Making Irvine the hub for youth innovation

Bian Li is a bluegrass-loving scuba diver who is called Queen Mother Mama Asinor II in parts of Ghana. As a child she taught herself to overcome many fears (wait till you hear about her prison tour) and now serves as the chief executive of The Hungry Lab, an Irvine-based incubator for startups and entrepreneurs. In this Only in Irvine interview, Li explains how The Hungry Lab works, what she can’t live without, and what she’s listening to on Spotify.

What is The Hungry Lab?
The Hungry Lab is a launchpad for entrepreneurs. We provide advice, resources and services to help entrepreneurs succeed at each stage. We also serve as the vital bridge between startups and investors.

What’s does it take to succeed as an entrepreneur?
Personal resilience. You go through a lot of ups and downs. It takes self-clarity, adaptability and grit to learn from the failures and challenges – and power through them.

Why set up shop in Irvine?
Irvine has a more approachable sense of community that makes collaboration easier. There’s also a lot of talent and energy here.

Why headquarter at 200 Spectrum Center?
We looked at co-working spaces all over Orange County. WeWork, at 200 Spectrum Center, stood out not only for its location but for its high-energy environment for startups.

Your prediction for Irvine’s future as a tech hub?
Irvine has the potential to be the central hub bridging the tech corridor between L.A. and San Diego. It’s got the talent, innovation (especially from UC Irvine) and infrastructure to thrive. To maximize this potential, however, Irvine needs to enhance its capacity to serve its young entrepreneurs with access to affordable resources, funding and advisory.

Describe an early hurdle you faced.
I failed a field sobriety test – in prison. Let me explain. I suffered from a somewhat debilitating shyness as a child. For a long time, I was bald, obese and often picked on for being fat and looking like a boy, so the lack of confidence didn’t help my shyness. It all came to a head when I was on a school field trip to the county prison when I was 12. The officer giving the tour stopped in front of the overnight drunk cell, explained its use and picked me in front my class to do a field sobriety test. I was so frozen in fear of being called upon that I couldn’t recite the alphabet or walk in a straight line. Not only was I embarrassed, I was mad at myself for being so shy that I could not even do such simple, basic things.

What lesson did that teach you?
It taught me from an early age to get over myself. Whatever fear I had was all in my head, and that I could no longer allow myself to be paralyzed by fear of how others might judge me.

Describe your clientele.
We serve startups, small businesses, social enterprises and investors. Many have a social impact: from reducing food waste to improving youth career development.

What’s a core core belief of yours?
We are born of circumstance, but it’s our choices that define who we are.

What do you do on your day off?
I do my best thinking underwater, so when I’m not in the office, you can probably find me scuba diving.

Three things most people don’t know about you?

  1. I’ve been officially installed as a Queen Mother of a village in Ghana. My title is Queen Mother Mama Asinor II.
  2. I have time-spatial synesthesia.
  3. I’m fluent in Spanish.

Queen Mother Mama Asinor II?
I was named Queen Mother – a female chief – after working with village elders on community projects. It’s mostly a ceremonial title but they said I now have a lifelong connection to the village and I will always have a place to go back and build a home.

And what is time-spatial synesthesia?
In my mind’s eye, I see time as shapes in 3D space. For example, when asked when The Battle of Hastings was, I can tell you it was October 14, 1066 by recalling the visual image in my head. All this still doesn’t explain why I forget birthdays, even my own!

What songs are in your current rotation?
My Spotify playlist has everything from opera, to hip-hop, to country, to 17th century Italian tarantellas. Today I’m in the mood for The Steeldrivers, a great bluegrass band out of Nashville, especially, “Guitars, Whiskey, Guns and Knives” and “Ghosts of Mississippi.”

Finish this sentence: Before I die, I want to …
Have my own standup comedy special on Netflix.

What’s your hope for the future?
We want Irvine to be known as the hub for youth innovation. We’re excited to bring people and organizations together to realize this vision.