In Vietnam, the tech sector dominates the startup ecosystem. And just like in any other country, having female leaders in this male-dominated industry gives us a whole new vantage point, and women empowerment-themed articles.
Thing is, this isn’t about gender or the overused “why we need more women in tech” and whatnot. We’re not talking clichés here. This is about Denise Sandquist, born in Vietnam and adopted in Sweden, and how her longing for a meaningful connection led her to create an app that does just that, and as her way of giving back.
When Denise was just one month old, she was adopted by a Swedish family and spent most of her life nowhere near Vietnam. Growing up, she was an achiever and a go-getter, “something I was born as – I always liked competition, to challenge myself and to do my best.”
Constantly up for any challenge, Denise has kept both of her feet on the ground and always carried her Vietnamese roots with her. “I often introduce myself in a quite relaxed way, no matter if it is in a professional or private setting, and always mention my roots. I believe being a Vietnamese adoptee is a great part of my identity and says a lot about who I am.”
In Sweden, Denise had a loving and supportive family. She was always top of her class, did a lot of sports, and even competed in gymnastics at a very high level when she was just 11.
But her life wasn’t “extraordinary and very happy” all the time. When she was only 9 years old, her mother passed away from cancer. Tough for her, her little sister, and her Dad, she needed to take on more responsibilities to help her family cope with the trauma. “I had to grow up a bit faster and I got aware that life can end anytime, and that we should take nothing for granted.”
When she turned 14, her father remarried and the family felt complete again, except that there’s a void in her heart that needed to be filled.
It was during that time that she started to reflect more about her Vietnamese mother in a way that she had not before. “To have lost a parent at that young age makes your situation quite different from others. I just wanted to have two parents like everyone else.”
“For as long as I can remember, I have always been interested in finding my biological parents and going to Vietnam. I definitely believe that my thoughts and interests around Vietnam and my biological parents became stronger during that period of my life.”
It all started five years ago. When Denise came to Vietnam for an internship in 2016, she posted her call for help on Facebook looking for her Vietnamese mother. Thanks to the many helping hands, the post went viral and she was reunited with her biological mother after 18 days of searching.
“That made me think more about the importance of meaningful connections and I wanted to give something back to all the kind Vietnamese people who had given me so much support, and thought about a way to do that.”
That year, Denise was only 25 years old but many of her friends were starting to worry a bit about finding a serious relationship – pressure from their families and society.
“I thought about why there was not a safe social & dating app out there that really focused on Vietnamese people and their needs, focusing on meaningful connections instead of ‘fast connections’ which is typical for other dating apps.”
That was the spark. “Fika is the response to that,” she said.
Fika is Asia’s first female-focused AI social and dating app that allows one to make friends, chat, date, and meet new interesting people. “We only allow 100% manually verified users, pushing on safety and authenticity.” The app forbids fake profiles and has zero-tolerance against users with abusive behavior.
But what does the word Fika mean? A simple Google search explains everything – Fika is often translated as "a coffee and cake break", which is kind of correct, but it really is much more than that. Fika is a concept, a state of mind, an attitude, and an important part of Swedish culture. Many Swedes consider that it is almost essential to make time for Fika every day.
And that is how Denise merged her Swedish culture with her Vietnamese roots. Another confirmation of how much “meaningful connections” mean to her.
There’s competition everywhere. With Fika, Denise and her team’s goal is to become the world’s leading AI social and dating app. But how exactly will artificial intelligence kickstart friendships, relationships, and connections, in general, to form a lasting one, specifically in Vietnam?
“We adapted Asian culture for our Asian market, especially in our design and features, for example adding in the zodiac in all profiles, and with more data, we will be able to individualize the match-making process.”
To create larger, broader, and more capable AI systems, Fika taps on users’ previous actions to bridge users to the most suitable for them and become the best matches.
Together with her co-founder, Oscar Xing Luo, who has a background in AI and Machine Learning, they are now collecting more and more data to improve the algorithm.
“Oscar is one of my closest friends and also my co-founder and Fika’s CTO. Oscar and I have known each other since 2015, so for six years now. I have known him since he was 21 and he is both like a younger brother to me and my friend.”
Just as much as she values macro connections, Denise and Oscar complement each other very well and completely trust each other. “I guess since I am three years older than him, the same way as I have seen him as a younger brother when we both were younger, he has seen me as an older sister.”
