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Entrepreneurship

Women on Top in Tech – Morgan Berman, Founder/CEO at MilkCrate

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(Women on Top in Tech is a series about Women Founders, CEOs, and Leaders in technology. It aims to amplify and bring to the fore diversity in leadership in technology.)

Here is our interview with Morgan Berman, Founder/CEO of MilkCrate. Morgan is a multidisciplinary designer with experience in architecture, UX design, urban planning, digital and 3d art, blog writing, and homegrown meals. Her focus is on growing sustainable thinking in urban contexts, particularly her hometown of Philadelphia. She was listed by the UN Foundation as one of the “Top 10 Female Entrepreneurs to Watch” in the world and invited to the White House for Clean Energy Plan talks. Last year she also joined the World Economic Forum as a Global Shaper to help advance social entrepreneurship in Philadelphia

What makes you do what you do?
I am an optimist. And I am optimistic about the upswing in a worldwide sustainability movement and with it the seismic shift in international business practices and the engines of commerce. Over centuries we have generated so much profit, so many advances and opportunities in equal measure with waste, inequality, and pollution. But now? Within the S&P 500, 82% of companies are reporting on sustainability and the number one factor for a millennial selecting a new job is the chance to make a difference in the world. Times have changed.

We are no longer allowing the way we used to do things to dictate how we will do them today or tomorrow. “Doing business as usual” is no longer an acceptable excuse or curtain to hide any manner of social or environmental sins. Now business is expected to be transparent and proactive. The men and women who drive these businesses believe in this wholeheartedly. I am excited by them. I am driven by them. MilkCrate’s team and business model are devoted to building a platform to spur this growth faster, ever more productively.

On a less philosophical, more day-to-day level – I love design. I enjoy the aesthetic and logical problems that come with developing software and a brand. I also love the struggle of building a team that is coherent, productive and fun. The art of running a startup is not enough, but it is a big part of why I do what I do.

And of course, I love a challenge. The odds are so against me, and against us for so many reasons. As a woman raising capital the odds are against me. As a first-time tech founder, the odds are against me. As a startup of any kind, the odds are against me. These are exactly the kind of odds I thrive against. I’ve gotten more in touch with this quality of mine through my newfound love of training and competing in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. My experience with this sport has been transformative and by far the best thing I’ve ever done for my mental health and sense of self … particularly during the arduous journey of company creation. This martial art renews me, renews my energy and my spirit.

The biggest lessons you can learn as a new jiu jitsuka is that you must accept that you learn through failure and that the only way to succeed, to win, is to rely on a strong mental calm and experienced technique. The dynamics of the sport are designed to level the playing field, so that any natural strength, size or aggression are not an asset. The sport demands experience and technique above all else. I can and have beaten people larger, stronger, and more aggressive than me. I am relying on skills which I am slowly building by training with teammates who have done this much longer than I have. That’s it. That’s the ‘secret’.

These lessons are perfectly applicable to running a startup. The people who become black belts are the white belts who never quit. The people who build successful companies are the ones who never give up. From my practice of this sport, I have learned that I love pushing through and finding that next level of resolve, of learning, and of grit.

How did you rise in the industry you are in?

After enduring my first quarter century ‘what am I doing with my life’ crisis, I was inspired to shift my focus to a cause that would employ my leadership and design talents, just as I had in college. Sustainable Design felt like the right combination of serving my city and our planet while getting back to the work that could nourish me personally.

The development of my daily sustainable actions was not an easy path – learning how to eat local food, or compost with worms – it took effort, knowledge, and motivation – all of this opened my eyes to an important if not obvious realization: If everyone was going to start living their values there had to be an easy, communal way to do it. Writing my grad school thesis, this realization morphed into a business, into MilkCrate. Later, after we learned about the huge need for employee engagement and CSR data tracking in the corporate world, I blinked again, took a deep breath and made a radical business model pivot, one that launched us into the B2B software world.

