The world of entrepreneurship is riddled with risk, and just the risk of experiencing failure alone is enough to make most people feel uncomfortable and doubt themselves. However, Pitt medical student and Founder/CEO of Korion Health Anna Li has a different approach to failure -- she has learned to not only embrace it, but also transform it into an empowering asset. In celebration of Women Entrepreneurship Week, Anna shares how her personal and professional life experiences have shaped her encouraging philosophy towards failure and discusses some key insights on adopting a similar state of mind about this daunting topic.
Hi. I’m Anna. I’m a queer, Asian American fem-presenting human. I have a couple confessions to start off with— I applied to twelve medical schools and was rejected from ten of them. I have applied to the Rhodes and Marshall fellowships, and was rejected from those, too. I asked out my crush in the seventh grade and was turned down. I’ve been in research for nearly eleven years and still don’t have a first-author paper. I still haven’t quite cracked the code on fashion, but I’ve decided that I like blue. I’ve taken a personal leave of absence to recover when someone I loved passed away and I had to rethink my place in the world. I take pride in being single and career-driven, but I sometimes feel very lonely (though I have wonderful friends). I think my conservative mother will be forever disappointed in me for not wanting kids (though I do have a very sweet golden retriever), and I’m starting to be more okay with that.
I’m now an MD-PhD student at the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University, on full scholarship at one of the most competitive universities in the world. I’m also the Founder and CEO of Korion Health, a startup intended to break down barriers in healthcare and empower people through scalable, accessible, and open-source solutions. While I’ve loved my first two years of medical school (well, the parts where I wasn’t crying from stress), I’m not here to just be “a good doctor” and perpetuate the system— I’m here to rewrite it, because people like me and people I care about (heck, people in general) have fallen through the cracks.
I open with this because none of my successes (though, I suppose this entirely depends on your definition of “success”) would’ve been possible without all the failures before them, all of the missed shots, the feeling like the world was ending, the anxiety of not knowing the future.
I’ll cite a relatable meme here from my favorite TV show, Avatar the Last Airbender (if you haven’t watched it, I would highly recommend it! Hit me up actually, I’ll re-watch it with you).
Everyone’s different and I can only speak from my lived experience. (Frankly, I’m humbled that you’re still reading -- I don’t consider myself that interesting.) So if for some inexplicable reason you are still curious, here is some unconventional advice from the crypt of my brain:
Don’t take life too seriously
I wasn’t even supposed to be born. My parents grew up in China and already had a son, so when they were expecting another child (for the record, I’m very pro-choice), they had to flee, and left behind everything they had to come to a country with $20 and speaking no English. Given that I wasn’t even supposed to be alive, I’ve figured that I’ve got nowhere to go but up! Rather than going into interactions assuming that I have to prove something about my intelligence, I just go in assuming that people think I’m dumb, and then I can say whatever I want and expectations will inevitably move upward. Honestly this mentality has helped me ask basic questions in class so many times; I highly recommend it. I really believe people would be much happier going through life if they were able to laugh at themselves.
Winston, my Canine Companions puppy in training, keeping me sane during finals my senior year in undergrad.
Play… video games?
Or at least do something to challenge your thought process and expand your worldview regularly. To my mother’s great frustration, I was somewhat addicted to the video game League of Legends in high school, and while I don’t actively play anymore (unless you want to do a 5v5…? I’ll play AD carry if you play support… ahem), I still rave about how my approaches in life parallel the lessons I learned from that game.
In the game, you play a “champion” with special powers and use a combination of attack damage and ability power to defeat your opponents and capture their base. Sounds simple, but it’s a perfect analogy for my research— I’ve done cystic fibrosis research for nearly eleven years now (inspired by my best friend from high school, who has cystic fibrosis), and have framed my battle strategy in three parts, the same ones as the ones I used in League of Legends: (1) understanding your assets (I did stem cell therapy research for six years), (2) understanding your enemy (my stem cell research was followed by antibiotic resistance research), and (3) understanding the battlefield (in this case, the human body being the battlefield here… hello medical school).
All this to say, you never know where inspiration will come from. The quote “Diversity drives innovation” is something I’ve always heard, and in my own experiences, truly all of my ideas came from diversity of thought. I’ve been extraordinarily lucky to work with an incredibly diverse team of people at my startup that sees blind spots where others don’t and thus make us all better in the end.
Let your values guide you
I was 15 years old when I found out my best friend had cystic fibrosis. I think before then I had been flopping around, unsure of exactly what to do with my life (I thought I might be a veterinarian, since I loved animals and science). I was shocked by how quickly my decisions crystallized once I realized her life was threatened, and I immediately flipped my life to work on cystic fibrosis research, which I pursue still to this day. Also, my experiences supporting her as her friend (coupled with some experiences as a patient myself) in addition to my first two years in medical school taught me how inefficiently the medical system runs, and seeing her struggles firsthand lighted a fire in me to change how things were, which led to my startup.
Let’s face it, I’m a 5’2”, rather small ethnic-minority female. I am not exactly the face of business or power, and I’ve been overlooked so often that I almost expect it now. I think women especially are conditioned to be more giving and as a result it can take more effort to learn how to demand what you’re worth. Many of my amazing female friends are so self-sacrificing to the point that I worry about them, and I’ve also fallen into this boat. It sounds cliché, but at the end of the day, you can’t help anyone else if you yourself aren’t healthy. And as nice as it sounds to love and help others, your health and happiness matters too. Don’t forget that!
A meme inspired by the Princess Bride, another favorite movie of mine. You gotta own up to all that you’re doing, learn how to say no to things, and take care of your health.
I’ll end with this: you are unique, brilliant, and capable of much more than you think. Some of you reading may already know this, but some of you may be doubting. At the end of the day, I find that you just have to give yourself permission to go for it. It always feels great to succeed, but don’t be afraid to seek out failure. In fact, welcome failure into your life, not as a negative thing but rather as a trophy of your courage, a sign that you are living life to the fullest. Failure is the inevitable byproduct of pushing yourself past your limits and discovering new things. Keep an open mind, and always challenge your assumptions.
You’re already amazing, you just have to let yourself simply “be”.
Anna “I still have no idea what I’m doing” Li
Anna is an MD-PhD student with a passion for using technology to increase access to and quality of healthcare and empower patients. She has over ten years of experience in cystic fibrosis research, which she was inspired to go into by one of her best friends from high school, and her PhD work focuses on weaponizing custom-engineered bacteriophages to treat antibiotic resistant infections, with the ultimate goal of translation into clinic.
As an engineer by training with experiences as both a patient and patient advocate, Anna is also very passionate about using ethically designed technology to increase efficiency and patient empowerment in the medical system. This passion led her to found Korion Health Inc. in her second year of medical school; Korion designs medical devices that empower patients to understand their own healthcare from the convenience of their homes, and aim to remove many of the barriers to healthcare.
In her spare time, Anna also cares for stray cats, and regularly visits the hospital with her golden retriever as a therapy dog team. Additionally, she is also a part-time actress, science fiction writer, conductor of the Pitt Med Musical Scope and Scalpel, and freelance composer.