Holly is the Founder and CEO of The 85-Percent. She is an advertising, strategic planning, and brand communications veteran, with twelve years’ experience at agencies such as Ogilvy, BBH, and StrawberryFrog. In 2010, Holly founded The Good Girls — the first branding firm focused on women-led enterprise and social innovation. She is currently running for Congress for New York’s 10th District. You can follow Holly on Twitter @hollylynchny.
By way of background – were you always mission-oriented?
I think I was born with a justice bone or an entire body of bones with that sort of perspective. I grew up in New York City during the ‘80s. It was really hard to grow up here and not realize the level of injustice in the world.
There was the Homeless Epidemic, the AIDS Epidemic, the Crack Epidemic. I grew up on the Upper West Side, and everybody thinks the Upper West Side is a pretty cute wealthy neighborhood. And unless you lived there in the ‘80s and were offered crack at the age of two, you don't really understand just how challenging New York City was at the time and how much of a disparity there was between those with wealth and those without.
It was hard for me to not see the fact that there were drug addicts all over Central Park. Central Park was off-limits. I wasn't allowed to go there without at least one adult, if not more than one. At the same time, there were a lot of buildings that were being torn down. We had a major real estate challenge back then similar to how we were dealing with it now. A lot of buildings that could not support themselves were being torn down to be replaced with high-rises. So, the ‘80s was kind of similar to where we are right now in the sense that we're seeing a lot of these issues that have sort of bubbled under the surface but not been as obvious. And one of the reasons why I'm running for office now is because I've seen this already. It's only going to get worse unless we start stepping up and doing our job as citizens.
I got very engaged at about the age of six. My parents actually gave me a petition board and pimped me out to the local churches that were going to get torn down to be replaced by high-rise buildings. They thought a six-year-old would be more appealing to get people to sign petitions then an adult.
And I think it's a really great experience for kids to have to do that sort of thing. You lose your shyness really quickly. I also went to a very progressive school run by some crazy Episcopalian nuns who protested in Tiananmen Square.
I was raised Roman Catholic, but I went to an Episcopalian school and the Episcopalian Church is much more progressive when it comes to the ordination of women, gays, etc. My school was very focused on women's education and advancement. I gravitated towards what I was taught at this really politically engaged school.
I ended up going to Harvard where I naturally gravitated towards the Phillips House. I did environmental action work and I built homes with Habitat for Humanity. And Harvard is kind of like New York. It's a whole bunch of really ambitious people that care deeply about trying to make the world a better place, and I just naturally gravitated towards the human rights and environmental action work.
Finding my career path was significantly more challenging than I thought it was going to be. I thought I was going to go into environmental science and public policy, and I didn't do that. I ended up pursuing social anthropology. It landed me in the world of trying to understand human behavior and how the world that we grow up in shapes our behavior and decision-making.
I ended up going into advertising. I really loved it for the most part, but most of it was really bad. I had a hard time working with stupid brands. My more meaningful work was with cars like Volvo where it was all about the safety of the passenger and with the Dove campaign where we're trying to flip the conversation on beauty and what it means to be a beautiful woman. I entered the advertising world with a specific agenda which was to make things better, and I took every opportunity— whether it was the hybrid affinity drive with Toyota or it was some other initiative. My proudest moments were pitching organizations like Al Gore's Climate Fine Protection Organization. Those are the things that really got me up in the morning, and they're still the things that get me up in the morning. When I decided to branch off and do my own consulting work beginning in 2010, I did it because I was exposed to Silicon Valley in its early development.
I knew a lot of techie guys who were getting angel investments and had no problem asking for money. And meanwhile, I saw all these young women with really great ideas who were too afraid to say anything. I really wanted to help them develop their own brand identity to pitch for money and to feel confident in front of people pitching their ideas. It's like being pregnant for the first three months. You don't want to say anything, but if you don't say anything, you don't get the support system to get you through the rest of your pregnancy. I am driven to change the mentality of not being ready to talk about it because who cares if it's not ready? I know it's a good idea, and there are people out there that should be interested in hearing about it. A lot of my work with 85-Percent was really focused on getting women more comfortable with the ask, communicating what they do, and communicating why it was important to them. I loved that work.
