Hanmei Wu, CEO of Empowerly, Helps Students Navigate College Admissions Confidently
Navigating U.S. college admissions can be overwhelming for many high school students. The application process is often complex and confusing, and students don’t always know where to turn for guidance.
This need is what led to the creation of Empowerly, a company designed to democratize the college admissions process. In 2018, Co-Founders Hanmei Wu and Changxiao Xie joined forces on a mission to empower students to become the most successful versions of themselves. Last year, the two were featured in the Forbes 30 Under 30 class of 2022.
HubSpot for Startups spoke with Hanmei to learn about the origin of Empowerly, the challenges and achievements of her journey, and her advice for other aspiring CEOs.
The origin of Empowerly
HubSpot for Startups: What was your first inspiration to start Empowerly?
Hanmei: Empowerly is a company that I wish existed ever since I was a teenager. I remember being stressed out in high school about taking the next step to go to college and about my future career opportunities. I also love education - I’ve previously worked for Teach For America, Minds Matter San Francisco (a nonprofit), and numerous tutoring and mentoring programs. I knew I wanted to build an education technology company to empower students.
HSFS: How did you and Changxiao meet?
Hanmei: We are both from Texas and met through family friends. Changxiao has a technical background and I have a business background. Our experiences, strengths, and personalities complemented each other, and we both shared a strong passion for empowering students through the college admissions process.
The value of accelerators
HSFS: How did you decide to join the Berkeley SkyDeck Accelerator? What were the top lessons you learned?
Hanmei: I’m a UC Berkeley alum, and I found out about SkyDeck from a founder friend. Joining a startup accelerator was crucial for moving Empowerly to the next level. We learned business fundamentals (measuring CAC to LTV, how to build a financial model, GTM strategy, etc.), and how to fundraise. We also ended up going through Stanford StartX. The networking, workshops, and advisors from the accelerators proved invaluable to us, and I highly recommend first-time founders consider joining an accelerator!
HSFS: As a series A company, how do you determine the priorities of where to put funds? How much input do investors and advisors give?
Hanmei: When you raise funding, you set milestones to hit over the next 12-24 months. These can include launching a new product, building out a sales team, or expanding to new markets. Investors and advisors give considerable input, and it’s expected that you will send updates or connect with them on a monthly or quarterly basis.
Challenges and achievements
HSFS: What's been your biggest challenge as a CEO?
Hanmei: Hiring the right people is challenging for startups. As startups grow from 2 to 10 to 50 to 100+ people, some people scale with the company in each new stage and others don’t. It’s also important to hire an executive team but to be mindful that each executive needs to be the right fit for the startup’s current stage and also for several stages later. Also, make sure every hire believes in the mission of the company!
HSFS: What's your proudest achievement and why?
Hanmei: We’ve grown so much over the last few years. I’m proud of the incredible team we’ve built, the Empowerly Score tool and app we’ve built, and more. I’m also proud of the thousands of students we’ve helped get accepted to their top-choice colleges and land internships, and all of the amazing college counselors who helped our students achieve their dreams. I’m also proud that our team is 50% people of color and 50% women.
HSFS: You've accomplished so much at an early age—getting on Forbes 30 under 30. Do you feel you've sacrificed anything to accomplish so much so young?
Hanmei: The early days of building Empowerly were tough. There were times when I could barely pay myself, and it was hard to support myself living in the Bay Area. I worked 7 days a week and during holidays. It definitely takes grit and resilience to go from zero to one.
Advice for aspiring CEOs
HSFS: What advice would you give other young aspiring CEOs?
Hanmei: The startup journey is a roller coaster ride. Accept that you will face a lot of rejection and make many mistakes. Learn from every mistake you make, but don’t beat yourself up. As a result, make sure you are passionate about and love what you are building. It usually takes a lot more iteration and more time than you think to build a product, land your first customer, make that first hire, etc. Surround yourself with a team whose strengths complement your weaknesses. Listen to your customers and build for them. And, as Mark Cuban says, “Sales cures all.”
The importance of culture
HSFS: As an Asian American, how important is it to you to stay connected to your culture, and how do you do it?
Hanmei: I like to stay connected to my Asian American culture and I’m very close to my family. At Empowerly, many of our customers are Asian - the parents didn’t attend college in the US and they want to set their children up for success with the US college admissions process. I am also involved in several Asian American founder and investor groups both socially and professionally.