Entrepreneurs in the business of creating happiness share how they, in turn, experience it.
GROOMING ZOEL USING REVLON PROFESSIONAL
FINDING CONTENTMENT THROUGH THE CRUNCH
JONATHAN SHEN, 30 & CHRIS HWANG, 27
CO-FOUNDERS, THE GOLDEN DUCK
One is a creative type with a reputation as a suave manager in the nightlife business. The other, from a family of doctors, rebelled by taking the entrepreneur route. With their easy conﬁdence and suave eloquence, it would be easy to dismiss Jonathan Shen (picture, right) and Chris Hwang (picture, left) as rich kids who lucked out on a golden product idea: salted egg crisps.
In four years, they went from a two-man operation where Shen and Hwang hand-cooked everything at a rented kitchen facility, to a 150-strong company that sold over a million packets of snacks in 2018. Yet while you crunch through their highly addictive offerings – like the original salted egg potato chips and a spicy mix of dehydrated mushrooms, ﬁsh skin crisps and dehydrated beancurd sheets coated in “mala” (Chinese for numbing heat) seasoning – contemplate the fact that the joy they bring to snackers around the world didn’t come without hardship.
The duo, spotlighted in the 2017 Forbes’ 30 under 30 list, might be in a happy place now (especially for Hwang, who was getting married days after our interview). But both had to claw themselves out of a rock-bottom low to get here. The two ACS alumni and serial entrepreneurs met through mutual friends in 2012, and quickly found a kindred spirit in one another. When the seemingly golden opportunity to operate a nightclub for an inﬂuential lifestyle group came in late 2014, Shen – who had by then built up a impressive track record for killing club openings – roped Hwang in. The December 2014 opening of club Vice was hugely anticipated, but a legal dispute would lead to the premature closing of the venue just four months later, causing the duo to lose $300,000. This was not a small sum for the twenty-somethings: Hwang basically lost his inheritance, which he had convinced his parents to release in advance to start the business. For Shen, the eldest of three children brought up by a divorcee, it was a blow that took him many steps back from his goal of affording his mother’s retirement. But they weren’t about to let defeat have the last word.
“There wasn’t much joy during that period. But I recall purpose. When you are in your lowest of lows, purpose is what keeps you going. Mine was to be able to provide for my family,” says Shen. There was also a sense of indignation: “Everyone was telling me to go back to branding, get employed. But I had spent the last four or ﬁve years of my life doing business. It couldn’t end like this.”
The weight of the situation bore down on Shen to the point where he developed a stutter. “At that point in time, we weren’t seeking joy, just a better place to be,” analyses Hwang. “For some, the route might be to give it up and get a job; for others it might be to try again. Neither is a greater struggle than the other, but you have to choose the path that you can live with, and you learn to ﬁnd joy in the pain of the struggle.” Within the same year, Shen hit on the idea of riding the salted-egg trend and incorporating the ﬂavour into packaged snacks. The two decided to make another attempt to take the horns of the bull that had almost crushed them. And this time, they emerged victorious.
“When you reach a state of contentment, you strive for joy and you strive to share it,” opines Hwang. They do this by leveraging on their company as a platform to let individuals fulﬁl their potential. The two speak fondly of employees who’ve experienced personal growth during their time with the company. They gleefully talk about how they forbid staff to report to work when they are at the brink of a burnout, or push them to take time off to spend with their family, and proudly detail the efforts they put into understanding their staff as individuals. “It is a bit like a family here now. We have realised that to grow a business, we have to do it with people, and we have to care about them – you cannot care if you don’t know,” says Shen.
The joy of positively impacting people – be it their customers around the globe or those they work with – might be all of a faint buzz compared to the highs of sealing a big deal. Yet it is what Hwang and Shen seek today.
Sounding very much older than his 27 years, Hwang muses: “The ecstasy one feels clinching a deal or buying a shiny car might be great, but it fades. Small joys, however, build day by day – and with that, every day looks a bit brighter.”
