CENTER STAGE: HELENE KWONG OF HASHTAGITUDE
I've known Helene for half of my life, yet I've never met her in person and only heard the sound of her voice for the first time in the last 6 months.
You see, Helene and I were matched as online penpals back in high school when mailing a real dollar to some nameless, faceless penpal company was a thing we all did with our allowance money, right? (Let me know in the comments section below if this was you, too.). Most of those penpal relationships probably fell apart within, what, 6 months?
Helene and I have been mailing each other handwritten letters for 15 years.
That's why, when I started this Center Stage series, she immediately came to mind as someone I needed to feature. I've been following her career development literally from the beginning and have been so proud to watch her path transform along the way. To me, Helene is a shining example of someone who truly never gives up; of someone who is so willing to bob and weave, try new things and pursue what makes her happy, even when stumbling blocks get in her way. I hope you'll find her story as interesting and inspiring as I do.
Of course, it started somewhat unremarkably: She graduated from George Mason University in 2007 with a degree in marketing, a career decision she had made partly to "make her parents proud" and partly to capitalize on her love of hand-drawing "Got Milk?" ads on scraps of notebook paper. She was even lucky enough to land a job opportunity with a close family friend in San Francisco immediately after graduation!
But just as Helene was packing her bags and shipping her life off to California, tragedy struck. The friend who was going to hire her died suddenly, and in his absence, the job that was promised to her quickly disappeared. Now unexpectedly unemployed, living in a new city and possessing no real-world job experience, Helene found herself in the very opposite place she expected. Needing to stay afloat as she restructured her plans, she took a part-time job taking dictation at a local law firm, but within 6 months found herself unemployed again when the attorney retired and no longer needed her services.
And the struggles didn't let up. In light of the economic downturn, Helene spent about ten months working at a local hot dog stand, a job she never imagined she'd have with a college degree, then worked as an Administrative Assistant at a local ESL (English as a second language) school for a year and a half. While the job was good and gave her the chance to dip her toe into marketing, she quickly realized how limited her growth opportunities were and decided that perhaps higher education would get her out of her funk. She was accepted to the University of Denver's International MBA program and had prepared to start in the fall of 2010 when she was severely injured in a car accident. Her injuries were so bad that she had to defer enrollment for a year as she recovered, and although she did matriculate in the fall of 2011, she was disappointed with the program and choose not to stay.
Stuck in a series of what seemed like endless challenges, but knowing she had so much to offer the world, Helene decided to take things into her own hands; to stop waiting for employers to see her strengths, to stop waiting for a degree as a stamp of approval. Instead she hired a business coach, and with his assistance and encouragement, launched her own passion project and company: TAOPivot.
TAOPivot was a twist on a head-hunting agency. After realizing her love of connecting with international (particularly Asian) students in undergrad and then seeing first-hand how much trouble these same students had garnering MBA internships, Helene capitalized on a gap in the market. With TAOPivot, she could help students who spoke English as a second language polish their personal brands, while also acting as a liaison to companies, convincing them as to why they should bring on these incredibly smart individuals.
Students loved her. She was friendly, well-spoken, and as an Asian-American, someone they could relate to. And companies were excited to have her involved, as she acted as a sort of "front line" recruiter, bringing forth only candidates who were qualified, strong matches for the company.
Only things weren't as simple as presenting a candidate and a company saying "yes." In fact, a whole slew of politics and paperwork kept getting in the way, as candidates didn't always have the appropriate visas in place to accept the work, and securing them wasn't a service Helene offered.
"I referred my clients to some international attorneys, but the partnerships I had developed weren't that strong," she says. Ultimately, many of the students she worked with found it too challenging to accept jobs, even with Helene's help, and after nearly two years, the business folded. "It was like mourning the loss of a child," she says.
Leaving herself little time to grieve, Helene dove head first into her original passion: marketing. She started attending local and national events and conferences, live tweeting and building up the already-budding social media presence she had started with TAOPivot. Her efforts began getting noticed, and before long she had people approaching her asking for help with their social media efforts. But she was scared.
"I didn't feel like I was experienced enough, and I didn't want another failure," she says. So she treaded lightly, taking a few contracts, but also launching her second business simultaneously -- a boutique baking company that crafted handmade macarons and other delightful delicacies. Slowly, as her confidence grew, she shuttered the baking company and launched a social media agency full time.
Three years later, Helene's the successful founder and CEO of Hashtagitude, a full-service digital marketing firm that offers consulting and coaching to businesses looking to excel in social media marketing, as well as other areas of the discipline. She runs it with her co-founder and boyfriend Ryan, and although it's taken time to build, she's seen enough success to not only raise her rates, but start a social media-themed podcast with a growing listenership AND seek to hire her first employee in 2016.
I asked Helene if she thought this was "it," if this third business she's started was the "charm" the adage says it should be, and if this meant she'd be hanging up her entrepreneur hat. She chuckled.
"For now, I’m in a viable and sustainable business, but I’m still keeping my options open," she says. "I would like to see this business live on. I’d like to see it be more successful than my previous ventures. But I’m not sure what my next career will be, because I’m enjoying the present."
As for advice for others seeking to start their own business? Helene offers these nuggets:
1) Find a mentor or mastermind group, or hire a coach! Helene's worked with two coaches over the course of her career and credits them with helping her push her boundaries and grow her business beyond what she thought possible. She stresses the importance of building a support system, leaning on others and recognizing that there's so much to learn (and that's ok!).
2) Don't be afraid to invest in yourself and your business. She says: "The whole energy surrounding a business owner not investing in marketing or the business is projected out toward potential clients, and it turns people off. I kept getting all these rejections because people said they didn’t have enough money or I was too expensive. I was listening to a free audio course that said, when you yourself are stingy or cheap in investing in your own business or other entrepreneurs, that same energy is expressed out to people you want to work with."
On the same note, understand what is and isn't a smart investment. "When I started TAOPivot, I thought I needed all the big stuff right away: a semi-private or private office, all this promotional material. I learned the hard way and lost a lot of money. Focus on investing in the things you actually need."
3) Accept that failure is a part of the process. "Fail fast, fail first. The whole failing experience isn’t really a failure as long as you learn from it. It’s a failure if you don’t learn from it and keep doing the same thing over and over." To this we say: preach!
If you'd like to get in touch with Helene or learn more about her business, you can visit Hashtagitude's website, follow her on Twitter or connect on LinkedIn (just let her know you heard about her from Career & The City!).
Til next time!