Christine Choi on Getting Comfortable with Being Uncomfortable
Mixing Board Studio Session
Christine Choi is a Partner and Head of Brand/Communications at the VC firm M13. Before that Christine worked with Sir Richard Branson to launch Virgin Group’s North American portfolio and was the first head of communications for Virgin Galactic/Virgin Orbit/The Spaceship Company. She also serves on the boards of KIPP NJ and Virgin Unite US.
In this Studio Session, Christine and Mixing Board Founder, Sean Garrett, talk about looking at brand/comms through the lens of community and how it’s a counterbalance to technology; how Richard Branson thinks; not taking yourself too seriously; and, why we should all work on a playground.
SG: You are a partner at M13, an early stage venture capital firm based in Los Angeles. Tell me about your job, what you do, and how you got there.
CC: I didn’t grow up wanting to be a venture capitalist. I chose M13 not because I wanted to be in the venture capital industry but because I have long-term relationships with the co-founders and partners in the firm. I wanted to work alongside good humans. And that is one of the commonalities across my many career pivots — finding good people I know I can trust and learn from.
I’ve known Carter, M13 co-founder, since probably 2009, when he and Courtney started VEEV. One day he showed up in Brooklyn, he happened to be in town for some board meetings. He described a different approach to venture that he and his team were investing in. Capital is a commodity, and founders at the early stage want more than just capital from their investing partners. M13 is a chance to work alongside great people and to build the startup foundation of meaningful enduring companies. What that means for me is that I get to apply my brand communications and startup expertise from the last 25 years.
I was intrigued but I didn’t make the decision based on his pitch. I wanted to meet the people. So two days later, I went out to Los Angeles, I met the team, I talked with M13 founders, I spent time in the office, and ultimately I understood that his vision was shared by the others.
That vision was to build a supportive community across the founding teams in the tech ecosystem. Being a founder is a lonely job. Brand and communications can also be a lonely and isolating effort. I knew that we would have the backs of our founders and we would have this incredible team of partners with tons of experience leading teams through downturns, surviving downturns. We enable founders to access not only our expertise but also the partnership of successful entrepreneurs in our community. All of this helps founding teams avoid costly and time sucking mistakes. That was three and a half years ago, and I’m proud of what we have established since then.
SG: How do you suss out good humans in this process? When people look at a job, they’re looking at comp, they’re looking at title, and they’re looking at the role. The good human part — people spend much less time on that. How do you figure it out?
CC: This may go against the grain of this culture of efficiency, speed, and working at pace, but I believe that it takes time to build relationships. It’s hard to do when everything is moving so quickly and with seeming finality. So you can’t just rely on your head, you’ve got to go with your gut. I have developed confidence in my own gut instinct about people by failing, learning, and making better choices. I find ways to put in the time to figure out who I want to support and work alongside. And it pays off.
Nowadays it’s hard to make friends. Beyond kids’ play dates, how do adults make friends anymore? My approach is to bring people together. The other week, I was planning one-on-ones to catch up with some of the women in my life in the middle of building really purposeful movements and starting things. Instead of having coffee with each of them, I decided to bring them together for dinner.
I opened my doors for the first time since the pandemic. In a home setting, you see how people truly are. I asked them to introduce themselves and identify one thing that they want help with. What I found surprising is that none of the people I invited asked who else was coming. They know that when they show up at a gathering that I host, they’re going to meet interesting people. They walked out having met 15 incredibly accomplished women who are in the middle of meaningful work. I have FOMO now because I know that they are talking, planning, partnering, and doing things on their own. I’m really happy with that because if I can help pay forward my own luck by convening good people with food and great conversation. It’s a flywheel that is going to benefit all of us.
For people who are still building their communities, my advice would be to say yes to everything. Show up to absolutely everything. That’s going to help refine your instincts and judgment. Getting out there, meeting people, and figuring out how to engage and to tick off your mental boxes around: what attributes are meaningful to me? In what ways can I imagine working with them?
SG: There is a difference between a network and a community. Networking is this very transactional thing. There’s a difference between grabbing a coffee with someone to talk about your career versus what you just described. The concept of community is a vague term, but it’s bringing people together with some sort of shared element. Something that feels abundant — when they walk away from this dinner, they’re going to have more that they can bring to this thing that they just connected on. How do you stay proactive at building community? For people who are trying to figure out how to take this more abundant approach, what recommendations do you have?
CC: Networking was probably a bad word before the pandemic. After we got out of the lockdown, we started to acknowledge that we need people, we’re craving human interaction, and it makes us better at work and life.
The way I think about brand communications is that it’s building community. Community wasn’t the word that we used to use, We used words like PR or marketing. Community is what you build using marketing, brand communications, and strategy. Strategic messaging is the common ingredient that takes shape across every stakeholder engagement to build and strengthen community.