I also worked with Harvard University and a number of higher education institutions that were trying to raise money for really important initiatives. Soon after all of that, I really found my grounding within the angel space because things were kind of exploding in 2012. I joined the Pipeline Angels where I met Angela Lee and a lot of other women who were of a similar age group and financial means. We realized that it was our responsibility as a new generation of people who could actually make a difference to do it.
It was a great experience to learn how to invest with other women of the same age group. The challenging part for me was realizing that there are women of significantly more wealth who were 20 years older who don't care that much. I don't know if it's a boomer mentality, but I know that Gen-Xers like me and Millennials have a very different perspective when it comes to supporting younger women and their dreams. It really excited me to know that I could do something really impactful with my money to help women get their ideas off the ground and through working with some of those organizations.
I met Nnamdi [Okike] and became an early investor in him simply because I believed in what he was doing. When you meet somebody who is so above board, so honest, so forthright and so buttoned up, it was just an obvious thing to want to support him.
How do you see the landscape evolving as it relates to social impact investments?
I’m actually going to be chatting with a company called Closed Loop Partners next week. Their whole strategy is around the whole circuit, from birth to death, of recycling all resources to actually continue to invest in more solutions-oriented stuff. For me, I think it should be an element of every fund. Look at Blackrock. They’re getting more and more invested in social impact because they realized that they’ll lose their consumer base if they’re not investing in climate change and resiliency.
So I think it would be a logical move. I’m not saying they have to put a majority of their funding into it, but maybe just 1% or 5%. A lot of things are already promoting their impact funds as a selling point. I’m going to be talking to Morgan Stanley about how I can just work my assets over there because I’m really concerned about that. I have a great portfolio of Blue-Chip stocks, but that only favors me and won’t solve any major problems in the long run. I think those of us with the capacity to invest should really be thinking about the future for everybody. It’s not just about our own portfolios.
I may be an outlier from the norm in that sense, but it’s only one planet we’ve got and we all need to survive. It’s not like I’m investing for the sake of giving money away. I’m investing because I’d rather have a return on my investment than just give a charitable gift. I could give money away, but it’s not a good model to set up when there’s no real return on your investment. And I think we need to be thinking about the world as an important investment.
I’m becoming more conscious of making sure that my own portfolio reflects my value system, and what I’ve always cared most deeply about are gender equity and making sure that minority and immigrant families have the capacity to survive here. It’s just getting more and more challenging for people to survive. It’s very expensive. We’re not making it easier. The more real estate property goes up, the more challenging it becomes to afford anything.
My focus has really been on the environment and ensuring everybody can have a sustainable job. My other concern is education. We’re not preparing high schoolers for anything at this point. I’m not sure what jobs will be available if they’ll be able to get jobs. They certainly can’t afford college. We’re walking into a dead-end street where nobody’s really paying attention to what’s fundamentally important to the survivorship of the human race and this country.
My first investment was in a company called Day One Response, which is actually female-founded. They make disaster-response water bags. A Cal Poly grad worked with her professor and P&G to develop a water bag that decontaminates water in disaster situations. To me, we should be looking towards things like that as major investments down the road because the one thing that we can be sure of is that climate change is real, and access to clean water will become more and more important every day.
There’s a couple of organizations that I met with down in DC that are focused on helping individuals think differently about their personal investing. Millennials are about to be handed 30 trillion dollars from their parents. That amount would solve a lot of the world’s problems. The sooner we start doing it, the sooner we start solving the problems. I don’t think federal government funding is going to do it.
I think we need to have really smart investors, really smart banks, really smart venture capital firms, and technology companies taking this on as a public-private partnership. Because unless we’re all on board, we’re not going to solve the problem.
If we got everybody on board, it would be a much easier fix than depending on public funding to solve the problem, especially with a divided government like the one that we have.
