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Eat Pray Startup: One Entrepreneur's Search for Creativity and Innovation Around the World

By Jennifer Chang

· Digital Nomads,Trends

Video: Presentation at Innovate Pasadena Friday Coffee Meetup on April 26, 2019 at Cross Campus Pasadena.

Note to readers: The below is my script for the presentation I gave in the above video. It's not word-for-word exact, but the content of this blog and video are basically the same in the key points.

Hi, I’m Jennifer Chang, and I’m really excited to be sharing my story with you guys today. I recently came back from a trip around the world, and I found myself using entrepreneurship as a shared interest to connect with new people and places all over the world. It was an experience I really feel privileged to have had, and I believe that if you’re given a lot in life, you need to share it with others, which is why I’m hosting this event. I hope through my presentation, you’ll learn more about what’s happening around the world, which can only make you a better entrepreneur.

I did my first trip around the world in 2007, when I was 24. That was really more of your classic 20-something traveling around the world to find herself. And I did. A couple of years later, I joined my first startup. After a couple of failures, a brief period of homelessness, an MBA, a bump-in with Steve Jobs at Apple, and a stint as a digital nomad in Southeast Asia, I finally reached a major milestone in 2017 when a company I helped start called FanBread, was acquired by an SF company called RockYou. After FanBread, I was so burnt out I didn’t have the capacity to start anything again, so I chased the rising tech pay and moved to San Francisco to join a logistics startup, and then got recruited back south by a Sequoia-backed startup in Los Angeles as head of marketing. And then - I was fired. So I found myself in 2018 without a job and with a bit of money saved up. I was 35 years old, single and childless. So I decided - why not? Let’s go on a second trip around the world!

Places Around The World

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Here’s where my journey took me. I know the map feels backwards, but that’s because I went west. Over the course of 6 months, I traveled across 20 countries and flew over 45,000 miles on what was a total 35 flights. I went in a westward direction because I had gone east in 2007. I didn’t work during this trip, but I discovered that I must love what I do, because even though I had no work to do, I spent a large part of this journey in places with a lot of startup activity and ended up networking with entrepreneurs and investors throughout my journey. For the purposes of this presentation, I’m going to start with some of the macro trends I saw, and then go into some of the people I met.


I’ll start in China, which is arguably the most important economy for everyone to watch. I first visited Shanghai in 2002, and I’ve gone back frequently over the past 16 years, so it’s a country I’ve watched grow over the past couple of decades. My comment on present-day Shanghai is that it’s expensive. What I mean by that is that when I went to Shanghai 16 years ago, it was very much a developing economy. In 2002, China’s GDP per capita was about $1,150. Today, it’s at about $8,000 but more than double that in cities like Shanghai and Beijing. The growth has been rapid, and it’s entirely transformed life for the Chinese. Today, Shanghai is a developed economy. It’s as expensive as New York, if not more. And while China is a massive country, and Shanghai is not indicative of the rest of the country, the fact that China’s GDP growth in 2018 was only 6.6%, the lowest in 28 years. Part of this is due to the Trade War, but my Shanghai experience makes me think it’s more indicative of parts of China having taught up to the world, and that the end of the miraculous 10%+ growth per year. Which means in order for it to continue its growth, it’ll need to think about how to compete on innovation rather than on productivity.

But China’s growth has provided its neighbors with a playbook, and Vietnam is very evident of this. This was my first time in Vietnam, but it actually felt familiar. As I mentioned, I first visited Shanghai in 2002, and I’m Korean-American and have been visiting South Korea most years since I was born. Vietnam felt a lot like Shanghai in 2002 or Seoul when I was growing up in the ‘80s. So I dug into the numbers to see if the data supported my experience, and I was actually pretty surprised to see this. As you can see, South Korea in 1983 was at a similar GDP per capita as Vietnam is today, but today, Korea is at about $30k per capita. China was much lower when I first visited, but as I mentioned before, Tier 1 cities like Shanghai are actually more like 2-3x the overall Chinese GDP. Vietnam is not growing as fast as South Korea was in the 80’s, but it’s doing pretty good with GDP consistently growing at 5%+ since 2010, and this is with nearly twice the population of Korea. I think Vietnam and other emerging economies are important for entrepreneurs to think about. While it’s still relatively poor, I think it’ll quickly become a major consumer base. For example, when I was in Seoul, I heard a few stories about consumer startups that were surprised to discover their fastest growing market was Vietnam.

