As a Graded high school student, Julia Wu ’13 participated in MUN, PGC, Sister School, The Talon, and cheerleading. After graduation, she enrolled at Brown University, where she double-majored in computer science and economics. Julia went on to intern at Microsoft and work at Apple and Brex. Currently, she is pursuing her dream as a tech entrepreneur. In this month’s "Alumni Spotlight," Julia talks about the challenges she has faced as a woman in tech, her memories of Graded, and the choices that led her to where she is today.
You were born in Brazil but spent much of your early life in China. What was it like growing up between two countries?
Both my parents were raised in China and came of age at a time when the country was just starting to open up to capitalism under the influence of Deng Xiaoping. My mother is from a small city called Wenzhou, and since she did not have a college degree, her career opportunities in China were limited to factory jobs. My grandfather encouraged her to move abroad, especially since she already had some long-distance relatives in Brazil. So my recently-married mother moved to Rio de Janeiro on her own when she was 19 years old, with no knowledge of Portuguese or English. She immediately started a business selling “Made in China” products by going door-to-door and showing people the merchandise she had brought with her from her native country. My father joined her a few months later.
I was born not long after my father arrived in Brazil. But, because my parents were busy trying to make a living in a new country, they decided to send me to live with my grandparents in Wenzhou, China. I started school there, and everything you have heard about Chinese education is true: It is very disciplined. Every day we lined up on the school’s field at 7:00 am to sing the national anthem. We had to make sure the distance between our chest and the writing desk was exactly one fist, and we needed to hold our pencils precisely one centimeter from their tip.
Once my parents’ business improved, they relocated to São Paulo, and I was sent back to Brazil. As they were deciding which school to enroll me in, a family friend recommended that they consider an international school. They liked the idea and were enthusiastic about the future possibilities that would be available if I were educated in a multicultural environment, so they enrolled me at Graded. I was eight years old.
Growing up in two vastly different countries fostered in me open-mindedness and adaptability. It also came with challenges: In China, my classmates knew that I was Brazilian-born, so they considered me a foreigner; at Graded, I was the only Chinese student in my class, which led to feelings of otherness. But the need to adapt and fit in helped me gain fluency in three languages when my brain was most malleable, and I learned to interact with people with backgrounds very different from my own.
When you enrolled at Graded in grade 3, you spoke very little English or Portuguese. How did you adapt to a new school and culture?
It was difficult. I was in English as a Second Language (ESL) classes for a long time, and my tenuous grasp of English meant that I understood little in my other classes. I struggled to communicate and understand concepts in class. When I got called on by a teacher, I would freeze in silence.
I was the only Chinese student in my grade, and I had a hard time making friends. I was extremely shy and didn’t know how to express myself well in any language other than Mandarin. I was usually the last one to be picked for teams in P.E. because I wasn't very athletic, and as a result, I felt lonely and left out. After school, I would return home to an empty apartment because my parents were busy at work.
I had not fit in in China, and I did not fit in in Brazil; I felt like the “ugly duckling” wherever I went. There seemed to be nothing about me that interested others, so my interactions with classmates were minimal. However, despite my social exclusion and quiet nature, I really liked studying. Over time, my English improved, and classes started to make sense. I still remember the first time I understood a new concept (division) taught in English in Ms. Pettinati’s 4th grade class and the first time I got a good score on an exam (Ms. Hulley’s 5th grade history test on the Ice Age). Over the years, I grew extremely academically oriented and consistently got great grades. Socially, though, I still struggled. By the time I made good friends and felt comfortable in my skin, I was already in high school.
Julia with friends during Wacky Week at Graded
When and why did you decide to attend college in the US?
When my parents enrolled me at Graded, they were already interested in the idea that I might study in the US because they wanted me to have a chance at getting the best education in the world. Since the Graded curriculum is geared towards American and international higher education, everything pushed me towards going abroad. It was something I wanted, but I was also anxious about being far away from home. I would later realize that going to the US for college was transformative for my career and life.
