14. Amelia Lin: The profound impact of education on her life and work

Amelia Lin, co-founder and CEO of Saga had an unusually academically-oriented start to life, which has profoundly impacted her life and work since.  In this podcast episode, Amelia talks to Sue Stockdale about the role that books and education had as she grew up, how that influenced her desire to record her parents’ life stories, and how Saga was created as a result.  As as a 7th grader (11-13 years old) Amelia scored a 1550/1600 on the SAT (the standardised test widely used for college admissions in the US), which was the highest in the country at the time out of 55,000 7th graders.  Following a career working in Silicon Valley technology start-ups, big and small, Amelia was inspired to use technology to help her mother and father record their life stories in their own voices, and to make it easy for other families to do the same. Learn more at http://trysaga.com.

Amelia Lin Transcription

Sue: Welcome to another episode of Access to Inspiration. Today I’m talking to  Amelia Lin.  Amelia is the co-founder  and CEO of Saga, which helps people save the life stories of loved ones on voice audio. After working in Silicon Valley, technology startups, both big and small, Amelia was inspired to use technology to help her own far-flung family, to build deeper connections, which helped her mother and father record their life stories in their own voices. and using technology to make it easy, so I’m sure we’re going to have loads to talk about today. Welcome, Amelia. 

Amelia: [00:00:44] Thank you so much for having me. Sue, 

Sue: [00:00:46] I know you’ve got a really interesting background and it’s played quite a key role in how Saga came to be in the first place. So perhaps we could start off by you telling us about your growing up in Texas and what [00:01:00] it was like.

Amelia: [00:01:01] I did grow up in Texas. My mom and my dad were Chinese immigrants, and that I think made my upbringing in suburban Texas kind of interesting. It came with very different perspectives from a lot of families around me, and I did grow up as sort of a first generation American. I know we’ll get to this later, but certainly a large part of why I even started working on Saga was because of these, frankly, these stories they used to tell me when we were, when my sister and I were growing up in suburban Texas about these completely different lives that they had had. You know, we would be sitting around the kitchen table and my dad would be reading the newspaper with his feet up on the chair, but he would be telling us about what it was like when he was our age and how he had one pair of shirts and one pair of pants, and that was all he had to alternate between each day. It was [00:02:00] just such a huge part of why we grew up thinking about the world in a different way and just really appreciating and I think being grateful for how much we really had compared to them when they were our age.

Sue: [00:02:11] What were some of those stories that your parents shared with you about their reality of growing up? 

Amelia: [00:02:16] Education was a huge, huge part of our upbringing, and it was very much influenced by my own parents experience, having lived through the Chinese cultural revolution. My mother and father were both children and families that were heavily impacted by the revolution, and in particular, they lost out on schooling at an early age.

So, for example, my dad, his formal schooling actually ended when he was aged 12 so his parents and older siblings were actually sent away to a labor camp in the countryside. And so at age 12. Not only was [00:03:00] he out of school, but he was head of the household for himself and his younger siblings. To imagine what that must’ve been like, to take on that kind of responsibility at such an early age was, and still is incredible to me.

But I think what’s even more amazing beyond that is that he actually continued his own education on the side. So he taught himself English from smuggled books that he and his friends would kind of pass around in between them. And they would each get a couple weeks, or maybe even only a couple of days or a day or two with each book.

And he taught himself math eventually from reading math textbooks while he was cooking rice for dinner for the family. He would like teach himself to multitask. So the fact that my parents missed out on their own educations as children was a huge, huge factor in [00:04:00] why they were so passionate about education and reading in our own upbringings.

They’re very lucky. Both of them eventually were able to return to college, but it was when they were much older. When they opened the colleges back up, there were very few spots relative to how many people wanted to apply for them because there had been all these generations that had missed out on schooling and they were all backed up.