So much of what we do in this country is a waste of money. We spend it on wars where we’re still there 20 years later. We’re still sinking trillions of dollars in two wars that we will never win.
Nobody’s paying attention now to climate change. I just feel like we spin a lot of wheels without anybody just owning it, campaigning, and coming to the table with a realistic solution as opposed to a pipe dream.
A lot of the solution is giving women the microphone so that they can be who they are. Women and men run things differently. It’s a completely different leadership structure. Whenever I run a team, it’s not been a top-down; it’s been a sideways networked effect of we all have our jobs, know where we’re going, and don’t need one person on top. It’s all of us figuring out what role we’re playing, and we’re all moving in the same direction. I think that network approach allows for more collaborative work than a pyramid approach does.
But how do we get it? I think we need more diverse founders. I think we need more people who have actually worked in the social impact space advising venture capital firms and technology companies. It’s still a very selfish industry where the unicorns are guaranteed billion-dollar exits or whatever. And that’s a really short-sighted perspective from my point of view.
Silicon Valley is still living in its own little bubble and not paying attention to what’s happening in the real world. The last time I was out in San Jose, I was horrified at the level of homelessness. You have the crazy speed bus that takes people from Cupertino to San Francisco where they’re living, and they completely bypass the real world of homelessness, drug addiction, and opioids that is the road between Silicon Valley and San Francisco. They just don’t see it because they don’t have to see it. I think, at some point, we need to force them to see the impact of their greed, whether we’re talking about a Wall Streeter or Silicon Valley person. It’s the same money, different coasts, right?
Are you finding other people who are as motivated as you to solve these issues?
I'm trying to find those people. Luckily, the Upper West Side is a pretty liberal progressive community. We have Columbia University and NYU, so there are academics, corporate interests, and organizations that are much more socially engaged with what's going on in the world. But when it comes to the average person, most people don't care. I was having a conversation with a friend last night, and her issue is that for a lot of people, it's just about whether or not you can afford to feed your kids. We're talking about these high-minded issues like healthcare and climate change while the average person who's working three jobs just wants the tax credit so that they can maybe get a bigger apartment or afford more clothing for their kids. We're in a place where the immediacy of everyday needs is becoming more apparent.
It's why I love Dessy. I'd like to get more engaged with what Nnamdi and some other more progressive thinking venture capital funds are doing because unless we have at least a few bastions of people who see it and are willing to put something against it, it's just going to end up being the immediate need.
How do you integrate your values into your decision-making process for investments, whether they’re public equities, angel investments, or LP investments?
As I said, the first investment I ever did was in DayOne Response. That was my toe dip into the world of social impact work. It was also a female founder. There a lot of things that came together in a beautiful way, and she's done extremely well ever since then. I have made a concerted effort. I have a great banker. We meet every couple months to talk about my portfolio and how I can be moving more into things that I care about. She's done a lot of research on gender-parity funds and climate change funds for me. It's very active pursuit.
I sat down with my friend, Jamie Moyer, who does a lot of blockchain work and impact work with blockchain. She's been introducing me to other people, if my banker can't necessarily do it for me, reallocating some funds to other places where they do have access to certain types of investment structures.
It's a constant pursuit. And it is something that I care very deeply about: diverse founding teams and impact investments. I have the luxury of being able to do that. I'm not using anything that I need to live on to make these investments, so it's not really a gamble.
It's more of an experiment. If it works, I don't know how to get more people to realize that it's not charity. What you're doing actually will have more impact in the long run. I think they're a lot of conservative people who just think giving is giving. I have some friends who would rather give to charity without investment returns at all. There are a lot of different perspectives. I happen to think that the two should be together in the same structure. I understand some people think they will make more money and give more money away if they stick with the traditional investment structure. I think that approach is short-sighted. But you know when something's been doing 10% for the last 20 years, and you have our offer something that only give you 1.5%, that's a sizable return difference.
Now I'm patient; I'm young. I don't need the 10% right now. I'm not seeing it as a zero-sum game. I see it as an incremental engagement in solving a problem.
