Female Founder AMA: How these 9 founders started their venture & what they've learned along the way
A key component of venture building is the driving force behind it; the founders who supercharge their vision and transform an idea into a tangible company.
Entrepreneurs play a huge role in shaping the future of our world, and female entrepreneurs are a crucial part of this using their voices, experience and expertise to mold what entrepreneurialism and leadership looks like in today’s society.
At entrepreneurship@UBC, we help build leaders who go on to impact the economic, social and environmental fabric of our world. So, we wanted to take you “behind the scenes” to meet some of the incredible female founders across entrepreneurship@UBC in Vancouver and the Okanagan to learn what inspired their company, the best advice they’ve received so far and what they are up to now.
Meet Ada Leung of Cuprous Pharmaceuticals, Brianna Blaney and Aria Hahn of deepND, Ayissi Nyemba of EMKAO FOODS, Michelle Kwok and Ravina Anand of FLIK, Alyssa Farr and Linsey Reimer of TasteAdvisor, and Rachel Chase of Zennea Technologies.
Find out more about their ventures at the end of this post
Q: How did you get started? What prompted you to launch your venture?
Ada (Cuprous): I started Cuprous Pharmaceuticals with my PhD supervisor and our CEO after I completed my graduate studies. It was truly a mix of factors including the development of a novel technology, timing, the passion to learn and try something new and challenging, and the vision of bringing new therapeutics to patients that led me to the path of being a scientist-entrepreneur.
Aria (deepND): I have a long and growing list of projects and ideas I want to complete, and running a company is the closest I can think of to having a job that lets you both explore and spend some time doing just what you want! That attitude, combined with meeting Brianna was all the reason I needed to jump in the deepND.
Brianna (deepND): I’m a big believer that the best businesses solve actual business problems. deepND was built in response to a billion-dollar problem: employee turnover. When I started my first business (an HR services company) 4 years ago, I thought we could solve the problem with ‘better hiring’. We didn’t, so we set out to find a better solution. Our hypothesis was simple: when people succeed at work, they stay longer. Now we get to work alongside brilliant people in pursuit of a shared mission: to help everyone succeed at work.
Ayissi (EMKAO): EMKAO FOODS started from a conversation with my dad about the situation of the smallholders' farmers in my village in Cameroon. It came from a conversation about who of his 6 children will continue the hard work of my grandparents. Back in 2015, I was a student at University of Sherbrooke where I was part of several businesses’ associations. I was organizing conferences to push the international students like myself to become entrepreneurs. Receiving that call from my father that day, I felt like duty called and, without hesitation, I knew. It was time for me to do everything in my power to help the smallholders' farmers in my village...EMKAO, the name of the project, was then born in 2016 when I came to BC carrying my unborn child.
Michelle and Ravina (FLIK): We were randomly roomed together at Next 36, an entrepreneurship program in Toronto. Although a life-changing experience, it was immediately clear that there weren’t a proportionate amount of female founders and colleagues in the program, or even in the general Canadian entrepreneurship scene. We made it our mission to tangibly support entrepreneurial womxn across the world, so they wouldn’t have to struggle to find the female founders and mentors that we struggled only a year ago and so female founders wouldn’t be so unbelievably under-resourced.
Alyssa (TasteAdvisor): I wanted to do something in tech and something that would impact an entire industry. Living in a wine region and experiencing the cultural and economic benefits that wine brings, highlighted an opportunity to introduce technology that would make the industry more sustainable.
Linsey (TasteAdvisor): I was looking for an opportunity to work on something with impact. Alyssa and I have very compatible skills, so when she shared her idea, I knew we would work well together. I also wanted to stay in tech and working on a project that would have direct local impact was very appealing.
Rachel (Zennea): Zennea was inspired by our family members and friends who couldn’t sleep. My co-founder, Oliver Luo, and I saw our favourite people suffering through painful procedures, ineffective solutions and desperate for something that would work. We decided to make that solution.
Q: What has been the best piece of advice on company building you’ve received so far?
Ada (Cuprous): “The first 10 hires can make or break your company.” With a new start-up, there are more than enough to think about and to do each day. Having the right team with the same vision is key to any company.
Aria (deepND): One piece? A great mentor at entrepreneurship@UBC once told me that she was successful because she and her company were like a cat clinging to a screen – they survived, and focused on finding the market and building the company around that – painfully (always) but tenaciously – until they found it! I am aiming to be that cat too.
Brianna (deepND): Some of the best advice I ever got about business was to say yes and figure it out later. Don’t wait until you have all of the answers. You never will. Instead, say yes and dive quickly into customer discovery to validate that what you’re building is something people would pay for. Otherwise you don’t have a business, you have a really cool idea – and ideas are cheap. I’ll also echo Aria about the importance of resilience.
