In this episode of Entrepreneurs for Good, I speak with wHub founder Karen Farzam about the work that she has been engaged with developing a community of entrepreneurs in Hong Kong and in changing the perceptions of women (and girls) in STEM and tech through conversations with academics and families.
It is a journey that had no plan, has had several iterations, but over the course of the last few years has grown tremendously, and I hope you enjoy our conversation about the work that she is doing.
About the Entrepreneurs For Good Series
Through this series, we speak with Asia based entrepreneurs whose mission it is to bring solutions to the environmental, social, and economic challenges that are faced within the region to learn more about their vision, the opportunities they see, and challenges that they have had to overcome.
It is a series that we hope will not only engage and inspire you, but catalyze you and your organizations into action. To identify a challenge that is tangible, and build a business model (profit or non) that brings a solution to the market.
About Karen Farzam
Karen Contet Farzam is the co-Founder of WHub, Hong Kong’s biggest startup community. She is a community builder, connector and passionate about Tech and Startup.
Karen is a founder and board member of the FinTech Association of Hong Kong, international speaker (Vivatech, Web Summit, RISE,), a French Foreign Trade Advisor, ambassador of the FrenchTech, community leader for Techstars and mentor for several accelerator programs.
Driven by the belief that change begins with a single step, Richard Brubaker has spent the last 15 years in Asia working to engage, inspire, and equip those around him to take their first step. Acting as a catalyst to driving sustainability, Brubaker works with government, corporate, academic and non-profit stakeholders to bring together knowledge, teams, and tools that develop and execute their business case for sustainability.
Full Interview Transcript
Welcome back everybody, Rich Brubaker. I’m here with Karen here, who has started a couple of organizations here in Hong Kong. A Hub platform for startup entrepreneurs, but also she started or was part or core to the woman’s echo system here. Fantastic conversation about her own journey as an entrepreneur, but then also aspiring and learning from that process. So, thank you very much Karen, this has been fantastic.
KAREN: Thank you very much.
RICH: So thank you very much for joining us. I really appreciate your time. I know this is a busy city. You’re a busy person. Do me a favor and give me a little of your background and what you do in Hong Kong.
KAREN: Ok, so I am French. I grew up in Tokyo and I’m an engineer, studied computer science. I moved back to Tokyo for JP Morgan to be an creative electric trader. Then moved to Hong Kong, switched to web development and build my own startup.
RICH: Before you made the jump, do you spend time with the ecosystem at all? Or was it a complete like there’s a whole different pool and I’m going to jump in. What was your process to get into this?
KAREN: Basically, totally randomly we, the co-founder and myself, met a lot of entrepreneurs and they were so passionate about what they do that you know, we were like ok it seems they need a lot of help to recruit or to get new users, early adapters. How can wee help them based on the passion that they have? Because when you hear an entrepreneur, you want to help. You’re totally into it. So that’s why we build Whub
HONG KONG STARTUP SCENE
RICH: What are some of the things you’ve seen over the time since you started that because when you started it was a very different time. How have the needs changed? Was your first idea the right one?
KAREN: No, my first idea was definitely not the right one. We iterated a lot like every startup. You really need to be flexible, but in terms of the ecosystem. So when we started them it might have been maybe one event per week. Less than 10 co-working spaces. We didn’t really know who was doing what. Which is really why we build Whub. We are not talking about syntax or edutech or anything, it was more just about tech to start with. People were saying that 3 years ago there was about 1,000-2,000 startups and on the platform we have like 1,700 startups. Just ya know, on our own platform. It means that it grew so much over 3 years, it’s just amazing.
RICH: How many of those startups are going to be foreign backed? How many of them are going to be local,Hong Kong backed? Is there a difference between the two in terms of their own, like the access to resource or the challenge that they face?
KAREN: So when you are looking at the ecosystem you feel like there is about 50% local and 50% foreigners. I think we all face the same challenge. The difference is where you want to expand whether you want to go to China because you have your own connections or whether you want to go to Southeast Asia. Because at the end, Hong Kong is just a spring board for something else and a good place to ya know, start, iterate and test your product or service.
RICH: Why not just go into Shanghai, Beijing where they have a real deep….
KAREN: I agree. I think if your end goal is to target China, you need to go and start directly in China. But you know sometime its a matter of also connection, and who you meet that will lead you to once place or another.
WOMEN WHO CODE
RICH: So you are the founder of Woman Who Code. Tell me a little bit about what that is and why you started that.
KAREN: So basically I switched from you know, really financial background, into web development. I attended when I started a lot of web development events and there was like 50 guys and 2 women. So we were just really were wondering where all the girls were because there must be like more than that. That’s why we founded Women Who Code.
RICH: So what is it..like how were you trying to promote, or what were you doing to maybe build the ecosystem and what’s the output sense?
