I n 2014, I faced a near-death startup experience. At the time, my company, Embrace Innovations, was a few years old. We are a social enterprise that makes low cost baby incubators for the developing world; the product costs 1 percent of the price of a traditional model and works without constant electricity, making it suitable for remote areas.
The idea originated from a class I took at Stanford while getting my MBA. After I graduated, my co-founders and I moved to India to get the company off the ground (India is home to 40 percent of the world’s premature and underweight babies). I spent the next four years there building the company, figuring out everything from clinical testing, to manufacturing, to distribution. I’m proud to say to date we’ve helped over 200,000 babies across 15 countries.
However, those were the most challenging years of my life. Living and setting up a company in India was incredibly difficult on every front. The issue we were tackling was profoundly sad. I became intimately familiar with dozens of families who lost their babies, and I often cried for those children as if they were my own. What kept me going through endless challenges was the hope that we could provide a solution. I also realized through the experience that a mother — no matter how poor, uneducated or impoverished — will do anything to save her child. It’s the purest and most selfless form of love.
Those were the most challenging years of my life.
After five years as CEO, I returned to San Francisco and was on the verge of closing a deal with a major medical device company that was taking the full round of our next investment and would become our global distributor. I was ecstatic. This was exactly where I had hoped to take the company — this would make us scalable, and would significantly increase the impact we could make.
I spent nearly a year working on endless negotiations and due diligence. We had finally reached the finish line.
Or so I thought.
In a cruel twist of fate, days before signing final documents, the CEO of the healthcare arm of the company who was our main advocate was let go. Within 24 hours, the company pulled the plug on our financing.
I couldn’t believe it. Embrace had seven days of cash left. I had taken out two bridge loans to finish the deal.
I was devastated. I had sacrificed everything for this mission. I had witnessed so many women lose their babies, and in my own way I felt the profound pain of losing the company I had incubated with my heart and soul.
And then I went into complete panic. How was I going to find a way out of this?
The next seven days were an emotional, exhausting whirlwind. I called everyone I knew, asking for small investments in the company so we could survive even another day.
If there were one thing that would make me believe in serendipity, it would be the events that happened next. I had met Marc Benioff, CEO and founder of Salesforce, nine months prior at the World Economic Forum in Davos. Marc and I happened to sit next each other in a meditation session, which only seven out of over 3,000 people attended. We began chatting afterwards; I told Marc about my work, and he told me that he had a baby who spent time in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. He was about to gift a large sum of money to the Gates Foundation to create a global program on premature births.
I have to believe the universe conspired to seat me next to him.
When this crisis hit, I sent Marc a long email detailing what had happened, explaining that we were in danger of closing the company, and asking for his help. Marc wrote back almost immediately, generously agreeing to fund the company, signing off the email with a casual “Aloha.” A week later, we had cash in the bank again. I will be forever indebted to Marc for his belief in our mission and for his trust in me.
It was the craziest week of my life. I went from the high of believing we had finished the deal, to nearly going bankrupt, to finding an investor to put us back on track — all in the course of seven days.
W hile we had ultimately found a solution, the idea of shutting down the company was so devastating that it made me realize I had become overly attached to Embrace’s outcome. I was so wedded to the end result I had envisioned that even the thought of the company closing had threatened my own sense of identity. I realized that while I had put so much of my heart and soul into saving babies, I had to start letting go in order to save myself.
Over the holidays that year, my family and I went to Hawaii, and on Christmas, gifted each other massages. I told my therapist Jon about my decade-old dream to learn how to surf. There is an old Zen saying: “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.”
Jon turned out to be an avid surfer. He agreed to take me out with him the next day. We spent the next five days surfing together. It was the most challenging thing I had ever done. I am decently athletic, but I couldn’t believe how bad I was at this sport.
And yet, it was completely exhilarating, not only because catching a wave is the best feeling in the world, but because I realized there were so many things I could learn from the sport about life. Not least of which were the ideas of impermanence and non-attachment, which I had been reflecting deeply upon after my company nearly shut down.
Furthermore, being in the ocean reminded me of how I want to live — a lesson I desperately needed after the near-failure and resurrection of Embrace.
Once I returned to San Francisco, I continued to surf as often as I could. It’s been a year and half since I started, and I’m still very much a beginner. But surfing has completely changed my life because of the profound lessons I learn each time I go into the ocean.
I could go on about this topic forever. But, as a founder, these are the five most important lessons I’ve learned from surfing:
1. Everything is impermanent
Nothing teaches you about impermanence more than the ocean. Waves themselves are just pure energy moving through the water; they are constantly changing form, and no two waves are ever the same. You simply can’t plan around something that is always changing and out of your control when surfing or in life. Let go, and to go with the flow because, to mix metaphors a bit, as Mike Tyson says, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” The impermanence of the ocean also reminds me that tough situations, anxiety, sadness — all these things will pass in due time. In fact, I often imagine waves passing by me when I’m facing something unpleasant.
2. Try, try, and try again
As an entrepreneur, you will fail over and over again. You will constantly face setbacks. And you just have to be OK with that. As the most challenging and humbling sport I’ve attempted, when I fall off my board, I have to get back on and paddle back out, no matter how big my wipe out was (I’ve already had two black eyes and several stitches from surfing).
Take the lessons you can from it, and move onto the next wave. When my company nearly shut down, knocking the wind out of me, I had to find the courage to get back up and find a solution. As someone who has failed many times, I urge you to try, try, and try again. For each wave will ultimately lead to a better one.
3. Don’t shy away from big waves
Keep putting yourself in challenging situations and pushing your limits. I have to overcome fear and self-doubt every time I go into the ocean. Being held down by a big wave is the scariest feeling in the world. Similarly, each step in creating Embrace was scary. I had no previous experience developing a medical device or running a company. But by thinking big, we turned an idea into a product that has helped save thousands of lives.
4. Accept what cannot be changed
This is the essence of my surf poetry. When you’re surfing, you cannot control your environment. There have been days I haven’t caught a single wave because the conditions sucked. In life, and especially as an entrepreneur, so many situations are out of our control. Sh*t happens. Don’t waste energy fighting the things that cannot be changed. Instead, adapt to the situation and learn to ride with it.
5. Always have fun
One of the things I love so much about surfing is how delightfully fun it is. I’m reminded not to take myself too seriously, to just enjoy life and be grateful for every day, and every experience. Truly, the best surfer is the one who is having the most fun. And that’s how I want to live my life.
This sport has been an incredible teacher and opener for me. Through my near-death startup experience and surfing, I’ve come to realize that life is not about outcomes. It’s about your relationship to what’s happening, what you can learn, and how you respond to it.
And it’s about experiencing those moments of truth in life: gliding on a wave that makes you feel like you’re flying, pulsing to the same heartbeat as the universe, and taking in every second of the experience — regardless of where it takes you.