In the world of 2019, start-ups are now ubiquitous. In Silicon Valley, Hong Kong, and right here in Taipei, there are successful start-up organizations changing the face of industries like technology, manufacturing, transportation, retail, and hospitality. Many college or even high school students dream about founding their own companies, possibly creating the newest unicorn, a business to be valued over one billion dollars. But what does it really take to be an entrepreneur? How do you keep a business going month after month, year after year? Five TAS alumnae are speaking out about their journey as entrepreneurs and sharing their dreams, motivations, and challenges. They want to inspire but also inform young men and women about the path that lies ahead. Here are their stories.
“Passion is how and why you start a business, but how you survive is really about perseverance.” – Melody Hsu ’06
Melody Hsu '06 knew from college that she wanted to make a path in entrepreneurship. “I graduated from Babson with a degree in business management and a concentration in marketing,” recounts Melody. But her early inclination toward starting her own business didn’t guarantee instant success. “I made a lot of cold calls to suppliers, who wouldn’t give me anything because I didn’t know anything about the business.” Thankfully, those experiences did not deter Melody and her husband Audi Hsu from founding VIASWEAT in 2014. Today, it is one of the leading women’s activewear brands in Taiwan.
How did they do it? Melody wants younger people to know that “Passion is how and why you start a business, but how you survive is really about perseverance. Being an entrepreneur is every day, never-ending problem solving, and it will wear you down, so you have to keep your dream in mind. You have to find it in you to keep going and bounce back quickly because you can’t take every set-back as a failure.”
Melody and her husband oversee a small 7-person team who do it all for VIASWEAT. Despite the extra help, Melody still faces challenges on a daily basis. “When you are doing a start-up, you have to learn how to do everything. You are fulfillment, design, production, business development, etc.,” Melody says wryly. To deal with the flood of tasks, she primarily works on front-end tasks like design work, direction, customer service, and brand management. With a background in finance, Audi takes on operations, finance, and admin. “We keep each other in check because we have competing priorities when it comes to growing and meeting sales targets.”
Melody credits the success of VIASWEAT to being a Taiwanese brand. “Five years ago, there weren’t many activewear brands here. Taiwan has a really advanced textile industry, but many companies here don’t really know how to package a brand. I wanted to leverage my experience in this and create a brand that can represent Taiwan. Here, I source a lot of the cutting edge fabrics directly from the supplier, and I can keep an eye on the quality.” Furthermore, being a part of the TAS network doesn’t hurt either. “There are probably six degrees of separation between me and anyone else we want to meet in Taiwan,” jokes Melody. “I feel very much lucky to know the people in the TAS community. It’s a tight-knit community. TAS people stick together and we support each other.” At the same time, Melody sees some drawbacks to being a Taiwanese brand. “A lot of people think VIASWEAT is a global brand, and it’s interesting because it might not appeal to them as much if they knew we’re a Taiwanese brand. Often, people in Taiwan catch onto a thing after it has international appeal.”
Melody sees the role of being a female entrepreneur as a balancing act. “About a month after we launched in 2014, I became pregnant with my first child. My second child was just born six months ago,” she laughs. “People here are still very adamant about families and the things that mothers should do, so for me, it’s about learning how to balance a growing business and also being a good mom, a good wife, a good daughter-in-law – doing all of that with grace to the best of my ability. That’s a lot of decision-making and prioritizing that men don’t have to do as much.”
“With VIASWEAT, I want to redefine what it means to be a modern woman in Taiwanese society, to show myself and others that it’s possible,” says Melody. “I want to empower women and I want them to feel confident enough to pursue what they want to pursue.”
“You know what’s the best for you. Nobody else knows.” – Anne van Gessel ’02
Anne van Gessel ’02’s favorite memories of TAS revolve around the swimming pool. “I was already 5’9’’ by the time I turned 13 years old. I didn’t feel like I really belonged, but swimming was one of the few things I felt comfortable with. I still have the 50 meter record at TAS, and it feels like there’s still apart of me at school.” The feeling of not belonging or not knowing her place persisted in college, when she attended Lewis and Clark. “I honestly didn’t have a plan in college, and I ended up with an East Asian Studies major, because I wanted to travel and connect with people,” says Anne. It wasn’t until when Anne moved onto an MBA that she chose a specialization in leadership and found out about coaching through her first emotional intelligence (EQ) class.