I knew I would need help with the tech so I did some research on tech meetups and learned about Code for Philly – this was how I entered the startup community for the first time. The people I met there helped me find other places to network and find the teammates that would eventually help me build my company.

Why did you take on this role/start this startup

Usual? What’s usual? I had something like 11 jobs between college and graduate school until I started my company. I have had an unusually large range of experiences working for others, learning what I can do, like to do, and what I can’t and don’t want to do. I’ve learned that I am best employed when I am leading a group, and I’ve been leading in one way or another all my life. Junior year my high school labeled each of my classmates with one unique quality. Mine? ‘Outspoken’. I was the President of Student Government. Later I got a degree in Women’s Studies where I obsessed over the suffragists and their movement’s leadership. Now I compete in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.

I have always gone after challenges that require being bold while bringing people together. I just have. Everything else is boring. In addition to more typical leadership roles, I was also co-President of my high school theater troupe, where I learned to be comfortable speaking in front of large groups. I actually love public speaking now. I enjoy weaving a story, connecting with the audience, and building people’s enthusiasm for what we are doing. It feels great. So while I didn’t intend to turn MilkCrate into my full-time job at first, in hindsight it makes perfect sense. It marries my strengths as a leader and a designer, and my values around community and the environment.

Do you have a mentor that you look up to in your industries or did you look for one or how did that work?

Before MilkCrate I worked for a Professor at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, Seema Sonnad. She was obsessed with her work, and an avid athlete. I admired her and was a bit intimidated by her energy and aggression. She was physically petite but commanded so much force and attention, and she applied it to a career of prolific publication and success. I was in awe of her and her productivity. She was the one who pushed me to direct my energies and apply to a graduate school program that would marry my interests and values. I am forever grateful to her for hiring me and then pushing me out of the nest.

While I was in graduate school I sought out Neil Harner, Philadelphia University’s Director of Interactive Media. He offered to work with me on an Independent Study, mentoring me through the process of refining ideas for MilkCrate. He was the first digital product designer I ever knew. He helped me understand how crucial it was to better understand my users and their experience in order to best deliver an effective solution.

I knew I needed a crash course in startups and the Philly tech scene to find developers to help me with my vision – people like Matthew Grande, Ellen Weber, and Cory Donovan helped me navigate this world.

Later I found people who were building tech in the startup scene and building businesses with their products, people like Gunter Pfau from Stuzo and his partner Josh Skaroff (who I knew from summer camp!). They both helped me a lot with my business model planning and the product design. Gunter’s help played a crucial role in my decision to pivot MilkCrate to a B2B model.

Some of the best mentoring comes from peer leadership training programs I’ve done, like my cohorts from Leadership Philadelphia, the Ariane de Rothschild Fellowship, The Alliance of Female Entrepreneurs Fellowship, and the Environmental Leadership Program. These programs and people have helped me think about my own development and my company in new and essential ways. I strongly urge other founders to join programs like these to extend their network and skills.

These days I have a formal board of advisors, mostly investors, and founders who’ve either funded or built very successful tech companies and know how to help me navigate new challenges like sophisticated financial models, enterprise pricing and sales strategies, and strategic partnerships. I’m lucky to have a partner in life with an MBA and strong marketing and strategy experience I can talk to all the time about my company and call upon regularly for a second opinion.

Now as a leader how do you spot, develop, keep, grow and support your talent?

I look for people who are gutsy enough to want to work here, even if they don’t necessarily have experience or skills to back it up yet. They can be developed by drawing on their passion and persistence. The most important thing is to find people who really want to be here and for the right reasons: to make an impact, to grow and to learn, to be a part of a team, our team. I often have people reach out who are interested in joining the tech community or want to work for an impact focused business. Maybe they are looking for a job or they have a startup idea, whatever it is I try and be helpful either by making intros, giving feedback, or have just a cup of coffee to listen. I’ve been helped and encouraged so much by others, so I pass it on as often as I can. This has helped build relationships with folks that have either later come to work here or referred people that have worked here.