I think a lot of it needs to happen early in school. If I hadn't been exposed to a lot of things early on in life, if I had not gone to a school where these topics were regularly discussed, if I hadn't grown up in a cultural situation where immediate crises were evident, I wouldn’t be as open minded. I see a lot more than most people because I allow myself to see a lot more. I've also traveled a lot. I've been to India, I've been to sub-Saharan Africa. I’ve been to the South. I've been to a lot of places further away where real crisis is evident every single day. But a lot of people don't want to leave their suburban safety net and their comfortable investments in portfolios that guarantee them certain things.
Do you think the data on performance of certain sectors, like investing in diverse founding teams or social impact companies, will ever be sufficient to change the perception of scale?
No. It has to do with LPs pushing for things. I think we need to start enforcing quotas. I think the only way we're going to see massive change is when we require venture capital companies to invest a certain proportion in diverse trending teams and social impact. I don't know how you do that.
I don't invest in anything other than places like 645 Ventures and social impact, but I don't think most people are like me. I would hope that more women are like that, but I don't know that for sure. Unfortunately, as long as we still have mostly white men running venture capital and banking industries, it's going to continue to go in the direction of what they're comfortable doing until we have more people of diverse backgrounds in positions where they can push this thing even at an early age. I look at Europe and other parts of the world where there's a 20% board quota. We need to start experimenting.
Bill Gates and Microsoft are heavily invested in a lot of these funds that I'm looking at. They're just not talking about it publicly the way they should be. I think Bill Gates could have a really positive impact on the world if he stepped out just as he did, condemning Mark Zuckerberg for saying that technology is amoral. Technology is not amoral; technology takes on the morality of whoever designs it. And until we have more people like him or Elon Musk actually stepping up and saying they're putting their money in social impact investing, nothing's really going to change.
And I would love to see more female tech founders doing that too. I mean those who have seen success. There hasn’t been a hugely successful, female-founded company that has stood up and said something for change.
On a different note, how did you end up deciding to run for office? Because that is not an easy decision.
It comes from almost dying from cancer twice. In 2014, I was diagnosed with the massive brain tumor, and that's when I first stepped away from my business. I actually just started working with multiple Myeloma research foundations when I was hospitalized with grapefruit-sized tumor in my head. But after six weeks of radiation, everything looked okay, and I went back to life and started my business again. Then in 2016, I was diagnosed with cancer again. It was in a different location, but the same size. It was also more critical so I spent about six months in chemo. That was when Hillary was running for office. I made a promise that I would survive because she was going to win. I needed to see the first woman president of the United States. I basically spent my time in chemo rewriting my will, getting all my friends together, phone banking, doing everything I could.
Then it took me about six months to figure out what office I was running for because New York is challenging.
The morning Trump was actually elected, I was just like, ‘Fuck, what did I live for?’ I was so excited to see the first woman president. I worked for President Faust, the first female president of Harvard University, who transformed my alma mater. It became a better place, a better school, a better environment, more loving place, and I was so excited to see the first woman president. I just, I saw all of our problems potentially being solved, and she lost. I was so angry, and on that day, I decided I'm going to run for office.
As it turned out, literally the only office I could run for, where I could get everybody in my family, was if I challenged Nadler for Congress. I started doing my research on the him. He's been there for 26 years and hasn't done anything.
Our infrastructure is falling apart. Our transportation is falling apart. I lost healthcare both times that I was diagnosed with cancer. Our education, like everything, is falling apart, and he's been sitting there doing nothing for 26 years. And with AOC last year, I believed this is possible. The Democratic party in New York is so corrupt that it's time to blow things up a little bit, but it was also me waking up in my home district and realizing that I was back in the same place I was as a child, surrounded by homelessness, drug addiction, and incredible poverty.
If this District ends up underwater, the rest of the country is underwater. We have no water security in this district. We're surrounded by Hudson River - if we have a foot of sea rise, some streets are gone. We have contaminated water for the rest of human history, and he's doesn’t get the message. He just completely doesn't get it. He's too focused on Mueller, but that's not what's going jeopardize the lives of his constituents and the people who are my neighbors.