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Like China, it’s a massive population with 1.3B people within its borders. But it’s an entirely different beast. This trip was my first time in India, and if you haven’t been yet, I highly recommend it for anyone who’s in tech. You’ll see that there are US company logos everywhere - Microsoft, Amazon, Target, etc. There’s a lot said about the quality of engineering talent in India, but cost and volume cannot be denied. May I say again, they have 1.3 BILLION people. That’s about 4 times the population of the US, and even more important, 53% of them are under the age of 25! As you can see, the US is only 33% and China, the only other country with comparable population, is only at 30% because of their one child policy. So India has the largest population of young people in the world, and that’s pretty important because not to be ageist, but I doubt a bunch of 60 year olds are going to learn how to code. In 2017, thanks to this massive group of young people, India surpassed the US to become the country with the largest number of software engineers in the world. Also what I found really interesting in my conversations with Indian entrepreneurs is what they told me about the shift in the talent market. Unlike the other economies I had visited prior to India, India has multiple generations of tech talent. The older generation was focused on US and European outsourcing, but the next generation behind them now wants to be innovators themselves. This next generation is not aspiring to work for the outsourced arm of a US company, but want to be the next Flipkart, which was acquired by Walmart at a $22B valuation. As we think about the future of tech and how to scale, India will have to factor into the equation somehow.

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I bring up the UK to talk specifically about what I found remarkable my most recent visit to London was the level of automation and digitization in the city. If you’ve been to London recently, you probably also noticed that self-checkout has pretty much replaced cashiers. And Google Pay and Apple Pay were everywhere. As you can see, the data also reflects this. As of 2016, 23.3% of payments in the UK were contactless, whereas only 0.3% in the US. Note that this is pretty old data, and in 2018, the UK is already at more than 50% of payments are contactless. I brought up this up because as you think about products, it’s important to think about tech adoption in different countries. While the US and UK speak the same language and I would call it our most similar country after Canada, it’s far ahead of us in contactless payments.

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People Around The World

So those were some of my macro findings that I thought would be interesting to share, but I also wanted to talk about some of the interesting people I met with on my journey. I don’t have a lot of time to delve into each of these, so I encourage you to further research any that you find interesting, since all of this is online.

I’ll start with Primer in South Korea, since it was one of my first stops. Primer is South Korea’s #1 accelerator according to most of the stats out there. I’ve known the founder of Primer, Douglas Guen, for a few years now, and he’s a really unique person that I’ve come to admire. South Korea has a very short, but powerful history, in tech, and most of that tech is associated with huge conglomerates like Samsung and Hyundai. As such, there isn’t a big base of successful serial tech entrepreneurs like we’re privileged to have in the US. That being said, the Primer fund was created by the few there are. Douglas was a serial tech entrepreneur in the 90’s, and he took his winnings and created the Primer fund. To invest in Primer, he requires that you earned the money yourself as an entrepreneur with a minimum exit size. The investors are also expected to help develop the next generation of talent coming through the accelerator.

Openspace is a Singaporean fund that I met with a couple of times, and also another story about a successful entrepreneur paying it forward. The fund was started by Hian Goh, who had a successful exit with the Asian Food Channel, which he sold to Scripps Interactive. Openspace’s claim to fame is that they were an early investor in GO-JEK, which is the Indonesian super app that is currently valued at $10B, but the reason I’ve included them in my presentation is that I found their operational model to be reflective of what is happening in SE Asia. As I mentioned, Vietnam is growing rapidly, but so are a lot of their neighbors. SE Asia collectively represents a population of over 640M people across 11 countries, many of which are rapidly growing, and Singaporean VCs like Openspace have positioned themselves to be at the center of this growth. Openspace has the challenge, though, of figuring out how to capitalize from this boom in economic growth with local entrepreneurs with limited experience. As such, in addition to investment, they offer operational support through their in-house team of engineers, recruiters, marketers and more. The collaboration is enabling companies like GO-JEK which was founded by entrepreneurs who have the local expertise and political connections in Indonesia, but lack the functional expertise in engineering.

