The Entrepreneur Podcast
The Entrepreneur Podcast

Episode · 7 months ago

Unconventional Paths with Michelle Kwok

ABOUT THIS EPISODE

The path of an entrepreneur is rarely a straight line, but some paths are more unconventional than others.

Since the age of 15, Michelle Kwok was working in research labs. When she joined Western University to pursue a degree in Medical Science, everything seemed set for a future Dr Kwok. But then she started to wonder… and then wander… soon she was helping companies with social media marketing, working with founders on their startups, and even co-founded one that was acquired in 2021. Today, it’s come full circle with Kwok working with biotechnology startups at San Francisco-based accelerator, On Deck Longevity Biotech.

In this episode, Kwok joins Eric Janssen to share her conventional journey as well as some nuggets that could light the way for other aspiring entrepreneurs.

You are listening to the entrepreneur podcast from the Western Morrisson Institute for entrepreneurship, powered by I be in this series, I be entrepreneur and I'd be faculty member. Eric Janson will anchor the session. Today I interviewed Michelle Quok, a medical science student turned entrepreneur. Her heart was dead set on becoming a doctor and everything she'd done in her life was built around that premise, until one day she made a sudden left turn and decided to launch a company. Today she's at on deck in their longevity biotech fellowship, but previously was the founder of flick, which was a hired in two thousand and twenty one. They tackled the unique challenge of matching female founders with female students looking for interesting experiences. Today, Michell's a speaker on entrepreneurship, diversity and inclusion, breaking barriers and unconventional paths. In this episode we talked about building up and practicing risk taking, having a biased toward action, faking it till you make it, and how a love of learning plays a critical role in her entrepreneurial journey. Michelle is not afraid to put her story out there and share it openly, which is exactly how I ended up connecting with her through a cold outreach on linkedin. Please enjoy my chat with Michelle quok. All Right, I'm here with Michelle quok's super interesting story of a traditional student, Medical Science Student, turned entrepreneur. Today she's working at on Dec and their longevity biotech fellowship. Also a huge fund on deck that invest in companies in that space and others. She's previously the founder of flick, which was acquired in two thousand and twenty one, which tackled the unique challenge of matching female founders with female students looking for interesting experiences. She's a pretty well known nowadays speaker on entrepreneurship, diversity of inclusion, breaking barriers and unconventional path so I want to star Michelle with unconventional paths, which is how you and I connected. You would put a post up about you being a traditional medsize student, thinking that you were determined, or the path for you was that you were going to become a doctor, and then this epiphany moment came from, I think, your brother, and you realize that maybe there was another path for you. So bring me back to that moment. What was this? How did you get, call it, sidetrack from your initial destination? Yeah, I think it's pretty crazy because I was told my entire life that I was going to be a doctor. I was really good at math and scientists for a young age, and I think I was probably like eight years old or something with my parents for my birthday gave me a stethoscope and a stack of like barons an enemy cards and they're like you're going to be Dr quake and I was like I'm going to be Dr Quok and I yeah, I thought that was the only path because I only really knew of, I think, four careers as I was growing up. It was like doctor, lawyer, engineer, accountant, something like that, and so I started working in research labs from the age of fifteen and so I felt like my path was predetermined. I'm Super...