All we do is work. Technology has enabled us to work around the clock. What I like about looking at brand/comms through the lens of community is that it brings humanity back into the work. It enables us to bring a little more joy and a little more of that tactile engagement that we crave as humans, into work.
We work so hard, why can’t we work while on a cruise ship? Why can’t we work on Necker Island? Why can’t we do a work coffee at a playground? Or go to a popup flea market hosted by friends who are putting it together for charity? We’re inevitably having work conversations, so why can’t we do them in fun experiences? Maybe we take ourselves too seriously.
SG: A constant thread in a lot of these conversations I have with people is that at the end of the day, this is all about human relationships. You’re steering them in specific directions, you’re helping relationships come together over here, evolve and build over there, or you’re managing this conflict between two humans. It’s personal and family therapy at scale. It’s community building around common shared interests.
At companies, you’re trying to make money and you’re trying to sell a product, and that’s all good. But it’s all under the rubric of humans coming together. No matter how technology might evolve and get in our way.
CC: The most important lesson that Richard Branson taught me, without him articulating it explicitly like this, was to prioritize partnering with not the biggest but the best.
He enjoys talking with people and interacting out in the world, not in a conference room, and so his day would be filled with naturally telegenic activities. He once agreed to film a WildAid PSA to promote the banning of shark finning. I thought, “Swimming with sharks sounds interesting for a morning show.” We could have pitched the three large morning shows but instead I thought it would be amazing to have someone like Soledad O’Brien, who was anchoring CNN’s morning show. The show was not the biggest morning show. But she was someone I admire, and her show featured thoughtful conversations and long segments. It would allow Richard to explain the why behind ending shark finning.
I reached out to her producer, who turned out to be a key partner in creating these long segments. We had this shared experience of Richard and Soledad swimming with and talking about sharks — and also throwing up overboard off a rickety boat in choppy rough waters. I couldn’t do anything, I was completely useless. But it didn’t matter to Richard. We were all throwing up. When you have shared experiences like that, you walk out stronger together. When you work with small groups of people and you have a human experience together, you build trust.
That producer is now a nine Emmy award-winning executive who runs VICE News. Swimming with sharks was early on in her career. Our relationship has paid off in ways that I didn’t envision when I threw up in front of her on that boat. She is so accomplished, now I go to her for advice. Our careers are long. At some point you realize, “I have choice and agency. I can trust my gut and try and avoid toxic or challenging situations and still get my job done.”
SG: What was Richard Branson’s operating philosophy on working with good people like that?
CC: There are a lot of academics, pundits, and journalists who like to analyze the Virgin brand — the playbook thing. He’s an incredibly savvy business person, but he’s also deeply instinctive, deeply human. For an event series we host on Necker, we go over playbooks that try to distill how purpose and values turn into businesses. I think Richard enjoys hearing how we internalize and talk about that process.
This is something that Adam Grant writes about so eloquently. Adam’s last book, Think Again, gave us permission to change our minds. Richard is really good at being super agile. Creating a brand that’s elastic and that accommodates the market changes, the consumer’s mind changing. I would not describe Richard as having a fixed mindset. He’s a super curious person and a learner, and he encouraged me to do the same thing.
He also has such a great sense of humor. That joy is something I try to be more intentional about. I can be a humorless overthinker, and he has helped me get out of that and to be more playful.
Obviously part of my job was making sure that I got things out of the way so that when he steps into the limelight, he doesn’t trip on things that don’t have to be there. I can’t always be as carefree as him, at least on the outside. That’s what makes the job lonely sometimes. But the joy and not taking yourself too seriously are important lessons I continue to learn from him.
SG: What about the tough moments, the crises? How do you bring this humanity into the fraught moments?
CC: Besides Richard, the other people who taught me about effective brand communications are the space writers that I worked alongside and Mike Moses. Mike was NASA’s space launch manager before he joined Virgin Galactic as President. You know how I was saying that I would just show up to things? Back in the early years, I would just show up to flight tests. As a comms person, I wanted to be there to understand what was going on and also…just in case.
One morning I was on the flight line of what would be a catastrophic accident. I was let into the conference room where people like Mike and other senior leads like engineers, safety directors and a former pilot who completed night missions in Kosovo had already gathered. I was the only English major from a liberal arts college in the Berkshires. They looked at me and asked, “Okay, what do we do now with external comms?”
I did not think I was prepared. I was not a Virgin Galactic employee at the time. I did not go through the team crisis table reads. They were using aerospace mission control terminology I could hardly keep up with. The NTSB was on its way, and I was its main contact. I had to dig deep into the core of my humanness. I asked myself, “What would I want to know from this company after what I’ve seen on TV, all the speculation and helicopters swirling overhead in the China Basin?” I know crisis comms 101, but it’s a completely different thing when you’re right there in a remote area, a scene of tragedy, and your phone is going off the hook. And you know the people affected.