And someone joins the team it’s key that we are transparent and honest with each other. I spend a lot of time sharing things that other founders and supervisors might not. Like? How parts of our finances, what resources we are lacking, or mistakes I’ve made. Because I want the whole team to understand where we are and where we need to go. This way I enlist their pro-active help and understanding to get ‘there’. I can’t do it without them.

Do you consciously or unconsciously support diversity and why?

Yes, of course. The need and benefit is obvious to me. The opportunity to do more is everywhere if you choose to have the willingness to look. Last year we made a few changes after B Lab issued the “Inclusion Challenge.” A year later we continue to offer informational interviews to every qualified MilkCrate applicant born outside the US. Applicants who are newer to this country often have a smaller professional and social network, as well as different cultural norms or linguistic abilities that can create barriers to employment.

We are dedicated to welcoming these applicants to meet with us, learn about our company, and hopefully offer them a new relationship, if not also a spot on the MilkCrate team. We also compile resources for job seekers looking to work at a Philadelphia-based startup, or sustainability, or impact- focused company and share this information with every single job applicant.

This year we want to expand and improve on these initiatives. On the challenge of Inclusive Interviews – we are going to expand this to become Inclusive hiring – to capture the whole hiring process from beginning to end. This means we will find ways to cast a wider net when seeking new hires, as well as creating a diversity and inclusion manifesto that the whole team creates and commits to upholding. This will ensure we not only source, interview, and hire a diverse team but also by building an inclusive environment, we will retain these new teammates as well.

What is your take on what it takes to be a great leader in your industry and as a general rule of thumb

The most consistently identified trait I hear is determination and grit. And I have to say that this feels true to me. There have been so many moments when I could have given up, could have used an event like a teammate leaving or financial constraints or technical failures as a reason to give up, to close it down, to walk away. But then I remember how badly I want to solve a problem, or how much I love working with my team – and then I keep going. We keep going.

The other big rule that I don’t think gets said enough is that you have to be honest. Be honest with yourself, with your team, and with your KPI’s (Key Performance Metrics). What do I mean by being honest with yourself? Really know what motivates you and what your needs are. If you keep those aligned you are much more likely to work more effectively. Being honest with your team is crucial. Why? Because if they trust you they will stick with you in the scary times. And there will be many of those. And finally being honest with your KPI’s means knowing what success looks like and being honest with yourself and your team and your investors if you aren’t there yet. If you aren’t there yet, and you know it, then you can ask questions and test out new solutions. But if you hide your head in the sand you will just keep going down the wrong path.

Advice for others?

My first tip is always, always to find a good mentor. Find someone who has achieved some version of what you hope to achieve in business and then latch on to them. Tight.The second tip ties in with this. And what is it? Listen to your mentor! And listen to other’s who’ve been at this longer. They will almost certainly tell you to let go. Let go of your idea of what your solution is, and instead to spend more time understanding the problem you want to solve, and to really truly research existing solutions. I meet so many founders who are in love with a solution that maybe doesn’t have a real problem, or just as bad – a solution that already exists in a much more developed form that they haven’t bothered to find.

And then it’s the same stuff I’ve been taught and always heard, but all too often hard to believe or realize in the moment. Like: That it’s going to be okay no matter what. Stressing out is not going to help. Those things you tell yourself– or your mother tells you– it’s finally starting to feel less like a life and death struggle. But in the beginning? It really felt so serious.

And now? To deep breathe, like my dad always says. To enjoy this moment, this life, this business, because otherwise, why do it? So look for the joy and the happiness and the creativity in the process. Let that be the reason to keep doing, to keep going, to keep trying to hit a goal. To take the next step. The next meeting. The next phone call. To do the next interview. To make the next speech. Sit on the next panel. To pitch a room full of investors. To close a sale. But they are not the point. Absolutely not the point. All that definitely needs to happen. But it’s not what makes you want to keep doing it, what makes me want to do it. What is the most important skill to be a (hopefully) successful CEO? Face down your fear. Do not be afraid. Have fun. Keep going…

Learn more about MilkCrate

Callum Connects

Jason Feng, Co-Founder of Pillpresso

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Mr. Jason Feng is re-engineering the healthcare industry.