Young Age, which obviously now in retrospect and like that's crazy. I was so young. And so I ended up going to Western for medical sciences and in first year, I think that was the first time I was like do I want to do this for the rest of my life? Because if I go through medside and then go to med school and then go to residency and then I don't know, like specialize in something that's going to be, you know, decades of my life, and that was a daunting thought for me in first year. And so I just started looking for different opportunities. I'd literally never explored anything in business before, but I reached out to small companies, I reached out to founders on Linkedin, I did a ton of cold outreach just to get some experience, because there really wasn't there weren't a lot of opportunities to get experience out of medicine or out of the medical science from when I was in university. And so I went out and started doing like social media marketing for small companies and working with founders on their campaign management and and one step led to another and I wanted to have a little bit more overview of business and a little bit more of a holistic overview of how to build a start up, and I started working closely with more founders and built out a digital marketing agency and and then I started working with an alcoholic company to help them expand across Ontario and and built out their student and Basad program and I thought that was Super Fun. And then I got involved with bumble because somebody was like, oh, Michelle can help you out with like building at your campus manager program in Canada, and I was like I could definitely do that. So I was a medical so I think I was only sign student on that bumble campus and Bass team. And I think the more and more I did something like this, these were very entrepreneurial roles. They basically would be like pitch US ideas of how you think we can expand our presence in your area and we'll give you a budget and you go and do it, and so it was super entrepreneurial and at the time, I think that's when the wheels started turning in my head. I was like, oh my gosh, what if I did this for myself, like what if I had an idea and I could create, you know, my dream job, my dream impact, my Dream Team? That would be super cool. And so I think it was second year or something when when I was really, really freaking out, I was like it's suck in your redside. Third Year of MED say you're basically locked in and you're going to have to finish this degree. And I just finished like an immunology exam or something, and I was like do I really want to do this. And it was like eleven pm at night. I was in my red bricks apartment and I was sitting there and my brother message me. It was super late for him as well, and it came came as a surprise because we didn't talk that much at that time and now we're much closer. But he messaged me something like you,...

...who I've always thought that you've had the ability to change the world, or you had that mindset where you thought that you could change the world. You don't have to go to med school, you don't have to go down this path, you can do whatever you want. Just get your degree first and and then do whatever you're passionate about. And something clicked that day because my brother, of all people, he was probably the most structured and he was the guy that did everything that our family wanted and and he went to wharton and he went to invest in banking, he did everything that was quote unquote right to do, and so that, coming from him, I think, was a huge catalyst for me and from that moment forward I was like yeah, honestly, even if I do get this degree, that doesn't that that doesn't necessarily pan out for the rest of my life. That's not that's not a determination of what I'm going to do for the rest of my life. I can get this degree, I can continue doing these super entrepreneurial pursuits, I can start thinking of an idea and what if, when I graduate, I actually start my own company instead of going to med school? Worst comes to worst, it doesn't work out, I could still apply to med school, but taking a year off isn't the worst thing. And so I think that was the catalyst moment that rocketed me into entrepreneurship and that's the moment where I was like, you know what, I'm going to apply to next very six, worst comes to worst, and not going to get in, but I'm just I'm just going to be back where I was before. So why not? And I start applying to all these different things and kind of diving more into the world of startups and thinking, why can't I be a founder, you know? Yeah, so trying to figure out, like there was a build up to that moment right, like it wasn't like one day you thought you were going to be a doctor, the next day completely sweat. If I look to your past, even there was you sort of had a not going to say entrepreneurial upbringing, because it sounds like maybe your parents were coaching you in a more traditional route. However, if I look to some of the things that you were involved in early on, from the all the different volunteering organizations, playing basketball, coaching basketball, playing piano, speaking a bunch of different languages, like you already were, see you were like you were doing a bunch of different things, you were sampling a bunch of different things. So can you maybe comment on like how did those different experiences or different things that you did growing up maybe play a role in ultimately you feeling like you're even capable of doing something like this? Yeah, I think I did a ton of things as a kid and I I've always been that type of person who loves to learn about everything and dive and I'll get obsessed with something like dive deeply into it. So, yeah, when I was growing up by I learned I first, obviously Cantonese was my native language. Then I naturally learned Mandarin and then I started French when I was like five or six, and then when I was older, I was like well, I understand French, like what about Spanish and what about Latin and I really dope...

