#069 Journey of a Millennial CEO with Karen Kim

#069 Journey of a Millennial CEO with Karen Kim

Contact Karen Kim


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Episode Transcript

The transcript is computer generated. There may be errors.

Sharad Lal: Hi, everyone. Welcome to How to Live, a podcast that explores ways to live a good life. I'm your host, Sharad Lal. This is episode 69. Joining us today is Karen Kim, CEO of the disruptive tech startup Human Managed. At just 30, Karen became CEO of the self-funded venture that now spans four ASEAN markets and employs over 30 people. Karen is a Gen Y leader with roots in Korea and Hong Kong.

Now based in Singapore, Karen graduated from the University of Cambridge and has worked with British telecom and LinkedIn. Today, we talk about becoming a CEO, overcoming self-doubt, authentic leadership, and finding one's purpose. We're excited to share this candid conversation with Karen, a woman who transformed from a non-English speaker in Hong Kong to a CEO speaking at major global conventions. Thank you for your support. We're among the top 5% of global podcasts.

If you love our work, please follow and rate us. Now, let's welcome the remarkable Karen Kim.

Sharad Lal: Karen, welcome to the How to Live podcast. How are you doing this afternoon?

Karen Kim: doing very well. Thank you, Sharad.

Sharad Lal: So good to have you. And congratulations on all the success.

At such a young age, you're a CEO of a startup. You're on the cutting edge of technology, and we're going to get into all of that. But before all that, I'd love to understand, who was Karen Kim growing up?

Karen Kim: First of all, it's great having you here, and I'm so excited to share this space with you. Who was Karen Kim before she was human-managed? I think I was just a human being trying to find herself and her place in the world.

I'm from Korea. I was born in Seoul. But when I was 11, I immigrated to Hong Kong because of my dad's business. It was difficult for me to be uprooted from Seoul and then move into a completely alien world.

But I think as I grew up, I started to appreciate that's really what shaped me, working with things or environments that you're not very used to, but just going for it. I think without meaning to teach me in that way, I've seen from my father or my mother's lived experiences that they may not have all the answers, but they're making it work.

That's who I was before H. M., and I think that's also very much who I am today. It's just that I have a more mature understanding, but I'm still learning and growing.

Sharad Lal: as you talked about, they put you in an environment which was an alien environment for you. Yes. And you learned to figure out that environment and go for it. How did that happen?

Karen Kim: I think first and foremost I was put in an environment that I didn't really have an option, like in the deep end of the pool. I didn't speak a word of English, for example, when I came to Hong Kong and they put me in an American international school.

One of my earliest memories in Hong Kong was having a textbook, just with English words, and sitting with my mom. She wrote the phonetics of each word and translated it into Korean. So we were actually learning English together.

We didn't have anyone who we could learn from. That environment, and just having my parents encourage me and actually be on the floor doing it with me, really opened me up to the possibilities and made me believe that I could do it.

First, it started with the language, and then it started with, okay, who am I going to be friends with? First, I found other Koreans in the international school, and then I learned from her because she moved to Hong Kong, like, maybe two years before me.

bit by bit, and step by step, I grew up in that kind of environment. Then I moved to a British high school where I picked up the British curriculum and then went to the UK for university. my dad didn't bring us to Hong Kong thinking that this would be the path, He knew very basic, like fundamental things. I want to open up the world for my girls. I want them to learn English. I want them to understand different cultures. Those were the principles and he knew that it would be very difficult for him to give us that in Seoul or in Korea.

Sharad Lal: That is such a phenomenal journey.

let's talk about becoming the CEO, human managed. If you can tell a little bit about what is this company and what attracted you to this

Karen Kim: Taking a little bit of a step back previous to human management, I was in various different roles. My first job was in recruitment. then I moved into telecommunications and

That's also where I met the founder Salim, and we established a relationship there where I was an account director, and he was heading up the cyber security division, and we worked on multiple opportunities together. That's when I was exposed to the world of tech or IT, what is a service business?

How do we put all these solutions together to serve the enterprise business?

technology is where humans are in civilization. a reflection of how much human progress has been made. And for companies to run in this world You need to work with technology, whether you like it or not.

