March Magic Memories: Jenny 8. Lee
A multi-year veteran of SXSW, Jenny 8. Lee founded Plympton, Inc in 2011. This literary studio focuses on publishing serialized fiction for digital platforms and its investors include Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian, and Y Combinator partner Garry Tan. She previously served as a journalist for the New York Times and in 2008 she authored a book about Chinese food in the United States titled “The Fortune Cookie Chronicles.” Lee is also a vice-chair of the Unicode Emoji Subcommittee, which governs this medium of communication. Inspired by the universality of the dumpling across many different cultures and cuisines (e.g., gyoza in China, ravioli in Italy, pierogi in Poland, empanadas in Argentina), she helped to make the dumpling emoji a candidate.
In 25 words or less, what do you currently do?
I run Plympton, a literary studio. I produce films. I co-lead a seed investments fund on AngelList. And I’m an emoji activist.
What did you want to be when you grew up? How has that changed?
When I was a kid, I wanted to be an investment banker. I grew up in New York City and this was before ibanks were a thing! My dad worked at Morgan Stanley, and I’d read a library picture book about how investment banks help build economies with railroads. I majored in applied math and economics at Harvard, but ended up a journalist after college.
What’s a public passion project you are working on at the moment?
I’m trying to open up the emoji proposal process to be more representative through Emojination, an organization whose motto is “Emoji by the people, for the people.” We recently worked with a 16-year-old Saudi Arabian girl from Berlin to help shepherd the hijab emoji through the approval process.
What’s a secret passion project you are working on at the moment?
For years, I’ve been ruminating on creating a mythological allegory of the history of Silicon Valley. Instead of companies and CEOs, you have kingdoms and monarchs. And code bases are basically spellbooks. This is still many years off.
When did you first have a badge for SXSW? What memories do you have from that first experience?
I’d been wanting to go to this mythical SXSW for years before I was actually able to, especially the year they showed “I Love You, Man” which was inspired by my New York Times “man date” article. But I couldn’t attend, because of work or conflicts, until 2010. I cobbled together my first SXSW trip: bought a badge from someone on Craigslist and lucked into a hotel room from a friend who ended up sharing with someone else. I didn’t know anybody and I had no idea what I was doing when it came to parties or anything else. It was all so new. I remember the flying bats! To somebody coming from NYC, they were amazing to see.
What advice do you have for someone attending SXSW for the first time?
There’s a ton going on all the time, so the key is to trust serendipity. You can’t make it to every party you RSVP for, attend every talk you star (especially since they are so far apart now), or meet everyone you want to meet. I think the term FOMO was popularized because of SXSW! Just accept that every moment has its own potential, and that an interesting person or experience can be had exactly where you are. Another tip. If you’re interested in the presentations, individual speakers are on average stronger than panels, because they really own their presentations and have defined takeaways. Panels are best when you’ve been hoping to meet one of the speakers and can use the opportunity to talk to them afterwards.
What are your SXSW food recommendations?
Austin is an amazing food town — and I’ve seen a lot of food towns. Eating there is one of the highlights of my year. You have to go to Iron Works Barbeque to see and be seen; I love that they offer barbecue tofu during SXSW. For high-end dining, I enjoy Uchi; the waits are super long, but we once saw J. J. Abrams waiting for a table. For food trucks, I love the bánh mì sliders at the Peached Tortilla, owned by a former lawyer named Eric Silverstein. For dessert, it’s gotta be Gourdough’s. Only in Texas can you find a donut shop with a bilingual pun on gordo, Spanish for “fat guy”.
You’ve done a lot of work with SXSW over the years. What’s the most impactful project you’ve been involved in? What’s the most quirky?
Last year we received a $15,000 grant from Google’s public policy office and worked with SXSW to bring over 30 high-achieving entrepreneurs from underrepresented backgrounds to the event. We had folks from Mississippi, Louisiana, South Carolina, and even Trinidad and Tobago. SXSW has become more expensive over the years, but we were able to provide the entrepreneurs with badges so long as they found creative ways to lock down housing. We’re currently looking for a new sponsor, as Google’s policy priorities have understandably shifted under this administration. And as for the most quirky event, last year we held an emoji spelling bee!
What’s your most memorable SXSW event or talk?
SXSW generally overlaps with Pi Day, 3/14, but in 2015 we got to celebrate the Pi Moment, which only comes around once a century, on 3/14/15 at 9:26 pm and 53 seconds. Stephen Wolfram and company went all out: they had lots of little yummy pies spelling out π, a life-sized π to take selfies with, Raspberry Pis, stickers with Pi jokes, and a huge countdown board. Hundreds of people cheered when the Moment hit. It was such a marvelous celebration of geekdom, and my friends were awed to meet a mathematical celebrity up close.
What’s the best way for startups to leverage the SXSW platform?
The startups programming has really grown over the years, thanks in large part to Chris Valentine’s work with the SXSW Accelerator Pitch Event. Talk to everyone you can, and ask for intros to other people you should talk to. Go to presentations and talk to the presenters you’re interested in. Attend events and parties and meet people. People go to SXSW to make connections, so a lot of serendipity happens. Most people there like helping startups, even if there’s nothing in it for them but a favor down the road. I have a friend who thought he was just telling a few random people about his startup a few years ago; one of them liked the idea and introduced him to Mark Cuban — who eventually invested in his company. As a startup founder, never forget that a lot of investors are there to meet people just like you.