Ayissi (EMKAO): “Stuff will always happen, just be over prepared and always try to mitigate the risks.” - literally said like that from my brother, Steve Nyemba, who supported me since I came to Canada in 2013.
Michelle and Ravina (FLIK): You have to be open to feedback from all diverse perspectives, actively integrate it, and iterate effectively and efficiently.
Alyssa and Linsey (TasteAdvisor): The best thing we did as a company was to set our values and find team members who share them. It gives us a baseline for decision-making and allows us to weather the ups and downs of entrepreneurship.
Rachel (Zennea): Make sure everyone on your team has buy in for a clear goal. You can’t build a company alone; it takes an army of passionate people to create a solution for a prevalent problem.
Q: What is a challenge you’ve faced as a founder? How did you overcome, or move on, from it?
Ada (Cuprous): As part of a founding team, disagreements are inevitable when it comes to making decisions about company direction. In order to ensure that the team functions as one, we conduct regular strategy sessions to discuss and clarify the team’s thoughts and collectively come up with agreed upon solutions and strategies to steer the company towards our goal.
Aria (deepND): Messaging is hard for me. There are too many reasons to think something is cool – and while I understand that it’s different reasons for different people, I have a hard time penning that. This is solvable by hiring and talking with people better at this than me! Call in an expert and run it by everyone to see what sticks.
Brianna (deepND): Focus. Being relentlessly focused on one thing, one industry, one customer segment. Yet focus is (usually) essential to succeeding as a start-up. It helped me to learn that focus doesn’t mean ‘never’, it just means ‘not yet’. As it turns out, having a vision for what’s next and staying agile is also critical – especially when a global pandemic derails your roadmap.
Ayissi (EMKAO): The challenges I am having is having access to financing. As a pre-revenue company, a woman under 30 when I started and a newcomer to Canada, not many funds/grants are easy to access...and, when they are, it is a small portion of what you really need. I am trying to better plan, network, share, and talk to other business owners who have been facing the same financing challenges as I have...and, of course, receiving the advice of my Advisory board who are committed/dedicated to helping my venture with my growth.
Michelle and Ravina (FLIK): Being young founders who are also women of colour, we’ve faced a lot of comments like: “Aren’t you too young to be a founder?”, “With your personality, you seemed like someone who didn’t take anything seriously.” And so many more…Faced with these external coupled with internal doubts, we were always wracked with imposter syndrome. We had to remind ourselves every day that we were building something of meaning, something with a greater social impact, and something that we completely resonated with from day one. We used that to fire our self-confidence to launch our venture.
Alyssa and Linsey (TasteAdvisor): We value resilience. We put our emphasis on what we can contribute and are flexible on how we can contribute. We always say, “We aren’t precious”; we’re not fixated on “how” we’re accomplishing our goals, we’re willing to explore multiple options. This flexibility is the key to resilience in start ups.
Rachel (Zennea): Overcoming failures and finding ways to re-strategize back to the end goal. Failing is inevitable as a startup founder and its expected to happen repeatedly as you make progress. However, retraining your mindset to focus on the learnings and the opportunities the failure created is a great way to make progress.
Q: How has entrepreneurship@UBC(O) helped further your venture building journey?
Ada (Cuprous): The workshops and programs provided by e@UBC were particularly helpful to new entrepreneurs with little business experience. Our team has been able to receive honest and constructive feedback from seasoned mentors in how we conduct our customer discovery and pitch/present our company to others. Our mentors are also extremely approachable and open to connect us to people in their network who may be of interest in our venture.
Aria and Brianna (deepND): entrepreneurship@UBC has supported us with incredible resources and training - but the biggest step change has been the network. We’ve met and now befriended a lot of talented people. In fact, we met each other (!!) through entrepreneurship@UBC! We also met fellow founders, mentors, and advisors who can and are willing to help with almost any ask.
Ayissi (EMKAO): entrepreneurship@UBC has helped me to restructure my ideas into a solid business model; helped me to better explain how, through my company, I will make social impact at the farm level gate and through my industry; helped me to better understand why I am doing this; [helped me] work on my pitch deck; [helped gain] access to key partners; supported me by promoting my company; and supported with restructuring of my company’s brand.
Michelle and Ravina (FLIK): entrepreneurship@UBC has been an amazing support along the way. Providing us with legal structural support, one-on-one mentorship, and a team of extremely qualified MBA interns to consult us on our pricing analysis and cost structure. Paul Needham, our mentor [and entrepreneurship@UBC Entrepreneur in Residence] has been an exceptional mentor throughout our journey.
Alyssa and Linsey (TasteAdvisor): Someone once said there is a big difference between mentors and sponsors. Both are valuable. Mentors give feedback and instruction, however sponsors leverage their relationships to give you opportunities. entrepreneurship@UBCO has given us lots of mentorship but most importantly has helped us find sponsors that have made the difference in us moving from concept to traction.
