After 6 years in equity trading at JP Morgan travelling around the world, Karen Farzam suddenly found herself at a crossroads when she and her husband decided to move to Hong Kong. She could continue her trading career there, but she was increasingly excited by the idea of entrepreneurship. When she found the right co-founder in a good friend also living in Hong Kong, she decided to take the leap and start WHub, an organization that connects startups to useful resources, such as talent, investors and networking events.
Now Karen is founder of both WHub and Women Who Code in Hong Kong, and is busy supporting its growing startup ecosystem. Her perspective on transitioning from a traditional corporate path to entrepreneurship is valuable for anyone interested in making the switch.
This interview was originally published on Prabha Dublish’s blog featuring international women entrepreneurs. Edited excerpts of the interview follow.
Tell us more about you and WHub.
I’m French, but I grew up in Tokyo. I did half my studies split between Paris and Montreal, with my internships in Tokyo. I went to an engineering school and then received a master’s degree in finance. Then I started touring for JP Morgan as an equity trader in exotics. I did that for about 6 years. Then I moved to Hong Kong, where I re-connected with a good friend of mine and WHub co-founder, Karena. We decided to dive into entrepreneurship and better understand the entrepreneur’s mission. We wanted to showcase entrepreneurs’ visions for a better world.
WHub is a platform for startups to showcase what they do, recruit more people, build more synergies, and get more visibility. The W is for “Why.” By better understanding “why,” you can drive more resources for your business.
What was the transition from JP Morgan to entrepreneurship like?
I was really astonished at how entrepreneurs can be so confident in their belief that they are bettering the world.
When we started talking about WHub in the idea phase, it was really expensive to hire web developers. With a background in engineering, I took coding classes at General Assembly and really enjoyed it. After I worked for a startup for 5 months, I started WHub. I think when you taste entrepreneurship and find something that you love to do, it’s hard to go back.
Was there a specific reason you picked Hong Kong?
We came to Hong Kong because it was a financial center, and when I was working as a trader it made sense. In terms of entrepreneurship, it’s a good place to start a company because it’s a springboard to the rest of Southeast Asia.
What are the pros and cons of starting up in Hong Kong?
It’s multicultural and the hub for Southeast Asia in terms of finance and logistics. The existing infrastructure allows you expand your startup more rapidly compared to other places. The recruiting opportunities here are also better, and you are able to find higher quality people.
One thing that makes starting up in Hong Kong difficult is that it’s really expensive, so you need to validate your idea quickly. Another is the shortage of technical talent. Most people get a business degree if they don’t know what to do, and engineering is a tier 3 sort of job, meaning there are less people pursuing it. The people who are technical are attracted to financial companies that can pay much more for their talent. Entrepreneurship is new here and it doesn’t have the same appeal yet.
Have you ever felt any discrimination because you are a woman?
I’m also the co-founder of Women Who Code here. When we started hosting meetups and building the movement, it was not a fight for equality — I don’t really believe there is gender discrimination here. The real discrimination is when you make lists of female entrepreneurs. It’s quite annoying to be on a list just because you are a woman — there’s more to us than gender. What we are fighting for is for more students to go into tech, especially women who often don’t want to try it out.
What helps you get through those challenging days?
My co-founder. Being a solo founder must be really hard. There are a lot of ups and downs, and you’ll have doubts from time to time. Having a co-founder means you can share those burdens, which is immensely helpful. The support of your family is helpful as well. And then for us the support we receive from our community, which believes in what we are doing, really goes a long way.
Do you ever wish you had gone directly into the startup scene?
At that time I wasn’t ready. It was good for me to learn how to work in a corporate setting because the goal for every startup is to reach that point. So I believe you need to know how that environment works. Being a trader made me who I am and helped me learn so much. For me, everything happens for a reason. I wouldn’t change anything.
What advice do you have for college students who want to start a business?
It’s not about wanting to be an entrepreneur, but more about finding a project that you believe in so much that you have no other choice but to go build it. It’s more about the mission, rather than being an entrepreneur for the sake of being an entrepreneur.
If you really want to solve a problem, meet with people and do what you can. The truth is that nothing is doable without a team. We talk a lot about the co-founders, but the entire team is the backbone. Maybe you don’t have the original idea, but you can still join a team and have an impact and learn. Start by joining a startup with a mission that you believe in.
Prabha Dublish is an undergraduate business student at Babson College in Wellesley, Mass., and co-founder and president of Womentum, a nonprofit pay-it-forward crowdfunding platform that allows anyone in the world to donate to women entrepreneurs in developing countries.