Everybody was applying for the same slots. And I remember my dad telling me that the test Proctor came in and said, you know, I just want to set expectations. It’s going to be one out of a hundred of you in this room who will get into a school, any school one of a hundred of you. And that first year was the hardest to get back to school.

And my mom and dad both got in, in part because of the self-teaching that they had continued on the side for so many years. And they went on to become international students came here to the [00:05:00] U S and they would be the first to tell you that they credit everything that they have been able to gain in life to education. It’s what opened the doors for them. 

Sue: [00:05:10] Well, it sounds like it was such a challenging way that they had to learn and then get that opportunity eventually to then continue their studies that no wonder it was such an important thing in your household. Give us an example of how that, that sort of manifested itself on a day to day basis. How did reading and education show up in your life that perhaps would be somewhat different to other people? 

Amelia: [00:05:31] One big thing for us was reading was everywhere in our house. Reading and books were huge, huge part of our upbringing. And in fact, in one of the recordings I ended up making with my dad, he expressed it, I think so vividly.

He said, when I was growing up, books were my escape. My daily life was incredibly difficult, but with a book I could go anywhere. I could see [00:06:00] the rest of the world and anywhere that you stood in our house growing up, it didn’t matter what spot in the house you were standing, there was always at least one pile of books that you could see.

Our bookshelves were just overflowing. We had stacks of books on the floors, on the window sills and corners. On the floor. Even today, if you go home to our house, there are just piles and piles of books everywhere. And for our birthdays, they would take us to the discount bookstore and we would be given maybe $10 to buy as many 25 cent and 50 cent books as we wanted.

And that was the gift, which we thought was fantastic. Another big thing that we used to do, especially around reading, was trips to the library. We would go to the library and bring suitcases, like actual suitcases, because that’s how many books we would borrow at a time. And the [00:07:00] entrance way to the library was tiled.

So when you rolled in the suitcase, it was very loud. It would go, you know, cluck, cluck, cluck, cluck, cluck, cluck, cluck. And it was very attention grabbing, and I felt very self conscious, but it didn’t matter. We really would check out, you know, 30 books at a time, and I would line them up and I would try to go from one end to the other. And that’s how I would work through my books. And then if I, when we, when we got through  the books, we’d go back to the library. 

Sue: [00:07:31] There was such an insatiable appetite there for reading and learning. I know that it did then stand you in good stead when it came to sitting exams 

Amelia: [00:07:39] In our household, there was definitely no complaining about school, nor did it really ever cross our minds to complain about school. It was very clear to us that it was something you were grateful for. And I remember, I can’t tell you how many times my dad and my mom would say to us, at your age, we would have [00:08:00] given an arm and a leg to sit at a desk in a classroom like you all get to do. It was very much seen as a privilege. And something that you were so lucky to have.  And so I think as a child, compared to my friends, I was actually very excited to go to school every day. I loved going to school. I thought it was super fun. I loved going to classes. I loved seeing my friends, and I was sad when school ended, so I think that was a huge difference what our childhoods were like around education, and it did benefit me in school. I did quite well as a student. Well, it’s quite interesting. What about it was that my mom and my dad very much emphasized passion for learning. It wasn’t about the grades, truly, it wasn’t, the grades I think were a great side benefit, but for them, they truly love learning and I think that was what they passed on to us.

It did manifest itself in academic ways. So there’s a test here in the US called the SAT, which is a [00:09:00] standard college admissions test, and I actually had the chance to take it when I was quite young. Typically, you don’t take it until you are maybe about 11th grade, so just about to apply to college. But I had this kind of opportunity to take it when I was in seventh grade. I actually did extremely well on it. I remember we got the test results back and I looked at them and I thought, they must be wrong. I scored a 1550 out of 1600 which is in the top 1% even compared to high schoolers who would have been applying to college that year. It’s so funny because so it turned out that I had actually scored first out of the 55,000 Seventh graders that had taken it that year. I remember when I got the score back, my first reaction  and my reaction for a long time was, well, they must’ve made the task very easy this year. I suppose everybody did well, that’s truly what I thought. It wasn’t until much later that I found out that I had actually scored very [00:10:00] well, and so that test score ended up kind of opening a lot of doors for me. I ended up being able to get a scholarship to some summer programs, and I was very young. And I actually ended up becoming an SAT tutor at a very young age, so I was an eighth grader giving tutoring classes to high schoolers and making very good money for it, especially as a kid, you know, a couple of dollars. I think that might’ve been my first real business. So yes, I put up ads and I, I taught classes out of my dad’s office at home. 