What did you enjoy most about your time at Brown University?
Brown gave me an opportunity to build and work on many things, including myself. It also introduced me to brilliant people who would eventually influence my career and life.
I was a “nerd” at Graded, but at Brown, I was just one of many people who worked hard at school. In college, I was surrounded by young, ambitious people from all over the world and with all kinds of talents and interests. My freshman roommate was a swim athlete from Texas; some of my first friends were international students from Hong Kong, Norway, Russia, and California.
During my first year, I was encouraged to take classes from various disciplines: I took a seminar on climate change, I tried my hand at creative writing, I took an economics course, and I had a very welcoming introduction to computer science. Throughout my time at Brown, I had the freedom and encouragement to study myriad subjects and explore disparate interests, which to me was invaluable.
Outside of class, I got involved in the Brown Investment Group, in which students researched stocks in which to invest Brown’s endowment. I also joined women in business and women in computer science groups, and I began practicing taekwondo.
A few months into my freshman year, I decided to start a Lean In circle at Brown. The group consists of college women who hold each other accountable for achieving their goals and is part of a global support network for professional women founded by Sheryl Sandberg. The group at Brown was one of the first on-campus Lean In circles in the country, and, as a result, I got to meet Sheryl.
Brown is also where I started participating in hackathons (during which programmers and designers come together for a short, intensive period of time to build something). During these hackathons, I had the opportunity to apply many of the software engineering skills I was learning in class to real projects. Since then, I’ve never stopped creating apps and websites.
My time at Brown felt like a very natural continuation of my Graded experience. Graded has a very “liberal-artsy” quality because of its extensive options of elective classes (many of which are art classes) and its adoption of the IB Diploma Programme, which requires students to complete an extended essay and participate in Theory of Knowledge classes.
The environment at Brown is very rigorous and competitive. At times, I felt like I was stuck in a “rat race” in which students clambered over and clawed at each other in a desperate attempt to land internships at the best investment banks and tech companies. Despite this, I felt a strong sense of belonging at the university. Brown prides itself on its culture of inclusivity and optimism, and I really valued that.
Why did you choose to major in computer science, and did you face any challenges?
At Graded, I was very involved in Model United Nations (MUN), and I thought I would study international relations and economics in college. However, a couple of factors got me thinking about computer science: It was clear to me that technology would be critical in building the future; and, near the end of my high school career, I watched a video of Sheryl Sandberg, one of my role models, confessing that she would have been a better COO at Facebook had she developed technical skills early on in her career. Given that I already loved math (I was taking IB Math HL and AP Calculus at the time), I started wondering if I should try to develop the skills that Sheryl felt she lacked. They would undoubtedly be helpful for me, and maybe I would even build a career in STEM.
I faced one major obstacle: I didn’t think I was cut out for it. Coding and engineering seemed to be the realms of math geniuses, and though I had always enjoyed math, I had never considered it particularly easy. So, when I started taking computer science classes in college, I was bursting with doubt and anxiety. Whenever things got hard, I would question whether I was smart enough or just wasn't cut out for it. Today, despite my career milestones, I still grapple with some of the same insecurities and struggle with imposter syndrome.
During college, you interned at Microsoft and participated in an immersion program at Square Code Camp. After college, you worked at Apple and Brex. What did you learn from these experiences?
Before I started coding, I already knew that I wanted to be an entrepreneur like my parents. I had been inspired by all they had built in Brazil. From the moment they arrived in the new country, they had to be incredibly scrappy and clever, teaching themselves everything about business and management along the way.
But when I discovered computer science, I fell deeply in love with it. I enjoy the creativity and problem-solving necessary for the work, and I appreciate how there is always space to learn more and grow in the field. Mostly, I love the potential that computer science and technology have to drastically improve people’s lives.
