Inspiring conversations with 3 game-changing women

Happy Wednesday!

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I had some fantastic conversations with global entrepreneurs this week. 

Let’s dive in!

In today's email:

  • Think with Jia Tu, a Chinese MBA student at Columbia University who doubles as technical co-founder of a Kenyan startup

  • Build with Venezuelan entrepreneur Estefania Simon-Sasyk, whom we featured in last week’s ‘Think’ section of the newsletter

  • Grow with Amy McKelvey, founder of Woodland Star Kenya and a pioneer in international education

  • Watchlist: Today’s new feature story about a Czech entrepreneur’s passion project in Singapore

Think with Shamiri Health’s Jia Tu

“We're very passionate about mental health care. But where we grew up — where we're from [individually] — it's a topic that is taboo and needs more attention. So I think we really bonded over that.

“And we also are very, very similar political wise. I think we [both] believe that there is a need to disrupt the current global economic system. That means you need more entrepreneurs from emerging markets, building their businesses and attracting investments.

“So that's why I think I decided to work with him. We have very similar ideas on why we are doing business and what kind of business we want to build.”

Jia Tu, an MBAxMS student at Columbia University in NYC, is explaining to me how she thought about going into business with her good friend, Tom. She’s the technical co-founder and head of product at their Kenyan mental health startup, Shamiri Health. She’s also quick to make astute observations.

“I think there are several questions here,” she says when I ask her what happens if things don’t work out between her and Tom.

What, if anything, told you this was something you’d be safe doing — that a business partnership wouldn't screw up your friendship?

Before Jia points out the questions I didn’t even think to ask, she explains that while growing up in Suzhou, China (30 minutes away from Shanghai), her parents “highly recommended” she study math and economics. That’s how she landed in the States at 17, on a scholarship to study at an international high school called United World College. “It's got campuses all over the globe, and I was placed in the one in the States.”

Math and economics led Jia into a job as a derivatives trader, which is where she picks up with the unasked questions: “How did [I make] that transition, and why did I decide to do it?”

“I think when you are trying to take some risk, especially, you know, quitting your job and joining a company, you've got to have conviction in either the business, the markets, or the leadership. 

“I think it is easier to have conviction in the leadership when these [are] people you know, and you have worked with, and you have seen them operate in different environments,” she says.

Explaining further, Jia tells me how her friendship with Tom is helpful and works to strengthen their business partnership “because I think I got to know, what's his motivation, what's his story.

“I know that my co-founder came from, you know, really nothing in Kenya has really [worked hard] for his whole life to be where he is. I was very impressed by that. And I did not know that until we became friends. So, you know, these kinds of layers have been revealed to me through our friendship.”

Later, Jia reiterates that a mutual understanding of their motivations for founding Shamiri and working in mental health was crucial to developing trust and starting the co-founder relationship on a positive note.

Still, she tells me there were times when her trust in Tom faltered: “It was very tough, actually. I'm glad I'm sharing it with you. It was very tough.”

In the end, Tom and Jia brought in a mediator “like a marriage counselor,” who helped them “communicate in an acceptable way with each other. And also point out, like, ‘Hey, you know Tom, this is where he's coming from. Jia, this is where she's coming from.’”

It’s this complete understanding of one another’s perspectives that Jia attributes to a successful partnership today: “Our incentives are very much aligned. And yeah, it’s a very good relationship right now.”

Build with Venezuelan entrepreneur Estefania Simon-Sasyk

In last week’s issue, I introduced you to Estefania Simon-Sasyk, a Venezuelan entrepreneur currently residing in San Sebastián, Spain.

When she told me about her “network-based food & gastronomy creative consultancy,” it sounded like a cool idea, but at the same time, it still wasn’t clear how she went from zero to one.

How did her idea turn into a real, revenue-generating business?

‘Cause, you know, “Ideas… everyone’s got ‘em,” but how do you build a business out of them?

Turns out the catalyst for Estefania — the thing that helped to transform her idea into revenue — came in the form of advice from a professor at HEC Paris.

“So, I'm about to finish a Masters in Innovation and Entrepreneurship at HEC Paris. I was already pretty sure I wanted to do something on my own, but they have a [fast] track, which is like five courses of this whole Masters for a fraction of the price available to the public. And one of them is like… ’How to be an entrepreneur.’ 