...into all of those areas. So I think I as a child even I was very adamant on learning about a lot of different areas and mastering those areas and I had a lot of confidence in myself that I could do it. Stuff like basketball. I'm five foot for but but I was like super aggressive and trained so much. I was our Varsity basketball captain by times in grade ten and I think I was like one of the youngest basketball captains. I was also our volleyball captain, even though as a libarrow, and that's like not a very common thing for libarrows to be the volleyball captain of your school. And so I think I just grew a lot of confidence in a lot of different areas and picked up a lot of skills during that time. Stuff like model United Nations. I was I think I like directed some of the WHO stuff in model United Nations and I did debate and I like to speak in front of people. I I like to be in plays. I play like five instruments. So I think I I've always had this like super adventurous spirit in going down a lot of different paths, learning about a lot of different things. And it really built up my confidence as I was a kid that, you know what, nothing is too big of a goal to overcome because, for example, if you don't play violent at all, you're going to be like that seems really, really hard and it was really, really hard, but I was able to do it and I was able to figure it out and by grade twelve I was like concert master of our orchestra and it was just like those you realize that everything is you just take little steps towards the goal and the goal becomes not as daunting and something that you see that's within reach. So I feel like having gone through all those experiences as a young kid and being able to overcome a lot of these like mountainous goals that I thought were massive and it took me years to accomplish some of them, but it gave me the confidence that, no matter what, I can do it. And so when I was when I was thinking about moving from medical science into becoming an entrepreneur and starting in company, I was like, this is hard, but I've gone through challenges in the past. I prefer to be challenged and I want to have these big, lofty goals as I'm building my career and if I do it one step at a time, which it really was one step at a time, like we did, lead these small steps that led to the bigger goal, then then I can do it, and I and I built that confidence from a young age and it kept on like compounding on itself and at the end of the day, now, looking back, I'm like that was a crazy thing that I did, but I was super lucky that when I was growing up, like, my parents did give me support and all of these different areas I was really I was really excited about and would always say, like randomly, that I would want...

...to start skating or randomly that I wanted to play basketball, and and they would be like yeah, you should do it and you can do it and you should be the best at it and you should continue, continue working at it until you get to where you want to be, and that's kind of the mindset that I took to becoming a founder. was going to ask how your parents played a role in that. So it sounds like they were a open to you trying a bunch of different things. And then did they did they push you to stick with things, or was it you, naturally that wanted to stick with them until you were really good at them. I think I tried even more things than the stuff that you probably have seen that I did. I was like crazy when I was a kid. I was like I just want to do literally everything, and I think they gave me, my parents tried to give me a lot more focus. They would be like, okay, you can try hockey and skating and basketball and volleyball and feel hockey and all these things all at once, but you're going to have to you're going to have to double down on some of these and cut out some of these. So I think it was necessary for them to kind of hone my vision and be like, you have to try these one at a time, which is also why, with the languages, for example, I started them one at a time. It's not like I learned all of them at once, I started them one at a time. And when I got hard, like there were definitely times during my piano journey that I was like I want to quit, like by grade seven I was like I want to quit, and they're like no, you come so far, you're going to keep going, and I feel like that really built up my I strength to like continue pushing through, even when I really really was struggling at which is something that really really helped in my founder journey, because there's so many times when you're like can I even do this? Am I qualified to do this? Is this something that I should be doing? And you have to have that. It's honestly, at the end of the day, it's like the belief in yourself so that you can kind of fake it till you make it. You you're just like, I have to believe in myself, otherwise nobody will. If I don't believe in myself, this is not going to move forward. I'm the one who's going to move this forward, so let's do this. And and I think my parents built that up in me at a really young age. And Yeah, again, I was super lucky that they were able to support me and doing all these different activities and they they thought that, even though I was like usually the smallest person there, they'd be like you should do this and you should be really good at it. Yeah, and that was great. It's great. Talk to me about your involvement with Hay y'all iced tea. So you mentioned the role of really well crafted cold emails. How did you, I don't know, I feel like a lot of people don't realize how easily accessible they build up, how hard it is to reach out to somebody or connect with somebody, but they never actually take the shot in their first in the first place. So how did you connect with that company as a client and maybe talk through how you thought about cold you else, how do you structure them? How many did you have to...

