the next 7 days? – I would build relationships…
- [20:24] – Always take the path of greatest adventure
- [20:30] – Follow us on Twitter or Instagram
- [20:26] – Check out The Art of Manufacturing Podcast – special updates for Fire Nation!
Krisztina Holly: I'm prepared, I got the gas can, I got the match, woot, woot!
John: Z, of Fire Nation is an MIT trained engineer, tech entrepreneur and adventurer. After a decade in tech she founded two university innovation centers at MIT and USC that have launched dozens of venture back start-ups. She created the first ever Tedx event in 2009 and she currently hosts the Art of Manufacturing podcast. So Z, take a minute, fill in some gaps from that intro and give me a little detail of your personal life.
Krisztina Holly: Yeah. So personally I just – I love adventure. I love to do all sorts of crazy stuff. You know, when i think about my career I've been spending many days – decades staring companies and helping other people start companies. If I think about kind of the common theme and what I'm really passionate about is to identify undiscovered talent and ideas and to help them amplify their impact. More recently, I've been focusing that energy on manufacturing entrepreneurs. We recently launched a non-profit for [inaudible - 00:01:08] called Make it in LA. I'm especially excited about my podcast, the Art of Manufacturing.
Krisztina Holly: Yeah. Spotlighting amazing people that are building stuff and trying to make it in their industries. So yeah, basically I just love to be a champion for amazing entrepreneurs and ides.
John: So with would you say your specialty is? Like what’s your area of expertise? Break that down in just like a sentence or two.
Krisztina Holly: I'm great at connecting ideas and people. You know, people are always just remaking at like how I just seem to know everyone and how I discover such super interesting people, whether it’s for my podcast for Tedx or you know, faculty in the universities, helping themes tart companies. So this really about identifying those undiscovered talent and ideas.
John: Well, so within that area of expertise like what’s like a hint? Like what’s a tactic that we should know that we probably don’t because we’re just not as good at it as you?
Krisztina Holly: I think that the most important thing is that I'm naturally curious. People say follow your passion but I think that’s totally wrong. I actually say – I would say that don’t follow your passion, follow your seriously. Because passion is all about things that you already know and curiosity is about what you don’t know. So that’s where the new opportunities lie. A lot of it, it has to do with saying yes to opportunities that you wouldn't necessarily see an obvious payback. You know, a lot of times people are looking for oh, how do I – it’s very transactional – how do I get something out of this person.
Especially then you’re starting as a new entrepreneur you don’t – you may not have money or connections. What you do have is time and you do have the opportunity to give. When you give you builds trust and you also – people want to work with you. So perfect example is just last Friday I was – I had this opportunity to go to a maximum security prison to help mentor entrepreneurs in training, they call them. So there were inmates in this – and these are literally some of the most violent offenders –
Krisztina Holly: – in California. I have really high expectations about it just because I really thought it would be fascinating and I really wanted to give back. To be honest, I never realized that it would be one of the most – of all the things, amazing things I've been able to do in my life, it was one of the most memorable days of my life. It was really amazing.
John: Can you maybe pull out one of the most memorable things that happened within that day?
Krisztina Holly: It was sort of structured as a pitch competition and just seeing the smile on the winner’s face. I don’t think I've seen someone smile that hard ever.
John: Pure joy.
Krisztina Holly: Oh, just pure joy. Another one of the entrepreneurs in training gives a few words at the end. They had a graduation ceremony and actually went through a very intensive program so sort of Baylor University gave them a certificate. Some of these folks never went to a graduation ever and this – yeah, so it was just amazing to see that humanity and the encouragement. This guy said, “I never had anyone believe in me before.” We had this moment where – this exercise mid-day where the volunteers were on one side of the line and the inmates were on the other side. We had to answer questions based on – you know, you stand – you walk to the line if you agree with it.
So there were questions like, are you – you know, do you have hustle? So like we all go to the – most of us go to the line, right. You have things that have incredible disparity, like have you ever had violence in your family? Or have you ever lost a child and thigs like that and then we had an opportunity to talk about it. So just the – but I think that at the end had – hearing that these folks had never felt cared for before was just this incredible – you know, and feeling like we could give that but then also to learn from that and to have this compassion. Realizing this is a talent pool that we’re overlooking.
John: What a unique experience, wow.
