Andrew Yang on his best career advice, the rise of the ‘Yang Gang,’ and why universal basic income could fix American entrepreneurship
Born in Schenectady, New York, Andrew Yang was bullied growing up as one of the few Asians in his hometown of Westchester. He was a gifted child who skipped a grade, attended the Center for Talented Youth at Johns Hopkins University, and then attended an elite boarding school. Yang majored in economics and political science at Brown University and has a law degree from Columbia.
His first job was as a corporate attorney, but he quit to launch his first startup, Stargiving, that eventually failed during the dot-com bubble. From there, he became the CEO of Manhattan Prep, a test prep company, which was acquired in 2009. Yang then started the nonprofit fellowship program Venture for America. In 2017, he launched his presidential campaign but later dropped out to endorse Joe Biden. Yang’s new nonprofit is called Humanity Forward, which is dedicated to continuing his UBI and data security movements. More recently, he launched his podcast “Yang Speaks” and a few UBI experiments. Since I focus on employment topics and issues, I was excited to hear Yang’s perspectives on the future of work and careers.
In our conversation, Yang talks about how he created a political movement, how universal basic income can enable people to follow their passion, how to prepare for the future of work, his decision making on the campaign trail, and his best career advice.
Dan Schawbel: You started off as a political unknown, yet you were able to create and grow a movement with legions of supporters who call themselves “the Yang gang.” What do you think were the key elements in your ability to start the movement, rapidly scale it, and sustain it for so long?
Andrew Yang: Well, starting the movement was a lot of work and it happened the same way that it would happen for anyone listening to this right now, which is you’re going to call friends, family, and people you have worked with and say, “Hey, I’ve got this plan.”
In my case, the plan was running for president. Then you ask them for help and some of them say, “We’d love to help” while others say, “Eh, let me get back to you.” That’s the way anything gets started and that’s the way my presidential campaign started. It seems like it was enormous, but everything starts with the same first steps. The ways something gets started are the same as any enterprise organization. You just have to reach out to some people and try to get them on board.
The way it scaled was that I had a consistent vision for the future of the country that I just kept hitting over and over again. And I thought that if people could see that the vision would improve their lives, that eventually we would catch fire. It seemed to outside observers that it happened really quickly, or naturally, but I was grinding away hitting the same message for months and months before it really took off.
That’s the way things scale in many cases. You just have to be persistent and keep hitting the same points if you think that your value is there. If your value is not there, then hitting the same points is not going to work. But in my case, I was very confident that universal basic income was the future of our country. And I knew it would break through.
As for sustaining it, my organization Humanity Forward is still distributing economic relief to people. We’re working as hard as ever trying to implement our vision, even though I’m not in office. There’s still ways that we can get resources into people’s hands, humanize the economy, and start trying to do things differently. That’s the way we’ve managed to continue our growth.
DS: You’re credited with raising awareness for universal basic income (UBI) and are now suggesting that all Americans should receive $2,000 each month during the pandemic. One of the hidden benefits of UBI that isn’t talked about is the leverage it gives citizens to make better career-related decisions. For instance, if you have a toxic manager, you’re more likely to leave that job if you have a UBI safety net. Can you please explain how UBI can be a game changer for a citizen’s career prospects?
AY: It makes us much harder to push around, because right now there are these people that would leave their job in a heartbeat if they knew they could meet their basic needs. I’m talking about everyone from the waitress in the diner, whose boss is harassing them, to someone who just isn’t being presented with the opportunities that they want, or have another dream that they’d like to pursue. One of the things I’m deeply motivated by is that entrepreneurship has collapsed in this country and this crisis has made it much, much worse.
So the question is, how are we going to rebuild small businesses? How are we going to rebuild entrepreneurship and risk taking? And we all know that if you had $2,000 a month coming in — that you didn’t have to worry about — then you would start to think bigger about the kind of work that you want to do.
We also need to recognize the work that’s being done in our homes. Right now, stay-at-home moms like my wife, Evelyn, get paid zero and they’re working as hard or harder than anybody. Particularly if you’re a single mom, you’re doing two jobs, at least. We need to put money into people’s hands to also broaden what we think of as work.
DS: While many people think that companies are less likely to invest in automation during a crisis, the opposite is true. When revenues decline the cost of labor increases and a study by EY found that over 40% or companies are setting up plans to automate their businesses. You say the economy is going to become more “inhuman.” What can people do right now to prepare for the future of jobs and work?
AY: The best thing we can do is invest in ourselves, our relationships, and our ability to project what we do digitally. I feel very, very bad for so many people who rely upon being physically next to you in order to make a living, all the personal trainers and stylists and yoga teachers and on and on, because the economy’s not going to bounce back in the same shape that it was.
DS: You’ve made some difficult decisions during your campaign. How did you evaluate when it was time to keep pushing forward, change paths, or quit, while continuing to motivate your supporters? What would you have done differently if you ran again?
AY: Dropping out was very, very difficult. I thought I was never going to drop out. I thought I would just be like, “I’m going to be in this forever.” Like, there’s no reason for me to ever drop out because I can keep on making the case. And it really took my advisor sitting me down in New Hampshire and saying, “Look, we think that you’re going to have a more powerful message and better platform to keep fighting for universal basic income and the human centered economy if you suspend earlier and here’s why,” and it made sense to me.
And it was really surprising when I saw it, because I thought I was going to be there forever. I was going to be the candidate no one can get rid of because I thought my entire campaign was built around being politically independent and being the scrappy entrepreneur.
I was like, “What scrappy entrepreneur would get it out?” just because they had a couple of bad results. But when my adviser sat me down and said, “Look, here’s path A, here’s path B; path A is better for the movement and we recommend path A,” and had real facts and logic behind it, I was like, “Okay.”
DS: What’s your best piece of career advice?
AY: My best piece of career advice is to find someone whose career that you want for yourself and then try to support them, work for them, and emulate them. If you can find that person and you can add value to that person’s organization, you’re going to be in great shape. And on the flip side, if you look around and you can’t find anyone whose life and career you want, then you should probably have some feelers out there to find something else. If there’s no one in your organization whose career you want, then it’s highly improbable to lead you there.