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Women on Top in Tech – So-Young Kang, Founder of Awaken Group and Founder & CEO at Gnowbe

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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.)

So-Young Kang is a serial entrepreneur who is passionate about maximizing human creative potential. She is Catalyst & Founder of an award-winning, multi-disciplinary Transformation Design (TD) firm Awaken Group that integrates strategy, leadership, and innovation to design experiences that catalyze change. So-Young Kang is also the Founder & CEO at Gnowbe, a pioneering transformational learning platform. It is a microlearning app that helps people build personalized learning journeys while on-the-go. In 2014, she was selected by the World Economic Forum to be a Young Global Leader.

What makes you do what you do?
I’m driven by purpose and the desire to develop people around the world. I believe in lifelong learning and the need to constantly improve ourselves. I feel privileged to have the chance to pursue my dreams to use technology to humanize the world.

How did you rise in the industry you are in?
It evolved over time. In some ways, I have come full circle as I started teaching when I was 11 years old. I guess I have locked in my 10k hours of teaching by now! 🙂 After building corporate experience at McKinsey, Citigroup and with my MBA from Harvard, I became an entrepreneur. This gave me a platform to develop my own perspectives on business, technology, innovation, and education. I found a hidden love for communicating ideas and reflections with others. In many ways, this has broadened my reach and impact as a serial entrepreneur to become a thought leader for the work we do with transformation in Awaken Group and in mobile learning for Gnowbe.

Thought leadership has been key to having a ‘seat at the table to influence and shape the industries we play in.

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)?
Several years ago, we faced a challenge at Awaken Group on how to scale learning to thousands of people in an organization. We couldn’t find a solution that would create a powerful experiential learning journey on mobile or web. So I feel I had no choice but to solve this problem which resulted in founding Gnowbe. And if we take a step back, one of the largest challenges facing humanity today is keeping ourselves relevant in the face of technologies like robotics and AI which may replace us. I would like to be part of solutions that help people stay relevant, constantly learning and developing.

Do you have a mentor that you look up to in your industries or did you look for one or how did that work?
I have different mentors and advisors who I look to for different areas of expertise across industries, experience levels, and geographies. While Gnowbe is my 2nd startup, it’s my first tech startup so there are many things I don’t know. Having mentors has been critical for me to learn quickly, bounce ideas off of, and support me when things get tough.

How did you make a match if you did, and how did you end up being mentored by him/her?
It depends on the mentor. One of my first mentors for Gnowbe is someone I looked up to and would catch up for breakfast every few months. This evolved into a mentorship relationship where he ended up also becoming an investor. Other mentors have started out as friends, peers or clients from my other professional networks. Most of my 7 advisors and 3 board member relationships came about organically as a result of the relationship, conversation, and mutual desire to work together. I’m grateful for my mentors.

Now as a leader how do you spot, develop, keep, grow and support your talent?
I’m always looking for good people for either of my companies or for the non-profit I co-founded. I look for people who are super smart, passionate and great at what they do. For example, if I go to a restaurant and the manager is exceptionally good, I will usually ask for his/her card and name. I’m less concerned with pedigree or specific experiences. For most roles, if people have strong intrinsic, I believe that skills can be learned. Both of my companies invest quite a bit in developing people through formal and many informal tools. I believe my companies will only be able to grow up to the capabilities of our people. People are our true assets that need to be cared for and intentionally developed.

Do you consciously or unconsciously support diversity and why?
These days I am more conscious to have a diverse and inclusive team. I think this creates a more innovative and fun environment to work. However, there are real costs to diversity such as additional time needed to understand each other, but I feel the benefits far outweigh the costs. For me, diversity is not just about gender, but about culture, personality, socio-economic background, and etc. When you look at my teams, it’s hard to see any real patterns. Perhaps the only patterns are around core values and passion.

What is your take on what it takes to be a great leader in your industry and as a general rule of thumb?
I authored a book on this called ‘Inside Out‘ a few years ago, so I may be cheating a bit here…my conclusion after doing years of research on this is that being a great leader requires someone to be human, creative, and adaptive.

For industry-specific leadership, I believe this requires constant learning, researching, and understanding of the trends (past, present, and future) and speaking to many different people constantly with an open heart (e.g., clients, partners, vendors, content creators, investors). It’s also important to connect with those outside your industry as this provides various stimuli for new ideas. I love spending time with artists, musicians, actors, doctors, and others outside my core industry to stretch my thinking and challenge my approach.

Advice for others?
As a leader, entrepreneur or whatever path you may take, focus on being human first. All else will follow. For me, ‘being human’ is about embarking on a life-long journey of understanding yourself. It’s about walking towards greater integrity so that the things you believe on the inside get reflected in the companies you build and ultimately the impact your products and services have on other humans. My main advice is to ‘lead from the inside out.’

My current focus is on closing the growing skills gap globally using mobile technology. It’s about strategic partnerships with educators and companies to develop their people to get easier access to quality content and to apply what they have learned. It’s about redefining how we teach and learn.


If you’d like to get in touch with So-Young Kang, please feel free to reach out to her on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/soykang/

To learn more about Awaken Group, please click here

To learn more about Gnowbe, please click here

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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