So I was really attracted by that. If you are in tech, you actually get to see the edges. Where are people moving towards? You get to talk to a lot of visionaries, too, like business owners, people who make decisions every day.

How are they looking at all of these things and then saying, okay, this is a direction that I want to go.

Sharad Lal: How old were you there, just

Karen Kim: my gosh, how old was I? I think I was 28? like late 20s.

So when I spoke with Salim about this idea, he was telling me about this architectural evolution that's happening in the technology world.

He first presented the context of, okay, this is a data driven world. The world is moving this way. There's nothing we can do to stop it, But where are the humans in this context? How are the people who get to make decisions getting the intel from these sources, and operating in a much more efficient and human value driven way?

It seems like a very separate problem, but actually they can be brought together. In a sense, like how humans and machines work together to drive better outcomes for humans.

I would say that was a moment where I remember, like my, the whole world was opening up, and I'm sure you can resonate with this, right?

some of the conversations or some connections that you've made in your life where everything stops and you're like, okay, I'm attracted to this.

I just knew that this was something that I felt like I wanted to be a part of.

Sharad Lal: Wow. you can't put it in words, but it's, there's that feeling. Yes. And with that feeling, as I understood, you were still doing your stuff, but you were helping out

Karen Kim: Yeah, exactly.

Sharad Lal: And then you were in LinkedIn at the time, there was that stage where you had to take the leap, that now, enough of corporate world, I am taking the leap

I am taking the lead on Google. What was that process like? Maybe like a year in as an account director, I was still dedicating like two, two days a week or so to human management.

Yeah, the weekends, and where what I was really doing at the time was developing the brand with Salim and the initial team. But when was that moment? It was when I was on the call with Salim on a weekend, and I remember this so clearly. I think I was sick, and I was in bed, and we were having our regular catch up, and this was when The first real platform contract came through for human managed, and this was a regional banking client in the Philippines.

And what happened was that we went in first as consultants. By the end of it we sold the vision of, Hey, we're actually building this platform that could help you execute the strategy that we just did for you.

And the company CEO took a bet on us. this was a startup, we were in our, not even in our second year of operations. because he liked the work that we've done through the consultation, understanding the context and everything, he said, okay, let's give it a shot.

So when that moment came through Selim gave me a call and of course I knew this was happening. And he said that, okay, now I really need to build a platform, right? We have this contract So now I need a CEO. And I said, yeah, that's a great idea. Who do you have in mind? And he said I'm speaking to one right now.

Sharad Lal: right

Karen Kim: So that's how it happened. I'm done. It was never a plan. And if you ask me,I would have never done it myself. I would have probably said, okay, let me learn more.

Let me maybe get a promotion at LinkedIn, do more. And then I can.

Sharad Lal: That's such a cool story. Fortunately, you had someone telling you that you could do this, and then you took the plunge. How old were you when you became CEO? 

Karen Kim: So I turned 30.

Sharad Lal: You're a CEO of a regional tech company. You've got a big client. You've got other team members. Many of them were older than you. What was that experience

Karen Kim: One of many account managers, salesperson. And then the next day I was a CEO.

How do you work with that? a lot of it was internal. A lot of it was this mental struggle that I had.

I suddenly had to switch. And all of a sudden I was hyper aware of how the world might view because before then

I was doing well in the corporate world, but I still didn't know what my purpose or anything else was.

And then, with this opportunity that was presented to me, suddenly it's oh wow, the stage.

and I got all my friends going oh, hi, CEO, CEO this, CEO that, and I just felt so uncomfortable,

And I was still processing: Am I really the right person for this? Even though I said yes to the opportunity, there was always that fear of disappointing people. You have that imposter syndrome that's constantly at work.

But you also have to face the world, get into work, get to know the team, and drive the vision, right? So what was it like? Everything happened at the same time. The first year is a blur, I have to be honest with you.

It was a blur because a lot of things happened at the beginning of the COVID lockdown, so I officially started the role in July 2020.

Sharad Lal: In Hong Kong.

Karen Kim: in Hong Kong. Yeah. So this was when, lockdowns were slowly being enforced and it was a weird time,

And then you're suddenly the CEO that is not number one, but employee number 13. And there were other people who were kind of part of this journey. I was one of them, probably the youngest person back then.

