Women We’re Watching: Nastia Liukin, Olympic Gold Medalist Turned Tech Entrepreneur
As a five-time Olympic Medalist, Nastia Liukin has dedicated her life to setting dream-worthy goals and working tirelessly to achieve them. With this next chapter, Nastia has set her sights on inspiring, empowering and connecting the next generation of female leaders with her app, Grander. In a recent chat, she shared what it’s like to transition from well-known athlete to tech entrepreneur, and how she’s utilized her strengths to build a new online community that connects and gives back. It’s her drive, her innovation and her experience that make her one of the Women We’re Watching.
Tell us about what inspired you to start Grander.
Throughout my career, I was lucky and fortunate enough to have mentors right in front of me all the time—my parents were World and Olympic gymnastics champions. I realized the importance of that, to have other people, especially women, who I could look up to and ask advice from. I had so many amazing people I could look up to.
Contrast that with what social media is now—it’s not really a platform to be inspired and motivated. I’m almost 30 and I’m still negatively impacted by comments on social media. I wanted to create a place where people who didn’t have access like I did to get connected to mentors, and I wanted to help the next generation be inspired.
Why expand past gymnasts?
We started with gymnasts, because we had to pick a vertical, and we’ve learned so much about connecting mentors with up-and-coming gymnasts. I’ve had so much fun! But not everyone wants to be a gymnast. People want to be entrepreneurs, lawyers, CEOs. We’re excited to take what we learned and apply it to new verticals really soon.
We’re thinking about the bigger picture, and how to reach a bigger audience for more young women (and men). We had a really successful Grander Summit in August 2018, and we’re already planning number two! That helped us get more motivated to expand, and push to move forward.
How do you balance the entrepreneur side of life (tech and investor meetings, etc.) with your personal website and influencer status?
I always laugh at the word “balance” because as a gymnast and athlete, “balance” meant a totally different thing than it does to me now. It was all balance beam then, and now it’s applying it to everyday life.
I learned that kind of balance when I was an Olympian and getting through high school. I actually thought that when I officially retired, I’d have more time, because I wasn’t training seven hours a day! That’s not true. I find it even more challenging now, but in a good way. I’ve realized that it I stop focusing on “how do I balance it?” and just focus on being aware of what time I’m spending on each piece of my life, it’s easy to evaluate where I need to spend more or less time. If I’m paying attention, I know when I’m spending too much time working, or too much time traveling. That awareness helps me step back and evaluate and refocus.
And then it causes less stress because I’m not worrying about being stressed! We don’t have time for that! I’m still learning, every day, that every chapter of life is going to look different. When I was an athlete, I was used to living a kind of selfish life, because everything revolved around my training. But I had to transition out of that—it’s not all about me! It takes experiencing something different, and hard work, to change that.
And let me say that it’s still important to be selfish sometimes! I need to learn to say “no” more to protect my sanity and health.
How did you get motivated to start a brand-new venture, a second career, with Grander?
It was definitely scary, because I’d only known one thing in my life at that point, gymnastics. But I’ve never quite lacked the motivation to be successful, and I do like to prove people wrong (not that that’s my main motivation!). I’m so proud of what I’ve accomplished as a gymnast, but I don’t want to look back on [winning five Olympic medals] as my proudest moment. I want to keep progressing.
Plus, I’m really passionate about giving back to younger athletes. I know first-hand how helpful it is to have a community, and mentor relationships to help in your career.
What challenges have you faced, making the transition from athlete to entrepreneur?
It sometimes has been a struggle to get people to not just think of me as “that gymnast” or “that girl from Dancing With the Stars.” It can be really hard for people to look past that. But getting my education, going to NYU, helped me become more than that, because education really sticks with you.
Sometimes it’s hard when I don’t know everything from the tech standpoint [at Grander], or when the majority of people at a tech or investor meeting are men. But I’ve learned to be confident in my own skin, and I’m so passionate about this community, it makes it easier. I want this next generation to have the tools to achieve their dreams.
What advice would you give to a woman looking to start her own business?
No matter the business category, figure out exactly what vision you want, what your core values are and what you stand for. As the CEO or founder, you have to believe completely in those things, and you have to know them in your sleep. Grander’s goal and mission is second nature to me, and that frees me up to not be afraid of success or not.
Know you’ll be rejected, and told “no” more than you’re told “yes.” That’s okay—you can’t take it personally. As an athlete, when someone told me “no,” I’d train harder and longer, and come back and prove them wrong. But with business, I’m not in control of all that! Sports taught me to persevere, and as long as you believe in your vision, you’ll succeed.
Was there a time you were scared Grander wouldn’t succeed?
Not a particular time, no, but there were times when I knew we needed to take a different approach, change or adjust something, to make it more successful. I have to be patient, my constant struggle—we can’t always go from zero to 60. Like starting in 20 different categories and verticals was too much. But it’s been totally worth it to take the time to do it right.
If you had a magic wand and could change anything about the world, what would it be?
Oh, it sounds cheesy, but peace and love for everybody, no matter politics, religious beliefs, country. That’s what I loved so much about the Olympics—everyone came together for two weeks for one goal. In Beijing, the Olympic motto was plastered everywhere, and it really stuck with me: One World, One Dream.
Need more female empowerment inspiro? Check out our full Women We’re Watching series.