Meet Harvard entrepreneur: Elsa Sze, CEO and founder of Agora
Women’s iLab celebrates Harvard University, Harvard Business School and Harvard Kennedy School for being leaders in education for developing female founders and gender-equal companies through our Harvard Entrepreneur column.
Elsa Sze is CEO and founder of Agora, a civic tech start-up reimagining democracy in the digital age by creating online townhalls for local communities. Elsa founded Agora while at Harvard Business School and Harvard Kennedy School of Government pursuing graduate degrees. Prior to returning to school, she worked at the International Monetary Fund and McKinsey & Co.
Agora was announced as one of the Finalists of the 2015 Mass Challenge Incubator.
WiLab: Could you tell me more about Agora? How did you come up with the idea for the company?
Elsa Sze: Democracy and freedom of speech have always been important to me. As an immigrant born in Hong Kong, I’ve always been keenly aware of how valuable but vulnerable these rights are. But the idea for Agora itself was inspired an elderly lady I met during the Obama 2012 campaign. It was election day and I was knocking on doors in a struggling neighborhood in Ohio. I was driving an elderly lady, Rochelle, to the polling station, when suddenly her portable oxygen tank started to malfunction. While struggling to breathe, Rochelle looked me in the eye, and said, “Take me to vote, then the hospital.” Rochelle not only inspired me with her sheer determination to make her vote count, she also posed a question that didn’t sit well with me: should so many people like Rochelle in the country feel like the ballot box is the only way for them to make a difference – once every few years? The answer is no. Citizens are so much more than their votes, and democracy is much more than elections. While our votes matter only on election day, our voices can matter every single day. From that realization eventually came Agora, a way to do just that—make their voices heard everyday.
WiLab: How do you think Agora fits in the current political/civic scene? How do you think it’s going to change it?
Elsa Sze: By utilizing technology, Agora transforms the current civic conversation in two ways. First, it diversifies it. Most people don’t have the time and resources to attend public meetings regular—and that means the few who show up to townhalls get to make important decisions for everyone. That isn’t democracy. By making townhalls digital, we’re including the voices of so many more people. Second, it crafts a place for civic engagement online. While politicians can use Facebook and Twitter to talk to their constituents, they’re meant for socializing. Agora, on the other hand, was engineered from the ground-up with that mission. We have tools like user identity verification, live polls, Q&A, content curation, etc—all meant to facilitate two-way conversations about political and civic issues.
WiLab: You’ve identified yourself as an “accidental entrepreneur”. Could you tell me more about that?
Elsa Sze: I come from a background in consulting and investment banking. But I found over time that I didn’t really want to wake up and help a CEO make another five million dollars. When I went back to school, I came to this new sense of empowerment. I came to realize that I can be a change-maker, and that set me on the path to entrepreneurship. I wouldn’t have imagined this years ago, and sometimes I see on Facebook old colleagues and the alternate life I could’ve had—I turned down a six-figure salary to found Agora—but it’s been worth every moment.
WiLab: What do you think is the role of the CEO/founder in a startup? How did you personally take on those responsibilities?
Elsa Sze: Starting a start-up as its CEO/founder is like driving in a fog. You need to have a vision of where you’re going, but you don’t have 100% visibility of what’s in front of you. So you have a little faith, take risks, but try not to fall off a cliff. Early on, I came up with the idea, built it, test it. Now, I have teams that help me do that, and they have myriad skills that have helped Agora grow tremendously within the short time we’ve existed. As CEO/Founder, I strive to nurture these skills, and to create a culture where we each have ownership over Agora. Besides evangelizing the vision, that’s one of my most important responsibilities.
WiLab: How was your experience applying to Mass Challenge? Do you think applying to incubators/competitions benefits startups in itself?
Elsa Sze: Agora has been incubated at the Harvard Innovation Lab for over a year now, and was recently selected as a finalist for Mass Challenge. Incubators and accelerators benefit start-ups tremendously, so long as there aren’t unreasonable strings attached. You tap into so many resources—mentors, a great working space (offices in Boston and Cambridge are expensive), and most of all, other inspiring entrepreneurs all around you. Incubators are like a mini-cradle for the entrepreneurial community. We all get to support each other through our journey because we are under one roof. A random chat at the kitchen often brings to amazing connections. A deep conversation took place at 1AM between a few night owls can spark unimaginable inspiration. In so many ways, we all struggle and strive together.
WiLab: Some words of wisdom for aspiring entrepreneurs?
Elsa Sze: There is this quote by the civil rights activist John Lewis that perfectly explains why I do what I do everyday –
“If not us, then who?
If not now, then when?”
I’m a PhD student @Harvard, trying to reconcile all the crazy things I want to do. I am broadly interested in collaboration — across fields and cultures.
Read more about and from Julia: Julia’s WiLab Profile