Krisztina Holly: Yeah, and it – and that’s the thing is that I – through that experience – learned a lot. I also met other mazing entrepreneurs that were doing the same thing. I didn’t do it for my own benefit, but in the end by doing those kinds of things I've just – by following my curiously and helping others make impact, over the years I've just ended up building these amazing relationships and doing amazing things that even money can’t buy. There’s a lot of emphasis on money as an entrepreneur right. I have been financially successful but it’s just a means to an end. So I think that that’s really the take-away for me.
John: Yeah, because what are we doing with the money if it’s not having experiences that we want and having –
Krisztina Holly: That’s right.
John: – these opportunities to – you know, to have – and I guess I'm just going to go back to that word experiences – but life experiences. Like adventure experiences, like things that we get excited about. I mean, you know, nobody wants to be buried, you know, with millions of dollars in one dollar bills in their coffin because they’re pretty aware that that’s not going to do them much good. So it’s one of those things, Fire Nation is yeah, work hard, grind hard but then say, hey like what am I going to do life experientially wise that’s going to – that I'm going to look back when I'm 80, when I'm 90 if I'm blessed to live that long and say, wow, like I'm glad I did that?
Because I can’t do that now and it was really cool to do that then. So let’s kind of mosey into a different direction because you’ve had some tough times in your journey as well because that’s the definition of an entrepreneur. What would you consider your worst time, specifically your worst moment in time as an entrepreneur? Tell us that’s tory.
Krisztina Holly: I think we all like to be liked, right. So there was a moment in my career that I'm thinking back to that I suddenly realized that I didn’t have the support of my team that I thought. If I reel it back and I think about how it happened. So I hired the wrong person, in this case. We had been looking for so long that I was willing to overlook some flaws. The first mistake was never subtle and you know, it – for like a year-and-a-half I was trying to make – adjust the position so that it would complement this person’s skills. Second mistake, like just rip off the Band-Aid. You know, but you try, right.
I had no idea that things were going to get worse. It turns to that this person had spent a lot of time letting people cry on a shoulder and building trust with them but he never shared those issues with me. So I couldn’t address those concerns so people were probably wondering why I this not being dealt with? So he really built this trust with the team and so when it came time to finally let him go I wanted to do the right thing so I wanted to do a favor and let him save face and I gave him a few weeks’ notice. I said, you know, let’s message it as a mutual decision if you’d like, you know, it’s really up to you.
He said, well, whatever’s best for you. Well, he spent the next few weeks totally sabotaging me, telling people that I had lied, implying that there was going to be a big lay-off and all this, really making things dire for people. The whole team turned against me and I started feeling that I didn’t really know what was fully going on until the last day when half the team showed up in black t-shirts to protest. So it was horrible because I – for me the team the personal connection is so important. I feel like I did the right thing, you know, and I tried so hard and I almost felt like no good deed goes unpunished.
So what happened was after that I decided to come back to the team at an all hands meeting and explain why I did what I did. Explained what had happened, say that, you know, I really tried to be as transparent as possible. Sometimes you can’t be but you know, and I explained why I wasn't completely truthful. I apologized for having misled them and they were so taken aback by the candor that a lot of people came up to me and said, wow that took a lot of guts. I really feel like I kind of won them over and it was the first step in really rebuilding that trust. You know, it really was this turning point.
So yeah, too big lessons. One is, listen to your gut when you’re hiring and the other one is just admit mistakes, you know, and be liberal with being vulnerable.
John: Yeah, and I'll add mine on that, which is community. Like you always – Fire Nation – have to be in constant community with your team, with people you work with, for. I mean, just got to go up and down. There’s got to be an up and down line of community because then you don’t, things like that can fester and they can grow and they can get out of control. I mean, I’m picturing that visual, Z of people showing up all in black shirts. It’s just like, you know, showing up and saying wow, like everybody’s against me and that’s terrifying. It doesn’t need –
Krisztina Holly: It was horrible.
John: – to be that way, Fire Nation, if you keep that communication open. It’s not to say nothing bad is going to happen but at least you’ll be able to address it and hopefully nip it in the bud. Now let’s move forward into an aha! moment, Z, that you’ve had because you’ve had a lot of course. What are your greatest? Tell us that story.
