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Who inspires you? Someone who represents conventional success – a business guru maybe, or a visionary entrepreneur? Or perhaps a political orator, philosopher or great writer? For Sarah Yang MBA2011, inspiration is much closer to home: her grandmother is the most motivational presence in her life.
“My grandmother, who eventually made her way to Canada, was born and raised in a small village in China with no access to education. When I was starting out in my career, it struck me that I wanted to do something to help people like her.”
The realisation that she had a calling, however, didn’t come to Yang instantly. There was some joining of the dots to do ﬁrst: “It wasn’t until I was actually making my application to do my MBA at London Business School that I understood what it was that I really wanted to do with my life,” she says. “When you’re writing your personal statement, you’re asked what it is that motivates you and I asked myself that question. The answer was that I wanted to help people like my grandmother have access to the kinds of opportunities that I’ve had.”
It is a mission that has galvanised and shaped her career from that moment. Straight after graduating from LBS in 2011, she headed to Shanghai, where she met her business partner and launched MNE Creations, a gamiﬁcation business making educational apps for high-school children and university students.
“I had the idea from the start of my time at LBS. Gamiﬁcation as a concept was starting to take oﬀ and, from a business perspective, China felt like a really good developing market. What propelled me from idea to action and really empowered me to go for it as an entrepreneur was the understanding that usually the only thing that’s holding you back is you.”
‘What really empowered me to go for it as an entrepreneur was the understanding that usually the only thing that’s holding you back is you’
As a woman in tech, Yang is well accustomed to building the self-conﬁdence to ask for support where necessary and get help in achieving her goals. A stint as a lead software engineer with US gaming giant Electronic Arts gave her a grounding in putting herself forward, and spotting the need as well as the opportunities to learn and to grow.
“When I started out in video games, around 90% of the coders and engineers were men, so you had to deal with that and ﬁgure out how to make it work for you. My experience has been that people are actually more disposed to help you and support you in the things you want to achieve if you’re proactive about sharing what that is.”
Making the transition from game engineer to social entrepreneur on a mission was fueled in part by the realisation that her leadership and business understanding was incomplete: “I’d been promoted rapidly and that was great, but when projects sometimes took an unexpected direction, I sensed I needed to plug some gaps in my leadership skills and my understanding of business and of my industry. That’s what took me to LBS. And it’s there that I understood I could channel my knowledge and background into something with meaning and purpose, something that could actually make a diﬀerence to people’s lives.”
Starting up has brought plenty of rewards as well as challenges, and Yang cites the many highs and lows over the last decade that have characterised the journey. While entrepreneurship has brought great learning, there have been challenges along the way that have constituted the “toughest” years of her life.
“Running your own business is a huge learning curve and it gives you the freedom and the ﬂexibility to make exciting decisions. Working in gamiﬁcation brings you close to your customers – in our case, to our fan base – and that’s a real privilege. And then there’s the simple pleasure of starting something from nothing and seeing an idea come to life.
“There are also terriﬁc lows that come with the volatility. One moment you’re experiencing unprecedented success and the next you’re wondering how you’ll ﬁnance the next quarter, so there is a lot of learning there.” With four educational game apps covering social science and language learning under her team’s belt, Yang decided to pause her business in 2016, take stock of the lessons and determine the future direction of her life and career.
A practising Christian, her experience running a business has given her an interesting new perspective on the activities of the church in South East Asia and how these dovetail with social enterprise initiatives in the region.
“I’ll know I’ve been successful when I can be sure that I’ve left a positive impact on the people around me.”
Keen to wrap some structured learning around new and emerging ideas, she has opted to take a Masters at Yale Divinity School.
“Taking time away from the day-to-day of business gives you interesting new perspectives. I started to look at the church as an organisation and I was able to apply my experience and expertise to see where there were gaps in what it was trying to do and what it was achieving. So, I’m starting to think about how I can apply this to help drive social-impact objectives that the church has.”
Yang is concurrently collaborating with a number of NGOs delivering social-impact projects in rural Thailand, Cambodia and China to build an understanding of operations and scalability.
It’s an area that holds professional interest as well as personal meaning for her: “Reﬂecting on the kind of work being led by these disparate players and taking the time to go back to school and explore the roots of some of the biggest issues facing the world – inequality, injustice, racism – is a way of bringing together and helping to articulate experience, ideas and thoughts about what the next stage of my life is going to look like.”
In the short term she plans to lend her expertise to a large-scale project in Myanmar that is bringing together local government, corporate players and a team of more than 100 people to create apps for rural communities that will help them with healthcare and legal issues.
Understanding when you reach an inﬂection point and when it’s time to take a hiatus to consider the next steps, she says, comes from having a high degree of self-knowledge.
That, and a hard-won capacity to separate your personal and professional identities: “As an entrepreneur or a business person, it’s really important to make that distinction between your personal identity and your professional accomplishments.”
For Yang, that means you need to know “when to take a step back and reconsider what it is that you want out of your life and what is it that you are prepared to sacriﬁce to make that happen.
“It’s also good to be open to whatever is out there that might be next for you. All the most interesting opportunities I have received have come from unplanned or unexpected conversations.”
Understanding what your underlying goals and criteria are, of course, is key. “To me, success can take many forms,” she says. “But I’ll know I’ve been successful when I can be sure that I’ve left a positive impact on the people around me. It’s knowing that lives have been touched and that something has changed in our world.”