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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

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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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