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Carolina Yeo is Co-Founder of &ahead. She was born in Singapore and has worked and lived on over six continents. She moved to Germany nine years ago. That was the time when she rethought what she wanted from her career and looked for an opportunity to combine work and family in the best way. &ahead GmbH was incorporated last year and has expanded beyond Germany/Europe also to Singapore/Asia. &ahead is a digital career relaunch platform that helps people, especially women, to relaunch their career or make a career change. Companies work with &ahead to access this community of experienced talents. Last year, &ahead received a grant approval in the Innovation Program for Business Models and Pioneering Solutions (IGP) from the Federal Ministry of Economic Affairs and Climate action last year to develop their AI-driven recommendations platform for jobs and skills.
What motivated you to start your own business?
My father is and has been an entrepreneur for more than 30 years, I grew up involved in business conversations at lunch or dinner or for client meetings from a young age. So curiosity was definitely a major factor. And when we moved to Germany, I have just passed a decade of my corporate experience. I said, okay, do I take the next decade going into the corporate world, in the talent management area? Or do I start something of my own? Another important factor was that I wanted to spend my time making an impact. So the factors came together. Being a mum of two kids, my priorities were to see how I could maximize the valuable time that I had and in addition leverage my previous experience. It was a good point to make the leap.
And what entrepreneurial challenges have you encountered that you wish you had more help with?
There were quite a few. Lack of a network is one as I don’t have a lot of friends who are entrepreneurs that I keep close contact with, because for more than 10 years I was in corporate environment managing teams, working with senior leadership. I have never sold something. I sold through getting buy-in on products and services internally, but not externally. I didn’t have to create a product. As an entrepreneur, the biggest challenge is having to start really from very little. So, when I became an entrepreneur, I had to adapt my own personal brand and explore how do I make that switch from Carol as a corporate employee to an entrepreneur; how do I get credibility for that product? How do I recruit team members, how do I have resources to make the rest of the areas such as marketing, legal, etc happen? Everything, in the end, has a cost and we needed to make the financial business model work. So, thinking back one of the mistakes I made was jumping into Entrepreneurship without planning and thinking it through to make a better bridge. And I think that the way how we could structure this process before making a career change is a very important one. Which is the reason I reached out to an accelerator - the Founder Institute when I started. The team helped me to define and pivot my idea and as well overcome the challenges of limited resources, credibility, and structure. And living in Germany also includes an added challenge of language and building a new network.
What was the biggest support you valued?
The biggest support I valued was the structure and network through the accelerator - Founders Institute that gave me that clarity I needed. The structure in terms of where do we start? Because every day there might be 100 questions coming where we might have answers to only 10%, especially being an entrepreneur in a new country. An important need for me was who do we go to for the rest of the 90% of the questions? That’s where the structure and support network are really valuable leveraging the whole ecosystem to support us. Through the process, I’ve also come to understand where there were gaps in my own capability and capacity and I started to engage in getting other support, e.g. help in sales where I hired a sales coach as well. I also started to network in a lot of female focussed events and also events for founders. That’s where I met my co-founder Britta when we delivered a workshop together for one of the female focussed organizations. Family support is important as well in this process. Because in the end, it’s a whole support system that an entrepreneur needs to build to be sustainable in the long run.
Was there any other empowerment or motivation through your journey which helped you to keep track?
Yeah, absolutely. I mean, there are situations where we thought we couldn't go forward anymore because the mountain in front of us seems too huge. Sharing with other founders, who may have also faced the same issues, help us brainstorm and chip the problem step by step away. Opportunities for founders who share failures and difficulties and not only successes are really important. The emotional support and mental well-being of founders are probably one of the most important success factors of an early-stage company.
How can female founders who were not born in Germany be supported to ease their way into entrepreneurship?
I think, in addition to the points I've shared so far, an ecosystem of female founders where female founders can also cross-sell and cross-partner with each other would be valuable. Fundraising is another important area that female founders could benefit from more support. Because today the proportion of female founders who have raised later rounds, reached IPO or reached 500 million, or a billion revenue is still relatively low. And because the ratio is so low, it can become a hurdle as fundraising requires access to a tight community of investors where unfortunately it’s still male-dominated. A valuable support program in my opinion for a migrant female founder would be one that gives you access, and that helps you from the first crucial steps e.g. getting sponsors for the first sales, getting access to companies that are willing to pilot with you or investors for the first pre-seed, seed rounds.
How did your cultural background influence your career and your idea with the founding?
Having worked and lived in various continents for varying durations, my own cultural mindset, and personal perceptions of other cultures have also changed and adapted through the years. I’ve learned to take a step back and give more space for clarifications, interpretations and give the other the benefit of doubt which helps with building strong relationships with our multinational members, clients, and partners. I've learned to look beyond the local markets to find cross-border opportunities and partnerships. Singapore is also very well branded within Europe and vice versa Germany within Singapore where there are mutual likings and curiosity for each other. That really helps us to get started, to think early about how we could shape the company to grow both locally and globally, and develop mutually beneficial partnerships between both markets.
Thank you Caro for the interview!