“In coaching, the belief is that you know what’s the best for you. Nobody else knows,” says Anne. “Coaching is supporting someone in discovering their inner wisdom, that they are capable of making a decision that’s best for them. When I first heard that, a light bulb went off in my mind, oh my God, this is so accurate. I felt for my entire life, I was forced into something, and it never felt right. So this concept really stuck with me.” When Anne decided to become a personal coach, she had a lot of self-doubt initially. “I had to ask one of my mentors – how can I be a coach? Do you think I’d be good at this? I felt like I had to figure it out for myself in order to be a coach for anyone else.”
Her hope to become a personal coach came out of years of experience at the consulting firm Accenture. “In the corporate world, it can be a combative environment where, oftentimes, when something doesn’t go as planned, we come at people, instead of asking how we can help them with what’s happened. It’s a very zero-sum mindset, where you can either choose work or your health, work or your personal life,” says Anne. In July 2018, Anne left the firm to take her first steps into the coaching world and founded Authentic Coaching, LLC.
In many ways, Anne took the leap to becoming an entrepreneur to make the impact that she wants to see. “Coaching as an industry is not standardized,” says Anne. “I have been working on certification through the International Coaching Federation, and my ultimate goal is to coach corporate, because I see so much dysfunction there and at the same time, I see so much possibility for joy and people to be their full selves, to thrive.”
“One of the best things about TAS is the alumni network because we’re such a close-knit group of people.” – Shahina Hatta ‘02
When asked if she ever saw herself starting her own business in the jewelry industry, Shahina Hatta ’02 lets out a huge laugh. “Absolutely not. I was political science and pre-law, and I never thought I would come back to work for my dad, let alone start my own business.” But after a few law firm internships, she decided it wasn’t for her. After working for jewelery retailers including Tiffany & Co. and also working for her father who produced high-end pieces, Shahina started doing more custom pieces and designs for engagement and wedding rings. She eventually made the jump in 2015 to take custom orders full time and create her own business, Bespoke by Shahina.
Four years in, Shahina is grateful for her success. “I registered my business in 2015, and just last year, I launched my e-commerce website.” As she grows her business, she is meeting new challenges. “I’m a one-woman show, and I have a son at home. Because I’m doing all of it alone, I feel like I need to start hiring people to help me,” says Shahina. “I need to figure out how to find someone I can trust to deal with these things and work with high-end goods. In addition, accounting and sharing more on social media are things that don’t come naturally to me. I don’t think things are ever going to be easy, but I’m very grateful and lucky and things have been going fairly smoothly.”
What about going back to her family business? “With family businesses, there can be that conflict between the older and newer generation. My dad’s like, ‘you’re still dealing with peanuts,’” jokes Shahina. “He’s met all his clients through jewelry trade shows, but it’s expensive to set up a booth, buy insurance. For me, I’m bootstrapping, so I’m using Facebook and Instagram for my younger, more affordable market who are buying jewelry online. The business is definitely changing.”
Shahina has nothing but great things to say about the friends she found through TAS and the network that helps her with her business today. “I loved my experience at TAS, and one of the best things is the alumni network because we’re such a close-knit group of people who had that third culture experience. The network especially helps with my business. I’ve done a lot of engagement rings for a lot of my high school friends because they really trust me. I do online business, and in particular, the diamond industry is really opaque. It’s important to find someone that you can trust and educate you and give you what’s the best value for you.”
Summing up the benefits of being an entrepreneur, Shahina says, “One of the main reasons I decided to strike out on my own was for financial and work independence. Working for a family business, I couldn’t always make autonomous choices for myself, so to have ownership of my income and career direction is completely freeing.” For future entrepreneurs, Shahina is 100% supportive. “If they have a dream, go for it! Why not? Without taking any of the risks, you can’t really reap any rewards.”
“When I see the kind of value I’m bringing by introducing great Taiwanese brands to the world, it makes me a little happier.” - Jane Chen ‘08
Jane Chen ’08 studied marketing at Ithaca College, and after earning a postgraduate business certificate at Columbia, she stayed in New York City to work at American Express. “I wanted to tell stories and build strategy through data,” Jane says of her time there. She worked for AmEx in product management for four years, gaining experience in everything customer service related, from chatbot AIs to training and development: “Working at a big company early on in your career, you learn how to think strategically for a larger scale. You have to be aware of all the moving parts and all the different priorities people have.”
Despite her success in New York, Jane always knew she wanted to come back and do something for Taiwan while leveraging her own strengths. “One day, I was looking at this Chinese brand and how it’s marketing to the US, and I wondered, why aren’t Taiwanese companies doing the same thing? That’s basically what my business is about. I’m helping brands expand abroad by bringing a Western perspective to their brand messaging, packaging, and product development to meet American user needs.”
