You’ve heard the saying, “Don’t quit your day job,” so often told to aspiring artists with dreams of grandeur. Susan Lieu had been working in the corporate world, for brands like Pepsi and the lunch-delivery startup Peach, when she decided to leave that world behind and pursue a dream: to become a solo performance artist.
Lieu came to The Riveter for our Female Founders discussion series to talk about how the different sides of her life (the burgeoning activist and performance artist versus the accomplished entrepreneur) align in surprising ways. In a discussion with Rebecca Lovell, the director of Create33, a founder center started by Madrona Venture Group, Lieu—who has a BA from Harvard, an MBA from Yale, and is co-founder of Socola Chocolatier, an artisanal chocolate company in San Francisco—discussed her path from corporate America to performance on the stage.
When she was 11 years old, Lieu’s mother died while undergoing plastic surgery—the result of medical malpractice. Lieu, who is Vietnamese-American, turned the experience into a solo show, 140 LBS. Directed by Sara Porkalob, the production debuted in Seattle and has since toured the West Coast. (She also has plans to take it national).
Lieu’s path, in a way, was accidental. Ten years ago, she started doing stand-up comedy in her spare time and ended up headlining the Purple Onion, “a very historical club in San Francisco,” as she described it. After feeling burned by stand-up culture, she went to Pocket Theatre, where she began to develop her own voice and the first version of her show.
Then she was fired from her corporate job. She remembered: “I did the thing I do, I made the spreadsheet. I had 20 companies, 50 opportunities, who I’m going to network with…I had all these interviews lined up, and I just hated preparing for it,” she said. “Even though I was at this crossroads, I got to the feeling thing where I was like, ‘Okay, I have this interview, how do I feel about it?,’ and I felt devastated.”
I was at this career crossroads, and I was like, “Okay, I have this interview, how do I feel about it?,’ and I felt devastated.”– Susan Lieu
One of her a-ha moments came when, at the recommendation of a friend, she read the book, What Color is Your Parachute?
“I kept having nervous breakdowns like, ‘Why do I hate my life so much?,’” she said. “I read the book, and it said, “If you go to a party, what is the first group you want to hang out with? The first group was the creatives. If the creatives leave, who do you want to hang out with? It’s the entrepreneurs; I find them interesting. Then after that, it’s the social-impact people. Then after that, I’m going to bounce from the party.”
She decided to redesign her life to reflect those three interests: “I reached a point in my life where I realized they’re not three different arrows, and if I combine them together it makes this prism.”
Lieu explained that she had the luxury to pursue her dreams because she is married to someone who has a corporate job and can thus give her that financial security. “We reached a point where I said, ‘Hey, I’m not asking for your permission, I’m asking for your support, and I’m willing to fight you on it, because I feel…I don’t know what it is, I don’t know what it’s going to look like, but I’m feeling that I have to do this now, so I need your support.’”
After they decided to move forward, they figured out what they needed to earn in order to survive — budgeting her side gig as a consultant into the plans. “’What’s that number?’ We set the number, and then I started gunning for it.”
Lieu talked about how she used data and spreadsheets as a solo artist the same way she did running a business. “I held myself accountable to data. I started figuring out who I can really cross market with, and then I found corporate sponsors, and I went hard. I also have a vision that this should be accessible, so I found sponsors to have community tickets, because I always want 10% of my tickets to be heavily subsidized for people to watch this, because if I price out my audience that I made this for, that’s not integrity with who I am.”
Once she was out of the corporate world and fully immersed in art and activism, she reflected on the unorthodox path she took: “This entire journey has been extremely frightening. There are so many days where I was just like, ‘What am I doing?’. I know Oprah says to follow your heart, but she’s really rich! So should I really be doing it this way, especially if my dad thinks this is completely nuts? He always wanted me to get a master’s. I got the master’s, and all of a sudden now I want to be an artist. This is crazy to him.”
There are so many days where I was just like, ‘What am I doing?’. I know Oprah says to follow your heart, but she’s really rich!– Susan Lieu
At the end of the interview the audience asked questions and Lieu shared the habits that brought her success (keeping a gratitude journal, among them) and future plans (starting a curriculum called the Artist MBA and trying out new forms).
“I’m going to start exploring other mediums. Is it a podcast? Is it a film? Is it a book? Is it a TV show? What is it?,” she said. “Do I get to have my own TV show like Ellen? Maybe. It’s exploring mediums because it needs to be scalable. I went to business school. I’m an entrepreneur, it needs to scale. That’s not diluting it. It’s getting more people exposed to it while maintaining integrity.”
And she has big plans: getting 10,000 people to see her show by next summer, which is no small feat in the theater world.
“My mom died when she was 38, I’m 34,” she said. “Do I know what’s going to happen? No. So I’m going to live like I’m going to die.”
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Writer and editor Tricia Romano is the former editor-in-chief of the Stranger. She has been a staff writer at the Seattle Times and columnist for the Village Voice. She is currently working an oral history about the Village Voice for Public Affairs. You can find her at Patreon.