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True Stories of Starting Up: A Q&A with Two-Time Tongan Olympian Pita Taufatofua

After his bold entrance to the Rio 2016 Summer Olympics, memorably glistening with coconut oil and wearing only a traditional Tongan mat and shark tooth necklace, many think of Pita Taufatofua as the “Shirtless Tongan.”

As the first taekwondo athlete to represent Tonga at the Olympics, his athletic journey is equally memorable. After his Olympic debut in 2016, he returned to the Olympics two years later at the 2018 Winter Games in PyeongChang, representing Tonga in an entirely new sport. This time, he chose something uncommon in his tropical homeland: cross-country skiing.  

The two-time, multi-sport Olympian came from humble means. Born in Australia, Taufatofua’s family moved to Tonga when he was an infant, where he grew up. Despite being “physically small” as a child, he worked hard and fought through tough injuries. Through his determination, resilience, and talent, he turned his dream of becoming an Olympian into a reality.

These values—hard work and grit—are ones all aspiring entrepreneurs must learn to successfully pilot, launch, and scale their ideas. That’s why we’re thrilled to hear Taufatofua speak during the “True Stories of Starting Up” plenary session of Solve at MIT on Friday, May 18. We connected with him to learn more.

1) What inspired you to join Solve at MIT?

As an engineering graduate, I always saw MIT as the pinnacle technology university. The idea that this prestigious institution could bring together the best minds from around the globe to solve the world’s problems was inspiring. It offered an opportunity to be a part of something greater.

2) What are you most interested in discussing during “True Stories of Starting Up?”

My talk will focus largely on the mindset needed to succeed. It will teach people to see their failures not as negatives, but instead as milestones. I’ll encourage listeners to persevere through difficult times knowing that the harder the challenge, the closer the goal.

3) Drawing from your athletic career, how can Solve’s community build resilience and determination in their pursuits to change the world?

Athletics is just a vehicle in which a story can be told. The mechanics of success are universal, whether you’re an athlete, a scholar, an entrepreneur, or a musician. We can treat success and failure in exactly the same way; both are positive movements towards your life path. By removing the fear of failure, people are much more able to express their full potential.

When the Solve community sees that failure is nothing but a step in the right direction, they will be much more fearless in their pursuits to change the world. Once we remove the brakes, we stop avoiding failure. Instead, we create a roadmap that expects and embraces it.

To hear remarks from Taufatofua and a host of other inspiring speakers, livestream our inspirational plenary sessions here.


Two-time Tongan Olympian Pita Taufatofua waves the Tongan flag at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. (Photo courtesy of Pita Taufatofua)

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