Rachel (Zennea): entrepreneurship@UBC has provided Zennea with incredible mentors that are experts in our space. They’ve given us the tools and community needed to be successful.
Q: Outside of being a founder, what do you like to do? What are you passionate about?
Ada (Cuprous): Outside of being a founder, I like to dance, bake, and pick up new hobbies and skills.
Aria (deepND): Like I said before I have a long and growing lists of projects and ideas I want to get done. I have a problem of too many interests and not enough time. I also have a family and I love time spent with them.
Brianna (deepND): The silver lining of the COVID-19 pandemic has been the time to revisit interests. When I’m not solving problems, you’ll find me fighting the perpetual onslaught of weeds in my garden, collecting wine with my husband, taking (at least) 2 x longer than the recipe says to cook and bake, or spending time with my (massive!) family.
Ayissi (EMKAO): I am a proud mother of one child. He is 4 years old and we like outdoor activities like hiking, farming, kayaking, boxing, basketball etc. I am passionate about entrepreneurship. To me, it is a lifestyle/mindset and, definitely a second nature. I can wake up at any time during the night and think about how I can make things better for my community (for example, the “IKAREKAO” campaign I ran to support our health care heroes during the pandemic).
Michelle and Ravina (FLIK): We are all about developing broad skill sets. Besides hopping from zoom conference to zoom conference to speak on topics like women’s empowerment, diversity and inclusion, breaking traditional barriers, and entering entrepreneurship, amongst many other topics, we are always looking to learn. We listen to podcasts like The Daily, discover cultural food together, run, go to spin classes, play tennis, and enjoy nature. We’re always on the go thinking about how to expand FLIK’s impact.
Rachel (Zennea): Aside from being passionate about getting a good nights’ sleep, I like to spend my time working with young entrepreneurs, getting outside, and travelling. Given COVID19, I’m very grateful to be living in BC with such a great backyard to explore.
Q: What's up next for you and your venture?
Ada (Cuprous): We are working to expand our capabilities and to develop new technologies to target cancer and infectious diseases. Check our website to find out more!
Aria and Brianna (deepND): We have products in MVP – up next is getting the data to demonstrate the impact deepND has for our clients, then growing that client list!
Ayissi (EMKAO): Short-term, I plan to complete our facility and begin production, launch sales, optimize production, focus on expanding sales and import a second container of beans. Long term, I plan to raise equity funding and purchase our own facility.
Michelle and Ravina (FLIK): We’re in 38+ countries and want to keep expanding globally. We’re set to do an entire product upgrade of FLIK so that we can better support our user base of now over 3400 womxn across the world. We are hoping that we have the infrastructure to support women across cultures and break down barriers for all those hoping to enter entrepreneurship.
Alyssa and Linsey (TasteAdvisor): Of course we’re focused on expansion; for us that means working with emerging or innovative wine regions across Canada, USA, Australia and New Zealand. More importantly, we’re seeking long term partnerships where we can continue to bring value beyond just selling our product. For us, this means the beginning of facilitating important discussions that allow regions to share best practices that support resilience and sustainability.
Rachel (Zennea): Zennea is conducting a clinical study for our novel medical device for chronic snoring and mild obstructive sleep apnea. If you know anyone in Vancouver, the southern interior of British Columbia, Calgary, or south/central Alberta who may be interested in participating in Zennea’s clinical study, please refer them to Michelle Nelson (firstname.lastname@example.org), the Site Coordinator, for information on recruitment.
About their ventures:
Ada Leung - Cuprous Pharmaceuticals provides technologies to pharmaceutical partners to create best-in-class nanomedicines.
Aria Hahn and Brianna Blaney - deepND’s talent optimization platform helps organizations retain their hourly employees longer using proactive recommendations delivered at the right time, and individualized based on data and people science.
Ayissi Nyemba - Emkao Foods is a small cocoa beans processor and chocolate ingredients supplier. *Website coming soon!
Michelle Kwok and Ravina Anand - FLIK is a platform that connects female founders/leaders and students across the world via meaningful apprenticeships.
Alyssa Farr and Linsey Reimer - TasteAdvisor takes the guesswork out of buying wine.
Rachel Chase - Zennea Technologies is a medical device company conducting clinical trials for a novel wearable medical device to treat chronic snoring and mild obstructive sleep apnea.
A huge thanks to Ada, Aria, Brianna, Ayissi, Michelle, Ravina, Alyssa, Linsey, and Rachel for participating and sharing their journeys as founders!
Interested in furthering your own venture building journey? Join us for our Community Town Hall September 8th and save the date for Entrepreneurship Immersion Week, September 28th - October 2nd where Brianna of deepND will be a moderator! Stay in the know by visiting our event website.