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Women on Top in Tech – Samantha John, Co-Founder of Hopscotch Technologies

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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 Samantha John, Co-Founder of Hopscotch. Hopscotch is a programming tool for kids and the first programming language designed for a touch screen device. Samantha John studied Applied Mathematics, English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. She fell in love with programming during her senior year. Since then, she’s been on a mission to introduce every kid to this amazing skill.

What makes you do what you do?
I think there are a few reasons. On a personal level, it’s a lot of fun to run your own company and to get to be your own boss. For me, it’s very empowering and fulfilling. On a broader level, I very much believe in our mission, to introduce to the younger generation the power of computing and try to change the way people interact with how they think about computers. So that they don’t just think of it as a machine that delivers them videos, it is also a tool that they can use to extend their own capabilities and extend the power of their minds. The fact that we are working towards the future through our own small way, feels very fulfilling to me. In terms of where I do want spending my time and my energy.

How did you rise in the industry you are in?
I started my professional life as a programmer. My very first job was in QA, I was testing software by going through website to figure out if there are any bugs in it. I’ve worked as a software developer, software engineer for a couple of years, and finally felt that I understood the software development process well enough.

My cofounder and I had worked out a few different ideas together, none of which had been super exciting tasks — at least nothing had been exciting enough to make us feel that we were ready to go all out and quit our jobs and do full-time. But when we started to build our Hopscotch, finally, that felt right. It felt exciting, this is something that we will be willing to dedicate multiple years of our lives into.

Why did you take on this role/start this startup especially since this is perhaps a stretch or challenge for you (or viewed as one since you are not the usual leadership demographics)?
In terms of how we actually started the company, Jocelyn and I, for the first year and a half did not raise any money or even have a product or revenue or anything so, we would do various consulting jobs on the side. We would work on Hopscotch four days a week and then on the fifth day we would devote ourselves to our other various money-making activities. That took a lot of pressure on us. We were not sitting here like watching our bank accounts dwindle as we desperately tried to get this off the ground. We thought it is going to take a while and then we’ll be on a steady state. We were not like doing great financially but we were paying our rent, we were not just like pleading money all the time and I think that lack of putting ourselves in a none stressful situation was really important in able for us to do good work.

Do you have a mentor that you look up to in your industries or did you look for one or how did that work?
One of our mentors is Alan Kay. He’s one of the pioneers of programming and computer science. He invented the term object oriented programming, and he was very active in the kind of field. We met to teach children how to program and to bring programming as a tool for education. So, I talked to him a lot in terms of making sure that we’re doing the right thing for kids. I think with education there’s a temptation to think that you’re an educator so obviously you’re doing good for the world and I don’t think that’s necessarily true. You can do very bad things to the world through education because you’re influencing how the next generation of people will think. So, I’ve got to be very careful about what we were trying to teach the kids. And Alan has been a really great person to talk through ideas like that.

How did you make a match if you did, and how did you end up being mentored by him?
We knew who he was because he’s a very famous computer scientist. Basically, we really wanted Allan Kay to be our mentor and Jocelyn, my co-founder, has the full credit for this. We worked our way, getting friends with various people in his circle and eventually were introduced to him. He met us and we had gotten along really well. It was very much, kind of, knowing that he was someone who we wanted to be in our team to help us out and to talk to. And strategically figuring out how to meet him and how to get him on board.

Now as a leader how do you spot, develop, keep, grow and support your talent?
One thing that interests us the most, that time with very talented team members, is that they have very high expectations of their leadership. We’ve had various people work for us over the years and the people who are the best tend to also complain the most. One of the most valuable things that these people bring to the table is when things aren’t running as wells as they feel they should see you and help you find your course correctly. So I do one on one meeting with the people who are important to me on our team every two weeks. And give them a chance to bring up what they think is going well and what they think is not going well. I listen to them, which I think is what a lot of people are looking for. Like for people who are very smart and effective, they want to feel they’re empowered to be effective in their role. That when they have ideas, they’re being listened to. So, it’s very important to me to actually listen to the people I’m working with.

Do you consciously or unconsciously support diversity and why?
Consciously, Yes. One thing about diversity is that like, we, the two co-founders are women and we’ve historically hired a lot of women in our company. There are not as many women in the tech world but in terms of the actual number of people in our company, we hired a lot of women. And I think about this in terms of all these companies that have trouble hiring women and I think that there is something to it. As a female, it’s easier for me to connect with women. We have more women in the team and it’s just seems to happen naturally, that we hire a lot of women. They are people who we worked best with. I’m sure it’s also true for men who were running companies and end up hiring a lot of men. So I don’t know if we are pro-actively doing that much for diversity. But someone considers our team diverse. Three women and one non-Caucasian guy from Mexico.

What is your take on what it takes to be a great leader in your industry and as a general rule of thumb?
I think what’s important but hard to do is that as a leader, you both need to be able to zoom out and think about the big picture. Think about, “Where’s my company going in a year? In 5 years? In 10 years?” Whether it aims like, “are we doing that?” and then you also need to zoom in on the details when necessary and write that update to your investors or make sure that the sales emails are going out. Whatever it is that you need to know both when to zoom in on the details, and be able to take a step back and work on the big picture and making that context which is kind of very unnatural thing and it’s hard to do and getting the right mix of that. I think those are really important in being a good leader.