HAIR ZOEL USING REVLON PROFESSIONAL MAKEUP NISA B USING LAURA MERCIER
WELCOME TO THE PLEASURE DOME
JOHN KIM, 41, MANAGING PARTNER, AMASIA
ELAINE KIM, 37, CEO AND CO-FOUNDER, TREHAUS
In a time when work-life balance is regarded as the key to happiness, John and Elaine Kim are offering a different perspective: Don’t try to balance the two, just integrate them. “We are working all the time, but we are also playing all the time,” says Elaine.
The mother of three juggles multiple roles as a palliative care doctor, serial entrepreneur and CEO of social enterprise Crib which supports women entrepreneurs. And her latest project, Trehaus, certainly bears out that philosophy of integrating work with play. A whimsically beautiful venue that seamlessly blends a full-day preschool and play areas with a co-working space, it is designed to be conducive for both tiny tots and their parents. “Your work never stops as an entrepreneur or venture capitalist – it takes 100 percent of you, all the time. So is the work of a mother,” she shares. “Yet one wouldn’t have to choose between the two if they could be integrated.”
On his end, venture capitalist John ropes their sons aged eight, six and three into his self-scripted vlogs about topics spanning pitching strategies to, well, the CNY red packet revenue life cycle. In The John Kim Show, his kids narrate, rap and dance, while John – previously a professional musician who has played with Grammy award winner Brandy – sings, plays the violin, acts, and even cross-dresses.
Positive impact on others has always been a focus for what we do. And now, as a mother, the most important legacy I can leave is to bring up a new generation of change-makers who can give back to others – not just with their skills and smarts, but also with their resilience, kindness, curiosity and creativity.
The Wharton alumnus also draws his children closer into his world as an entrepreneur by helping his two eldest sons start their ﬁrst company Sonical.ly. Together with renowned K-Pop producer Elmo Chong, his kids help to design an alternative music education curriculum for other children: one that uses story-telling and gamiﬁcation to creatively impart the fundamentals of music making.
Their approach to life doesn’t just create more moments of joy for themselves, but for many others touched by what they do. While Elaine’s work has repercussive effect on families, Amasia’s investments – currently centred on businesses with a sustainability stance – has far-reaching impact on many levels, from the business owners that he invests in and the staff they hire, to the millions of users of their products.
“We love offering new solutions to old problems – and being able to share that solution with others is a nice side beneﬁt,” says Elaine, whose preschool at Trehaus upends industry norms with their 1:5 teacher-student ratio, and incorporates the best from different early education pedagogy to create programmes such as Little Entrepreneur, Little Philanthropist, Little CEO. “Challenging the status quo and solving problems give us satisfaction and fulﬁlment. Sharing what we have with others gives us joy.”
The biggest opportunities today are in making the world a better place, be it a technology that allows people to adopt best practices, or a company that reduces food waste by offering restaurants perfectly good ingredients that aren’t pristine enough for supermarket shelves.”
Echoing her point, John shares an observation he made as a young man: “Those who are focused on themselves, celebrate by themselves, but also have only themselves to lean on in difficult times. But if you expand your circle of concern beyond the individual, you will ﬁnd your individual trials and tribulations so small, relative to the bigger issues out there. Such people are the most steadfast and joyful as they have a purpose bigger than themselves.”
And the driver behind this purpose has to be more than just a pursuit of “happiness”. John, an American-born Korean who minored in psychology at the University of Pennsylvania explains: “Happiness is, when explained in biological terms, a squirt of dopamine triggered by something satisfying. But the next time you get the same thing, the squirt of dopamine gets less, and you will ﬁnd yourself doing more and more just to get what you felt the ﬁrst time. That is not joy – it’s a rat race.”
For him, joy is a knowledge deep within that whatever happens, whether it’s failure, obstacles or an attack, everything will be ok. And this sense of joy comes from his Christian faith. “It is a peacefulness,” says Elaine, chiming in. “An appreciation of life and a thankfulness for – and awareness of – all our blessings big and small. This gives us a bigger purpose beyond ourselves, and makes us see that our personal ups and downs are not the be-all and end-all.”
PHOTOGRAPHY FRENCHESCAR LIM & DARREN CHANG
ART DIRECTION FAZLIE HASHIM