Joseph Lam '13 is on a mission to help people around the world connect deeply with their loved ones.
The following is an interview with Joseph Lam, originally obtained for a story in the 2021–22 Convent & Stuart Hall Alumni Bulletin featuring alumni who are bringing fresh ideas to business and society.
What are one or two of your fondest memories of your time at Stuart Hall High School?
My fondest memories of Stuart Hall were all interactions with the teachers and staff — my adviser, Mr. Campos, college counselor, Mr. Guerrero, guidance counselor, Ms. Pomeranz, and Mr. O’Connor were some of the people who made a lasting impression on me. I felt more acknowledged, accepted and supported by them with all of my passions — both in school and outside of academics — than anyone else at the time. Looking back, they went above and beyond to care for me as a whole human being, and that is a priceless gift during the often turbulent times of high school.
Were you especially inventive as a child — drawn to building and creating things?
I wouldn’t have described myself as inventive, but curious and ambitious as a child. What brought me the most joy was learning about certain things and improving my skills. There were so many esoteric interests I dove headfirst into and would often let go of after a short time. These included magic tricks, archery and hacky sack, to name a few. I was a huge bookworm as a child and devoured books about science, especially biology.
What did you learn about being an entrepreneur while helping your uncle start a biotech company before going to college?
The most powerful lesson I learned from working with him was simply that building a business was possible. People working together can solve almost any problem, no matter how big the challenge. My uncle helped me gain that perspective.
When you reflect on your experience starting and growing Brainbuild while at Duke, what stands out?
After running it for over two years and giving it my all, having to shut that company down was one of the greatest wake-up calls of my life. I realized afterward how desperate I was to grow the business quickly, to make sure everything seemed to be successful on the outside, even though internally we didn’t have a sustainable business. I learned that chasing after the entrepreneurial dream would not solve any personal problems I had been dealing with all my life — my insecurities of not being good enough, of not being liked and accepted by my peers, not having a good relationship with my parents. You can never out-achieve trauma. If Brainbuild had not failed, I wouldn’t have gone on my inner journey of healing the pain from being bullied as a child and rebuilding my relationship with my parents, which I am eternally grateful for.
Briefly describe your career as a fencer. Are you still involved in the sport?
For over five years, throughout my time at Stuart Hall, I trained six days a week for 49 weeks of the year. I brought home over 50 medals, eight of which were national medals. The gift fencing gave me was the awareness that I could learn and improve almost any skill, so long as I put in the effort. I’m no longer fencing and instead put all of that physical energy into circus arts. Now, I train as a hand balancer.
What inspired you to start Parents Are Human? Is there a moment of inspiration or anecdote you’d be willing to share?
For the last few years, the most important priority in my life has been healing the broken relationship I had with my immigrant parents for over 12 years. Growing up, I took my stresses and frustrations out on my mom and dad, and there was nothing in the world that I felt more guilty about. When I hit rock bottom after I shut Brainbuild down, I realized that I needed to rebuild my relationship with my parents, otherwise, I’d regret it for the rest of my life. My mom and dad were getting older, and I wanted to get to know them before it was too late. In 2019, my friend and I discovered that a simple card game could be the ideal tool to start these critical conversations, which often feel too daunting and awkward to start.
Now, I’m on a mission to help people around the world connect deeply with their loved ones. I want to normalize working through challenging family dynamics and make the process easier, especially in immigrant families with significant language, cultural and generational gaps.
If you’d like to read more about the journey I went through, I’ve spent hundreds of hours documenting what I did and what I learned on our Parents Are Human blog.
What are some of the responses you’ve heard from families who have played your card game?
I’ve been consistently blown away by what people have accomplished using our cards and receive heartfelt stories every week. Many customers say that they learn more about their parents in one session than they have in their entire lives. One card can easily lead to 2–3 hours of conversations.
You can read some of our favorite stories of how Parents Are Human has transformed family relationships on the bottom of our website: parentsarehuman.com
From the idea stage to bringing a product or service to market, what advice would you give to current students who want to start a business that solves a meaningful problem?
Finding product and market fit is one of the hardest things to achieve, and I was so naïve to think that I’d build a sustainable business with the first idea that I had. My advice would be to fail as quickly as possible — the market will tell you whether you have product and market fit or not, and it’s black and white. It will feel like the market is pulling a rug out from underneath your feet faster than you can keep from falling. If you’re questioning whether there’s product and market fit, you probably don’t have it, and this can happen at any stage of the business. To embrace what’s not working instead of what is, is one of the greatest entrepreneurial skills that took me years to learn.
What’s next for you?
For Parents Are Human, I’m focused on building a team to reach more families, languages and cultures worldwide.
For my parents, I’m focused on helping them improve their health, develop more upper body strength and manage their finances, so they don’t have to worry anymore and can enjoy retirement.