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Silvia Li’s experience ranges from building the largest publication on Medium to creating a viral marketing campaign that reached millions of Latinx entrepreneurs. Silvia believes in tech for social impact, leading her to launch a fundraiser for landslide victims in her hometown Peru. She is now at the XQ Institute, a national nonprofit committed to building a community-led movement to rethink high schools.
City where you’re from: Lima, Peru
Hobbies: Hiking, writing, cooking, eating, photography.
Favorite quote: “You must be the change you wish to see in the world. -Mahatma Gandhi”
Why are you interested in the intersection of education and storytelling?
With no knowledge of the culture and language, my parents saved money and emigrated to Peru with few belongings and the desire to have a brighter future. Growing up, I always felt like an outsider. At home, I had to be Chinese and at school, I had to be Peruvian. Because of that, high school was tough, though I was still getting good grades. I moved to Los Angeles to attend USC, and I was working in a nonprofit that taught design thinking and Lean Startup to underserved communities. Here, I realized that the American education system shared similarities to the Peruvian one. A lot of immigrant students shared a similar story to mine, and I thought to myself, “I wish I could’ve shared my problems when I was younger. I wish I had a platform to do so.” Education is so important to me because it is the foundation of the future. Today’s ideas and voices from students will shift how each of us learn and behave. With my skills, I want to amplify the voices of unheard heroes in education because their stories matter.
Who were your biggest influences? Was there a defining moment in your life?
My mom. Three years ago, my mom got diagnosed with breast cancer. Can you imagine how hard that is? I couldn’t and still can’t. But this woman has sacrificed every single thing in her life for my happiness. She’s resilient, loving, and caring. I wish I was at least 10% of who she is. The world would be a better place if we all could be more like her.
Where are you working at?
I am working as the Social Media Specialist at a national nonprofit called the XQ Institute. We are a national nonprofit committed to building a community-led, bottom up approach and movement to rethink high schools, create new learning opportunities for young people and open up the possibilities of the wider world. We began in September 2015 with an open call to America to come together to build student-centered school models that reflect the needs and experiences of the students they will serve.
In the past 100 years, we’ve gone from the Model T to the Tesla; from the typewriter to the touch screen; from the switchboard to the smartphone. Yet high school—the very institution charged with preparing America’s students for future success in college, careers, and life—has remained unchanged and fallen behind. There is a crucial link between our schools and success in America, and the extent to which we as a country are failing to prepare our students for today’s world limits our ability to grow as a country and as a society. Our kids need us.
From its beginning, XQ has aimed to harness the ingenuity and creativity of America to rethink and create new approaches to high school that provide every student with the tools and opportunity to succeed in today’s world. Through XQ: The Super School Project, communities have been empowered to show what can be and create a movement for individuals across the country to get behind. In September 2016, 10 Super Schools were selected.
Who is behind XQ?
The Institute’s board of directors is chaired by Laurene Powell Jobs, President of Emerson Collective. The CEO is Russlynn Ali, former Assistant Secretary of Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education and is Managing Director of Education for Emerson Collective.
What was your biggest growth hacking achievement?
I’ve growth hacked publications on Medium. Most of the publications I’ve grown are on the top 10 list. Medium has been a great asset to build a network of writers including NYT best selling authors and top founders and venture capitalists. It helped us reached millions of people for $0, while re-directing traffic back to the original website.
Give the readers the best entrepreneurship advice you have.
“People remember stories and emotions, not facts and data.” The next time you’re pitching something to an audience or trying to communicate with users, share the story of why you started this journey. Otherwise, you won’t be able to convince anyone anything.
Teach us something about education and social media.
All the marketing buzzwords we use in business like ‘virality’ and ‘growth hacking’ can also be applied in a complex topic like education. Because of social media and these strategies, important movements and entire communities have grown. People complain about social media because it has taken over their lives. But maybe this is a self-control issue. What about the bright side of social media? I’ve seen students working on similar projects connecting via Twitter and Facebook. Students who are now working together on a national nonprofit to elevate student voices. Isn’t that amazing?
I find writing and marketing to be powerful tools to show people’s voices. We have far too much hate and negativity. Hashtags or even marketing don’t change lives. Community and social media do.
While working on your project, have you come across any interesting bit of knowledge that you’d like to share? (i.e. any new research finding, any new platforms, some novel management technique, etc)
At my current job, I’ve been traveling throughout the Midwest learning about how people are thinking about education. We want to engage with them and get to know them deeply because they are the movement to rethink high schools.
After many conversations, I’ve encountered folks that opened up and start asking questions that they might not have even ask themselves. At the same time, I’ve also met people in the community that I can’t connect in a deep level. The pattern I’ve noticed? Truly giving people your presence. People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. This works in marketing and social because your users don’t want to just buy another thing, they want someone that can listen to their needs and help them solve them.
What daily habits do you have that allow you to perform at your peak?
I started a positivity routine recently where I start dancing for 4 minutes after I wake up. Then, I do my ‘YES’ power pose. I get to choose how I feel every morning, and I want to make sure I do it right.
What should a social media marketer focus on?
When you think about your strategy and goals, focus on what your audience really wants. Besides looking at data, I’ve learned that spending time getting to know your users really matters. It might sound cliche, but listening to their needs really makes a difference on results.
They start noticing that you actually care about them and will start opening up about their problems. Honesty, vulnerability, and feedback are 3 things you need to start creating powerful content.
Walk us step-by-step through the process that you had to go through to get from the early stages to where you are today.
At the age of thirteen, I started taking care of my sister, who is six years younger. We were poor at the time and since my parents were so busy with multiple jobs, I became a “third parent” for her; I cooked her meals, did laundry, and made sure that she had everything she needed. Simultaneously, I was going to school and also working part-time. We didn’t have much. Unlike many of the kids, I had to grow up fast and be an adult. I was very overwhelmed at the time and I couldn’t complain about it. When I think about our family bonding time, I remember very few but I smile every time I recall these memories. Those were some of the happiest days of my childhood.
When I first moved from Peru to California to go to college, I was almost 17. It hit me very hard to be faraway. I was very excited at first, but I got homesick quite fast.
I used to hate writing because I was not a native writer. But a good friend encouraged me to write as a way to get my thoughts out there. Surprisingly, my writing went viral. Thousands of people in the world read my stories and shared them. It happened for almost every single post. I told myself, “I have talent for this.” I started freelancing for nonprofits and tech startups. I even built the largest startup publication on Medium. Through all these experiences, I learned to be more empathetic, which helped me become become a better listener, storyteller, and marketer.
What is your favorite book?
My favorite book is “The Sense of an Ending.” It has taught me so many valuable lessons that apply in life, business, and relationships. Every time someone causes us pain or vice versa, we should re-think why because we don’t know why the other person acted that way. This book narrates how our brains blind us from looking at situations holistically. Often times, we want to remember only the convenient memories, the ones that make us look like heroes.
Where do you see yourself and your career in a couple years?
As part of my commitment to re-think American high schools, I want to see our whole country to be involved in some way. Whether it’s through engaging in a conversation with someone different, or whether they are creating a new school, I see myself making education more accessible to every single person in this country. This movement will take time, but I am 200% devoted to make this happen.