KAREN: Basically for Women Who Code is was really here in Hong Kong about bringing more women into web development. Because you know its the sectors that is really booming, a lot of job opportunities and a lot of women who were considering it. They wanted to have more information about it. So they came to us and that’s where the knew their first started to code and learn about new things. So that’s really how it got started. Then it was also going to universities and talking to students. Because it needs to change from there as well.
RICH: Ok, sorry. It’s a little bit younger than say…what I would see in the press about women and tech and the challenges that women face.
KAREN: Yeah because Women in tech was more studied in Europe or US where you have more mature system, but here tech was just starting so it was a little bit different.
CULTURAL (&OTHER) BARRIERS TO WOMEN
RICH: So, what was some things that you found maybe in the education system, or in the culture or in general that were holding women back from getting into.
KAREN: I think at the end, we need to education the parents. You know that actually it’s good to have your daughter try to code, maybe it’s not for her and it’s totally fine with it, but just to try and you know to think that it’s not only for boys. I think that this thing even when it’s high school and you have a coding class and suddenly it’s like 99% guys. That’s really a problem for me. I never felt any discrimination here in Hong Kong or in Asia. The truth is that you have less women studying STEM class anyway, in general. So it’s more about telling them that they can try it, but it can also be for them. They need to have more roll models.
RICH: What do you think is behind that? Because in many it’s up to the individual to sign up for the classes in school, right? So why do you think that there’s a disparity? Is it?
KAREN: I think it’s just this pressure that we have without even knowing it. It’s always there and you feel like it’s just not for you. I think that’s one thing. It’s how the media also advertise. When you have a women you know raising 20-30 million for a startups the title is like “a woman in tech raised like money.” It’s not like…whoa, there is a new startup with this amazing product that just got released. You know, it’s all about the fact that it’s a women. That for me is really an issue.
TACTICS FOR BETTER ENGAGEMENT
RICH: So, like at the tactic level, how are you trying to deliver that to the communities that you are trying to reach? Like what was the things that worked really well?
KAREN: I think going to talking to university works well. Even when you’re talking to 50% and only one them you know after that is writing to you saying oh this was great I’m going to look into it. I was not sure I could try, but this is something that could change. You have the Woman foundation which is doing an amazing job. You have a lot of small communities that are really making a big impact. I just think that it takes time. It’s difficult.
KNOWING WHEN TO ITERATE
RICH: So when you got started albeit with the hub or with the network, did you have a plan for either one? Like how, like what were the things that you started off doing and how did you know when you need to iterate?
KAREN: So for womanhood there was absolutely no plan. It was just like there must be more woman in tech or codding somewhere, let’s try and grab them. Thanks to Facebook. So this was one thing.
For Whub, it was more like about really gathering a community and trying to showcase all this passion for entrepreneurs. Then we ya know expanded with like job opportunities. We did talent database with an event we were organizing and more partnership. It’s always about you know, finding new way to reach more people.
RICH: How do you do that? You know because you mentioned Facebook. But in both cases there communities that are surrounding that for support. How did you, what were some of the things that you did that really worked to bring community into your cause or onto your platforms.
KAREN: That’s a good question. That’s a very good question. I don’t know. We organized alot of events. We were very present within the different communities here in Hong Kong. There were like small communities, but they were all very fragmented. For us it was more like how can we bring it all together. Without doing what they were doing. How did we do that? I cannot have a real answer. It’s time.
It’s like ok, for example. I’m a runner and I think what makes a difference is being very consistent. I think it’s exactly the same thing. You are consistent week after week. You keep trying. You keep pushing. You keep making new connections and trying to bring very great content. You need to make a difference. It’s not just the talking, but really doing something that can help people, in real. I think that’s really what makes a difference and really that why you know, people came to us and how we grew also.
RICH: Are there certain things that you have to remain consistent on all the time and some things that you can….
KAREN: There are some things that you can pivot. I mean for example, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn. You need to try them and see. You cannot do it all. It’s impossible. It’s way too much work. So you need to try them and see which one will work. Which one won’t work and for like which purpose. Then you can just push it so definitely you’re not doing the same thing again. It’s about really having KPI from the start knowing what you are going after from the beginning. Otherwise you will feel like you are always getting it.
RICH: Like if you just have Facebook, you’re developing your community. What are the some of things you did early and look back like, oh wow that was really not helpful. But then what are the things you did that you actually started to learn. Like what were the key lessons from there?
KAREN: I think we tried a lot of different things, different type of inspiration of talks or tagging and some of them really didn’t work. I think also in terms of blogging, so like we switch at tome point to medium instead of having our own we have help also to promote. I think it’s really having a strong branding that people can recognize from the start. And it’s evolve (??? 10:46) When I look at the first design of the website I’m like oh my God!
LEARNING FROM FAILURE
RICH: So, need to learn. What was the biggest I mean, learn from failure. What was your failure that you think that you learned the most from?