...send in order to get somebody to reply to you in those early days? Yeah, I think the one barrier to get over in your mind is like what if they don't apply or whatever, they say no. For me it was like I'm going to send all these emails, because the worst that's going to happen as they don't apply and they and they say no, and then you haven't lost anything. You're just back to where you were in the beginning. And the best thing that I didn't happen is that they say yes. So there's only like positive, some opportunity there, and that was something that flipped in my mind and I was like, Oh, it doesn't matter they say no, doesn't matter that, at the end of the day, I'm either going to get it or not and we're back to where we were. So actually I still pretty much use the same idea when I built cold emails now as I did when I sent that email to Hay y'all. So Hey all ICED T. I thought of them because they were really well known, like alcohol brand and BC, but they hadn't expanded to Ontario yet. I heard that they were thinking about expanding to Ontario and I was like, the best thing that they can do is get onto campuses on in Ontario there's so many college campuses and college students are the ones who are going to be drinking their drink. College students are going to be the ones who are going to be posting them on Instagram and getting the word out there. So it just came as an idea to me and I reached out to I reached out to their marketing manager or something, and I said something like Hey, this is who I am, like I'm Michelle, I'm a second year student or something at University of Western Ontario. I'm part of a ton of clubs. I've loved your drink for a really long time, and so it was like the personalization at the beginning. So I say, Hey, introduce myself really quickly with a oneliner and then another like one or two liner about why that company so my why? I was like, I've known about you since like x year. You're huge and BC. I've seen you across all the parties in BC and I want to take your your drink to all the parties in Ontario. I have friends across every campus happy to create like a student ambassador program with them, and I think I like tagged some of my friends accounts in the email to just to show them, like this is real. My friends have a huge following across college campuses. We can get your you, we can get your drink out there and we host parties of like hundreds of people something like that. So it's like first you introduce yourself, you personalize the email and then you show how you can bring value immediately. And then I was like my proposition to you is x, which was basically that I was going to create like sample videos for them for them to showcase across so media...

...and that I would be happy to help them with marketing and creating student led campaigns. And I also tagged sample videos that I had made in the past, because I started videography in great twelve and I thought that and and video is like a massive piece of content that a lot of brands are looking for, and I basically said, I'll do this for free at the beginning, on a probationary period, and if you like it, then we can continue working together. And Yeah, they were like super interested and they answered. But I had I reached out to probably like forty founders and small businesses and got three responses. But at the end of the day it didn't matter. I got those three responses and I don't even know. I kind of forget even who the thirty seven other brands were, but the three brands that replied and three founders who who replied, I ended up working with them in some capacity or another and gained a ton of experience and they were all pivotal to my growth well, and that must have been the foundation of the first time where you said, wow, I can I can cut it on my own. My my wife, when she was in she probably around the same age, she was recruiting for a bunch of jobs, couple of which didn't pan out. But college pro painters came to campus and she was like I'm interesting, like had never considered entrepreneurship. Similar to you, thought she was going to be a doctor in medical sciences, left, turn to Ivy. Thought she was going to do invest some bank here consulting, then end up doing college pro for the summer and in that experience realized, like you know, I'm capable of doing it. You know I mean, like I am able to go knock on doors, get rejected, ultimately work through this and get the business and if worst comes to worse, like if my whole life crumbles, I know that I am control of it. I am in control of my own destiny, like I can make it work. worstky scenario, I can make a full grant with in a painting business. You know. So it must have. It feels like you had this sort of same confidence boost. It was like, I'm I'm capable of generating my own livelihood if worse came to worse. Yeah, which that's so interesting because when during that time, I think my parents were freaking out because they were like what what are you doing? This is nothing, because I started working with bumble and they're like, oh my gosh, you're working for a dating APP, like what does this have to do with med school? And I was like, honestly, if I don't get into med school and even if I don't get one of the these corporate jobs because I have a medical science background, not a not a business degree, I know that with my cold emailing skills I could get myself a job and I know with the network. Yeah, and I know with the network that I've built now after a cold emailing and creating these connections and working with these companies and founders, I know, with the network that I have now, that I can, I can make it work for myself. And so there was never like a moment of doubt, even when I was building flick and I was like, if this company fails, I...