And no one is there to tell me, this is how you should feel or this is what you should do. And as much as, Selim was my coach and mentor and a colleague at the same time, I wasn't going to go with my problems,

Sharad Lal: When did this realisation start happening that these will be there, how do I deal with

Karen Kim: These will be there? How do I deal with it?it's there and it's still here with me

but now it's I put the focus more on the journey itself and how much gratitude I have to be on this path. and then I stopped think overthinking okay,

How does this person feel about me? Or how do I sound?All these like micro thoughts that I had in the beginning is background noise right now.

such a powerful moment. You have these inner voices and at some stage the shift starts happening that these voices start going lower. You're going out and doing stuff. You're already proceeding.

Sharad Lal: It doesn't matter what people say to you. The visual that I'm having in my mind is you suddenly start looking and behaving like a leader. Yeah.

Karen Kim: So I did lean more into what the opportunity has to offer, which is I have this amazing opportunity to build something that is very visionary.

So, what can I do? How can I, as Karen Kim, add value to this? I'm definitely not an engineer. I'm not going to build this platform myself.

But what I can do is offer this other perspective of how a decision maker might look at us, how I might tell the story. Okay, data. Yes, people understand data, but how do I make that into a solution, right? In the beginning, yes, all these insecurities and process syndrome were there, but I really dove straight into the problem.

If I look back at some of the content that I have from the early days, it's word vomit. I would never write that now, but that was a process.

I needed to get through that. In the first year, my initial role was constantly shaping the messaging, testing it, shaping it again, simplifying it, and trying it out.

Sharad Lal: It's just beautiful the way you've described it. You start with all these voices in your head, imposter syndrome, and then the focus turns away from yourself to the bigger problem.

Yeah. Then you move back to the head with that problem on how I'm going to solve it. And then you use your skills, which are your core skills of communication, to simplify.

And that's the word vomit you talked about. You just put stuff out there, iterate, test it out. And now before you know it, you're actually working with your top skill and Adding the value you're supposed to as a CEO

Karen Kim: That came out of a source of insecurity, I would say, but then I realised this is such an exciting problem to solve. Why was I so captured by the vision back in 2018? Why?

I was drawn to that idea. And then once I got into the problem, then I could really observe myself and my own strengths and try not to be someone else. I'm never gonna be an architect or an engineer. Sure, I could learn the concepts and how that's done, but that's never gonna be my core capability or core offering.

Sharad Lal: I like what you said, I'm an observer to myself and I observe myself and I say, this is not who I am, this is who I am, and start becoming that.

How does that process work for you?

Karen Kim: It comes from self-awareness. I knew this about myself. It's just that I was never given an opportunity to test it out in a controlled and safe environment. Being in a startup is not quite a safe environment, but we had to embrace it in the beginning because we're a bootstrapped company.

So, how do I find out? That's my strength, and what I can offer is that I first knew that branding was something that was missing. There were just so many providers out there.

Why should anyone listen to human-managed? Why should this small startup that doesn't have a platform or anything be worth our customers' time?So that's when the messaging, the storytelling, all of that happened. And then I also tried to think about it, like, okay, what else can I offer?

I understand social media. I understand how I would use it. I can translate that. None of that was like a bullet-pointed thing of, okay, Karen, you do this as a CEO, but I just had to run with it.

And I think it helps that we're in a startup and everyone is doing that. Everyone is going through their own transformation journey.

It helps to be part of something and like having this vision that is not very clear, but it's worth pursuing.

Sharad Lal: So good. So after some time of doing this, testing it out and finding your space, when did you start feeling that you belong?

Was there a moment or how did that happen?

Karen Kim: You were meant to be here. Was there a moment of belonging? Belonging is not just what you feel internally; it's also the context that you operate in. And it's also scenario-based, right? Sometimes, when you're in a room where you feel completely incapable, you don't feel like you belong.

But internally, you can still feel like I am the right person to lead this business today. Can the company benefit from my strengths and what I have to offer today?

And I think so. But when did that come to me is when I would say probably like year two and a half in

My third year was when I was really starting to feel likeI can really think from an independent perspective, not having too much dependency on others, right? I could really think, this is where, what the company needs to do.

