As more businesses and people transition into remote working, we learn more about ways we can live and collaborate with one another while physically apart. Instead of work-life separation, we emerge into a paradigm of work-life integration. The camaraderie-building conversations now animate our screens in increasingly elaborate configurations of interfaces instead of convening around water-coolers, and remote work presents a portal to a realm where borders blur, collaboration defies distance, and opportunity transcends geographical bounds.
It’s clear that Ivy Xu lives and breathes this evolution - and has done for a while. Before remote work became equal parts public health imperative and social experiment, she founded companies dedicated to helping more people opt out of the office. BETA CAMP and Prequel create online entrepreneurship and mentorship programs for middle and high school students, while Asian Wander Women is a community and media company bringing together Asian women who wish to travel the world while working remotely.
Amidst a calendar otherwise packed with calls, Xu sips on tea while lounging on a mustard yellow ottoman against the backdrop of the clear blue Californian skies just outside the window. We’re sitting together in the sunlight-and-movie-poster-filled living room of Lighthaus, the home where she currently lives with her husband Owen and her friend Jon, who purchased and furnished the home to be a live-work-event space.
For Xu, this is both a departure and arrival of sorts. Shaped by her experience of living in various parts of the world, she finds the concept of ‘home’ to be slippery. “Whenever someone asks me where I’m from, it’s super hard to answer,” she muses. Born in Beijing, China, Xu moved to Ottawa in Canada when she was four. After graduating college, she worked in San Francisco for about three years, before beginning to travel and work remotely in 2018.
Becoming a digital nomad
In her early twenties, when it seemed like everyone was trying to establish careers, Xu decided she no longer wished to be one in a sea of thousands of non-engineer tech workers in Silicon Valley on the same path to becoming managers a few years out of school, learning the same skills, values, and practices.
Her initial foray into global independence began with three months driving a camper van around New Zealand. She had no obligations, internet connection, or lamplight - each day, she went to sleep with the setting sun. This period of untethering from her previous ties made her desire more stimulation and connection, which brought her to China to see grandparents, friends, and colleagues.
She was also keen to learn about business and culture from different perspectives, and see how people were connecting in new ways. She wrote an article about Unicorn companies in China that went viral; explored how Japan is addressing its aging population; and how Portugal is accommodating remote workers in Lisbon. Her travel itinerary unfolded with each new person she met and the directions they pointed her in: Bali, Hong Kong, Tel Aviv, Kenya, Hawaii.
“So many people see the world now, but I think very few people go deep on learning from that experience and thinking about what you can bring across different cultures, how to be a translator across borders, and what’s possible with the internet as leverage.”
Building businesses that transcend the traditional
Xu first started BETA Camp, a virtual entrepreneurship bootcamp, for her little sister, as a way to show her the possibilities available to her. She wanted her to see the pathways that aren’t always made apparent in high school or college, like those that exist in tech industries around the world, or in starting a business.
That first summer, what was initially just meant for her sister and her friends became a cohort of 75 students. Xu describes them as the “children of immigrants who think that grades are everything. Kids who are ambitious but don’t know what they’re ambitious about yet.”
BETA Camp was there to show them that they could create their own way. Because, thanks to the internet, they were no longer confined by traditional boundaries like geography or culture. Even education had been set free - they didn’t have to get into an Ivy League school to access the best teachers. BETA Camp and Prequel were proof of that.
But with all this freedom, organization is still important. Xu has learned that the key to success is finding the right balance between flexibility and structure for students and staff.
For Prequel that means team-building rituals like one-to-one meetings, a monthly all hands, and an annual get together. Xu has met all of her teammates, most of whom are digital nomads themselves.
With Asian Wander Women, Xu hopes to help a growing group of people who aspire to be digital nomads. “There are thousands of people like us around the world - third culture kids,” she explains. These kids are part of the Taiwanese and Chinese diasporas. They grew up in North America, are career oriented, gravitate towards the tech industry, and are equally concerned with both their finances and their fertility.
She wants them to recognize that they’re not alone in their desire to take a different path. The group has engineers who became artists. It’s helping people to navigate a life path they didn’t previously think was possible.
“We’re not just traveling, we’re trying to build this life where we can be financially and geographically independent, and work on whatever we want to work on. It’s easy to burn out as a constant tourist but you can create your own meaning in your travels and career.”
When you think young digital nomad, you might imagine someone jet setting around the world, but Xu is looking to do something more focused, constructive, and sustainable. The group has grown organically, and she expects to remain in touch with its members, for all of them to grow up alongside each other, wherever the next decade takes them, on and offline.
Freedom with, not from, connections and responsibility
Autonomy as a worker intertwines with autonomy in the rest of Xu’s life. She’s found ways to integrate work and life in complementary ways, rather than to compartmentalize them. “Freedom means being able to be somewhere without being locked in,” she reflects. “I do want to stay longer in each place to establish roots with deeper relationships and hobbies that I don’t give up.”.
To get grounded in new places she establishes routines for working out, grocery shopping, cafes, and hobbies - whether it’s salsa in Mexico or surfing in Hawaii. Xu says she likes learning new things that are connected to the place she’s staying but admits she finds it hard leaving them behind.
The cadence of her travels reminds me of the ways birds take off with the seasons, instinctively moving between migrating and rooting. It’s been a long journey since Xu’s initial travels in New Zealand. After some experimenting, she’s figured out that her ideal arrangement entails three months in each place, in order to strike the balance between freedom and connection. This year, she is trying to establish home bases in San Francisco and Lisbon.
“Now that I’ve come back to Silicon Valley, I feel like people are working on much more interesting things,” she says, pointing to her housemate Jon, who works on self-driving cars at Waymo. During a photoshoot at Tunnel Top Park, a space that is emblazoned with wildflowers, she takes behind-the-scenes pictures, joking that this is her #girlboss moment.
“The concept of home is wherever you want it to be, where your friends are,” she says.
In conversation with Xu, a natural tension that seems to emerge is one between pure freedom and pure commitment, balancing autonomy and accountability. In her work with Asian Wander Women, Prequel, and BETA Camp, she shows people they can access new paths and create meaning of their own, just by stepping beyond their immediate perspective. This can change the trajectories of their lives, as it has changed hers. The key is in not forgoing commitments altogether, but finding new and more meaningful ones.
“You are going to find your place in the world eventually,” she said.