...was like, I will find myself a job and everyone who works with me a job, and I know that that's a fact. So let's get to flick. How did you recognize the opportunity to start it? And then I want to talk about some of the support mechanisms that you had along the way to really get the company going. For sure. Yeah, so while we were at next thirty six, I think a really big thing that I noticed in the entrepourster secret. She next thirty six is for people that don't know what what is it? How did you discover it? What is that thing? Yeah, so next thirty six is. They describe it as one of the top programs in Canada for young founders. So they take thirty six founders from around Canada who are just out of school or maybe at the tail and the university. They they bring you all to Toronto. You all live together, you all co work together, you go through like an intensive entrepreneurship boot camp type of program where you learn how to be an entrepreneur in every aspect. You build your company alongside a bunch of other founders. Sometimes you find your cofounders in it. You live together, you just like are all consumed essentially as young founders in in the in the Canadian entrepreneurship ecosystem. It was awesome, it was intense and I learned a ton. And so during that time at next verty six, I think I noticed in the entrepreneurship ecosystem that there weren't a lot of female founders that were super accessible and as as a female founder myself and my cofounder, who's actually my roommate at next very six, Ravena, we were just like, we want to hear the stories of other female founders, but they've had to struggle through what how they overcame those struggles, what mentors they had along the way that were role models to them. Because, to be shuseful, at the beginning I was really struggling in next thirty six is probably the hardest. First like couple months, Cuz I had no business background. Everybody else in the most other people in the program had business backgrounds. Either they had a business degree or they were in their MBA's or at the tail end of them, just got them whatever, or they had like a computer science background and they were extremely technical, and I literally was like what am I even bringing the table here and I was freaking out. And so that that's the moment where Rena and I were like, let's just try to find female founders to talk to them, get to another stories, see how we uniquely fit into this founder world. And so we start talking to them and we started interviewing them and flick started as kind of like a media company where we were interviewing female founders and it was kind of more of a way for us to like get into the door with female founders, because he be like hey, we have a media company and really want...

...to showcase your stories, and they really oh great, like more content and the more that a smart cold email actor. Yeah, it's like just a way better value prop cold email. Basically, exactly. No, that's exactly what I tell people. I was like, it was a coffee chat email. At the end of the day, it was a coffee chat, but we didn't know how to get these coffee chats. So we started a company to get the coffee chat and so we started the company. Yeah, made that the website, the landing page, whatever, in like forty eight hours and started cold emailing people and they started answering and we kept on interviewing people. We posted it online and a lot of students would reach out to us being like, oh my gosh, that's so cool. I didn't know there were founders like this. I didn't know that I could be a founder. How do you do this? How do I meet these people? Can I work with them? And like, we were getting bombarded with all these types of questions and on the other side, the founders were always like yeah, a female founders are chronically under capitalized. We really need help. We're always looking to connect with people and I also wish that I had a mentor when I was younger. I wish somebody would have told me that I could have started a company when I was twenty two, twenty three, but but I never had someone like that. And so they were super eager to mentor people, and so ravine and I started thinking really, oh my gosh, is this an opportunity should be, you know, connect these people together create some sort of tangible outcome. Founders are clearly looking for help and students are always looking for more experience, and so that that's kind of how the idea came about. We iterated and and I think we relaunched in January of two thousand and twenty one, I want to say, or January two thousand and twenty, if you like. All the years lurn together. But we relaunched as a platform that connects female founders and leaders with students from across the world through meaningful career experiences, and it was just something that we thought was like a natural progression of what flick could be. And I don't think that when we started we thought that it was going to end up being what it was and and it ended up getting popular and and students were reach out to us being like this is awesome, this is so cool. Like I've never been able to connect with a founder from like San Francisco and work on a deep ai project or and it was all these experiences that I wish I had access to when I was younger. And so what was the it's a cool, cool movement with it. Was it a business, like? Was it revenue generating for you? How did you make money out of it? Yeah, so we built a strong community around the founders and built out resourcing around the founders. We partnered with a company called built first to offer founders over three hundred Tho dollars and start up resources, including like air table credits, notion credits, Amazon web services credits, stuff like that. And so the founders paid a fee to be on the platform and to be part of the community,...

...and so we generated revenue that way and I and through partnerships. Nice membership community and partnerships interesting. So fast forward, flick gets acquired. You're still involved a little, sounds like a little bit, but mainly nowadays you're spending time at on deck. So what happened there? How did that transpire, and then what do you up to nowadays? See, this is why I'm like, network is so important. As we were going to the acquisition, I got connected to Shria from on deck, who was, I think there's seventh employee, or maybe that one of their like basically one of their first employees, and we were supposed to talk for half an hour about like flick stuff, but we ended up talking for like two hours because I told her I was like, we're going through an acquisition and I know I'm going to be more of an advisor roll than a day to day and I'm just looking for my next thing and I'm not sure what that might look like. And she was like, oh my gosh, that was literally me. She had started a community for female founders, like a female founder accelerator, and early on into her building this female founder accelerator, Eric Tornberg, the founder of on deck, reached out to her and was like you should actually join on deck. Were building something that is exactly around the mission that you're building, but we're building it at scale because we've already raised like all this money and this is our vision. And she was like so in enraptored by the vision. And so she basically told me about all the vision that they're creating and it's amazingly, you know, on deck has been able to in a year like two thousand and twenty one, started with fifty employees, ended two thousand and twenty one with two hundred and sixty employees and has built this ecosystem where they're able to invest in founders, help founders start and scale companies and help like thousands of people up level in their careers, accelerate their careers, find better jobs that align with their passions and their missions. And so the mission and vision was was so close and even larger almost than like what we were thinking at flick. So that was really, really exciting to me. And she originally had connected me with the long deevity biotech team because she was like, you actually have a background in medical sciences, this could be a really good fit and I never thought that I was going to actually use my degree after university, but it's been really cool to be able to connect my degree and also my community building background and my background was like working with founders in this role with long devity biotech, and I've also started transitioning into working on special projects with the CEO. So like basically whatever, this is also a...

