From left: Debbie Mullen (Copper Cow Coffee), Vu Van (ELSA), Mimi Chan (Littlefund)
In anticipation of Vietnam Women’s Day on October 20, we want to feature the stories of women who lead: our portfolio companies’ female founders. Since the inception of 500 Startups Vietnam, we’ve made it one of our missions to seek and back underrepresented founders. This is not in pursuit of diversity as a vanity metric, but rather because of our belief in the underinvested potential of female entrepreneurs to build modern, inclusive cultures; to hire diverse teams; and to nurture resilient, thriving startups.
Despite several investors committed to funding female founders in recent years, the reality remains grim. In 2017, only “2% of venture capital funding went to companies founded by only women,” and founding teams with both men and women received about 12% of the total funding raised, Fast Company reports. In comparison, in Vietnam, women “own 31.3% of businesses” and “hold 25% of CEO or board-level positions”, according to the Mastercard Index of Women Entrepreneurs 2018. At 500 Startups Vietnam, we actively meet with diverse founders and seek their different perspectives. ELSA, co-founded by Vu Van, was our first ever investment. Along the way, Debbie Mullen of Copper Cow Coffee and Mimi Chan of Littlefund have also joined our community of founders.
Vu Van: new perspectives in Silicon Valley
ELSA was co-founded in 2015 by Vu Van, who holds MBA and M.Ed degrees from Stanford. “You might laugh, but I used to spend a lot of time every night before going to sleep just talking to Siri for fun. I started to wonder if I could do something more meaningful with technology like Siri and maybe help teach people English,” she talks about how ELSA got started.
Van shares how she got 7,000 people to sign up for ELSA’s waiting list: “I just wrote a note on Facebook about my journey of learning English, including some of the special moments in my journey learning English growing up, and how my voice matters. We hashtagged #LoveMyVoice.” Launched at SXSW, the app was named the winner of the SXSWedu Launch startup competition in 2016.
Van highlights the importance of bringing different perspectives to Silicon Valley. In her interview with Forbes, Van observes that “companies in the Bay Area ‘don’t pay attention to language learning [in this way] because they’re mostly American.”
Born in central Vietnam to entrepreneurial parents, Van shares her memories of childhood: “From a young age, I knew it was OK to take risks. Our parents didn’t praise us for our grades in school as much as for our passion and our efforts.” Citing supporting networks as central to a founder’s journey, she adds: “Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Line up as much support as possible. Lean on the colleagues and friends you trust in your communities and networks. People are so valuable.”
Debbie Mullen: creative innovation and cultural heritage
Debbie Mullen grew up with a fusion of Vietnamese, Chinese, and Jewish-American home-cooking. “When I decided to leave my old career in international management at the World Bank for something more creative, I knew it would have to be related to introducing Vietnamese flavors to American homes,” she talks about the origin of Copper Cow Coffee.
In 2016, Mullen traveled to her mother’s hometown Saigon, Vietnam in search of all natural and socially sustainable Vietnamese coffee. Building off her network from MIT & World Bank, she was on a mission to support sustainable agriculture in Vietnam and find the best beans that can carry the flavor, the aroma, and the richness of Vietnamese coffee. The results are delicious, soulful pour-over coffee, to be served with California sweetened condensed milk. Each cup of coffee, along with the serving rituals, combines innovation with historical and cultural heritage.
At 500 Startups Demo Day of Batch 23, Mullen shared that Copper Cow Coffee is “the only women-owned, nationally distributed coffee company.” The portable pour-over coffee product is available online and in-store at Williams-Sonoma, Cost Plus, HEB, and Macy’s.
Mimi Chan: towards a secure future for your little ones
In an interview that broadcasts live from the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, Mimi Chan said: “When my daughter came into the world, the generosity from friends and family poured in. But I felt guilty. 96% of toys gifted are going into landfills, as are 80 billion pieces of clothing a year.”
She cites the same concern from other parents and gifters as the main reason behind starting Littlefund, a modern gifting platform. Littlefund makes it easy for family and friends to gift savings towards a child’s goals and dreams such as college, Disneyland, or a museum trip.
Before “working on motherhood and helping families save better together,” Chan was the founder and CEO of the photo-sharing app and e-commerce store Thread (acquired in 2013), and a founding member and COO of Pencils of Promise, a nonprofit that’s built over 400 schools worldwide.
She answers in a recent interview: “My entrepreneurial passion to create companies of impact was heavily influenced by my upbringing as a refugee-born daughter of Vietnam migrants. We made our way from the refugee camp in the Philippines to Houston, Texas. Growing up my parents stressed three things to my sister and I that they believed was the path to success in life regardless of your beginnings: karma, a college degree, and saving money.”
Chan is an example of entrepreneurs who tackle problems that often get overlooked by their male counterparts. Anu Duggal, Partner at Female Founders Fund, puts it best: “As leaders, we have seen our female founders build teams that truly reflect diversity both from a gender and cultural perspective, rethinking the workplace from a female perspective. Many of these female founders have also solved problems they face themselves as consumers with an authentic narrative that has enabled them to create brands that resonate strongly with their consumer base.”
“There are moments that are discouraging when the playing field is obviously not equal or fair, especially as a woman in fintech, but I’ve learned to forge on,” Chan talks about her experience as a female founder. She echoes Van in the importance of networks: “I surround myself with those that are supportive. I also look to my peer mentors to share stories and get their perspectives on situations. It’s going to take time and major cultural shifts for women entrepreneurs to have the same opportunities and confidence, especially from investors, to do the same jobs. It’s happening though, I see the wheels in motion.”
Follow the companies to see what they’re up to!
Meet our community of founders at https://500startups.com.vn/portfolio/