I first met Hanna at the co-working space, BizDojo on K’Road. Hanna mentioned that she was from Minnesota, a state I’ve always wanted to visit, so I started asking way too many questions. We talked about some great work she was doing at oDocs, a social enterprise with the mission to end preventable blindness. Now Hanna works at Wine Grenade as an Engineering Management Consultant. She’s an incredibly humble and nice person and I am so glad I got a chance to meet her. Yet another reason I want to visit Minnesota! It’s my absolute pleasure to be able to interview Hanna here on Storyo.
Can you share some highlights from your journey (you worked in so many companies) - anything stands out that was particularly interesting or challenging?
Ever since I was a kid I wanted to own a business. I had a lot of ideas and loved anything to do with inventions and pushing boundaries. I am also a Korean adoptee from Minnesota..so being different was a given. I graduated with a Bachelors in the closest degree I could find -Mechanical Engineering.
In 1999, I interned at Boeing in their Space and Communications division in Huntington Beach. It was a unique opportunity and laid the groundwork for my experience in engineering. They spoiled their interns - I got to meet astronauts, toured the inside of the Discovery Orbiter, and work mission control during dockings of the Space Station.
I remember learning a lot of things through casual conversations with more experienced engineers. There was a big culture of knowledge sharing there.
I left Boeing in 2002 to do some art study and develop a furniture product, supporting myself as a bartender. I lived in a loft in the 'Ghostbusters' building in downtown LA. I remember being a bit stunned about the world outside of an institution. I befriended some professional artists during this stage which really shifted my perspective.
I learned a lot from getting out of my comfort zone. So moving myself to New Zealand to settle down after 10 years in California seemed like a natural progression.
You have been in so many different roles at companies like Boeing and Yamaha to Fisher & Paykel Healthcare, oDocs and Wine Grenade. How do you usually choose the projects you work on? Do you have any guiding values behind the work you want to do?
My life is a design project. Early in my career, I was after Star Wars-type projects - the ones like supersonic space planes and laser guns. 5 years later, I was looking for roles that would allow me to start my own agency. And now, after 5 years of supporting NZ hardware startups, I am looking to focus on green technologies because climate change is probably the highest priority facing humanity right now.
I see myself as both an engineer and an entrepreneur. Merging these has been like having a split personality.
It's a common cycle that after a couple of years of performing an engineering role, I want to go back to wanting to work on a venture. It's not without a feeling of wariness because I know that it requires a lot and to a degree, very few people (even those closest to me) understand why.
How did you find yourself getting involved in oDocs first as an advisor and then progressing to become the CEO? What was it like?
I first advised oDocs via Popcorn Collective for about 10 months. The original founder Dr. Hong was then starting a full-time residency programme and needed more help. I believed in the project and liked working with Hong. Based on my background, I felt I could add some value in the space between medicine, design, and engineering. I also wanted to try something called Slicing Pie, a founder shares distribution methodology to see if it would work. I agreed to take on a lead role.
We firstly went through a lot of debate to decide whether we were a charity or a company. This was a fundamentally hard decision and one that most socially-minded businesses will agonize over.
We decided to go forward as a company in part because I had worked for Medicine Mondiale and saw how difficult it was to build something technically challenging on a charity budget. I was new to social enterprise and worked with Akina Foundation and NZTE to do business planning and pitch documents.
We worked out the brand and marketing and got a team together, launched a pre-order campaign and built 2 new product lines within 6 months.
The business was achieving its milestones and doing fairly well. We reached the finals of a high profile award in Sydney judged by Richard Branson and Steve Wozniack. We were the only NZ company there. Low on capital, Hong and I split a room. We ended up winning our category for Best Startup in Social Impact. Part of the prize was to hang out with Steve Wozniack himself. I remember thinking Hong and the Woz were so alike.
A couple of months later, as we were making the rest of our production orders, I looked over our design director Alain, who was trimming little black felt pads and gluing them to the knobs on one of our products. I thought: a world-class car designer making little merkins. Only in New Zealand.
We tend to compare our personal journeys to other peoples’ but we usually only see the highlight reels. We forget that we are all humans going through this tough life journey figuring things out. Would you mind sharing some of your personal challenges that you experienced whether it is through your career or purpose searching journey?
After oDocs won the Talent Unleashed competition, we went through a fundraising campaign to raise a seed round of 500k through 3 different NZ showcases. Despite being a social enterprise, we received significant interest from 100 smaller investors.
However, the investors who we had allowed to lead the round were not good to us during the due diligence phase. They told me they wanted a new CEO saying I was 'unsuitable'. They said I was rude for asking them for a timeline on the DD report after a month of ignoring my messages. They went to Hong to undermine me.
Even without a term sheet, they had so much power over us, we felt we couldn't do anything to defend ourselves. We were in such a vulnerable financial position. All we could do was watch them pull the deal away from us. At that point I was beyond broke, I was broken. I gave the reins back to Hong in 2017 as he was keen to pursue a new direction. All of the team left oDocs to do other work. Thankfully Hong is running oDocs now and continues to innovate and build the business while also working as an Ophthalmologist.
The pressures on founders are so ridiculous, to expect them to act like nothing's wrong while they are struggling and under massive amounts of stress. I can see why there are big mental health issues and so few companies that make it past the first stage. I think we need to rethink the whole framework.
Over the past few years, we have watched the world go through a transformation. If the fundraising fiasco at oDocs happened now, I would probably stand my ground better. I wouldn't tolerate it for the sake of women after me.
I recently advised a younger female engineer to make sure whatever role you take, to ensure the manager and team you have is truly supportive of you. I realise it has been the difference in my career between growth and stagnation. The difference between coming home happy and coming home crying.
Can you tell us more about the Popcorn Collective? What’s the mission behind this?
Popcorn continually evolves but essentially it's a portal aimed at empowering projects that can change the world. We started as a collective in the BizDojo CoSpace on K’Road.
We used it as a cultural bridge between engineering and design, and as a method to create really innovative solutions.
Back then, we had the vision to coalesce the best minds in design and engineering to make good things happen. oDocs was one of our projects.
I am now keen to develop a co-owned collaborative ecosystem for green ventures. Climate change is the biggest threat to us all. I know we will do better if we work together.
Right now we are researching seaweed's potential for CO2 sequestration from the ClimateX program. We are also looking at new opportunities for a gas diffusion technology useful in food or fuel bioreactors.
We are also looking to build a directory of passionate entrepreneurs, engineers, designers, developers, marketers, retirees, contractors, employees, and students. Then the group can be applied toward green ventures in a variety of engagement programs.
We are working on the details but watch Popcorn for a project and job board, some regular meetups and work sessions, and hopefully a green venture fund. That's the lightweight version at the moment.
On any given day, what makes you feel like it was a worthwhile good day?
I would have answered this question a lot differently 10 years ago. Now a decent night’s rest and time to take a walk are wins.
I am fortunate to have a supportive husband and friends, and a lovely 6-year-old girl. If I can hang out with them, eat donuts and ice cream, and laugh, I'd say I am doing well. Aligning work and purpose and lifestyle is a bonus.
And finally, whose story would you want to read about on here?
Hm, good question!
I have a lot of friends whose deeper thought I would love to hear. There's Ina who works for Ecomatters. There's Natalie Robinson from Mum's garage. Elinor Swery and her mum Varda Swery are both inspirational standout engineers. Whoever you choose I look forward to reading.