Oscar puts all his trust in Denise and believed in the idea of going to Vietnam to start Fika so much so that he moved to a country he’s never been to before, straight after his studies. “I believe it is very unique to have the trust, respect, and friendly relationship that Oscar and I have.”
After all, they both have the same goal – to help people create meaningful connections: friends, networking, or relationships and connect people that could vibe and be suitable for each other.
Unlike other dating apps, when users successfully find their matches through Fika, they can switch to couples mode and continue to use the app – booking dates and keeping track of their relationship.
“Through our app, we hope to create a platform where young Vietnamese people can connect and bond better, just like the way social media has helped me to reconnect with my Vietnamese mother.”
We all know that feeling of having a vision for a long time and finally making it happen, executing that vision piece by piece. And when that time comes, there’s no better feeling than witnessing and actually being there through every step of the process.
When asked how involved she is in developing and improving Fika, Denise revealed, “I am very hands-on and all features that exist in Fika, as well as the design and the name, are based on the ideas from Oscar and me.”
The divide and conquer strategy works for both Denise and Oscar, especially now that their team’s growing and they just released the core product and are also taking in external capital to scale up. “Oscar and I are dividing our tasks a bit more and he takes a bigger product responsibility than me, and he is the one who always has been heading the tech team, while I am the CEO and responsible for the marketing team, overall strategy, and our finances.”
Leading the way
According to the Vietnam Business Coalition for Women’s Empowerment, “despite a high labor participation rate, women in leadership roles are still a minority in the country.”
With Denise co-leading her team of mostly women, which is quite unique for a tech startup, one of her leadership principles is not putting demands and high standards on others if she cannot lead the way herself.
“We have a 100% local Vietnamese team that we are very proud of, where the majority are women. The median age at Fika is around 27 years, and it is extremely inspiring to see how our employees have grown since we started. We constantly try to improve and develop and it is thanks to each one of our employees that we have come this far in such a short time.”
She added that as a female leader, she wants to show other women that “you do not need to adapt or fit a certain role” just because society expects you to be that someone but yourself.
Denise believes that nothing is impossible and by going forward, challenging herself, and leading the way, she enables others to do the same. That there’s no reason to be afraid of whatever comes and “it is OK if the result does not come out perfect, as long as you try and do your best.”
“I am proud to be a woman,” she expressed. But she does not think too much about it. “I see myself as an individual and I want to be treated based on who I am and what I do, and that people will not focus unnecessarily much on my gender.”
Taking on challenges
How do leaders move forward when they’re told their ideas won’t work and are not good enough?
Truth is, leaders or not, if we all care too much about what everyone else thinks, guess we'll never have the courage to do anything at all. Denise shares the same thought.
“In the end, you have to trust your gut and believe that you can do and pull off something that not everyone can – that is why you are doing what you are doing and that you actually believe that you can, will already set you apart from the majority of people.”
With her accomplishments and current endeavors, the Vietnamese trait she loves most – being helpful – continues to run in her system.”A couple of days ago I got a mentee through a program called Give it Back here in Vietnam.” And the first thing she told him was, “to be honest with himself and try to understand what he wants to do, regardless of what society or his parents would think, but what he wants to do if he can decide for himself.”
Naturally, her passion to get things done is something she passes on to others – “dare to be brave, take risks and see where life takes you. Put yourself in new situations, learn many languages, travel to different countries, and interact with the local people there and try to understand their culture,” she said. And doing all that will “make your life so much richer and your world so much bigger.”
When asked what’s in the pipeline that she’s really excited about, she said, “We have exciting news that will be public in a couple of weeks, being the start of Fika scaling up even more in Vietnam and the expanding out in Southeast Asia.”
With all the grand projects in the works, it has been a challenge for Fika to onboard new employees virtually. The lockdown in Ho Chi Minh City, where the company is based, has prevented Denise from personally meeting new recruits and introducing them to the team
“It is a bit special to employ people and not have the chance for them to meet with the whole team in person. But that is ok, it is temporary, and we really have nothing to complain about – being a tech startup and able to work remotely, our product being completely online, we have not been affected as much as many other companies in Vietnam.”
The humble tech CEO remains extremely thankful despite the situation Vietnam is in and in the same way she sends her thoughts to other startups and companies that are affected much more severely by this than them.
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