What is the funniest SXSW-related rumor you’ve ever heard?
That Obama stopped at Torchy’s for tacos on his way to his SXSW keynote in 2016. It was true!
You’ve been to SXSW for both Interactive and Film?
For many years I went mainly for Interactive, but 2017 was the first year I was officially involved with Film. I was the executive producer for “Dara Ju” (to be released as “The Price”), directed by Anthony Onah. And I was an associate producer on the documentary “Chasing Coral,” directed by Jeff Orlowski. Next up is to see whether I have a legitimate reason to attend SXSW Music.
What makes SXSW unique among the major annual film festivals?
One of the can’t-miss aspects of SXSW in recent years is enjoying the build-outs (“activations” in marketing speak) of major TV shows. The shows go all out. Bates Motel built an entire motel replica on an empty lot. Preacher built an upside-down chapel for its launch. HBO always sets up something extraordinary. It’s been a lot of Game of Thrones recently: Bravos’ Hall of Faces, and The Wall in full virtual reality — complete with a vibrating platform as you go up in the lift, and frigid winds as you take in the view beyond.
Speaking of television content, binge-watching is all the rage right now. Any recommendations?
I watched 13 Reasons Why on Netflix in one weekend. Marvelous performances from a young cast, and strongly structured reveals. One of the show runners, Diana Son, is an Asian-American playwright who has known she’s wanted to be a playwright since she was 9 years old! I read The Handmaid’s Tale in high school, and it seemed abstract fiction at the time. Now, post-Taliban and under this administration, the Hulu series The Handmaid’s Tale is uncomfortably resonant, but in a good way. Definitely not stress-free entertainment. I’m curious to see how they’ll expand beyond where the book left off.
In your mind, what is the most-overrated or overhyped tech trend at present? Why?
Cryptocurrencies are probably most out of sync with the excitement surrounding them and the underlying execution of their infrastructure. The SEC just classified them as securities, and there are going to be a lot of complications as we sort out exactly how reporting, taxes, and trade actually work, especially if they’re going to be useful to mainstream finance. Their valuations have been volatile, so it’s been something of a bubbly Wild West. That said, this kind of overhyped froth is often the way great technologies are born — remember we once made fun of Webvan and Kozmo, but now we have Amazon Prime Now and Instacart.
In your mind, what is the most underrated or overlooked tech trend at present? Why?
I don’t know if it’s underrated, but CRISPR is in my opinion under-appreciated by the general public despite the gargantuan impact it will have. I don’t know if it’s a branding problem — the name is just so opaque — but the ability for a middle-class American to program DNA the way we program a computer today is coming sooner than we expect. And it’s going to completely change humans’ relationship with the world around them.
Over the years, you’ve done a lot of journalism-related work. In the age of Trump, is 2017 the absolute best time to be a journalist or the absolute worst? Why?
It reminds me of the famous so-called Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times.” (Which of course is not a Chinese phrase at all). It’s an absolutely galvanizing time to be a journalist, because we feel such a defining sense of mission to inform the public. But it’s probably the most difficult time to be a journalist as well. Journalists are under attack from an entire political wing, led by the President. Reporter Ben Jacobs was pushed to the ground and had his glasses broken by a Congressional candidate for persistently asking a question (his duty to our society). The phrase “fake news” has become a shorthand, overarching catchphrase to undermine media institutions across the political spectrum. Deep-pocketed billionaires are using litigation as a scare tactic. The Committee to Protect Journalists historically focused its attention overseas — Latin America, China, the former Soviet sphere — and it’s eerie to see those same problems arise here.
Back to the topic topic of emoji, which you earlier called your “public passion.” In the 21st century digital world, can emoji create cultural understanding in a way that other forms of communication can’t? Also, you currently serve on the Unicode emoji subcommittee. What’s the most interesting thing you’ve observed in this position?
Emoji are evolving to reflect all of human experience, not just the experiences of the technology élite they used to represent. The passion of various groups who want to be represented on the emoji keyboard was surprising to me. It was a big deal when we approved the hijab emoji for half a billion women — but we’ve also moved beyond the “male and female for every person” emoji and are releasing non-gender-binary emoji as well. Next year, redheads and bearded people will get their place on the emoji keyboard. Though maybe that means beards won’t be cool anymore.
Whether fancy places or relative dives, what are the most interesting Chinese restaurants in the United States?
Mission Chinese in San Francisco has some of the most creative dishes I’ve ever tasted and manages to remain authentically American Chinese food. I also love Louisiana’s Trey Yuen, which serves cajun-Chinese fusion. Where else can you find sweet and sour crawfish or Szechuan spicy alligator?
For non-Asian readers, can you explain the number that now serves as your middle name? Were you born with that middle name?
The number 8 is lucky in Chinese culture. Since I didn’t have a middle name growing up and a lot of other kids had middle initials, I adopted 8 as my middle name, long before the movie “Jennifer 8” was released or I wrote with a byline. People often ask, “Why the period after the 8? What’s ‘8’ short for?” Nothing — and it’s not a period; it’s a decimal point.
Hugh Forrest serves as Chief Programming Officer at SXSW, the world’s most unique gathering of creative professionals. He also tries to write at least four paragraphs per day on Medium. These posts often cover tech-related trends; other times they focus on books, pop culture, sports and other current events.
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