This is where we need to go. I suddenly started hearing a voice coming out of me that I wasn't so used to before—more directive, more assured. I could have my own interpretation of the market and where it's heading. It's very organic. Everything about this journey has been so organic.

Nothing is planned.

Sharad Lal: Wow. Were you conscious about this voice? I love that. Suddenly, From a slightly insecure voice, there's an

Karen Kim: Yes.

Sharad Lal: You're very clear.

You have your own opinion. You're telling people what to do. How do you have this awareness that now you've turned into this?

Karen Kim: I think that I've got to do something to the core of myself.For example, I love a great service, a great experience.

I'm a very opinionated person in that way. This is a joke that runs with my friends. Oh, you're such a Karen. Yes, my name is Karen.

But, like, when something is not to my liking or my standard, I think I owe it to them to give them the feedback.

It's not that I suddenly became someone else as a CEO.

there was, yeah, I was still trying to emulate someone that I wasn't, or, oh, this was something that I saw at LinkedIn, maybe I could try that, right?

But now I think we're just more comfortable around each other. There are sides of me that I sometimes reserve, but at other times, when the business needs it, I will just be very direct and opinionated.

Sharad Lal: style is developing now. It's things are happening. How is it developing?

Karen Kim: I've been reflecting on this actually. I think my leadership style really started to evolve once I disassociated or detached from.

How the world may view me, what is the image of a CEO or an entrepreneur, What are the preconceived notions about that? And also, what are my limiting beliefs? once I started to step away from those three things, to the best of my abilities, or Trying not to be so driven by that, that's when I started really evolving,

I was trying to look for leaders that I felt really inspired by, And there are some things that I think really works, it was more of a trend, like motivational leaders, like, okay, I understand the vision.

Let me tell you what the vision is. I can tell the team where we're heading, but it's not very useful all the time. There were some times when I relied on the strategy of repetition.

Okay, if you repeat enough, then the team will get it. But I quickly learned that's not the case. There were some moments where I realised, Oh, I've been just shattering into the void.

All the hours I spent talking about my vision just went on deaf ears. And I did not, and in the beginning, I took it personally.

Is it the way that I'm communicating? Is it me, But then the work caught up to us as well, right?

We had customers, we had expectations, and we had to build a platform. So, I rolled my sleeves up. That's when the impatient Karen came in. Okay, enough of this leader, transformational motivational leader. Yes.

And let me learn. You tell me how you do it, what is actually required.

So that was an operational Karen, very much on the ground. It was also very transactional, I would say sometimes.

Transactional in the sense that, okay, this is what I need from you. Now you show me how to do it and I'm gonna do it with you.

and then the third one is more of a hybrid.

This comes from me, from my understanding and my learning about a true partnership. I have a partnership with Salim. We're very different, but we always align.

He's very analytical, logical, a system thinker. Whereas I'm very driven by emotions.

I'm very much aware of my emotions and I take that as a data for me.

So, my decisions are sometimes very gut-driven. I lead with my emotions and my heart, but I don't do that on my own. I always consult the team or talk to Salim about it.

So that combination I think is very powerful.

Sharad Lal: Should I double-click on one of these? I love what you said. I use my emotions as a data point.

Karen Kim: data point. Yes.

Sharad Lal: What is that? How does that

Karen Kim: It's like, why am I angry? Why is this so irritating to me when I see the same problem repeated in the company? Like, why can't I just let it go?

Or why is that little thing irritating me when I'm demoing a product or service to a customer?

And I'm not going to go and lash out about this. I take note that this is something irritating and it's worth looking into. And I also can read the room very well.

Maybe this is my sales background or whatnot, but when a customer has a problem and they say something, sometimes I know that's not what they mean, right? I'm sure you can resonate.

Yeah, it's like, okay, but that's not actually the problem.

And that requires emotional intelligence.

How do you translate that? How are you getting that data feedback? And then bringing it into the, to the team and saying, okay, how do you present in a way that could drive things forward? So I don't know if that's a leadership style or whatnot, but I'm leaning into that more. It's more intuitive.

I'm not there on the ground all the time now. I used to have that period where I felt like, oh, I cannot let go. I have to be aware of everything that's going on.

It's good to have that visibility, but being on the ground with them every day is not going to help.