“And this really great professor, he was like, ‘Sell it. Don't ask for feedback; just sell it. If they don't want it, they'll give you feedback. Test your market. Get out there, see if this is even a thing.’”

The speed at which she recounts her experience seems a direct reflection of how quickly Estefania put her professor’s advice into action. She continues: “I was like, yeah, let's do it! I just put together a deck and started calling people and telling them about it.”

But was it really that easy? Just… tell people about it? Not quite.

“People were like, ‘That sounds great. I wish you great luck.’”

“Okay… I guess I have actually to start something [rather than talk about it]. We started a website with hypotheses of what things could create revenue,” she says.

“And, in year one, we had like a quarter million in revenue. So [the] hypothesis was correct. It was very much a go-getter attitude. I didn't do any research. I don't know who my competitors are. In my mind, [there are] none. That's really bad. But, you know, it's just kind of like, ‘just do it’ attitude.”

Estefania agrees that, in building her business from the ground up, she worked hard to see if there was a market for her idea in the first place. She didn’t fall into the trap of thinking, I have this cool idea in my head, and that probably means people will buy it.

Her formula was to sell as quickly as possible — and not to build too much beforehand. Reflecting (for a microsecond) after I ask her about investing time in building before selling, she says, “I mean, maybe if you have shitloads of money, but it's not my case.

“I need to get money immediately for this thing. So, I might as well just see if I can sell a nice project. If there was no project, there was no company.”

Grow with Amy McKelvey, founder of Woodland Star Kenya

Amy McKelvey was born and raised in Mobile, Alabama, but today, she’s far removed (in more ways than one, to which I relate) from America and the Deep South. Amy’s leading the way at Woodland Star Kenya, an international school she founded in 2011.

The school’s story and educational concepts are remarkable in and of themselves, yet what I found even more compelling is Amy’s growth as a leader and entrepreneur.

“I was not nurtured to be a leader, much less an entrepreneur. So I came to it very late… in a roundabout way,” she says.

When I ask her to elaborate, Amy takes me back to the Deep South (notwithstanding a friendly reminder that Texas, where I grew up, ain’t part of it): “I think the biggest challenge was internal because I just didn't see that in me. It had never been suggested that [being a leader] was possible because the messages I grew up with were, ‘Women should be seen and not heard, basically. You are always subservient to the male. Your goal in life is to be a mom and a wife and maybe work in a caring profession because that's what women do.’”

She’s also quick to point out the irony: “I did end up going into a caring profession; I went into education.”

Which came first, leadership or entrepreneurship?

She recalls, “I had those instances where people just asked me to lead in a way, and it surprised me. I remember the first time I was kind of in a group setting, and we were trying to determine who was going to take the lead in this project (in university). I didn't consider myself a leader, and I didn't think of it that way at all.

“I had these experiences like that, and so I guess I just started going that way.”

The path to entrepreneurship, on the other hand, was filled with interesting twists and turns (stories for another day). Amy says, “I had to kind of get into my career.”

Though she mentions she’s “really put off by labels and things” and still, at times, hesitates to apply them to herself, Amy also points out that, in her work as an MBTI practitioner, she discovered that her MBTI “type” was indeed entrepreneur. “Even when I didn’t want that as my type.”

“So that was way back when I was like, ‘What? I think I'm geared for this. I must have a skill set.’ And I've learned how to step into that, to step into who that is and who I am,” she says.

As we continue to chat, it becomes clear that an acute awareness of herself and her surroundings contributed significantly to Amy’s growth as a leader. She explains she first “had to get some distance from where I grew up” (Kansas before Kenya), then after “a long and drawn out thing,” she says, “I started to realize more about myself and what I could do and what I was capable of.”

“It wasn't just being a wife and mother — which are very important things to do — I decided, and I figured out that I could do more.

“And so I did.”

🔎 Watchlist

When Czech entrepreneur Jana Marlé-Zizková started her passion project, She Loves Data, she couldn’t have anticipated its global reach. Today, the organization empowers women to become tomorrow's leaders with volunteers in 18 countries and a community of over 30,000 members. Here’s her story.

Know an entrepreneur we should meet? Drop us a line at [email protected].

Until next time,

Nolan Bulger

Founder, Mergerous Media Co.

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