Rebeca Hwang, Co-Founder & CEO, YouNoodle: Meritocracy Should Rule The World of Startups
Rebeca Hwang is a Co-founder and CEO of the San Francisco-based startup, YouNoodle, which focuses on helping companies and governments engage with communities of entrepreneurs and innovators for open innovation and co-creation processes.
Currently, YouNoodle’s technology platform, Podium, helps power entrepreneurship initiatives by the governments of Chile, Malaysia and Korea as well as by NASA and 7 out of the top 10 universities in the world. YouNoodle is also working with companies like Amazon, Microsoft, Intel, and IBM to facilitate their engagement with entrepreneurs and to help strengthen their communities.
Rebeca has had an impressive background in entrepreneurship, science, and social initiatives. Born in Korea, and raised in Argentina; Rebeca was educated in the US, receiving both her undergraduate and graduate degrees in chemical and civil & environmental engineering from MIT.
Like many entrepreneurs Rebeca is a natural inventor. Her early projects, mostly focused on clean water initiatives, received three U.S. patents with seven pending and numerous accolades, including the MIT Ideas Prize, the Lemelson award and recognition as a finalist in MIT 100K. She went on to pursue a PhD on Social Network Theory at Stanford University, where she continued her work in the entrepreneurship competition space—co-founding Cleantech Open (CTO), now the largest cleantech competition in the world and organizing Stanford’s BASES Social E-Challenge Competition for four years. Rebeca eventually took a leave of absence from her PhD program to co-found YouNoodle
Recently listed by Forbes as one of their 20 inspiring young female founders to follow on Twitter, Rebeca is an international speaker, giving lectures on “High Tech Entrepreneurship” at Stanford University, at speaking engagements all over the world and annually at the MIT Global Startup Workshop.
We spoke to Rebeca about the advantages of gender diversity in a start-up; how her leadership style has evolved over the years; and the one thing about entrepreneurship she'd change if she could.
TNW: What makes your company different from your competitors?
RH: Our company is not only focused on financial drivers, but in creating positive impact in the world. Our value system is based on the strong belief that happy employees make happy clients, and therefore, our business model is based on valuing relationships, instead of just transactions.
Our platform, Podium, enables the best talent to stand out through a fair and transparent process. Not surprisingly, we recruit our team members from anywhere in the world. Our team represents 8 different nationalities and an equal ratio of women and men, a rare quality in tech startups in Silicon Valley.
This diverse environment where meritocracy rules, where integrity and our values are esteemed highly, is very conducive to innovation, creativity and high performance. These factors distinguish us from many other companies out there.
TNW: When you built your team, what are the key qualities you looked for to ensure the success of your business?
RH: The first step was to find a perfectly complementary co-founder.
I found a partner who shared the same values, but had a skillset that was the complete opposite to mine. Once we secured a strong founding team, we prioritized competency and culture fit.
TNW: What is next for your company?
RH: We have just launched an early version of a Facebook Application that will change the way young entrepreneurs connect with relevant partners and resources on campus. We are also excited to promote our new version of our Podium platform (www.podium.younoodle.com).
TNW: What are the advantages of gender diversity in a startup? Are there any disadvantages?
RH: We have a very gender balanced team.
It was not an explicit goal to hire as many women as men, but it turns out that when you look for superstars, you find them in both genders.
The diversity in our team creates the perfect environment for creativity and innovation and it strengthens the spirit of tolerance and openness that makes our team feel like a close-knit family.
I can’t think of any disadvantages of a gender diverse team.
TNW: Do you have any tips or any advice for women who are thinking about becoming entrepreneurs?
I would suggest that they leverage the advantages instead of focusing on any possible disadvantages of being a female entrepreneur.
Also, it is very important to have a strong support system that understands the difficulty associated with being a successful career woman.
TNW: Do you lie awake at night sometimes thinking about the company? What aspects of it specifically keep you awake?
RH: I wish I could say no, but unfortunately, it is an unavoidable part of being a startup founder. As the CEO of the company, I run through my mind everything that could possibly go wrong. I read in Ricard Wiseman’s The Luck Factor that most successful people have an inherent pessimism. This means that you dream big as an optimist would do, but you plan as a pessimist, by foreseeing any problems down the road and by designing potential solutions to each one of these obstacles. This way, when you face these problems in reality, you can act quickly and effectively, since you already know what you have to do.
TNW: Do you think that attitudes towards female entrepreneurs are changing?
RH: I certainly hope so. Studies have shown that having a diverse team, including female entrepreneurs, is likely to increase the chance of success for a startup. However, the attitude towards female entrepreneurs varies a lot based on geographic location and in some regions, there are still many barriers for us.
TNW: How has your leadership style changed over the years, and why?
My belief is that the best leaders evolve constantly. I have shifted from being very tactical to focusing more on the strategic side of things.
Today, my priority is to refine the culture and vision of the company in order to make our employee and customer loyalty a differentiating factor for our company.
TNW: Do you believe it is better to find customers then funding or vice versa?
RH: Steve Blank likes to say that companies don’t fail because of the lack of a product, but because of the lack of customers. Without customers, your chances of succeeding as a startup are very low. Only when you identify customers who are willing to pay (and many of them!) can you seek funding. Even if you haven’t reached profitability, you have to have a clear idea of who your clients are.
TNW: If you could get on a soap box and get something off your chest about the world of entrepreneurship, something you’d like to change, what would it be?
I would love to see meritocracy rule the world of startups.
We want the brightest innovators and entrepreneurs out there to be identified and to be placed on a podium where they can showcase their talent and access the resources that they need to create disruptive startups.
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