Advice for others?
One piece of advice I have for people, maybe for those who want to be entrepreneurs, those people who are thinking about starting their own thing, is that it is a good idea. I’ll tell you a story. When we started Hopscotch, we did not quit our jobs to start Hopscotch. We did it on nights and weekends. And I think that’s really important, that before we even care for the idea of Hopscotch popping up, we’ve worked on other things at nights and weekends while we were still working, and I think it is important to have other alternatives at all times. So instead of working at Hopscotch I could have gone out with my friends or could’ve written a book or there are things that I could have done and there other ways to advance professionally and because of us having alternatives, there was a moment when it became very clear and that I wanted to do Hopscotch more. That I wanted to do any of those other things and that I knew I was ready to quit my job. I’ve seen many friends quit their jobs because they want to do a start-up. Maybe they were a bit fed up with their jobs at that moment and they became a little bit lost because the only thing they have to do was to search for their next big thing. And it is hard to evaluate whether the ideas that they’ve come up with are going to be better than the alternative. Because the alternative is just continuous searching, which is somewhat a hard place to be in. And I think people get a bit lost when they don’t have any constraints to focus their mind and their energy at.

If you’d like to get in touch with Samantha John, please feel free to reach out to her on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/samanthajohn/

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Jonathan Oh, CEO & Co-founder of Supplycart

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Jonathan Oh’s enquiring mind and love for learning has led him on an entrepreneurial journey, with him starting Supplycart which helps businesses manage their offices better.

What’s your story?
I am a person that just can’t sit still. I was always intrigued by how the world spins and how people connect. Spending a lot of time outdoors, I had an affinity with exploring new paths, thus leading me to become a serial entrepreneur with experience in creating, operating and building new companies. I am a firm believer there is so much to learn in the world and I love talking to people about ideas, what they are passionate about and what drives them.
Starting off my career in the medical industry, I realised I had a flare to create something that mattered, something that impacted other people’s lives. After exiting my first company in 2014, I continued my journey with two other ventures with a purpose to look towards impacting businesses in the region together with like minded individuals, and here I am.

What excites you most about your industry?
Being able to part of the SME tech industry and seeing how technology is moving SMEs to go digital to improve workflows and efficiencies is an exciting space to be in. Users are consumers. More and more, they are familiarising themselves with using technology in their everyday lives. We foresee the SME space to be the next area where adopting new technology would become vital for any organisation to remain relevant. As I have dabbled in this industry for close to nine years now, I am really looking forward to working with more people in the business community to make a change.

What’s your connection to Asia?
Born in Malaysia, I had the opportunity to go abroad and I realised there was so much to do back home. Spending time in Melbourne, Australia for a couple of years and recently Silicon Valley, it has provided me with experiences and insights into the difference a multicultural community can make. It also made me aware that Asia is still a very culture driven economy, as each country has its unique differences. I believe that the time is right to be in Asia now. We are a growing economy and a lot of exciting stuff is happening in this region.

Favourite city in Asia for business and why?
Malaysia. I believe Malaysia is still a very attractive destination for business as it’s close to other neighbouring countries within the region and travelling between the countries is easy. There is also proper infrastructure in place, an affordable cost of living and a sizeable pool of talent. The government also has numerous initiatives for technology companies to apply for MSC status that permits companies to hire foreign companies without restrictions. Malaysia is the perfect launchpad to start growing businesses regionally. From a culture perspective, we are multicultural, which promotes diversity in business and language is never a barrier here.

What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
“The difference between a businessman and an entrepreneur; one does a markup and the other creates value.”

Who inspires you?
I would say the people around me inspire me. I wouldn’t narrow it down to a particular person but lump it up with family, workmates, entrepreneurs and friends. From my eyes, everyone has a certain drive, a certain glow and strengths that sometimes they do not see, and that inspires me. I believe the journey to success is never alone, it’s with people.

What have you just learnt recently that blew you away?
Something recently that blew me away, made me realise, visually about how much time I have left. I was reading and stumbled upon the writer doing this. This might sound morbid but I drew a horizontal line and started plotting the year I was born all the way up to when I think I might go. It showed me that I have spent 25% of my life growing up, I am going to spend another 55% of my life working and the final 20%, maybe retirement. It got me remembering all the milestones I have achieved and to be thankful for and above all, how I want to spend the 55% of my life doing what matters the most.

If you had your time again, what would you do differently?
I believe that I am exactly where I need to be because of the experiences I have had before. Thank god for the journey so far. It has been filled with ups and downs, new experiences and people along the way these have moulded me. I guess a small thing, if I had my time again, would be to pick up playing a musical instrument which I think still possible now. You are never too old to learn anything.

How do you unwind?
Unwinding for me would be spending time with my family and my two little boys. The little ones are such a bundle of joy. Reminding myself to have balance in terms of not missing the early years with them. Other than that, having coffee with other entrepreneurs, sharing ideas and learning from them is also another way I unwind.

