September 22, 2017

When Irene Hsieh started her fellowship in Fresno, one of her mandates was to spark a startup movement in what’s historically been known as the agricultural heart of California through public-private funding partnerships.

Hsieh’s extensive background in many different aspects of finance and deep understanding of the startup landscape provided a critical advantage going in. But the true challenge in this fellowship was less about having technical knowledge and more about translating and educating, about understanding people, and identifying and negotiating the nuances between the many stakeholders.

Over the course of the year, Hsieh thoughtfully brought together stakeholders from private and public sectors, seeking to facilitate conversations to convey value propositions in a way each party could embrace. “I tried to ‘walk the talk,’ so people could see my genuine enthusiasm for the work, and how committed I was to make it happen,’” Hsieh says. “I tried to be transparent about how I was doing things in order to build trust.”

To that end, Hsieh began to build meaningful connections with her stakeholders through these tactics and approaches.

  • Make yourself available. To accommodate all those whom she needed to meet with, Hsieh adjusted her own schedule to theirs, meeting early in the morning or late in the evening if necessary.  “I would stay for as long as it reasonably took. Occasionally a meeting would run late on a Friday and then I’d drive back home to the Bay Area, sometimes not getting home until midnight,” said Hsieh, who commuted weekly between her home and Fresno, which was hours away. “People were definitely touched by that.”
  • Teach with patience. Introducing new ideas — public sector to private sector, and vice versa — took a lot of time, but it was worth the investment. “A lot of my meetings were essentially teaching sessions. I would encourage questions and always make them feel like they were asking good ones,” she said.
  • Provide evidence. To clearly illustrate her points, Hsieh introduced examples that helped provide context to her recommendations. This, combined with references to some of the firms and types of funding she had secured in the past, helped build credibility and trust with her stakeholders.
  • Be consistent and reliable. To lead by example, Hsieh was conscientious about developing a track record of following through with what she promised.
  • Be tactful, but don’t sugarcoat facts. One of the most important parts of navigating conversations for Hsieh was being respectful but honest with her recommendations. “I made sure that I understood what the person’s objectives were, and if the decision wasn’t going to meet those objectives, I expressed concern and provided detailed, easy-to-understand reasons as to why,” she said. “So when I was supportive of an idea, I think people put more stock in that because they knew I wouldn’t hesitate to say otherwise.”
  • Share benefits with risks. Rather than pushing for one specific agenda when offering a proposal or recommendation, Hsieh always strove to present both the risks and benefits of an approach, so that stakeholders could make an informed decision.
  • Be democratic. Hsieh showed no preference of status or stature in order to get to know people. “I was open to meeting with pretty much everyone no matter how senior or junior,” she said.
  • Look for synergies. Hsieh’s broad network in finance proved to be valuable to her Fresno stakeholders, and she focused on making the right connections. Whether it was a Bay Area-to-Fresno connection, or a leader within the Mayor’s office to another Fresno group, her willingness and ability to make those matches further built people’s confidence in her. “It helped show them that I was looking out for them even though I had nothing to gain from making the introduction,” she said.