Krisztina Holly: Well, I have a little bit of a challenge with this question, John, because I don’t think entrepreneur success really comes from singular aha! moments. I think that they come from repeated experience and they shape your world view over time. You know, they say that, for example, marketing messages have to be said – you know, counted at least seven times before it really sinks in. So I don’t know that as humans we actually realize as often as we think that there’s this aha! moment. If I had to pick one story I'd think back to four years ago. I was working on my sky diving license and it was my eighth jump. I was 3,500 feet above the ground time to pull the rip cord.
Krisztina Holly: All the sudden I start spinning wildly, like oh, my God, what’s going on? I look up and the parachute was this this little ball above my head and it never opened. I'm rushing towards the ground and I could – I was spinning so much that I could barely pull my arms up to my chest but I had the presence of mind to cut away and to pull the reserve. Thankfully I had the, you know, presence of mind that I'm here. I was so excited and pumped with adrenaline but by the time I got to the ground I was just completely sick to my stomach. Everyone already around the drop zone had heard about this.
They were coming up to me congratulating me and a few people actually told me that they were jealous. I said, “Why are you jealous? I almost died! You’ve got to be kidding me.” Well, it turns to that many of them had over a thousand jumps without a canape failure. They didn’t know whether for sure they could survive a malfunction. So you know, a lot of people talk about embracing failure and that failure is good because you can learn from failure and I have a contrarian view. I think actually we have failure all wrong. It’s not that actual failure. Obviously, we wouldn’t have wanted me to fail in that case but it’s from bouncing back from the tough times.
It’s the courage that you get after having faced that adversity and then knowing that you can survive it. That’s really the key, is to like – to build that courage, iterate, experiment. If you fail catastrophically you’re probably not doing it right.
John: Is it courage that you get Fire Nation from when you face that adversity and survive? I mean, that is a pretty powerful statement, Z, and something that I want you, Fire Nation, to think about next time you say, you know, should I get out of my comfort zone? Yes, you should because then you get out of your comfort zone you’re going to try something new, try something different and you’re going to see like, let’s face that diversity, let’s win or let’s see what we got you know, what we’re made of. Let’s make this happen. Speaking of that –
Krisztina Holly: Wait, one more thing I learned, learn to pack your own parachute. You have to feel like you know what it takes to pack that parachute, to know – so you know that you know to trust the right people. You have to delegate, right but you need to know how to do it.
John: How many times have you jumped since that malfunction?
Krisztina Holly: I got my license, I got 25 jumps under my belt. The next jump, I have to admit, was very challenging.
John: Yeah, I can imagine. You’ve got to get back on that horse. So Z, let’s kind of come to present time now because I'm kind of curious about what you’re most fired up about today. Because I mean, you’ve had quite the adventuresome life. I mean, you’ve done a lot of different things, both coasts, jumping out of planes, what fires you up now?
Krisztina Holly: I am really excited about the future of manufacturing right now. You know, tech and entertainment get all the love these days but manufacturing is sexy. People didn’t realize that it’s actually LA’s largest manufacturing center in the country and it has a huge economic impact for every job. It creates several, four to five jobs, induces four to five jobs so it’s a really important part of our economy. Everything, the fashion, food, aerospace, electronics, they’re all being transformed by new technologies. It’s a renaissance ein manufacturing and it’s also kind of why I'm excited about the Art of Manufacturing podcast. Love it.
Love just really highlighting and showcasing amazing entrepreneurs, people who are – whether it’s Karl Kani who’s the sort of pioneer or urban street wear or folks that are creating like local roots. They have these shipping containers that are filled with the equivalent of four to five acres of produce that you can grow anywhere in the world.
Krisztina Holly: Cool technologies, fashion, food. It’s just the – hearing these stories. So you know, you hear these stories, right. It’s so powerful to hear the stories while they’re in progress because we always forget, in retrospect, how hard it was when you hear the stories afterwards. So I'm very excited about it. So in this coming year I'm really excited to take it on the road and that’s what I'm really getting excited about.
John: One of the beautiful things about podcasting is you can take it on the road. So Fire Nation, the Art of Manufacturing podcast, get fired up for that and get fired up for the lighting round. As soon as we thank our sponsors, we’re cracking into it. Z, are you prepared for the lightning rounds.
Krisztina Holly: I am prepared!
John: What was holding you back from becoming an entrepreneur?
Krisztina Holly: Nothing held me back the first time because I think I was too foolish to know that it was going to be so hard.
