Interview by Megan Foo, President of Women LEAD’s Hong Kong Chapter
Michelle Sun is the CEO and cofounder of First Code Academy, an education startup that aims to teach creative and logical thinking to pre-university students through coding. Since launch in 2013, the startup has educated over 300 students how to make their mobile applications. She sits on the Technology Advisory Council of The Women’s Foundation. Prior to starting First Code, she held various technical roles in high growth startups in Silicon Valley, including as the first growth hacker at Buffer and Bump Technologies (acquired by Google in 2013). Born and raised in Hong Kong, she graduated from University of Chicago and began her career at Goldman Sachs as an equity analyst.
Women LEAD: What is your background?
Michelle Sun: I was born and raised in Hong Kong, went to college in Chicago then moved back to Hong Kong for an investment banking job. There, I was covering tech and media at Goldman as an equity analyst and fell in love with the industry. I was meeting all these executives and entrepreneurs in the Chinese Internet companies like Tencent and Alibaba. From there, I caught the tech entrepreneur bug and started tinkering on different projects.
Along the way, I started learning to code. Eventually when my first startup failed, I took a one-way ticket to go to San Francisco and learned coding full time. It was a life changing moment for me, and one of the best decisions I made.
It opened doors for me to work in top startups including Bump Technologies (acquired by Google in Oct 2013) and Buffer (named one of the hottest startups in Silicon Valley recently) as their first Growth Hacker. When based in Silicon Valley I also started teaching kids to code as a volunteer, and that inspired me to start First Code Academy when I moved back to Hong Kong.
Michelle Sun: Kids these days interact with technology from a very young age. They are very good at consuming content, such as videos, games, music etc. However unlike the previous generation, they lack the ability to create in these digital media. I really like how Professor Mitchel Resnick at MIT said, it’s almost as if these Millennials can read but not write.
We believe coding can empower these kids to express themselves and be creative in technology. We have taught over 300 kids since launch in July 2013.
We believe coding is not just a technical skill for better job prospects, but also a fundamental skill set for our next generation, to first build up their logic thinking and then to allow them to think computationally and solve problems systematically.
Women LEAD: Why, to you, is it important that we encourage more women to go into the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM)?
Michelle Sun: Technology products are all around us, used by both women and men. In some social networking sites like Pinterest, women represent the majority of their users. To create products that suit the needs of more people, it only serves us all to have a more diverse workforce. Having more women in the tech field is a way to increase the diversity and gives us more perspective when designing and creating technology products.
Women LEAD: What needs to change to increase women’s participation in careers in technology?
- Having a role model – it’s important to have someone to look up to, who you can emulate.
- Having community support, for example groups including Women Who Code, which provide a network for women to turn to for advice and sharing.
- Having mentorship.
Women LEAD: On a personal level, what does women’s empowerment mean to you?
Michelle Sun: A lot. In Silicon Valley, I learned coding with a bootcamp called Hackbright Academy, which is a women only training camp. It made a big difference learning with women in such a male dominated field. The amount of support there was amazing.
Women LEAD: Can you talk about one woman who has impacted you in your life?
Michelle Sun: I have met many amazing women entrepreneurs along the way. I really look up to Su-Mei Thompson at The Women’s Foundation for her leadership, as well as Julia Grace, CTO at Tindie for her enthusiasm and energy.
Women LEAD: What advice do you have for prospective entrepreneurs, and for the next generation of women in STEM?
- Start small and dream big
- Build your network early