Career Q&A with Mia Mabanta, Head of Talent and Growth Initiatives at Y Combinator (#9)

Our next Career Q&A is with Mia Mabanta, Head of Talent and Growth Initiatives at Y Combinator. Mia provides excellent advice on how to view career opportunities with an abundance mindset, the power of long walks, why ‘fake it ’til you make it’ is bad advice, and how immigrating to the US taught her to be scrappy and resourceful. I hope you enjoy her insights as much as I did.

Mia Mabanta runs talent and growth initiatives at YC Continuity, Y Combinator’s growth-stage fund. Prior to YC, Mia led product marketing at Quartz, the business news startup, as the company grew 10X in revenue and headcount. She also cofounded a fintech startup, HelloWallet, which sold to Morningstar and spun out of research she had been working on at the Brookings Institution, where she began her career as an analyst. Mia has an MBA from Stanford.

What’s a book that has influenced your career or life, and why?

My Kindle is full of highlights from business/leadership-type books, but the book that has stayed in my consciousness longer than any other couldn’t be further from that genre. The Meadow by James Galvin is made up of poetic, intricately written vignettes chronicling a hundred years of life on… a meadow. The elegance with which he describes sensory details is almost meditative. Almost 20 years after I first read it, I still find that it helps me stay calm and centered in my life and work.

Was there an experience you had before age 21 that shaped who you are? What was it?

I immigrated to the US at 17 (for college) and have been largely independent ever since. At the time, I didn’t have much of a support base and had to figure out a lot of basic life things on my own: financial hurdles, visa lotteries, the DMV. I probably sent my resume to 100 companies before I got my first job offer, and had more brushes with deportation than I would have liked. I learned how to be scrappy and resourceful. It built up my resilience and taught me how to plan for the worst-case scenario.

How has a failure, or apparent failure, set you up for later success?

My biggest career misstep was hastily taking a job for the wrong reasons. On my first day, I knew I’d made a mistake. It made me seriously question my ability to make good decisions. But I then spent a lot of time thinking deeply about what was important to me in a job and company. At one point, I was printing out companies’ values and stacking them up against my own. Going through that exercise cemented how important culture and mission are, and within a few months I landed at a startup that I felt deeply connected to and (I think) had a lasting impact on, even years after I left. 

What advice would you give to a smart, driven college student about to enter the “real world”? What advice should they ignore?

Don’t “fake it ‘til you make it.” Ask all the questions you need to understand a problem deeply. The best people, no matter their seniority, are the ones who ask questions to get the information they don’t have and work through problems instead of talking around them.

Also: Read a lot, especially about things that have nothing to do with your job. Find a great boss to work for. Spend time on relationships. There’s something to be learned from everyone you meet, whether it’s something to emulate or something to avoid. Learn how to think, speak, and write with clarity and conciseness. It’s amazing how much that sets people apart. 

If you could go back in time to when you were entering the workforce and give yourself one piece of advice, what would it be?

Ali Rowghani, my current boss, gives this piece of advice that I wish I’d had when I was just starting out: View career opportunities with a lens of abundance. There is so much to do and learn, so many problems to solve. When see your career this way, you start to focus more on the expansiveness of your own potential rather than the little distractions—job title, status, organizational politics—that inevitably come up.

What’s one of your proudest professional accomplishments?

My proudest professional accomplishment is probably the people I’ve hired. I love building teams and get a lot of fulfillment out of working through challenges together and celebrating wins. Whenever I’ve created an environment where people are working hard, having fun doing so, and genuinely care about one another, I feel like I’ve done a pretty good job.

Since entering the workforce, how have you changed or transformed?

Besides all the usual growth that one goes through as they advance in their career, one big change is that I’ve become much more adaptable to people’s different working styles, and better at communicating my own. It’s not that I was intolerant of different styles before—but with time and experience, I’ve gotten better at seeing where people are coming from and minimizing friction along the way.

What habit or practice helps you manage stress?

Every few days, I go on long music walks to decompress. I’ll listen to an album or two front to back while walking around. It creates this sensory experience that I find really soothing and quietly epic. Some albums I’ve been walking with lately are Put Your Back N 2 It by Perfume Genius, Historian by Lucy Dacus, Little Creatures by the Talking Heads, and Suddenly by Caribou. 

For more Career Q&As, click here, or you can check out my monthly newsletter.

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