(Women on Top in Tech is a series about Women Founders, CEOs, and Leaders in technology. It aims to amplify and bring to the fore diversity in leadership in technology.)
So-Young Kang is a serial entrepreneur who is passionate about maximizing human creative potential. She is Catalyst & Founder of an award-winning, multi-disciplinary Transformation Design (TD) firm Awaken Group that integrates strategy, leadership, and innovation to design experiences that catalyze change. So-Young Kang is also the Founder & CEO at Gnowbe, a pioneering transformational learning platform. It is a microlearning app that helps people build personalized learning journeys while on-the-go. In 2014, she was selected by the World Economic Forum to be a Young Global Leader.
What makes you do what you do?
I’m driven by purpose and the desire to develop people around the world. I believe in lifelong learning and the need to constantly improve ourselves. I feel privileged to have the chance to pursue my dreams to use technology to humanize the world.
How did you rise in the industry you are in?
It evolved over time. In some ways, I have come full circle as I started teaching when I was 11 years old. I guess I have locked in my 10k hours of teaching by now! 🙂 After building corporate experience at McKinsey, Citigroup and with my MBA from Harvard, I became an entrepreneur. This gave me a platform to develop my own perspectives on business, technology, innovation, and education. I found a hidden love for communicating ideas and reflections with others. In many ways, this has broadened my reach and impact as a serial entrepreneur to become a thought leader for the work we do with transformation in Awaken Group and in mobile learning for Gnowbe.
Thought leadership has been key to having a ‘seat at the table to influence and shape the industries we play in.
Why did you take on this role/start this startup especially since this is perhaps a stretch or challenge for you (or viewed as one since you are not the usual leadership demographics)?
Several years ago, we faced a challenge at Awaken Group on how to scale learning to thousands of people in an organization. We couldn’t find a solution that would create a powerful experiential learning journey on mobile or web. So I feel I had no choice but to solve this problem which resulted in founding Gnowbe. And if we take a step back, one of the largest challenges facing humanity today is keeping ourselves relevant in the face of technologies like robotics and AI which may replace us. I would like to be part of solutions that help people stay relevant, constantly learning and developing.
Do you have a mentor that you look up to in your industries or did you look for one or how did that work?
I have different mentors and advisors who I look to for different areas of expertise across industries, experience levels, and geographies. While Gnowbe is my 2nd startup, it’s my first tech startup so there are many things I don’t know. Having mentors has been critical for me to learn quickly, bounce ideas off of, and support me when things get tough.
How did you make a match if you did, and how did you end up being mentored by him/her?
It depends on the mentor. One of my first mentors for Gnowbe is someone I looked up to and would catch up for breakfast every few months. This evolved into a mentorship relationship where he ended up also becoming an investor. Other mentors have started out as friends, peers or clients from my other professional networks. Most of my 7 advisors and 3 board member relationships came about organically as a result of the relationship, conversation, and mutual desire to work together. I’m grateful for my mentors.
Now as a leader how do you spot, develop, keep, grow and support your talent?
I’m always looking for good people for either of my companies or for the non-profit I co-founded. I look for people who are super smart, passionate and great at what they do. For example, if I go to a restaurant and the manager is exceptionally good, I will usually ask for his/her card and name. I’m less concerned with pedigree or specific experiences. For most roles, if people have strong intrinsic, I believe that skills can be learned. Both of my companies invest quite a bit in developing people through formal and many informal tools. I believe my companies will only be able to grow up to the capabilities of our people. People are our true assets that need to be cared for and intentionally developed.
Do you consciously or unconsciously support diversity and why?
These days I am more conscious to have a diverse and inclusive team. I think this creates a more innovative and fun environment to work. However, there are real costs to diversity such as additional time needed to understand each other, but I feel the benefits far outweigh the costs. For me, diversity is not just about gender, but about culture, personality, socio-economic background, and etc. When you look at my teams, it’s hard to see any real patterns. Perhaps the only patterns are around core values and passion.
What is your take on what it takes to be a great leader in your industry and as a general rule of thumb?
I authored a book on this called ‘Inside Out‘ a few years ago, so I may be cheating a bit here…my conclusion after doing years of research on this is that being a great leader requires someone to be human, creative, and adaptive.
For industry-specific leadership, I believe this requires constant learning, researching, and understanding of the trends (past, present, and future) and speaking to many different people constantly with an open heart (e.g., clients, partners, vendors, content creators, investors). It’s also important to connect with those outside your industry as this provides various stimuli for new ideas. I love spending time with artists, musicians, actors, doctors, and others outside my core industry to stretch my thinking and challenge my approach.
Advice for others?
As a leader, entrepreneur or whatever path you may take, focus on being human first. All else will follow. For me, ‘being human’ is about embarking on a life-long journey of understanding yourself. It’s about walking towards greater integrity so that the things you believe on the inside get reflected in the companies you build and ultimately the impact your products and services have on other humans. My main advice is to ‘lead from the inside out.’
My current focus is on closing the growing skills gap globally using mobile technology. It’s about strategic partnerships with educators and companies to develop their people to get easier access to quality content and to apply what they have learned. It’s about redefining how we teach and learn.
If you’d like to get in touch with So-Young Kang, please feel free to reach out to her on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/soykang/
To learn more about Awaken Group, please click here
To learn more about Gnowbe, please click here