The day after Valentine's Day, Alexandra Chong went out to a brunch with about 20 women. She only knew five or six of them, but after half the day, Chong felt like she'd made friendships, learned so many new things. She had even taken notes on her phone and exchanged details to follow up with.
Of course, since it was the day after Valentine's, much of what they talked about was men, dating, things they liked or didn't like.
"I realized it was so nourishing and that I wish I could have more female nourishing experiences and learnings regularly," Chong said.
To create that kind of experience, Chong built an app called Lulu, which is for female users to anonymously talk about the men they know in their lives, in whatever capacity. It's a private network for girls, where users can sign up with Facebook and rate men as friends, boyfriends, or hook ups with a quiz, hashtag comments like "ObsessedWithHisMom," "GoneByMorning," or "FriendZone."
The prototype took a while. Though Chong started building Lulu in 2011, it was 2013 before the product actually launched. Chong had no experience as an engineer or coder, so she said the process has been a huge learning experience. The hardest part was figuring out how to go from an idea to something people will use and understand.
"The first thing I really wanted to accomplish was to prove women could have our own space, and dedicate own platform just to us and that's okay. I think we've accomplished that by and large, reviewing guys and not products," she said. "It came with challenges because guys are people. That of course makes it harder."
Chong and her co-founder, Alison Schwartz, hired comedy writers to do the content for the app, to make sure the approach was lighthearted and fun. Lulu was launched with a sorority in Florida, and sororities around the US have since become big users of the site. It has just "taken off by itself" since then, Chong said.
But the app received a lot of flack when it launched because, of course, it sounds like a guy's worst nightmare.
Chong said most men's minds go to a very dark place and think of bad things they've done — things they can't read about because the network is closed off to them. And the app has definitely been controversial, which wasn't surprising to Chong. Most people either love it or they hate it, she said — there's not much in between. But a lot of the negative feedback was because many people didn't understand what she was trying to create, exactly: a community online where women feel empowered, when they generally don't on the internet.
At first, men were limited in their control on the app. But this year, Lulu quietly added another feature to the product — basically allowing men to opt-out if they ask to be taken off.
Chong has a clear vision of what she wants to come out of Lulu. She said she keeps the team on course, but she has so many challenging, creative, brilliant people working with her, encouraging and fostering those qualities has been key to their success so far.
That drive has been with her throughout her life. Chong was born in Jamaica. Her father is Chinese-Jamaican and her mom is Canadian. She went to boarding school in England, where she trained to be a professional tennis player. She played on the Jamaica Fed Cup team.
Chong went to Florida International University on a tennis scholarship, and then the London School of Economics for law school. Initially, she wanted to move back to Jamaica and become a politician. But she ended up getting a job with Upstream, a London-based mobile marketing firm. It was her first experience in tech startups and she loved the energy. That was where she realized she "had the bones to be an entrepreneur," she said.
Lulu, of course, is much different than her other endeavors — and the buzz surrounding it is exactly what Chong wanted.
"I'm showing [women] they can create companies in tech space, but really I wanted to create a space because I needed it... I'm a tomboy at heart, I grew up with boys as an athlete," she said. "I really love and really value my time with other women."
In her own words...
What are some of your hobbies?
"I'm a tennis player. Since moving to New York, I have not played as much as I'd like, and it's important for me because it allows me to be super competitive. I enjoy it. So I play a lot of tennis and great network of friends. Over time I've become friends with a lot of entrepreneurs. It helps you feel normal. I encourage all entrepreneurs to do that, whatever different stage you're in because its really its a lonely road if you don't have a cofounder."
What is something you try to do every day?
"[I've] taken up meditation, which is sort of a substitute for not exercising as much as I'd like to, and I'm really enjoying it. A nice quiet moment, 20 minutes...I do it between 3 and 5 when I have a tough time focusing; my blood sugar is down and exhausted from pounding brain. I close my eyes and find a corner. That's really working for me... shut off and allow my mind to cool down and reprocess and get ready for the afternoon."
What is advice you would give aspiring entrepreneurs?
"The biggest risk you'll take is not taking a risk because you'll never know. That's for everyone, not just entrepreneurs. Never try and you'll always regret that. Most entrepreneurs are very bright, they can get any job they want, it doesn't hurt for them to go ahead and try and have a go, you'll find out soon enough if it's for you or not."
Lyndsey Gilpin has nothing to disclose. She doesn't hold investments in the technology companies she covers.
Lyndsey Gilpin is a former Staff Writer for TechRepublic, covering sustainability and entrepreneurship. She's co-author of the book Follow the Geeks.