Sharad Lal: to help. Absolutely. So this intuitive style, and you talked about learning about yourself or other people, there's a reflection, there's intuitiveness.

Is there a process, is there a ritual that you reflect and start looking at stuff and then moving forward?

Karen Kim: at stuff and You note it down. Note down means you or I actually tell Salim or tell my team in the moment, it's more of that taking the idea of that immediate feedback.

then you start to build some sort of a model, right? you start to understand, okay, this is a pattern. I've seen this

Sharad Lal: But I have to be very honest, there's not much structure, but I think that's why it works. I think that's also the advantage that we have as a startup. We're very agile. So when the customer has a problem and they come to us with this, I can usually resolve that within the week's time because we already have the core set up.

Karen Kim: And that's the kind of thing that keeps them with us. Like we've been operational for more than five years now. No one's left us.

And, yeah, it's a very amazing

Sharad Lal: Absolutely amazing. Is that success? Because there's a lot of failures that come along the way in, in startup. So what is yours? Thought of failure

Can you talk about one big failure, one big event, which you had to really go back and think of

Karen Kim: I think this is The strength of where we did not have any one problem that really destroyed us.

Yes, small or medium-sized problems hurt us, but we were still resilient. We were still able to keep the show going. And that was because, from day one, we knew that modularity was going to be the philosophy for everything. How do we break things down so that we don't over rely on one thing?

That's also the way that we organise. That's also the way that we run the strategy. We have to have multiple backups. We have to have multiple routes to success, which means that one failure is not going to hurt everything.

In the beginning, that was really tough because it's a different kind of culture, a different mindset.

Okay, very cool. Now we've talked so much about work. Yeah. And as a CEO, I'm sure it's draining, you're fully involved in it. How do you balance

First, I moved to Singapore.

Sharad Lal: Singapore. From Hong Kong.

Karen Kim: I left the hectic, crazy life of Hong Kong because that's where I grew up. That's where my family is, all my friends, my community, everything was there. And Singapore was more of a clean slate.

That actually helped change the environment. Getting away from the Hong Kong type of day where I would fill up my calendar, have five different appointments and still be able to run a business. So first I was like removed from that and that really showed me what I was missing. Like,

the contrast.

That's when it hit me. Like I actually have more time to set myself up for the day. I can be surrounded by greenery and open up my journal and start my morning slow.

That is how I start my day.

Sharad Lal: If you can describe your morning, I love that there's greenery, you open your doors, you have your journal. Can you talk about how does your day

Karen Kim: you open your doors, you have your journal. Can you talk about how your day starts?

I start my morning with the birds, and sometimes I get a visitor, like a squirrel, building its home. seriously. And it just brings me into that perspective. Okay, this is how nature goes on. Nothing is too urgent. going about their day in the morning. I open the door wide, no air con, anything, just the fan, the ceiling fan spinning and get my journal out.

And it's a very simple journal. I write down my goal for the day or my intention, depending on how I feel, simplifying the day ahead. So yes, I have endless things to do, of course, but what is it today that I'm going to be present for?

And of course I have my coffee. and then I either go into my office which is all the way in Sembawang. But that commute has been really lovely because I take the MRT and I listen to a podcast or I have my Kindle with me.

 I do find a podcast very helpful because it ties a knot for me. oh, okay, this is what I've learned, or this is what I experienced, but I didn't have the terms for it, or I didn't know how to explain it. yeah, yeah. This podcast.

I actually did listen to your latest podcast with Danielle. It was amazing. 

Sharad Lal: she's, very wise, very

Karen Kim: yeah, no, it's incredible. And it's just a, it just opens up a whole world of different domain experts and

their perspectives and all of that and just ties it really nicely, under an hour.

And it's a perfect podcast. It's a perfect companion to commute or,

so when someone says something in a podcast or I want to listen to it again I make sure that I like bookmark it and then I write it down in my notes there is one thing that I wanted to share because your questions like remind me of the book that really had an impact on my life, which is Becoming by Michelle Obama. And the quote, because we talk about success and like purpose and all this and yeah, this quote, For me, becoming isn't about arriving somewhere or achieving a certain aim. I see it instead as forward motion, a means of evolving, a way to reach continuously toward a better self. The journey doesn't end.