Favourite Asian destination for relaxation? Why?
A term I would use would be “cuti cuti Malaysia.” This means heading to a local destination for some R&R to save on the cost of going on overseas to travel. Top of my the list would be heading to a farm or the jungle with clear river waters and a waterfall all to myself. Staying the night, out in the open under the stars, with a campfire and heading back to nature. The other option would be taking a boat to one of the furthest islands in Malaysia, just before the border of Indonesia, to get away from civilization.

Everyone in business should read this book:
I would actually recommend two books that everyone in business in the early years should read. ‘Founder’s Dilemma’ and ‘Start with Why.’ After being in a couple of businesses and many mistakes later, I came to realise the importance of starting it right. Both these books address the whole mind-set on what founders need to have from selecting who is it we start a business with to why are we starting the business. The business foundation is built from the founders and moving forward everything is built from there. Sometimes we are so into the business that we forget we need to be on the business as well. I would have definitely avoided a couple of bumps if I came across these much earlier on.

Shameless plug for your business:
Manage your office better, that’s our motto. We are always on the lookout to work with organisations, suppliers and partners in this field for partnerships and collaborations.
Supplycart is a B2B procurement platform addressing a need for a change in the way companies manage their office supplies, products and services. We enable suppliers and companies to adopt digital technology when selling and procuring for their business, resulting in a more efficient and productive workforce.
Supplycart provides an easy to use, convenient platform that streamlines the whole procurement process by allowing users to quickly order and reorder, receive instant quotations, obtain quick approvals from necessary approvers and fulfilment items are coordinated/planned to ensure a timely a speedy delivery.
Businesses can now focus on the more important matters in growing and sustaining their business while leaving managing the office to Supplycart. Our vision is to be the number 1 office platform for businesses across South East Asia. “Your office will never be the same again.”

How can people connect with you?
https://www.linkedin.com/in/ohjonathan/
e : [email protected]
w : www.supplycart.my

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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Trung Nguyen, Founder & Managing Director of Advertising Vietnam

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Having initial success with his first start up in the ad industry, Trung Nguyen went on to start other ventures in the ad world in Vietnam. He now has the largest agency community in Vietnam.

What’s your story?
Three years ago I got my first job in the advertising industry. I worked for a local agency in town, and I fell in love with the creative industry. In June 2015, I founded Agency Life Community in Vietnam. It quickly became the most engaging community in the ad industry. The main content focuses on entertainment. After six months we had over 30,000 organic followers, now we have 120,000 followers.

Because the industry had been good to me, I decided I had to something for the industry to help the industry be better. So, I opened http://AdvertisingVietnam.com – a creative industry ad site which keeps advertising informative, creative and inspiring.

After more than a year in the ads industry in Vietnam, I figured the industry needed a better solution for the recruitment of good staff. Given I own the largest advertising community platform, why don’t I utilise Agency Life to help connect talent with ad agencies. So, I founded job site, AdJob.Asia in January 2017.

What excites you most about your industry?
The ad industry is a creative one with very passionate people who are always challenging themselves. The exciting part for creatives, in the morning they might be working on a baby brand and in the afternoon they are answering a beer brief. There is so much diversity. Every day is the new journey.

What’s your connection to Asia?
I am Vietnamese.

Favourite city in Asia for business and why?
Thailand. The Thais are the kings of the creative industry in SEA. Thai ads are very smart and creative.

What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
Do what you love.

Who inspires you?
My friend, mentor and partner Mr Nghi Nguyen, founder of BrandsVietnam.com. We started our businesses at a similar time. He doesn’t see us as a competitor but rather, he believes that we share the same passion and we are working to provide better knowledge for the ad community.
Mr Nghi also guided me a lot when I first opened the business. I am inspired by his vision to make our marketing industry better.

What have you just learnt recently that blew you away?
Our business is a startup company and as a founder I do everything from operations, business development, planning and strategy. However, this is not the good way grow our business. You have to share the workload – find a co-founder or hire a great employee to help share the workload. “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”

If you had your time again, what would you do differently?
Quit my full time job sooner.
During the first year of running my business, I was still working as an ad manager for an agency. However I lacked focus at work due to the overload of work and it affected the company I used to work for. I strongly recommend people who have an idea to start their own business, quit their job early on and focus 100% on it from the get go!

How do you unwind?
Play with my cat.

Favourite Asian destination for relaxation? Why?
I love to travel throughout all of Asia. I enjoy new places and meeting new people.

Everyone in business should read this book:
The Carpenter: A story about the greatest success strategies of all.

Shameless plug for your business:
AdvertisingVietnam.com is a site where you can quickly update yourself on the advertising news in Vietnam. We have 15,000 unique monthly readers who are professional people in the advertising and communications industries.

The Agency Life, https://www.facebook.com/agencylife is largest agency community in Vietnam. This is the right place for ad agencies to share their creative work.

AdJob.Asia now has more than 160 agencies in Vietnam who use our services. We are a leading recruitment service for the advertising industry in Vietnam.

How can people connect with you?
You can connect with me:
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/trungnx26
Email: [email protected]
LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/trungnx26/

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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