Sue: [00:10:32] I understand you went on to Harvard to study physics. 

Amelia: [00:10:35] That’s right. You have to imagine what that was like for my parents to hear about that admission.  Even more than me, and certainly when we got the acceptance, I was sitting there in shock. I don’t know if anybody has a different reaction to getting an admission from a dream school like that. Certainly my parents were in tears. Imagine what that must’ve been like for them coming from a life where they were [00:11:00] denied education at a very young age and went without school for so many years. That was an absolute dream for them. 

Sue: [00:11:07] I’m sure they must’ve been so proud of your achievement, knowing that they had a hand in helping you to develop that love for education and learning. 

Amelia: [00:11:16] Oh, I think it was just one of the happiest moments of their lives to imagine that all of that could happen in one lifetime.

Sue: [00:11:24] Where did that then lead you in terms of the impetus for developing Saga as a business? 

Amelia: [00:11:31] Well, I had ended up spending my career in a whole number of different Silicon Valley technology startups. That was really where my career had led me out of sort of a passion for building things, but over all those years I had been begging my parents to save some of these stories that they used to tell me and my younger sister when we were growing up.

And as I grew older, [00:12:00] I think I came to appreciate that just even more and more and made me really want to find a way to keep those for my myself and not just myself really. I wanted to save the stories for me, but I also wanted to save them for my kids one day. I imagined what it would be like for them to hear me say, did you know that grandma lived through this? As you know, through that, grandpa lived through that and I knew that there was something really special about hearing it from the person themselves. I had spent all these years begging them to do this and they were very flattered, but you know, the response is always kind of, Oh, that sounds great I guess we’ll do that when we retire. Maybe we’ll write a book. It sounds like a pretty big project. And I really wanted to find a way to make it very easy for them. And especially because I live and work in California and they’re in Texas, I’m not always with them in person for long [00:13:00] enough to handhold them through what felt like this sort of very large and nebulous project.  So I said, you know what, let me experiment with you, mom and dad. You know, would you be open to letting me try out a couple of things of how we could record these stories together? And I left my job. I was a full time as a senior product manager at Udacity, which  teaches online programming classes. And I left my job and kind of embarked on this idiosyncratic project with them.

Sue: [00:13:31] Was that a risk, did you think at the time to leave a full time employment and to try to develop this?  

Amelia: [00:13:37] Oh, it was terrifying. I don’t know that I thought out thinking that that was something I could do. I really have to give a lot of credit to my partner here actually, who is really the one who kind of encouraged me and told me that it was something that he thought I could do.

He said, you’ve worked in so many startups. You’ve seen what happens. You know something about how to start this. And the more I thought about it, the more I [00:14:00] thought you know what really are the things that scare me about leaving my job to go work on this project? And as I went down the list, they, I really thought about each one one by one they seemed less scary as I went on. I thought, well, here’s how I’m going to deal with this one and here’s, I’m going to deal with this one. And by the time I got to the end, I thought, well, it’s actually isn’t quite as scary as I thought it would be. And I really felt it was a win-win. I thought the worst that’s going to happen is I will still figure out how to get recordings of my parents somehow some way. I don’t know how they’re going to write them for me. Maybe if they’re going to email me the stories, maybe we’ll video record them. Maybe we’ll record them on voice. I’m not sure. I’m not exactly sure how we’re going to get these saved, but somehow I’ll get them saved and so I’ll finally have the thing that I’ve always wanted, but how wonderful would that be if on the way we could find something that actually made it easier for other families too.