And it's like when you read or hear people say something like this,

Sharad Lal: I got goosebumps when you read it out.

Karen Kim: And I think when you ask me these questions, I also like, what's the framework? How did you do it? really, I just live, I just go through the motions. And I think doing it with gratitude and just joy, it makes a whole lot of difference.

And not really thinking about, okay, who is the CEO that I envision in 10 years? First of all, that kind of makes me cringe.

It scares me when people say, okay, what is like your five year vision? And it's yes, I can tell you what, where we're headed and where I think we should head, but I don't have such a clear, really defined vision.

Sharad Lal: vision. In spirituality, they talk about directionality, but not destination.

And it's on the path. I don't know where it is, but I know I'm on the path and iterating, and I find that empowering. Yeah, I agree.

Karen Kim: Yes,

I think that's it. All the patterns that I've learned throughout life, and I'm still learning and that's the common theme.

I think that's the thread, the common thread. And where I found true balance, true happiness, is when I'm like, Okay, this CEO thing is a very big part of me. Yes, but it's not everything. It's the different domains of life, right? It's very mentally satisfying to me, this job.

But it's not giving me physical wellness. I have to work for that, and I also have to work for my spiritual well-being.

But it provides me with a lot of input for that and for my spiritual journey. Is it okay that having this bigger purpose comes from work?

I ask myself these questions sometimes, like, oh,so career-driven? Am I thinking for myself? But actually, it serves me for this season of my life. And maybe in five years, when we have the same conversation, I may think differently. But I think that's also the beauty, right?

I love looking back at my old self and being like, Haha, that was fun. But I'm, I don't, I'm not like that anymore. Or I've changed in a certain way. And I think the more versions that you can create, and as long as it's like the direction that you want to go into, and you become a better version of who you're really capable of becoming, I think that's the beauty in everything.

Sharad Lal: to do, you might think, oh, there's big

Karen Kim: Yes, I am.

Sharad Lal: you're headed for. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Karen Kim: about that? Yeah, so it will be a convention hosted by Snowflake. And this is where all the industry giants will be there.

but also the startup ecosystem. So it's going to be a three—to four-day conference in San Francisco. They'll have, and this is what I love about conferences because you can see from the headlines what the market is thinking: What is the big idea?

This is the first time that I'll be attending such a conference where this

Sharad Lal: you're not mentioning who's going to be there.

So I'm going to interrupt you. Please tell people who's going to be in that conference

Karen Kim: yes. The one that I'm very excited about is Jensen Huang founder, CEO of Nvidia, and he will be one of the keynote speakers. And of course, yeah, just learning just the ability for me to go and absorb and Feel everything and have discussions on the fly. I think it will be of immense value.

and I don't take this lightly, right? This is an incredible opportunity to be working alongside or learning from very up close and then being able to apply to my own journey of and how we can serve the market here and beyond. I'm sure. But just taking a moment to appreciate this,

Sharad Lal: I'm sure, but just taking a moment to appreciate this.

The girl who moved out of Korea at the age of 11, sitting with her mother learning English together has come this far. We are CEO of a company,

attending a conference with your heroes there. I think your father would be very proud of you.

As we close out, what's the one bit of bottom line advice you leave with youngsters who want to be CEOs, who want to excel in their careers?

Karen Kim: you leave with youngsters who want to be CEOs, who want to excel in their careers? And it's what you do from here that matters the most. So don't compare. You can learn by comparing and all this, but don't let that direct you. That's the lesson that I would tell myself.

Sharad Lal: huge. For a lot of high performers, that's what sometimes gets you the energy down. It's not necessarily an inspiration, it's a downer.

So it's good to hear that message.

Thank you very much for such an honest, vulnerable, open conversation. I learned a lot and I'm sure our listeners are going to learn a lot. Thank you very much for

Thank you, Karen, for such a raw inspirational conversation. For more on Karen, please check the show notes. Here's something all of us could reflect on. What's the one area of self doubt in your mind?

Can we zoom out? And look at the bigger picture.

What's the bigger purpose we can connect with?

How do our skills help us towards that purpose?

How does this shift our energy? Best of luck. I hope you enjoyed this episode. The next episode will drop two weeks from now on June 18. Do join us for that. Till next time, have a wonderful day ahead. Bye bye.