Katty Hsu is a senior researcher & start-up facilitator at the Erasmus Centre for Entrepreneurship, initiated by the Rotterdam School of Management and the Erasmus School of Economics, and 100% part of the Erasmus University Rotterdam.
She also helps to run SHE LEADS – an initiative designed to encourage female entrepreneurship and leadership by shining a greater spotlight on the latest research, insights, and expertise concerning women in leadership, and sharing it with a network of female entrepreneurs, investors, and other stakeholders. It also serves to encourage greater female representation in entrepreneurship education through business education.
Tell us a bit about yourself, your background and your current role
I’m a Taiwanese-born, South African-raised global citizen and currently live in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, where I work at Erasmus Centre for Entrepreneurship as a Senior Researcher and Startup Facilitator.
As a researcher, I investigate innovative young and high-growth companies, such as startups and scaleups and the entrepreneurial ecosystems surrounding them. As a startup facilitator, I train people in their entrepreneurship skills and help student and international entrepreneurs grow their businesses in the thriving Dutch ecosystem.
I moved to the Netherlands 5 years ago to study for my Master’s in Industrial Dynamics and Strategy at the Erasmus School of Economics. Prior to that, I gained an interdisciplinary undergraduate degree from Stellenbosch University in South Africa in Politics, Philosophy and Economics. My parents moved to South Africa from Taiwan when I was born to start their business in wholesale and retail consumer goods. I’m extremely privileged to have grown up in a relatively safe area in Johannesburg with parents who worked tirelessly to build a company and comfortable life for us in a foreign country. I was already introduced to the entrepreneurship process before I could utter the words and before the concept was popularised when I was a toddler accompanying my parents on their business trips to procure products from China. Almost every school holiday consisted of a trip to Chinese export hubs and learning ‘the tricks of the trade’.
Did you ever sit down and plan your career?
Besides a visit to the career counsellor in high school where I took an aptitude test to help me determine my university specialisation (I didn’t end up following the advice to pursue a career in financial forecasting), I have never had a structured career plan. I was lucky enough to have grown up with entrepreneurial parents who gave me space to determine my own path at my own pace (which included a few last-minute pivots). If you were to ask me 5 years ago when I moved to the Netherlands where I’d be right now, I would not have anticipated making an impact in the entrepreneurship field.
Have you faced any challenges along the way?
Growing up in a multicultural environment and having a multi-disciplinary academic background has allowed me to master the skill of adaptability. My ever-expanding horizon is always open to new perspectives, opportunities and challenges. There are no limits to my passions – from art to science, current socio-political issues to the latest technological developments, there is always a way to spark my interest. In my never-ending quest to learn new things, my biggest challenge has always been deciding what to focus on and specialise in, which I encountered in both my studies and the early stages of my career. Luckily, throughout my path in academia, I found my passion in entrepreneurship which has exposed me to its multitude of applications where I can learn something new every day.
Besides my indecision being an internal challenge that I face almost daily, I’m constantly finding myself having to navigate uncomfortable cultural contexts. Back then I didn’t know that it was microaggression but being one of the few Asian people in the area, I was constantly being asked where I was “really” from when Johannesburg (where I lived for 18 years of my life before going to university) was not enough. Now that I live in the Netherlands, people also cannot accept my first answer of coming from South Africa. Whenever I meet someone new, I often have an automated response of “I grew up in South Africa, but I was born in Taiwan” – it’s taken me a long time to get here, but I now proudly embrace my Taiwanese heritage and start with “I was born in Taiwan and I grew up in South Africa”. It’s been one of my major personal challenges living between two cultures – Taiwanese and South African – while not fully feeling like I belong to either. Surprisingly, adding the Dutch culture to the mix has helped me contextualise this and understand the importance of intersectionality.
What has been your biggest achievement to date?
Initiating SHE LEADS in November 2021 as a long-term research and education project with my team at Erasmus Centre for Entrepreneurship and our partners. It’s extremely rewarding seeing it grow to the knowledge platform and network it has become today that inspires the next generation of female entrepreneurs and leaders, while contributing to more inclusive entrepreneurial ecosystems for all.
What one thing do you believe has been a major factor in you achieving success?
It’s difficult to attribute only one thing to my success so far, so I will choose one for my personal life and one for my career, although they are highly interdependent. My personal success so far is thanks to my parents who gave me the opportunity to experience a humbling form entrepreneurship from scratch. They gave me a solid foundation to explore my own interests and taught me that with hard work, dedication, and the right network, you can build a successful business in a completely foreign country. This feeds into my career, which has been an exceptional experience thanks to my (management) team who continuously pushes me to grow in the right direction.
How do you feel about mentoring? Have you mentored anyone or are you someone’s mentee?
Accountability and having someone to check in with on a regular basis has been a key part of my personal and career development. I’m mentored by Leonardo Fuligni, our Deputy Director at work, and I also see my mother as my unofficial mentor for several aspects of my life. I mentor several (aspiring) entrepreneurs from our programmes and junior project members in our team. I find it extremely rewarding to mentor people and help them set and achieve their goals.
If you could change one thing to accelerate the pace of change for Gender Parity, what would it be?
I believe that education is the answer to equity. Gender parity starts with closing the gender gap in education at all levels. Everyone should have access to quality education, free of gender norms. This means if I had control over a significant amount of financial and human capital, I would invest in overcoming the barriers to girls’ education* and empowering educators to remove gender stereotypes from learning materials.
*UNICEF: Only 49% of countries have achieved gender parity in primary education. At the secondary level, the gap widens: 42% of countries have achieved gender parity in lower secondary education, and 24% in upper secondary education.
If you could give one piece of advice to your younger self what would it be?
I would tell my younger self to embrace being different and celebrate my unique heritage rather than trying to fit in. Very practically, I wish I learnt how to read and write Mandarin. Luckily, my parents raised me speaking it at home, but I never formally committed to proper education as I preferred to spend my spare time doing ‘normal/Western’ things.
What is your next challenge and what are you hoping to achieve in the future?
Scaling our impact internationally. In 2022 alone, Erasmus Centre for Entrepreneurship supported entrepreneurship education in 18 countries. With our international reach, my next challenge is to bring that impact of our knowledge from SHE LEADS to an international level. I recently launched the European Scaleup Institute (February 2022), together with our team and international partners. With this initiative, I hope our platform and community of experts can inform how key decision-makers in the ecosystem can contribute to fostering more sustainable growth as well as diversity, equity, and inclusion in the scaling up process.