Karena Belin and Josephine Chan of WHub, A Passion for Change and Innovation in the Startup Ecosystem
By: Cad Dionco
In contributing to change and innovation that we want to see in the world, a risk that one makes serves as an opportunity for growth, discovery, and emergence. This year, the current pandemic took a toll on several communities, specifically the population of startups in the world. People in this industry had to adapt to these changes to the extent that their passion once flamed out and altered their mindset to survive this wave.
However, this crisis has shown great lengths of possibilities that surely surprise you; that progression is still possible during these trying times. Opportunities expand as we view this time as a reset to re-align our goals and strive for excellence in the best way we can.
WHub is the largest startup community in Hong Kong that integrates startups and talent. It is a power connector and develops full service around its three main pillars: showcasing, connecting, and empowering. WHub’s CEO & Co-founder Karena Belin, alongside its COO Josephine Chan, impart their mission in unleashing the startup’s full potential as they share where it all began, its purpose, and how they continue to become agents of change.
WHub is Hong Kong’s largest start-up community. Can you share the inspiration behind the beginning of this?
Karena Belin: It all started with what became our hashtag and logo - #StartUpPassion. Our own passion to help startups be successful, and the believe that the passion, mission and crusade is the most important asset founders and startup teams have to attract and connect to the resources needed to scale their business. With this hashtag and mission, we began to foster growth in the start-up ecosystem in Hong Kong, expanded regionally and globally and supported innovation and success cases that now show up in the top ranks worldwide.
WHub launched its service with a job board, where we help start-ups recruit talent to bring their solutions to the next level, and guide individuals to find their passion in their profession. It made us realize that in order to do so most effectively, the start-up community needed more visibility. We started to produce the first start-up white paper where opportunities and community builders intertwine and reported about the news in the scene.
We also saw the opportunity of bringing startups and traditional corporations together. Since corporates aim to transform digitally and look for agility and innovative solutions, startups look opportunities such as proof of concept and partnerships to process their proposed solutions faster and at bigger scale. We started scaling our workshops and events, which led to organising a full pledge multi track and multi day tech conference known as the #SIS.
SIS or Scaleup Impact Summit is the anchor of the week-long startup festival where 100 countries participated, joined by various speakers and participants. It became a big thing in the region. With our interest in being passionate and active in the ecosystem and expanding startups, we launched AngelHub, the sister company of Whub. AngelHub is the first and only regulated start-up investing platform for professional investors and growth stage company scale in Asia.
With the numerous successful activities and events of WHub, what was the most rewarding part about expanding the startup community?
Karena Belin: I believe that innovation and economic growth is driven by startups. We start by showcasing the crusades of startups wanting to change the world while addressing the pain points and problems that founders and teams face in scaling their solution. We are here to help startup teams focus on what they do best, innovating and building their business. And at the same time, connect any stakeholder to the ecosystem to benefit from the innovative power of startups. It is most rewarding to see how we could help our startups, stakeholders and the ecosystem at large grow in such an impactful way and now play a major role in the world. Also having the trust of WHub’s 500 partners worldwide, reminding us of the power of collaboration and networks and given us the confidence of our shared passion and commitment.
Josephine Chan: Seeing the efforts being pulled together to help the community, especially during the pandemic, was truly astonishing. It gave ecosystem players an opportunity to join forces and create new solutions, magnifying resilience, especially in Hong Kong. Internationally, we were able to see innovative solutions and partnerships coming together to create new synergies and possibilities. Becoming a witness and being part of the process is the most rewarding for me, where I see the international ecosystem coming together as one.
Aside from the triumphs that WHub met, what are the prominent challenges that you have encountered?
Karena Belin: Well, there are challenges every day. For me, in terms of challenges, it’s being able to define your role as a catalyst and enabler. Trying to give feedback and points of what the community is going through, and have the courage to understand how you can make a difference. It requires different services and activities all the time. Another one is looking in an ecosystem and recognizing the ingredients that need to come together, such as talent, visibility, infrastructure, funding, international connections. What’s frustrating about these is not being able to always seize the opportunities as quickly and as impactful as you aspire. Unforeseen circumstances occur, such as COVID-19, that totally shift market dynamics and consumer behaviors. It constantly requires adaptability, agility and change. Still, it gives us a glimpse that a bigger challenge always awaits us, and various big opportunities will also come to reinvent yourself. Arguably nobody better prepared than agile, tech driven companies to seize such opportunities.
Josephine Chan: The ecosystem is evolving very quickly, new solutions are being introduced every day. To maintain being at the forefront, leading the conversation and being the voice for the community is one of the challenges I acknowledge. It is essential for us to stay closely connected with the diverse range of startups on a regular basis, especially during times of change. This requires patience, dedication and commitment from all players in the entire ecosystem.
WHub has speared events and conferences that brought the start-up community together. How can tech innovation conferences or these events stay relevant during this time?
Karena Belin: In every financial or even broader economic downturn or crisis lies opportunity for change. Market dynamics shift and hence new and innovative, tech powered solutions become even more relevant to solve problems in the most adequate and value creating way. THey literally serve as an avenue for redefining how to solve existing and new problems. An example of this is SIS, our flagship conference. It used to be a uniquely physical event in The Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre. Last year, we had to move the event to a mostly digital platform. With the online setting, we had to start from scratch to deliver the promise on the value we create for our attendees and startups. It is crucial to stay connected to the problem you are trying to solve, and then adapt the solution to the new environment. For us, our conference is about creating an impact, facilitating meaningful connections, growing networks, visibility and business opportunities. So we redesigned the user experience, interactions and benefits, all by realising that certain aspects actually got easier and facilitated compared with an offline event. For example, for the first time, attendees did not need to scan business cards and create digital connections from scratch after the physical event - it all started by being digitally connected, at much larger scale globally with direct impact. Another example is that we were not constrained by space and could host 7 stages in parallel and scaled the conference from over 40 speakers in a physical setting to over 270 speakers for more knowledge sharing and exchange.
Josephine Chan: The turning point was when we received such amazing support from our 150 partners from all over the world to participate in SIS. Not only did this bring the international ecosystem closer, the digital platform allowed us to really assess what each ecosystem wanted to achieve through our conference, allowing us to curate and tailor offerings unique to each of them. Now planning for our 2021 edition of SIS, we reflected on all the online conferences we’ve attended and took our time to assess how we want to make the conference different and bring in new elements that participants may enjoy. This has resulted in us focusing heavily on the participant’s digital journey and experience. Although as an event organiser of tech and innovation conferences, it’s a continuous learning journey to stay relevant and up to date with the various technologies available, but the fundamentals do not change - the desire to showcase and foster innovation and startups.
With the success that you’ve garnered, what is in store for WHub next year?
Karena Belin: WHub and AngelHub will be further driving their international expansion. We have a strong commitment to helping our startups, as well as stakeholders and partners worldwide. To them, we are that bridge to scale their business in Asia and vice versa alongside referring startups from here to our partners around the world. WHub possesses the possibility of soft-landing startups in different ecosystems, which is a starting point in becoming more relevant as borders open up. And we continue to offer the opportunity to companies of scaling virtually. Lastly, to continue making a difference in the startup investment ecosystem through AngelHub, the equity crowdfunding platform and the fund that co-invests alongside and hence helps to democratise startup investing to HNWI (high net worth individuals), Family Offices and established institutional investors.
To know more about WHub, you may visit their website here.
To know more about AngelHub, you may visit their website here.