Sue: [00:14:52] From the desire to combine modern methods of technology with a means of recording stories [00:15:00] it seems to me that what that also does is build connections between family members and also build connection with technology in a way?

Amelia: [00:15:07] Absolutely. I thought I knew every story about my family. I know the stories from my dad, but I was actually shocked to realize how much more there was that I didn’t even know. And when we started recording together, I would say a good half of the things that I heard were things that I did not know. I learned that there was a point in my mom’s childhood when they had so little food that they were eating algae. I couldn’t believe that.

I couldn’t believe I’d never heard that. And after I heard that recording, of course you can imagine, I immediately followed up with my mom and said, Oh my goodness, you have to tell me more about that time. I had no idea. And so. It was absolutely an experience that even though we are very close as a [00:16:00] family, and I would certainly consider myself close to my parents, it brought us even closer, which I think was such a special and unique experience. I don’t know that everybody would say that. The experience of starting a business is one that brings you closer to your family. I think that sometimes it can be quite all consuming and in fact, actually take us away. A little bit or make it harder to find space for the people that were closest with. But I think for me, actually quite a unique experience that we absolutely could close there. And for me, that’s one of the most fulfilling things about Saga is hearing from people who will reach out to us and tell us about the moments of connection with their loved ones. 

Sue: [00:16:38] And I can imagine that to enable that connection to happen, for those stories to materialize, there needs to be a structure or a way of framing questions that draws people out because if I just said, tell me your story, then you might say, well, what do you want to know? And what was important? And there’s not a structure or a way of delving deeper. How do you make that work within the system? 

Amelia: [00:16:59] Great question. And you’re absolutely right. A lot of times I think that these are conversations and experiences that many people actually want to start with family or are their loved ones, and we struggle with how to start the conversation. One of the things that we ended up doing quite early on at Saga was providing questions and prompts, suggestions to get the conversation going. And that ended up being one of the most popular things that people would take advantage of was looking through this list of suggested questions that we had seen really work well with the other families that other families had enjoyed. So we actually provide quite a variety of prompts. Things like what was the biggest trouble you ever got into when you were a kid or what went through your mind when you saw your child for the first time? Or what were some of the hobbies that you [00:18:00] had before you became a parent that you had to give up when you became a parent? These things that are meant to prompt memories and oftentimes on earth pieces of someone’s life that their kids or grandkids may never have heard. 

Sue: [00:18:18] What you’re making me think of there, Amelia, because those questions are past focus, the history that people can learn from them. I’m also imagining that when people share these things, it actually shapes the future and gives people a different sense of respect or just a different take on members of their family and perhaps how the interact and behave towards one another in the future. Have you had any sense of whether that actually happens or not? 

Amelia: [00:18:44] A lot of times I would say that people will even start using Saga because in some ways that is their intention is wanting to look to the past in order to shape the future. We have a lot of people [00:19:00] who are parents themselves or grandparents and are then using Saga with themselves or their parents or grandparents specifically because they want to have these things saved and passed on.

They want their kids to be able to hear them now, but also to have them for later. And a lot of times people are doing it as a way to honor loved ones. Honestly, it’s a way of telling somebody, this is how much you mean to me. How incredible is that? To be able to tell somebody that I love you so much and I want to honor you by having these memories of your life saved for us. That’s how important they are to me. That you don’t have to be somebody famous to be on a podcast like we are right now. That you don’t have to have a book written about you or to be important enough that someone would interview you, that everybody is important to someone, and that [00:20:00] makes her story worth saving and sharing.

Sue: [00:20:02] So there’s a real kind of emotional element to the work that the business does and what you’re trying to achieve. I’m wondering how you measure success. It has to presumably make money as a business. So what are your measures of success for saga? 