...really cool like founder mentality role. Eric the founder, and Cosey, I will have these ideas of how we can solve bottle next in the company or these like high level strategy ideas of how we can move forward on deck and and be closer to reaching our vision, and he'll just be like just run with this idea, take a zero to one and implement it, and that's like part of my role now to which is awesome. It sounds like sounds like fun if you were to have well, before I get there, sounds like you're going back actually hitting think, hitting pause on things and going to do an MBA. Why would an entrepreneur to an MBA? What reason? I think there was a time where I was like I need to have some sort of traditional business education and it would be I'm still thinking through this process, this thought process, and I've been talking to a lot of entrepreneurs about it, because in the future, I I think I do want to start a venture fund and there's I think there's key pieces that are really core to like a business education, like really understanding like finance and financial models and like accounting and all of these like more stringent things that I hadn't hadn't learned in the past. So this is something that I'm still thinking through, but if I do you want to start a venture fund one day? I do think that an education with my MBA will be really helpful, but I think I'm having a really great time right now in the entrepreneur atmosphere and learning a ton and it being exactly where I want to be, in the middle of it all and the most rapidly growing ecosystem and start up that's coming out of Silicon Valley right now. So we'll see what happens in the future. But that's just one path that I could potentially go down and I can differ until two thousand and twenty five. So yeah, I think we'll see what the future holds. Cool if you had any advice for people, I don't know, maybe that are following the traditional path so far but have an inkling that there might be another, another way, or have a desire to maybe explore what another alternative path I look like any advice for those, call it eighteen to twenty two year olds that are maybe thinking that right now that listening? Yeah, I think my biggest advice is literally just do what I did cold email, that's, think of think of things in your past that have like made you really happy, that you thought were really really exciting. But maybe you stopped yourself from going down that because you didn't think that it aligned with your your future vision of your career. So, for example, I really wanted to go into like sports marketing when I was younger because I love sports so much. But then I was like, why would I do an internship in...

...force marketing when I have to be a doctor? And so go back to those times where you were thinking maybe this is something that I can do, this is something that's shown up in my life as something that's Super Super Fun, super interesting. But I stopped myself and and then make a list of founders, like early stage founders, early stage companies that are in that space, and just reach out to literally every every one of them. If you send out like forty to fifty emails, you'll probably get one reply and you never know where that reply is going to go. And and don't stop yourself because you think, oh, they're not going to reply. Well, you don't know and really until you send it and the worst that's going to happen is that they say no or they don't respond and and you haven't lost anything. There's only there's only room for like positive sun growth. There so send it. Send it is the message. Yes, awesome. A bunch of good, awesome lessons to your show, Michelle, from building up to a little bit of risk taking, a biased actions, fake me till you make it clearly a love of learning, some selfdirected learning in your background. So they got really cool and inspiring story for other young people that are maybe wrestling with some of the same issues that you were wrestling with when you were in second thirty university. So appreciate you coming in and sharing your story and Nice to get the channel movie. Yeah, thank you so much for having me. The entrepreneur podcast to sponsored by quantum shift two thousand and eight. I'm Connie CLARICI and closing the gap healthcare group. To ensure you never miss an episode, subscribe to the show on your favorite podcast player or visit entrepreneurship dot uwo dot EA slash podcast. Thank you so much for listening. Until next time,.

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