The founder of an early-stage startup that helps users reach their learning goals, Lily Ciric Hoffmann has a unique career path. She immigrated to the United States from Serbia and went to a community college, where she received an associate degree in multimedia. She hustled, receiving a bachelor's degree from Arizona State University and eventually produced an online package for a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation into Joe Arpaio at the East Valley Tribune.
Since then, she began working for herself. Hoffmann is a digital media consultant who leads workshops around the world, in addition to working as a college professor. Her latest project is Knewaira, an early-stage startup focused on helping users reach their learning goals.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Tell me about Knewaira (pronounced KNEW-AIR-A)
The name is a play on AI, or artificial intelligence. We’re trying to use AI to assist learning. I launched it with my sister who lives in Mountain View, California. She’s very tech-oriented:She has a doctorate in electrical engineering. I’m the communicator. Even geniuses need channels to communicate. The future of learning is changing, especially thanks to technology. We both found regardless of industries and what we’ve studied, these things are either no longer used or have shifted completely. Being adaptive, having a growing mindset and constantly learning is the norm these days. So we created Knewaira to help people transition into new careers. We have a beta — it’s two of us right now, we’re doing market research.
How did you make this happen, both from a financial standpoint and from a general one?
I’ll answer the money part first. I came to the moment to say, I no longer want to work full time. I had to be ready for that step financially. What I did while I worked full time — I tried to save as much as I could. Maybe I wasn’t understanding why I was saving. It worked out — now I see that I had a good savings.
It sounds glamorous and great. There are times where I work 24/7. If I work, I work. If I’m on vacation, I’m on vacation. Structure is so important. When you’re by yourself you need to be self-motivating. There’s no one doing it for you. It’s important to really explore and talk to people honestly and ask them what it’s like to work for themselves before you go and do it. It depends on what you want out of life. At some point I really think that when you want something, you may also lose something.
How do you structure your days so you stay on track?
Fridays are planning for the next week. I’m also taking two classes online. I signed up for a Coursera class and a Full Stack class. I set my own deadlines. If I work with my sister on our startup, we keep each other accountable. I also try to tell my husband to ask me where I’m at. You need to please someone that will keep you on track. I use Trello and I use Google Calendar to track what I’m doing. I’ve learned a lot about myself when it comes to freelancing. When you don’t keep busy, someone else keeps you busy. Online, and especially on messaging boards or in Facebook groups, I engage when I want to. I don’t engage when I feel like overwhelmed. I tune out, it’s fine.
I have a list of topics I’m interested in and that’s what I follow. That’s my personality — I’m curious. If I see something, I like to share it. I’m subscribe to newsletters on things like UX design, multimedia tools and coding. I glance at them in the morning. I compile things I find interesting or useful, and usually when a need for them arises, I have a tool on hand.
What is the most important advice you can share to women just starting out?
It’s probably the understanding that we’re all learning. I think a lot of us think that if I only get here, things will be fine. I only need to find that first job, etc. I think understanding earlier that things don’t end is helpful. It’s just a continuous learning process. It’s really true now. I realized that there is no shame in saying that I’m still learning. Things are really moving forward, so it’s important to understand and embrace that growing mindset.
Ed Note: An earlier version of this story said Hoffmann was a part of the team at the East Valley Tribune, where she and her team won a Pulitzer Prize for investigation into Joe Arpaio. To be clear, Hoffmann produced the online package for the Pulitzer Prize-winning story. Additionally, we added that Hoffmann attended Arizona State University before getting her job at the paper.
--Alicia McElhaney, She Spends Issue 47