Amelia: [00:20:15] We’ve been extraordinarily fortunate in that about the year or so after we’d been running the business and we’d had customers and come in and we actually attracted outside investment. There were people who really believed in our mission and the potential of the business as well, and wanted to come and support the next stage of growth for us. And so for us, looking ahead as to what is going to be the next thing. We are launching our first mobile application, and we’re very, very excited about that. You know, that’s a big step that we’ve been waiting for. In fact, I know that it’s the one that [00:21:00] you and I have been talking about is more ways to make the recordings easier and to make it easier just to save and share with your family. So that’s a big milestone for us, but even bigger than that really is our vision of who we want to be able to use Saga. And I think the answer is for us, it’s every family. You know, when I started the business, I remember looking into what services existed already for capturing and saving this almost like a life interview with a loved one. And there are services and they’re quite expensive. I mean, you can actually hire somebody to come and bring professional video and audio equipment to your house and interview a loved one, but the median price is about $10,000 it’s very much out of the reach for most people. We suspect that there’ll be many more people who would want to be able to save stories of loved ones and so that’s the [00:22:00] theme for us. You know, we want to give Saga to as many families as possible. I just know that when people use it, there will be a day in the future when they are so happy that they did. That’s what I really look forward to. 

Sue: [00:22:17] It seems to me, Amelia, that you’re actually changing the way that families communicate with one another through, if you look at a bigger mission sense.

Amelia: [00:22:25] Absolutely. There is probably about half of the things that my mom and my dad recorded  were things that I never knew about them, and that’s actually pretty consistent with what we hear from our customers is even when they’re very close to family, they’re really surprised by how much more they’re learning about their loved ones. I definitely think for us that the mission is to help people build deeper connections with the people you care about most [00:23:00] regardless of how you’re separated by distance or by time or age. 

Sue: [00:23:06] I’m really picking up three things that might summarize our conversation. One is determination, the other is drive and the third is direction and my sense that the experience of education that helps you shape where you went with your life and its direction has really been a core foundation of what you’re doing now with saga. 

Amelia: [00:23:27] I think that’s absolutely true. For me, I think it’s very personal and very poignant that this is really a business in many ways that I started for my own parents because it was something I wanted to exist for them. And so it’s absolutely just meant the world to me to see it grow and attracted investment support and to see people come and sign up and tell us about the impact on their own families. And that makes me really happy that it’s something I could do for them. 

[00:24:00] Speaking of COVID-19 one of the things that I’m also really excited for us to be able to do is we are going to be extending a year’s worth of free access to Saga to any family that is signing up during this time. So we’re actually not going to be charging as we normally do. We’re really hoping that it may help some families who are looking to stay connected during this time, especially with older loved ones who may be further away. 

Sue: [00:24:27] Well, that sounds like a brilliant offer and I’m sure we’ll put the links to the site in the show notes from this podcast. Amelia, it’s been a real education to spend the last few minutes having a conversation with you and learning about your life story. So thank you so much for being with us. It’s been fantastic to talk to you. 

Amelia: [00:24:43] Thank you for having me. 

Sue: [00:24:45] How fascinating it was to discover that Amelia’s business Saga was in part created out of frustration due to a problem she had, but she could not solve and how that technology is now helping to create deeper connections in families. [00:25:00] I’ve used Saga myself to record some of my expedition stories from the Arctic and the Antarctic. So I do hope you take advantage of their offer of a year’s worth of free access to Saga during this COVID-19 crisis. The website is www trysaga.com if you enjoyed this podcast, please take a moment to leave us a review on Apple podcasts or whatever platform you are using or tell your friends about us so that we can continue to reach more listeners.  That’s all from me, Sue Stockdale.  next week I will be speaking to eco Explorer, Marlina Moreno and environmental consultant, Shannon Rivera, about why collaboration is vital in the world of conservation. I hope you will join us then.