Hong Kong innovators

Yes, Shih can! Hong Kong-born entrepreneur returns to city to set up financial social media firm

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 03 April, 2016, 9:40pm
UPDATED : Monday, 04 April, 2016, 7:01pm

When US tech entrepreneurs Clara Shih Chong-wai first set up her social media marketing company Hearsay Social, people would often mistake her as her partner’s secretary. With 22 markets under her belt – Hong Kong being the latest addition – she has now shown how women can overcome all odds and run successful ventures.

“I was born in Hong Kong and I am delighted to be back to open an office here. Hong Kong is a great city for social media and technology start-ups,” Shih told the South China Morning Post, adding that although she migrated with her family to Chicago when she was only four, she has always considered Hong Kong as her real home.

Hearsay Social, which she co-founded with university friend Steve Garrity in the US in 2009, is targeted at financial institutions such as insurance companies and banks to help their agents and salespeople use all types of digital platforms from email to facebook and twitter to promote their products and services.

“Hong Kong is a major international financial centre with many banks and insurance companies that require our social media marketing services,” she said. “We have met a number of senior executives of several financial firms and they are very interested in our services,” she said.

Despite the economic slowdown in Hong Kong, she thinks it is a great time to open an office here.

“When the economy is bad, people think of insurance protection. In addition, it is in times like these that companies need to use more innovative methods to promote their businesses. We are taking a very long-term view, so I am not worried about a short-term slowdown.”

Shih was born in an academic family. Her father was a professor at Baptist University while her mother taught arts in secondary school. The family migrated to the US in 1986, where her parents studied and worked hard to fit into their new world.

“My mother got a Ph.D. My brother is a professor. Experience as a migrant has made me understand the value of hard work,” she said.

Shih studied computer science at Stanford University. After graduation, she started her career at Microsoft before moving on to Google, followed by stints at several other tech firms. In 2009, as social media began to boom, she and Garrity decided to set up Hearsay Social with the help of venture capital.

Married with a one-year old son, she balances family and work, and believes women can have businesses just as successful as men as long as they make the right business decisions. Her life has, however, taught her that stereotypes can be tough to break.

“When I would first go to meet investors with Garrity, most people would think I was his secretary and wouldn’t talk to me at all,” she said.

Shih has come a long way since, having expanded into 22 markets including New York, London, Chicago, Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia, and serving big names like AXA.

“If you want to set up a successful business, don’t stay at the office but go out to meet people to learn from them and convince them to support you,” she said. “It is also important to listen to your customers, which is why we don’t do everything but only focus on financial firms so that we can understand what they need and provide solutions for them. Cost control is also important but we also invest whenever needed.

“Finally, don’t try to do too much in a short period. It is better to do one business or one market well before moving into another.”