Gene Soo on Being an Entrepreneur during a Crisis

Gene Soo on Being an Entrepreneur during a Crisis

The Head of Ecosystem at MTR Corporation Limited Gene Soo discusses innovating, failing and moving forward.

On May 27th, StartmeupHK, in collaboration with KPMG, held the Connected Cities Conference. Focusing on the trifecta of innovation, technology and collaboration, professionals chimed in on what we can expect from cities and the world at large in the future. That’s something that the Head of Ecosystem at MTR Corporation Limited, Gene Soo, dedicates himself to relentlessly.

Soo is a serial entrepreneur who has co-founded multiple companies, including StartupsHK, the premier startup community of Hong Kong. During his career, Soo has successfully launched numerous startups ranging from tech to fashion. In 2009, he saw an opportunity to help startups take advantage of everything Hong Kong has to offer and launched the company StartupsHK with a vision to empower local entrepreneurs. He also foresaw their growth in areas such as fintech, hardware, wearables and mobile tech. He summarized these fast-growing spaces as “any sort of tech that could disrupt the traditional ways of doing business.”

However, Soo believes that innovating goes beyond disruptive technology. Instead, it’s about giving back to the community, a concept he practices every day. With nearly twenty years of experience across business ecosystems—from the Silicon Valley to China, he pushes the envelope for Hong Kong startups, helping them do better.

His take on Covid-19 and innovation

Soo believes that Covid-19 has had a significant impact on our lives, affecting the way we live, work and play in cities. However, the impact is not necessarily negative as changes can bring about new opportunities. In fact, Soo notes that the greatest innovations are created during the most challenging periods.

And rest assured, innovating is not a one-man job, something that the pandemic made evident. If there’s anything we have learned over the past year, it’s that navigating change requires a team. The conference has contributed to this by making room for collective collaboration efforts while shining a light on the importance of innovation. According to Soo, “The Connected Cities Conference played an important role in bringing together different stakeholders as we strive to adapt and change our way of living, working and playing. [We are] focusing on different levels from Hong Kong to GBA (Greater Bay Area) to the larger ASEAN region.”

Like a diamond that takes form under extreme pressure, Soo believes that Covid-19 is an opportunity in disguise for business owners. He expounds, “It is during times of hardship and uncertainty that [people] bring out the best inspiration and ideas. It is important for businesses and entrepreneurs to stay positive and focused on solving problems while keeping users in mind.”

Still, many entrepreneurs may trip-up when it is time to discover the opportunity and make the most of it. For that, Soo recommends that businesses and entrepreneurs stay relentless and focused while solving challenges. He suggests that we should be “constantly aware of the feedback and learn along the way. That is how opportunities are discovered.” He analogizes the situation to a mountain climber who doesn’t know “what’s on the other side of the mountain until the peak is reached. If we stop short at trying, we would not learn what we would learn had we arrived at the peak.”

Staying connected virtually

As we stayed holed up at home, separated from our office spaces, the past year turned our attention to a reliable way of staying connected: the Internet. Soo shares, “Even though we may be less in contact with each other face-to-face, we are more connected than ever before digitally with each other and with the cities we live in.” A survey of young entrepreneurs and consumers revealed that nine of out 10 of them had increased the usage of at least one digital device during Covid. Furthermore, more than 50% had increased their use of social media to stay connected.

Soo is all too familiar with the power of technology to connect a city. As the General Manager at Citymappers, a transportation app, Soo led technological advancements and developments that helped citizens interact with their city digitally. He has helmed some attention-grabbing technological transformations that we get to witness today, including his fashion app StyleNearBy and StartupsHK. In his role in the Global Innovation Department of MTR, he helps the organization connect and collaborate with startups or build new transportation solutions in-house. While participating in a recent podcast, he noted, “Given how innovation is speeding up, organizations like MTR would need to find new ways to do things. [Things] are no longer how they were in the pre-Internet era.”

Indeed, the digital world has lent us multiple recourses to innovate and upgrade the way we live. Still, Soo feels that it is not a long-term solution. To help the city make smart and sustainable progress, he asserts that businesses need to excel in both the offline and the online world. He adds, “This also ties well to MTR’s  ‘Transforming the Future’ strategy that we launched in late 2020 to drive innovation, technology and capabilities.”

Dealing with failure and adversity

“I have had a countless number of failures,” claims Soo. For him, the key to dealing with these failures is not dwelling on the negativity. Instead, he suggests focusing on what you can learn from them. Although this is easier said than done, Soo believes that it is important to be mindful of negativity when it arises and to channel the energy towards what one can control and improve rather than focus on areas that one cannot control.

Header Image Courtesy: Gene Soo

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