Another unique accelerator I had the privilege of checking out was T-Hub in Hyderabad, India. I was invited out to Hyderabad by the founding CEO of T-Hub, Jay Krishnan. T-Hub is India’s largest startup accelerator, and the unique thing about it is that it’s a public-private partnership that was launched by the Telangana state government, corporate sponsors, academic institutions, and startup entrepreneurs like Jay. I was really surprised by this because if you think the US has a dysfunctional government, ask Indians about theirs. But T-Hub has found a sustainable model through cooperation of government, along with foreign and domestic corporations. Since being founded in 2015, they’ve had hundreds of startups come through their programs. They’ve found a lot of success through a model of inviting corporations to come in with specific problems and missions, and then matching them to local startups solving those problems.

I included Israel on this trip because I read Startup Nation, which if you haven’t read, you should add it to your list. Israel is indisputably one of the global leaders in innovation and has more startups per capita than anywhere else in the world. But it’s a tiny country with only 8M people and limited corporate market. How is it pulling this off? I credit it to organization and a global mindset. While in Israel, I had a couple of meetings with the Israeli Innovation Authority, an independent, but publicly-funded organization that is tasked with ensuring that Israel’s innovative companies have the resources to thrive and compete globally. The organization acts as a central authority for Israeli tech companies of all sizes and their government funding is tied to a series of metrics that indicate innovation and entrepreneurship are thriving in the country. IIA is also responsible for coordinating relationships with startup ecosystems across the world. The people I met with were responsible for establishing relationships within specific countries, giving Israeli companies a conduit through which they can work on global partnerships.

Another organization I wanted to share with you is Tribe Theory. I’m sure a lot of you have heard about the “Digital Nomad” trend of entrepreneurs and freelancers who quit their first-world jobs to travel around the world while working remotely. Tribe Theory is capitalizing on this trend as a venture hotel and community for digital nomads and entrepreneurs traveling on business. I discovered Tribe Theory in Singapore, and in their coworking space, I made a lot of new friends who share my lifestyle and passion for entrepreneurship. Serendipitously, I also discovered that the founder, Vikram Bharati, and I had gone to USC MBA at the same time, but in different programs. After Singapore, I followed the Tribe to their location in Yangon, Myanmar, and then to Bangalore. They also have locations in Bali and Hong Kong and are about to open in Estonia. I invited Tribe Theory to sponsor this event because I wanted to share it with the LA community. If you’re doing a trip like mine, definitely check them out because it was a major highlight of my trip.

Learnings Around The World

We can’t take our position as an innovation leader for granted. Silicon Valley got a 50-year head start, but the world is closing in on our lead rapidly. One thing I do notice among some of the frontrunners - China, Israel, Singapore, and South Korea - is the proactive role of government. I do think that there is something uniquely powerful about Silicon Valley in that it works in spite of government more so than with government. That being said, as Americans, I think it’s important that we don’t take our lead for granted. That we push on our governments to do more. That we continue to focus on building communities and mentoring the next generation.

Travel is practice for entrepreneurship. Before I took off on this trip, I had some concerns about taking time off because I’m so Type A, the idea of a break is really scary. But I realized that taking this time was really important in further developing the skills that have enabled me to be successful in the startup world. Like startups, traveling involves a lot of ambiguity and as such, required me to work on the same skills I use as an entrepreneur - patience, focus, and resourcefulness.

And to tie this back to what started my journey - You know when you’re sitting in a product meeting and debating how to launch a feature and can’t reach consensus? That’s how I was feeling about life when I decided to do this. But then I realized, I’ve already learned the solution to this as a result of my work. As I tell my product team whenever we end up in this situation - let’s stop talking about what we SHOULD do, and talk about what we WILL do to test our theories. So rather than try to analyze my way through this decision, I decided to just start DOING. Throughout my journey, I tested myself and tried on different realities to see how I reacted. You can analyze all you want. You can make pro/con lists. You can ask your friends for their opinions. But there’s nothing like actually conducting the experiment to gain insights. So if you’re ever in a position where you’re asking yourself “should,” stop and put together an action plan instead.