Alumni Spotlight: Taylor Hwang, Class of 1990

Taylor HwangTaylor Hwang, BHP ’90, has had a varied career in emerging technologies and entrepreneurship, working on both coasts, in Korea, and in various industries. He is currently Head of Strategic Relationships at an advanced data analytics company in San Francisco.

While at Booz Allen & Hamilton, you worked on a project in cooperation with Netscape that turned out to be the world’s first global intranet. Tell me more about that project and what you learned from it.

The firm was using itself as a guinea pig to determine what could be offered to clients. Netscape was an unknown company at the time, and we needed external expertise about internet-based technology since we didn’t know much about it. Netscape sent one of their technical experts, who turned out to be Marc Andreessen {editor’s note: Marc is co-founder of Netscape and is one of six inductees to the World Wide Web Hall of Fame}. The idea was to create a tool that would serve as a knowledge system. A consultancy runs off the knowledge of experts in-house. The existing culture was such that if you were the particular subject matter expert, you would hoard that knowledge so that related projects had to come to you for expertise.

The knowledge system had the potential to change the existing culture. With the intranet, if you wanted to be the recognized subject matter expert, you had to be the author of the dominant document on that subject which was then shared across the company. The companion project to the launch of the intranet was the development of a change management practice. Up until the mid-90s, the major management consultancies would charge a company a large fee for a report about a particular problem and then it would be up to the client to read and implement the recommendations.  Often the client’s senior leadership wouldn’t really know how to implement the recommended changes, and the changes they tried to implement would frequently fail. Booz Allen recognized that the launch of the intranet knowledge system would require a cultural shift in the company and had to be explicit about how to get colleagues to embrace the changes. We studied how to get organizations to change and used this knowledge on ourselves to adopt the new intranet. We were using ourselves as a guinea pig on two different experiments and both worked very well, much better than most people had anticipated.

Apple heard about the project and decided to provide marketing support, and as a result, anyone who was remotely involved in the project was being hunted by headhunters and offered big positions many of us were unqualified to take. The interesting lesson for me at that early point in my career was that unplanned opportunities can come your way if you’re already working hard toward some meaningful goal.  I didn’t recognize the magnitude of internet technology’s potential and lobby to get on the project. I was forced on the project as a lesson for being too finicky about what projects I was willing to work.  Yet, that experience turned out to be one of the most significantly positive points in my career.

In 2002, you started your own business, EmiFinancial Corporation. What service did your company provide and what lessons in entrepreneurship would you pass on to others who are thinking about or have already started their own business?

Emifinancial provided stored-value MasterCard financial services customized to the unbanked Hispanic immigrant consumer at about half the average annual fees. I started that business in an industry that I had very little exposure to. It worked out okay for me, but I don’t know if it was the right decision. I selected the EmiFinancial business because my industry expertise was in media and entertainment right after the internet bubble burst, and media wasn’t a great industry at the time for a first-time entrepreneur to start a new business. I wanted to go into an industry that provided essentials, and basic financial services is an essential. We did a structured brainstorming and applied weighted prioritization criteria, and the idea for EmiFinancial rose to the top out of 26 ideas. It was important to me that we apply the same kind of rigor in starting a company that we would apply for a client.

In most cases, it is better to be in an industry you understand well. The target demographic was Hispanic immigrants, and I didn’t understand that market at all. It would have been much easier if I went into an industry I understood or was fascinated by. I was just fascinated by the idea of starting a new company and learning a new demographic. Starting a company is one of the hardest jobs. You have to pursue it because you love what it is, and love the gratification of building something, and if it is a consumer business, offering something of value to your customer. I would recommend that if you do find a viable opportunity where you are already interested in the subject matter or audience, that’s usually a good reason to pursue that opportunity.

You spent nearly three years in Seoul, Korea, as a country manager for frog design. How was doing business over there different than doing business in the U.S.?

It was completely different, especially relative to the meritocracy of the Bay Area. Korea, many feel is one of the last strongholds of Confucianist society. It’s like bureaucracy masquerading as philosophy and almost the opposite of meritocracy. If you are an employee working at one of the conglomerates and you start with a number of peers in a certain group, you are a team. If you are contributing more relative to your teammates and advance ahead of the group, the group views you as an enemy at that point, so management will actually suppress your advancement to give the group a chance to catch up and promote corporate harmony. There is also an ageist element to Korean business. As an example, I showed up to a meeting with a conglomerate CEO where his bank of secretaries greeted me. They thought I looked much younger than expected from my title and tried to bar me from meeting the CEO because I was not old enough. That would never happen in Silicon Valley. You frequently encounter 20-something geniuses here who have a great business idea, and you want to take that meeting.

It was a rude awakening to what I was entering into and how different things were going to be. I was grateful for the experience, but I am glad to be back. Korean businessmen also have a very heavy drinking culture, so my liver suffered tremendously.

When you came back from that, you moved into a venture investment role for Proof Ventures, investing in technologies such as the Internet-of-things and voice recognition. Tell me more about what you were doing in that role?

I started the fund, and the original model was to take Korean entrepreneurs succeeding in Korea and help them expand to the U.S. market. The entire market there is still dominated by the conglomerates. A successful Korean entrepreneur with an ideal domestic client list including all the conglomerates will have his or her margins squeezed by the rampant collusion among the giants. With your suppressed margins, there is really nowhere to grow domestically. Even if the conglomerates make you an offer, they don’t make very good offers and will make sure no other conglomerates give you a counter offer to play them off of each other. I thought there was a market to help the entrepreneurs expand to the U.S. When the entrepreneurs enter the U.S. market, they have very little idea what they are doing. I overestimated the Korean entrepreneurs’ ability to adapt to the U.S. market even with full financial, legal, and operational support. I was early to the market. They have such a unique way of operating that is particular to the Korean market and not very adaptive. In the venture capital, it really comes down to the entrepreneurial team succeeding, and if they don’t succeed, your efforts are in vain, which is what we saw.

The experience gave me exposure to a new set of emerging technologies. In tech, you have to have a willingness to dive in and learn the new technologies. Even in my current role, the CEO had to tutor me in advanced data analytics . It’s been 25 years since I touched code, but I’m playing with R Studio to gain context for what our data practitioners are doing for our clients.

Do you have any advice for current BHP students?

I can share an anecdote. I was mentoring entrepreneurs at Draper University and had a chance to meet the new generation of entrepreneurs. Relative to Silicon Valley where there are so many experienced entrepreneurs, these early entrepreneurs are very green. They have an understandable naiveté about what is in front of them which can provide optimism and a clear vision, but you can see that the current models they are pursuing often have a low probability of success. One student had one of the more viable ideas to provide direct mentoring by Silicon Valley engineers to students aspiring to similar positions and also provide a filtered recruiting channel for employers, but he abandoned his model in favor of a startup swag retailing business that didn’t really add significant value to the market place or enhance his more marketable business skills. I shared with him that his criteria for selecting a business to build shouldn’t neglect looking at the long-term value to his career. Even if the desire is to be a serial entrepreneur, you should consider the marketable value of the skills you develop while building your chosen business.

I would also say if you have interest in data-driven insights, you will likely do well to pursue it as a career.  I’m biased in my opinion, but the more I learn, the more I see that business is only scratching the surface of what true data insight can provide, and almost every sector stands to significantly enhance its decisions and planning over the coming decade as data science progresses.  Currently, demand for skilled experts far exceeds supply, and any solid recruit is practically guaranteed a position.