Mike was across the table from me. He epitomizes the best of communications. He understands that part of his job is to patiently answer the questions of everyone from a 10 year old to a hardened aviation reporter — with clarity and honesty. When you’re building technology that is either scary, misunderstood or that the world hasn’t seen yet and so don’t quite get, it’s really important for the lead to try to educate. To demystify and to gain acceptance. To show up and answer tough questions.
Having him and an amazing team to rely on, I knew that the right thing to do would be to express to the world how seriously we were taking this. To reflect the seriousness and humanity of the room. You can’t pretend that everything is fine. And you can’t pretend to know all the answers. We did all of that with a human and humble tone from the start. Even before we addressed the wider public and global media, we first made sure that immediate stakeholders were gathered and comforted by Richard. Richard hand wrote letters to the emergency response teams and sheriffs who came out into the field, hand wrote letters of acknowledgement and gratitude. That first day in that Mojave conference room, where we lived for weeks, I was channeling Mike’s humanity to do the right thing.
For a company, it’s behavior like this that goes a long way to build community goodwill that you need — not only for the good days, when you need people on your side to celebrate but also for bad days when you need time and public trust that you’re going to figure things out and these setbacks, however terrible, will be opportunities to learn and improve.
SG: When people talk about leaders, they think — they’ve run this big business, they’ve merged these 10 companies together, they’ve managed a hundred thousand employees. But what are the leadership qualities that you’ve seen in the people that you’ve worked with that you think are the ones that really carry the most power?
CC: One thing I noticed about VC is that the pace is dizzying. There’s a lot of competition for deals and for great founding teams, and you move really fast. I believe that slow is smooth is fast. One of the best attributes of a leader is they manage to find ways to slow time down. It’s hard to articulate and express, but there are leaders who express their thoughtfulness and intentionality in a way that slows time down, to enable the rest of us to process what’s going on, see ourselves contributing to this vision in someone’s head, and to understand how to add value — and calmly. That’s an incredible quality.
It also speaks to a founder’s ability to make room for other people. Not just take space, but make space for others’ contributions. That is part of the slowing down. Also humility. You don’t necessarily think of leaders as humble, but the leaders that I admire and trust are the ones who express humility and vulnerability. They cry, and they’re okay with that expression of emotion. Tears are incredibly powerful. You are so confident in how you show up that you are willing to let people in and see how you’re processing both good and bad days.
SG: You started off doing Teach For America, you worked for one of the most interesting men on the planet who was doing big things, and now here you are working for a VC firm. How does one become Christine Choi? If you were starting off, how should people think about this path? How would you advise someone a couple years into their career?
CC: In my wallet, I have a picture of myself in the third grade. I was super awkward, I had bangs and my teeth were messed up. But I had this beaming smile on my face. I was ready for the world, I was going to travel and have adventures. I want to make that kid proud. I want to have as many adventures as I envisioned back then when I was in the third grade. And that requires discomfort.
Think about your daughters and what they have to do every day. They have to be incredibly brave and learn new stuff. I was watching my niece learn how to swim, and it blew me away how humble and how brave she has to be to try something that seems impossible for a human, who needs to breathe. I think about that a lot. When I know that I’m a little too comfortable in my job, I try to find stretch projects. I try to do things that remind me that being uncomfortable is a good thing. It means I’m learning something. That is always what leads to my next move.
I was the first Head of Communications for KIPP Foundation, and I got to work with Don and Doris Fisher. Don was the first in his family to graduate college. I learned about brand building from them, the founders of Gap, Banana Republic, and Old Navy. It was an incredible learning experience, and after five years I could tell that I was ready for something else.
And so when my friend Dan Porter asked me if I would help him run a Virgin music festival, I said, “I don’t know the first thing about music festivals.” He said, “It’s okay. When we worked together at Teach For America, you could execute on anything. Try this thing out for six months. But know that there’s no guarantee of a fulltime job.” KIPP let me leave for six months. It was so stressful. But I learned so much. And there was just no turning back.
Every day was a learning opportunity at Virgin, every day. I don’t know anything about financial services, I don’t know anything about airlines, I don’t know anything about billionaires. But you learn and you figure it out.
SG: Just get uncomfortable. It’s a very much of a constant theme of people who’ve gotten out of their skin end up finding a particular path. It gets harder and harder. The thing is, I think it’s easier to do when you’re younger and there’s less at stake. But when you’re younger, it feels like everything is at stake. To be able to consistently do this through your career, to get uncomfortable throughout your career is harder for people.
CC: Look at George Whitesides! He was NASA’s Chief of Staff and Virgin Galactic’s first CEO, and he is now running for Congress in California. What a brave thing to do. A number of people who are at large companies are asking me about startup life, and they recognize that they’re not using all their might. They’re atrophying. They’re siloed and stuck doing one thing — and they are curious about what else is there. They have ambitions. Everyone does. It takes just one leap to reinforce that you can do this.
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