I realized that I could combine both these dreams (of being an entrepreneur and working with computer science) by pursuing a career in tech entrepreneurship. After I set my sights on that path, everything I did was geared toward attaining that goal. To become a successful tech entrepreneur, I recognized that I had to study a lot and reach specific professional milestones. I placed many bets on myself and sought positions that were above what I believed myself capable of, and consequently faced a lot of rejection and disappointment. But I have also proven that I can accomplish more than I imagined.
Square Code Camp is a program for undergraduate women in technology, and while I was there, I met exceptional female engineers with dreams similar to mine.
Applying for full-time jobs at the end of college was a difficult process. It seemed like everyone around me was already getting multiple job offers when I still had none. I think I interviewed for some 70 jobs before I got an offer. I still vividly remember the exact moment when I got that phone call from a recruiter at Apple offering me a position!
Working at Apple was like getting a master's degree in software engineering. I spent two years there before moving to Brex, a company founded by ambitious, brilliant Brazilians, and which I joined to learn more about the startup environment. I recently left Brex to take the next steps in building a startup of my own.
I have previously written about and shared some of my academic and professional experiences. If you’re interested, I have included links to some of my articles here:
- Hey Siri, Thank You!. Takeaways from my first job out of… | by Julia Wu
- Building the Brex Accounting API
- How to Get Product and Engineering to Collaborate While Remote | Built In NYC
- Women Who Reign: Julia Wu
You recently left Brex to pursue your dream of becoming a tech entrepreneur. What are you currently working on, and what are your plans for the future?
I am working on something new in the cryptocurrency/web3 space and am lucky to be supported by some incredible collaborators and advisors. I am still in the ideation and validation phase and hope to share more about my progress in the coming months!
Describe your experience as a woman in tech. What advice would you give to Graded girls interested in pursuing careers in STEM?
I often feel like I have to prove myself and work harder than everyone else, especially because I had a relatively late start to coding, which sometimes comes at a cost. My dedication to my career has sometimes negatively impacted my social relationships and has thrown off my work-life balance. But such commitment is necessary depending on what your goals are.
I have had a few negative experiences in the tech world that have pushed me to work even harder. For instance, I have attended numerous events where I was the only female engineer. At those events, fellow participants often assumed I was an organizer or product manager. On occasion, I have also been told that I don’t look like an engineer. And I’ve even had coworkers directly question my coding skills (which in turn led me to question those skills myself). Despite that, I still love what I’m doing and cannot imagine myself in any other field.
My number one advice for young women pursuing careers in STEM is to build things on your own from scratch (maybe a website or an app to help a friend, family member, or even your school). Always challenge yourself because you will learn that you are capable of much more than you thought! And keep a portfolio of your work as you develop new things. I also recommend that you surround yourself with bright and integrous individuals and learn as much as you can from them. These can be coworkers, mentors, or just friends that bring out the best in you.
What do you like to do in your free time?
I love to read. I also enjoy physical exercise, even though I’m not particularly athletic. I practiced karate in high school, took up taekwondo in college, and am now doing HIIT training. I have recently begun playing chess. Growing up, I was always hesitant about confronting “opponents” directly (I think this is true for many women). That is why I enjoy competitive hobbies. They teach me to be more aggressive and to face things head-on.
What do you miss most about Graded and Brazil?
I miss the teachers who inspired and believed in me, sometimes more than I did in myself. Some of those teachers were Mr. Pags, Ms. Pfeiffer, Ms. Stoneman, Maggie Moraes, and Ty Stephenson.
My whole experience at Graded—especially during high school—was very formative. At Graded, I grew from an extremely shy child into a curious and ambitious leader. I started cultivating my own voice by participating in engaging discussions and presenting my work to classmates.
My extracurricular activities included MUN (which opened my eyes to many world issues), The Talon (where I developed leadership skills), and Sister School (which fostered in me a desire to make the world a better place). Those activities helped me develop a strong desire to positively impact the world.
Julia at a Model United Nations (MUN) conference
Julia with her cheerleading squad
Julia on a Peer Group Connection (PGC) trip
Julia speaking at her graduation