Jenny Yang is one of e@UBC’s Entrepreneurs-In-Residence and you can book appointments with her for Open Office every week. When speaking with Jenny, you would get an overwhelming sense of liveliness; she simply lives the entrepreneurial spirit. We discussed how she lived through the pains of raising up her startup, and connecting it to her pivot in mindset when she had to raise her own ‘little human’. As a successful female entrepreneur, Jenny also offers some key pointers. Keep on reading to find out more about Jenny.
From creating your first startup, Metafor, to seeing it succeed and getting acquired – looking back at it in hindsight, what has that journey been like?
Metafor started off as a thesis-based project that originated from an idea and concept that we had. I knew I had wanted to get into cloud computing or something in that space. Coming from the other side, as an investor, I have seen how hard it was to ‘get it right’ and the difficult times that the founders had to face, so intellectually I knew what to expect. But after stepping into the entrepreneurial shoes, I felt the pain and the angst up close and personal, and I gained a whole new level of respect for entrepreneurs!
The fear of failure was definitely one of things that held me back in the past… but as an investor I have seen my share of failed startups and I have admired how founders can get through it, how people can survive failure and thrive. I didn’t appreciate what I could learn from failure. Now I know that fear of failure is the one thing that holds people back, and keeps us from being truly exception.
Believe it or not, it was only after I had my first child that I got the courage to be an entrepreneur. To be tasked with raising a little human, and thinking, “Holy crap, wow, I now have to be responsible for bringing up this child” – something just sparked in me that if I could do that, I felt that I could muster up the courage to raise up a company.
As a successful female entrepreneur, what is a key piece of advice or insight you can share with aspiring entrepreneurs?
Here’s my take on it. For female founders, especially those in tech, the first step is to recognize that you are operating in an environment with certain biases. Many many studies bear this out. Sometimes it might be conscious biases , but most of the time they are unconscious biases going on in people’s minds. Acknowledgement of these biases and not being ignorant is the first step.
I don’t think it’s about getting people to change. Men and women inherently have different ways of thinking – I have a boy and a girl and they can’t behave any more differently. As a mom, I have learned that that’s the way it is. So now instead of spending energy to dispute it and fight it head on, I have learned to navigate around it, to thoroughly scope out my environment, and to take advantage of the differences to overcome challenges.
Practicality speaking, even the tone of your voice goes a long way. I have a ‘General’ voice that I use when I need the attention and spotlight on me. I drop the tone and pitch of my voice to command attention. I deliberately speak slower, firmer. I also know when I need to adopt a softer tone as well. Women, we have an innate sensitivity to our surroundings that we can take advantage of.
When I first got out of school, I thought of this as manipulation; I am a firm believer that my work should speak for itself – and it does. Why should I change my beliefs based on who I am around? But moving out of junior roles to more senior ones, you begin to observe patterns and how people behave and work. I have learned to acknowledge and work with these differences.
Having built companies from the ground up, what are key milestones along the way that have stuck with you?
From my experience as an entrepreneur, some key moments I celebrate along the way are:
1. Finding the right co-founder(s): It’s difficult to find the right people that I want to work with! When I do get lucky and find some of these people, it still surprises me that these people exist – I am simply amazed at the level we connect on. They usually don’t have the same background as me, they are quite different from me – from cultural characteristics to life experiences. If anything, this reinforces for me the importance of being open-minded with the people we encounter along the way and not to have preconceived notions of what a great partner look like. You just never know.
2. Getting that first customer: Another key moment that sticks is when you get your first customer. It is a special and different feeling than closing your first investment – which is obviously important – but getting that first customer is a sweet success and definitely something to celebrate.
What inspires you work as an EIR at e@UBC?
Having worked as an EIR at e@UBC, I have many opportunities to be exposed to new technologies, new companies and working with great young entrepreneurs. I find that at the university, I really enjoy working with entrepreneurs with concrete ideas that have a deep science to it and not just fluff. UBC also nourishes a supportive environment – that makes it a lot of fun to work with the people here.
Having been at e@UBC for a bit already, what are some trends that gets you excited?
From an ideas standpoint, the rise of machine learning, artificial intelligence, and ideas dealing with the cognitive sciences have been something that gets me excited. Another trend from working with e@UBC entrepreneurs is the integration of big data in the life sciences, and how it can be applied to the health sector.
Trends don’t just come from business ideas but from people as well. One reason I really enjoyed working with entrepreneurs at UBC is their fearless mindset. Founders who have worked in industry for many years often are more hesitant and have greater fear of failure. The young entrepreneurs I work with here haven’t been ‘burnt’ in a sense – meaning that they are not afraid to jump into the unknown. And having them here at UBC, we – the EIRs, the mentors – can help them not get burnt along the way while not stifling out any of their ideas. This is a place where they won’t be constraint by company politics, people politics… if you have a great idea, you can try it out here.
I encourage this mentality – I want to see this culture of ‘just doing stuff’ come out. Often when people work in industry for too long, they become tainted and tentative, and the truly world-shattering ideas get buried. The founders here can experiment – they are young and most of them are not afraid to lose