What’s your story?
I am an engineer at heart. I enjoy the process of problem solving and have been actively developing innovative solutions to existing problems. Me and my co-founder settled on the problem of poor medication adherence among the elderly. This was a problem which struck a chord with us because we all have loved ones who have to take multiple medications on a daily basis. The complex medication regimen, coupled with declining cognitive abilities of the elderly tend to exacerbate the lack of medication adherence, which may lead to disease relapse and hospital readmissions, ultimately increasing the burden to caregivers and the society.

What excites you most about your industry?
The problem of medication adherence is not a new one in the healthcare industry. In fact, lack of medication adherence is a well-researched problem in many countries. Solutions which have been developed to address this problem face three major issues:

  • Entrenched mindset within the healthcare system, many of which are used to and unwilling to change from the legacy systems which were implemented decades ago.
  • Complex nuances in healthcare delivery across different countries, making it hard to “copy” and “paste” solutions which have worked well in other areas.
  • Because poor medication adherence is multifactorial, and many solutions focus solely on a few aspects, and do not employ a holistic approach.

Nevertheless, entering this industry at this time excites me because we are in the midst of a global shift in healthcare models; one where the industry is moving away from a service-based model, towards a more value-based model. This shift means that traditional players such as insurance companies and pharmaceuticals are under increasing pressure from patients and payers to demonstrate the value of their products under real-world use. Medication adherence data is one crucial missing link in this puzzle to deliver better care to patients. Being able to build a business around these incumbents and pioneer a new way of care is something which I look forward to.

What’s your connection to Asia?
I am a Singaporean. Most of my experiences throughout my life have been in Asia.

Favourite city in Asia for business and why?
I have not worked in other Asian countries outside of Singapore, so I can’t comment on other Asian countries too much. Singapore has a relatively low barrier for starting a business, and all business rules and regulations are clear and transparent. The startup ecosystem is also rather comprehensive and easily accessible. Being a small country, Singapore has a very limited market for products and services. However, due to its size and efficiency, it serves as an excellent test bed for new ideas. Being a travel hub, travelling to other Asian countries is cheap and easy.

What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
Fail fast, fail often. The greatest lessons are never learnt through success.

Who inspires you?
Elon Musk

What have you just learnt recently that blew you away?
Successful launch of Falcon Heavy and the recovery of the 2 side cores. The way the 2 cores landed was like something you’d only see in CGI. Very well calculated.

If you had your time again, what would you do differently?
Applied for NOC (NUS Overseas College)

How do you unwind?
Go rock climbing.

Favourite Asian destination for relaxation? Why?
Nepal. I’m an outdoors guy. Being able to trek around the Himalayas is probably the best form of relaxation for me.

Everyone in business should read this book:
Creative confidence, by the Kelly Brothers

Shameless plug for your business:
Pillpresso is an award-winning health-tech startup that aims to improve medication adherence. We’re developing a medication management system that empowers seniors to manage their medicines independently and deliver proactive healthcare in the community through technology. Comprising individuals with complementary skills across business, engineering and medicine, our team is driven by a desire to improve healthcare and the human condition.

Grand Prize Winner of the 2017 Tech Factor Challenge
https://www.opengovasia.com/articles/8072-top-4-grand-prize-winners-for-3rd-edition-of-ageing-in-place-tech-challenge-announced-in-singapore

Grand Prize Winner of the 2015 Modern Aging
https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/business/3-teams-receive-s-125-000-of-seed-funding-for-elderly-friendly-i-8246318

How can people connect with you?
[email protected]

This interview is part of the ‘Callum Connect’ series of more than 500 interviews

Callum Laing is an entrepreneur and investor based in Singapore. He has previously started,
built and sold half a dozen businesses and is now a Partner at Unity-Group Private Equity and Co-Founder of The Marketing Group PLC. He is the author two best selling books ‘Progressive Partnerships’ and ‘Agglomerate’.