John: Ignorance is bliss, baby.
Krisztina Holly: I guess, you know, if I knew how hard it was going to be I probably wouldn’t have done it the first time.so this last time, since I've been doing it for decades, I guess what held me back was knowing how hard it was. It took me long time to find a cause I was willing to fully commit to. You know, and it wasn't until the idea of make it in LA started getting a lot of traction and I realized how much I love podcasting that I decided I was ready to jump into the deep end this time.
John: What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
Krisztina Holly: Oh, so many different – well, I – okay, not – just very recently I was hesitating about trying something risky. I was hanging out with my best friend from MIT and she said something really profound, it just really hit me. She said that it’s good to take risks if for no other reason than to be the kind of brave person that would take that risk. That way, even if you fail you’ve succeeded.
John: I love that. What’s a personal habit that contributes to your success?
Krisztina Holly: Ask questions and listen. I'm incredibly curios about everyone and everything and I think it’s really – you know, even as an entrepreneur, when you’re pitching don’t take it as a sales opportunity, take it as listening opportunity.
John: Can you share an internet resource like Evernote with Fire Nation?
Krisztina Holly: You know, I travel a lot and I’m a bit of a – I love to – I'm a control freak so I use ITA software, the matrix.itasoftware.com to find my flights. It’s owned by Google and the back end that powers all the major airlines websites. So for me I just love that control and that’s where I go.
John: If you could recommend just one book, what would it be and why?
Krisztina Holly: So I am a huge fan of spending time reading books outside your area of expertise. One of my favorite books is Endurance by Alfred Lansing and it’s the true story about Shackleton’s adventure.
Krisztina Holly: Which is an amazing story. This particular one is the only one where the author had interviewed people who’d survived.
Krisztina Holly: Yeah, and it only enhances the story to know that every single person survives this ordeal and it’s a totally gripping adventure story and inspires incredible leadership lessons along the way.
John: Well, Z, this is the last question of the lighting round but it is a doozy. Imagine you woke up tomorrow morning in a brand new world, identical to earth but you knew no one. You still have all the experience and knowledge you currently have, your food and shelter’s taken care of but all you have is a laptop and $500. What would you do in the next seven days?
Krisztina Holly: Okay, so I think I'm going to be a little contrarian. For me, I've just spent decades helping people succeed and building these relationships and my reputation, everything. So this question is – it’s really disturbing to me, to be honest. So I have my food and shelter taken care of, so I wouldn’t actually do anything quickly. I would do it right. I would brace myself for literally a five-year journey to build my relationships back again. I would just – like day one I would start volunteering at all the local start-up accelerators. I would try to find and help the most interesting innovators. The more value that I could create, the more trust I could build.
I might actually try to get a job at a university where I could then build on that brand. So in the same way that I had to kind of re – when I moved from MIT to USC, cross-country I had to rebuild my networks in a way. I might not be – I guess the pot is I wouldn’t be an entrepreneur right away. I would spend some time really rebuilding and that’s what I would do.
John: A lot of people are in a rush. Fire Nation, we don’t need to rush tings. We can sit back, listen, observe, ask questions. I love all of this. Z, let’s set it on fire with parting piece of guidance, the best way we can connect with you and then we’ll say goodbye.
Krisztina Holly: All things being equal, always take the path of greatest adventure. You can find us on Twitter and Instagram at we make it in LA or on Facebook at make it in LA. Please check out the art of manufacturing podcast, amazing entrepreneur stories. We’re looking to expand our partnerships and take the podcast on the road. So if you’re interested in partnering or supporting I’ll do some special updates for Fire Nation about the show at makeitinla.org/fire.
John: Fire Nation, you’re the average of the five people you spend the most time with. You’ve been hanging with Z and JLD today, so keep up the heat. Head over to eofire.com, if you just type in Krisztina or actually it’ll be easier to type in Holly, H-O-L-L-Y, her last name. This episode will pop right up with all the show notes, best show notes in the biz, timestamps, links galore. Of course, check out the Art of Manufacturing podcast. It’s going to rock because Z’s the host. What was that link one more time for Fire Nation, Z?
Krisztina Holly: Makeitinla.org/fire.
John: Makeitinla.org/fire. Z, I want to thank you for sharing your journey with us today. So for that we salute you and we’ll catch you on the flip side.
Krisztina Holly: Thanks, JLD.
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