And that is because it's mostly people between ages of 50 and 65 who know when the election is -- because that's another thing they don't tell you -- they hide it from a lot of people and it's majority-white older people.
It's not the vulnerable immigrant populations. It's not the seniors who can't even get out of their apartments to go to the polls. It's really rigged by a system that benefits the wealthy elite who have the knowledge and the capacity to go vote that day. That's got to change. There are people still paying off student debt, they'll never be able to afford to live here, or they're not getting an education at all. And they're going to end up underwater on so many levels, struggling to keep it together. This includes a lot of women too.
The levels of injustice in what should be the most progressive, advanced congressional district in the country is horrifying to me. And he's going to get reelected because nobody has ever bothered to challenge him.
He knows that I exist. I guess he's taking me very seriously and I'm glad. It’s the same challenges as starting a business. It’s being able to raise money, being able to stand up and yell louder, having the confidence in the network, the influencers, the social media following, the right audiences, and the access to the right room. It's rigged against women just like the business world was rigged against women, so I have to break some rules.
What was your call to action to start?
Yeah, every day feels really overwhelming. I wake up every day terrified that I'm making a huge mistake and that I'm going to be a laughingstock. But where do I start? I've never actively felt like I made a choice in my entire life. I've always sort of felt like I was pushed in directions.
I have always felt like there has been some guiding force. There's always been some element that has told me when I’m wasting my time here.
Reflecting back on college, I thought I was going to do environmental science and public policy or English. I pursued both of those courses and decided they were a waste of my time. I end up doing social anthropology because I wanted to work with Habitat for Humanity.
I got into angel investing, specifically with women, because as I was starting my own company, I was just talking to a bunch of rooms with people like Janet Hansen of 85 Broads. You pick up on the do's and don'ts of starting a company and how to network.
I think if something is right for you, it'll choose you. You don't have to force yourself to want to do something like when the Dove campaign found me. I actually really didn't want to work on that. I had just worked on IBM. I love B2B technology, and I love doing research and strategy work with C-suite guys, server room guys and hanging out in the basements of banks, but I am a total nerd and I love hanging out with R&D people at Unilever.
I like hanging out with the nerds who are really passionate about what they do every day. So, when I was put on the Dove campaign, it was like, I had to do the fluffy beauty shit. It wasn't until I got to know Sylvia who was just a badass angry Brazilian woman. She hated the fact that they wanted her to have three forms of plastic surgery, and her feelings were contagious. So, we all got mad with her. A whole world of women got mad, and when you can harness that level of passion and when you can identify with it, the rest of it takes care of itself. And my whole life has been guided by these things that have just popped up and I’ve thought, that's wrong; it’s my job to fix it.
And maybe it's just that all the wrong things find me, but it's hard for me to ignore them. I've always had a hard time ignoring things that I know are wrong. That's what got me to start a business. That's what got me to help women get their businesses off the ground.
I don't know how much I can do. But I'm alive. Almost dying a couple of times really brought that home.
If you've got a life to live, then you better be doing something meaningful with it. Otherwise, you're wasting your time. But, even if I lose this election, I'll have tried, and that is why I'm terrified every day. I have nothing to lose. I've almost died, and this is certainly not going to kill me. It might be embarrassing right? I might lose some friends, but I don't think so.
I think what I'm trying to do is obvious, and I hope people get it. The message I'm moving around with this rise up, and what I want every woman, every minority, every vulnerable population to realize, is that empowerment is a fiction. Nobody is going to empower you. I have lived a life of listening to people tell me about empowering other people.
It's not going to happen. You either rise up and take it, or somebody else will take it from you. I need every single woman to realize that her job is to rise up and take her own potential to do something. Maybe it's starting a business. Maybe it's about taking five dollars out of her account and putting it into something that she cares deeply about.
It's not even doing it for somebody else -- do it for yourself. And I think if more people just owned what they care deeply about or allowed themselves to feel the injustice and inhumanity, then it wouldn't be so hard for them to recognize their own potential to make change possible.