KAREN: I think sometimes you need to learn to say no. Because at the end of the day, it’s just 24 hours a day. I have two kids and you cannot say yes to every event, every coffee, every lunch, every new connection. You cannot do it. So you need to learn to say no. You need to learn to delegate not to do everything by yourself. Because when we start, I mean when I start my co-founder so we really doing everything. Which was great because it’s the best way to learn and to you know, to try to get it right. But then you know you grow, you have a team so something’s you need to let go, you need to trust people they do it in a different way. You need to say no.
RICH: What does balance mean to you?
KAREN: The good thing I think about what I do now compared to trading is that I can do it from anywhere. So I just my laptop and that’s it. So I can go back home at 7, spend time with the kids and go back to work at 9. So this is really, really great in terms in finding balance and finding the right time to work. So I think now with new technology, you can definitely find it.
ADVICE TO ASPIRING ENTREPRENEURS
RICH: For anyone like watching this video, we have aspiring entrepreneurs, we have want-trepreneurs, we have mid career entrepreneurs who are trying to make their way through the weeds. What are like a few pieces of advice that you would give to someone about getting through it? About growing? About, ya know achieving, driving impact?
KAREN: I think first is that when you’re an entrepreneur you have a lot of people giving you advice. At the end you need to make up your own mind. it think that is one thing that is very important. Always list listen, but in the end it’s your decision and you have to be actually liable for it. So that’s really one thing.
Second thing, whatever you have in mind it’s going to take more time. Whatever you have in mind. But it’s good to have a target, ya know? That’s the second thing.
The third thing is, it’s really a rollercoaster. I mean you know people say it all the time I know. But it’s true. Sometimes like oh my God it’s amazing things are going so well and sometimes like why am I doing this? It’s never going to work. So I think what really makes a difference is to be surrounded by the right people. It’s life changing. My co-founder is also my best friend. My team its people that, we’ve met we had relation with and really grow together. There is a huge trust. We’re really going in the same direct. That’s what is the most important.
It’s really the people that surround you. When you are surrounded by amazing advisors or mentors or people that are really pushing you up, that makes a lot of the different. I know it’s what everybody says, but it’s true that and one thing I’ll tell you that you cannot do alone. It’s so hard. Being able to find the right partner for this is really key.
GETTING GOOD ADVICE
RICH: You mentioned advisors,. You mentioned giving good advice. Can you give me some insight to that? Because there is a lot of good advice that’s actually not applicable. How do you find your mentors? How do you find your advisors or do you really just pick and choose?
KAREN: It’s really about your good feeling. The one advisor that I have, the first day I met him it’s like we clicked so well. It was such a connection. He really saw exactly what I was going to do, the missing, where we were going to be in 5 years, the whole plan I had in my head, he saw it right away. So we have a really like deep connection. I don’t know it just works super well.
RICH: Then how much do you, how much information do you get about the business so he can make a good decision for you or give you, like do you give him the financials or…
KAREN: Yeah, I can share everything. You need to trust people. Also the thing is that when you’re talking to and advisor or somebody who’s like, they’re’ not as emotional about your business as you are. Because for you everything is so personal. So they can…how do you say in English when you step back and it’s good sometimes to speak to people that can step back from your business and say, ok take a deep breath an look at the whole picture. Where do you want to go? What do you want to do? That’s also what is important because when you’re working on it like all the time, sometimes you just need to breath a little bit.
RICH: If you’re gut doesn’t agree with what your advisor say?
KAREN: I won’t do it?
RICH: You won’t do it?
KAREN: No because at the end, it’s still my company right? I mean me and my co-founder of course, but at the end we take the decision. So advisor are there to advise, they are not there to run your company. So at the end as I was saying, it’s your decision.
RICH: Any last words you want to give to our aspiring entrepreneurs?
KAREN: I think being an entrepreneur is just really great, but I think also we need more people that join startups. Not all of us have the right ideas, the right time, and even though its really exciting to build your own company, there are still a lot of companies that are recruiting and that need talent and still be part of an amazing adventure by also joining a startup. It think that’s also really important as I was saying it’s all about the team. Like me, myself alone….like it just would never be this. It’s because of the people I’m surrounded with. It’s really important.
RICH: Anything you would say differently to a woman entrepreneur? Or an aspiring woman entrepreneur?
KAREN: It doesn’t matter if you are a woman or not. So that I think that’s really the first thing is like just don’t take it…right now, it’s good to be a woman because right now there is a lot of things to apply for, diversity so lets just embrace it and you know, go for it.
RICH: Thank you very much for your time.
KAREN: Thank you very much.
RICH: That was fantastic.
For more interviews from the “Entrepreneurs for Good” series, check out the playlist here.
Stay tuned for more clips and full interviews in the coming weeks.