Connect with Callum here:
twitter.com/laingcallum
linkedin.com/in/callumlaing
Download free copies of his books here: www.callumlaing.com

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Entrepreneurship

Will Financial Liberalisation Trigger a Crisis in China?

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The People’s Republic of China (PRC) has been liberalizing its financial system for nearly 4 decades. While it now has a comprehensive financial system with a large number of financial institutions and large financial assets, its financial policies are still highly repressive. These repressive financial policies are now a major hindrance to the PRC’s economic growth.

The PRC is at the beginning of a new wave of financial liberalization that is necessary for supporting the country’s strong economic growth. The country’s leaders have already unveiled a comprehensive program of financial reform, which includes 11 specific reform measures in three broad areas: creating a level-playing field (such as allowing private banks and developing inclusive finance), freeing the market mechanism (such as reforming interest rate and exchange rate regimes and achieving capital account convertibility), and improving regulation.

But could financial liberalization lead to a major financial crisis in the PRC? What would be the consequences for financial stability as the PRC moves to further liberalize its financial system? If the PRC repeats the painful experiences of Mexico, Indonesia, and Thailand, then it might not be able to achieve its original goal of overcoming the middle-income trap.

International experiences of financial liberalization, especially those of middle-income economies, should offer important lessons for the PRC. In our new research, based on cross-country data analysis, we find that financial liberalization, in general, reduces, not increases, financial instability. This powerful conclusion is valid whether financial instability is measured by crisis occurrence or by fragility indicators, such as impaired loans and net charge-offs. The only exception is that financial liberalization does not appear to significantly lower the probability of systemic banking crises, although it does lower the risk indicators for banks. These results have higher statistical significance and are greater in magnitude for the middle-income group than for the entire sample.

The insignificant impact on banking crises, however, should be interpreted with caution. One of the possible explanations is that under the repressed financial regime, the government supports banks with an implicit or explicit blanket guarantee. This reduces the probability of an explicit banking crisis, although the banking risks may be even greater because of the moral hazard problem. In fact, government protection of banks could also increase the probability of a sovereign debt crisis or even a currency crisis before financial liberalization.

If financial liberalization significantly reduces the likelihood of financial crises, especially in middle-income economies, then why did some middle-income economies experience financial crises following liberalization? We further investigate whether the pace of liberalization, the supervisory structure, and the institutional environment matter for outcomes of financial liberalization.

We obtain three main findings. First, an excessively rapid pace of financial liberalization may increase financial risks. The net impact on financial instability depends on the relative importance of the “liberalization effect” and the “pace effect.” In essence, what the “pace effect” captures could simply be the prerequisite conditions and reform sequencing that are well discussed in the literature. Second, the quality of institutions, such as investor protection and law and order, also matter. International experiences indicate that investor protection can significantly reduce the probability of financial crises. Third, the central bank’s participation in financial regulation is helpful for reducing financial risks during financial liberalization. This is probably because central banks always play central roles in financial liberalization, especially in the liberalization of interest rates, exchange rates, and the capital account. If a central bank is responsible for financial regulation, its liberalization policies might be more cautious and prudent.

Our research findings offer important policy implications for the PRC. (1) Further financial liberalization is necessary not only for sustaining strong economic growth but also for containing or reducing financial risks. (2) Gradual reform may still work better than the “big bang” approach, and sequencing is very important for avoiding the painful financial volatilities that many other middle-income countries have seen. (3) The government should also focus more on improving the quality of other institutions, especially market discipline, to contain financial risks. (4) It is better for the central bank to participate in financial regulation. The new regulatory system should focus exclusively on financial stability and shift from regulating institutions toward regulating functions. It should also become relatively independent to increase accountability.

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About the Author 

This submitted article was written by  and  of Asia Pathways, the blog of The Asian Development Bank Institute was established in 1997 in Tokyo, Japan, to help build capacity, skills, and knowledge related to poverty reduction and other areas that support long-term growth and competitiveness in developing economies in the Asia-Pacific region.

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