After returning to Taipei in the summer of 2018, Jane started to set up her consulting business, but initially found it hard to get clients until she tapped into her TAS network. “When I first started, I met a lot of alumni at the Thanksgiving Dinner, and that was a great jumping off point to find people in the tech scene and get introductions,” remembers Jane. “I think we always knew that TAS friendships can really last well past high school and even to adult life. But it’s only when you come back to Taiwan do you truly feel the power of the TAS network and how connected we are to folks working in various industries in Taiwan.”
As with some other alumnae, Jane met people who didn’t take her seriously. “Introducing myself in Taiwan as a founder is a very different sensation than in in the US. When I was with my brother or boyfriend at a regular networking event, sometimes people would only look at them and look past me.” Jane was particularly disturbed by one incident. “When I was pitching to one businessman by myself, he didn’t answer my questions, and instead asked me, ‘Why are you trying so hard to do this? Why don’t you just enjoy your time back in Taiwan?’ I can’t imagine them saying this to any guy who was pitching them an idea.”
Despite these obstacles, Jane has been able to jump-start her business with her first client, Cubo, a baby monitor looking to expand to the US. Jane is energized by her new role, but recognizes that being an entrepreneur often means doing it all. “My biggest challenge is to pull myself away from the client work and manage my company needs. While I keep focusing on the work and delivering, I have to remind myself to step back and remember to focus on my company infrastructure so I’m able to bring in a team when I’m ready.” Jane laughs over her latest struggle, “For example, I spent the last month struggling with the bank, because I forgot that they close at 3:30 pm and are closed on the weekends!”
“When I told my mom I wanted to start this business, my mom was very cautious, and she was wondering why I would quit a good job and come back to Taiwan?” recounts Jane. “But at the end of the day, when I see the kind of value I’m bringing by introducing great Taiwanese brands to the world, it makes me a little happier.”
“Being an entrepreneur means you never have the day off.” – Debra Liu ’08
When Debra Liu ’08 moved back to Taipei, she was a dietician fresh from working in hospital clinics and in research in the US. She started working with clients one-on-one to do nutrition counseling, but she soon realized that many clients suffered chronic illnesses, and they hoped that nutrition could be their way back to overall wellness. Debra became convinced that proper nutrition could be the ounce of prevention people needed, and decided in 2017 to start her café, Tamed Fox, to show Taiwanese audiences that nutrition could be exciting and delicious.
Like other alumnae, Debra saw the advantages to starting out her business here. “Starting a health-food café or business in the US would be super hard and super competitive. Realistically, I feel like the US is five to ten years ahead of Taiwan when it comes to trends, so I thought, if I want to get a head start, I should come back.” However, carrying through her concept was harder than Debra realized. “Because everything we have is made from scratch or as much as we can, it takes a lot of time. We need to figure out how to meet the demand, and right now, in this space, it’s a struggle. We make everything in house because we want a lower-fat or lower-sugar version of these common recipes.” Speed is also an obstacle, notes Debra. “Progress is really slow, but there’s only one of me. I spend a lot of time in the kitchen, and I wouldn’t understand as many of the challenges we have if I wasn’t in the kitchen getting my hands dirty, working out recipes."
“Being an entrepreneur means you never have the day off,” confides Debra. “It’s important to know that entrepreneurs have to be ready to be working all the time and get their hands dirty and be okay with being the one washing the toilet. I think some younger people have a misconstrued idea of owning a company – they see their parents being the boss, taking vacations, but they might have struggled with their businesses for ten years before the kids were ever born, and you don’t see that part.”
Like other alumnae, Debra has also received subtle signs that being a female entrepreneur is unexpected. “Occasionally, when people call the café or a construction company shows up, they look right past me and ask for the laoban, like ‘Can I speak to Mr. Liu?’ They expect to see a guy, so when they realize that I’m the boss, they’re shocked for a moment, and are like, oh, wow, you’re so young and female.” However, Debra notes, “Being female, I do have other female entrepreneur friends who are really supportive and helpful.”
Debra is happy to count fellow alumni and current TAS parents among her customers. “We’ve kind of become a family place – I’ll get a big group of moms in the morning, and we’ll see other alumni who are living in Taipei because they’ll drop in for coffee frequently.” In the future, Debra is considering how to scale and expand. “I don’t want Tamed Fox to be a chain, but we do have a popular product in our granola – I’d like to see how we can scale that up, maybe also work with other restaurants to tailor their offerings to be healthy. I do see a movement toward that in Taiwan now.”
Through all the obstacles, Debra is thankful for he family’s support. “I started Tamed Fox for myself, and it’s been able to run on its own, but I think it helps knowing that if I fail miserably and fall flat on my face, my parents would still be supportive, and that really gave me the courage to do it.”