The first APAC EndeavHER event featured an all-woman panel of founders including Stephanie Sy, Founder & CEO of Thinking Machines, Van Vu, Founder and CEO of Elsa Corp and Helianti Hilman, Founder and Executive Chairperson of Javara. Following an enlightening conversation about scaling strategies, these women shared some exclusive stories on their personal entrepreneurial journeys, allowing us a glimpse into their personalities and attitudes.
What drove you to become an entrepreneur?
Having a strong vision or concept
Stephanie, having founded her own data science company almost 5 years ago, realised that she had very “specific and strong ideas'' after coming across a few data science companies run by men. So she simply bet on herself, as she also couldn’t find any companies that aligned with her ideas to work in. She took the brave decision to do a test run for two years of her life, and fortunately succeeded in creating the kind of company she envisioned.
Wanting to leave a meaningful impact
Having moved to the U.S. from Vietnam 11 years ago, Van Vu started out her career in the corporate world. However, this journey came to an halt because “working long hours and not feeling the impact of what you do” was not her cup of tea. As she looked for small companies where she could have had a “much bigger role and a much bigger impact” for her next step, she slowly recognised her passion for education. Specifically educational challenges without solutions such as language learning which she also struggled with as a child. “The only way for me to build solutions to address the challenges I care about was to become a founder”, Van Vu said. And thus, her decision to become an entrepreneur was born.
Similarly, Helianti’s journey to becoming a founder stems from her desire to make an impact through her passion. Infatuated with travelling and cooking, she was previously a lawyer who provided pro-bono advice to criminalised indigenous farmers. Being a complete foodie enthusiast, Helianti fell in love with the “diversity of the food heritage and the heirloom or forgotten crops'' grown at these indigenous farms. She started an NGO but it was less about being an entrepreneur and more about “educating people to understand and refine the forgotten food”. “But soon, we realised that the best way to keep the heritage alive was by reintroducing it to the market”, she expressed. With the realisation that this would be too challenging as an NGO coupled with her mother’s advice, Helianti changed the format to a commercial company with the hopes of establishing a sustainable solution for her vision. With this she was able to gain the trust of supermarkets and buyers and serve over 28 countries with 50,000 farmers and 700 products.
How do you persuade a co-founder to join the business & what do you do during disagreements?
Timing is key (very much like finding love!)
Reflecting back on her journey, Van Vu confesses that it was not easy to find a co-founder. It took her nearly 6 months, after meeting tons of scientists and AI specialists. “You have to meet the right person at the right time in their life”, she exclaimed. She met her co-founder at a time in life when his need to make an impact was stronger than financial needs as he was already a successful and established man. “Do people believe in your vision? - are they inspired by what you want to do?”, she advises to demonstrate that there is a market for your product in order to convince a co-founder. Having a well-known advisor also helps.
Be logical & have a list of risk scenarios and solutions
Before Thinking Machines, Stephanie owned another company with a friend. However, their visions diverged about a year after working together. In such situations, Stephanie recommends talking it logically out until you get to a point where you understand each other’s dreams. “You want to do something interesting, and you are the right person to do it - but I am not the right person to do it with you”, she repeated what her ex co-founder then said to her. “When you start a business, it’s also important to write down risk-case scenarios and potential solutions agreed upon by both founders”, Stephanie suggested.
What are your thoughts on mentorship?
Even with her focus being on creating impact through her products, supporting the beneficiaries she wants to serve and being a self-sustainable entity, the reality is just different. “The reality of business - either you grow or you just go home. That’s why mentorship is so important and I am very grateful to have joined Endeavor - I needed mentors to help me commercialise”, Helianti said.
Van Vu is also a huge believer in mentorship, way before she even became a founder. “Choosing the right mentor is not easy, but it takes two sides - the person has to care so much about you and want you to succeed so badly that they will do anything it takes to help you out”, she gushed. “You have to know what you are looking for - you have to be authentic and genuine and do your homework”, she explained when asked how to find the right mentor. “The more mentors you have, the less lonely your entrepreneurial journey will be”, she mentioned.
Echoing her thoughts, Stephanie added that “successful people want other people to succeed because they have gotten chances and been mentored by other people before”.
To conclude, some final remarks from these brilliant minds:
How does your finish line look for you?
“Our finish line is very simple - how to get our products to the mainstream market, where they are no longer an exclusive or niche product”, Helianti expresses how her finish line revolves around sustainability of forgotten food and provision of healthy choices to customers.
“The idea that 50 years from now, organisations use the Thinking Machine’s method for data-driven decision making, for how they operate and act”, Stephanie’s vision for her company is for it to be the gold standard for building date-driven decision making systems.
“For me, it is about celebrating small moments of victories that you achieve - if you wait for the finish line to celebrate, you might never reach it. Whatever happens tomorrow with the company, good or bad - it doesn’t matter because it's the entire journey that I celebrated along the way that makes it meaningful”, Van Vu described how she never defined a finished line since she started the company because life never really works out the way you plan it.
The content of this article is summarised from the EndeavHER session organised by the APAC Endeavor offices: Endeavor Malaysia, Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam & Japan. Endeavor is the world’s leading community of high-impact entrepreneurs. We dream big, scale up, and pay it forward. Follow us on our social media pages to get the latest news on upcoming events and key learnings.