Breaking Traditional Barriers – The Great Canadian Woman

September 14, 2020

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Michelle Kwok

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Breaking Traditional Barriers

I come from a very traditional Asian immigrant family. Yes, the type that tells you there are 4 options for a successful career: doctor, lawyer, engineer, accountant. A Classic story of Canadian immigrant families: they move here for a better future, financial stability and higher standards of living, for their future generations, so of course these professions are highly praised. Up until I went to university, I genuinely thought there were only these four coveted jobs, and to get them, I would need to start preparing from Day 1 — there was no time to waste and no point in looking at other opportunities.

I narrowed myself into this career path early on, like I had blinders on. I took every science class, learned several languages, picked up instruments, ran for student leadership, played the right sports, all activities designed to put me on a straight track to medical school. I had other opportunities that were a little more off the beaten path, but I dismissed them immediately thinking they would just be a waste of time, instead of taking a learning mindset towards them. Obviously, in retrospect, I wish I had been more open to accepting these opportunities, but life is life and we can’t regret the past.

I spent my summers performing research in infectious diseases at Imperial College London, neuroimaging at UBC, or paediatric gastroenterology at BC Children’s Hospital. Everytime I achieved something in medicine, I was praised by my fellow immigrant community. Every time I achieved something elsewhere — silence. This is not an uncommon story. My Co-Founder Ravina went through the same thing. We both grew up in super traditional families where we were praised when we were “on path” to medical school, and if we ever did anything unexpected, that was considered a waste of time. I didn’t know if I could even do anything outside of medicine at this point – sunk cost fallacy and whatnot.

Then I went to Western University, on the East Coast, a few thousand kilometers away from my hometown family and friends. For the first time, I had space and freedom to question what my passions were, what my intrinsic motivations could be. Since I had taken so many AP courses, first year classes weren’t that difficult, and I stopped going to most of them *sh don’t tell my parents*. (Don’t worry I still did well, I learned how to cram early on in school). I started joining clubs that had nothing to do with my degree, like Sport Business Club and Right to Play, just because I wanted to explore something new, some other areas I was interested in. My extracurricular interests expanded from videography to branding to entrepreneurship. Between rigorous study sessions, I helped launch a digital marketing agency, worked for Bumble, developed sport business partnerships, created events challenging GenZ strategists to take on the world’s biggest issues, and began to build a personal brand that opened up many non-medical opportunities. I began to feel motivated in a way I hadn’t felt in years. Yet, with the burdens of pre-med hanging over me, I could only do so much – if I wanted to make the most of these opportunities and create social impact beyond medicine, I needed to commit to them, but it seemed too late, too risky to change course.

In February 2018, a Facebook message from my brother changed my mind. Amidst a personal epiphany about his own purpose in life, he sent me a note out of the blue saying: “I want to think that I have this ‘take over the world’ type mentality, but I’m realizing you already have more of that than me. Get your degree then take your mentality to do greater things.” That message, coming from him – the Wharton graduate, the investment banker, the golden child – was a catalyst. I took the plunge to finish my degree early, applied and was accepted to Next 36, one of the top entrepreneurship programs for young founders in Canada, and eventually launched my own company.

I informed my parents with a single text: “I’m not taking the MCAT. I got into Next 36. I’m not going back to school next year so I can start a company.”  The text was not particularly well received.

Nevertheless, I pushed forward – this was my first independent major life decision, and I had never been so sure of anything. I entered Next 36 intending to launch a marketing company, but after struggling to connect with female founders and mentors throughout the program, my roommate (and future Co-Founder) Ravina and I created FLIK. The original plan was to get to know prominent female visionaries and share their inspiring stories on our platform – we incorporated FLIK and created a website within 48 hours, and soon had the opportunity to interview distinguished women like Samantha Barry, Editor-in-Chief of Glamour Magazine and Genevieve Jurvetson, Co-Founder of Fetcher. We were even invited to cover a talk by Michelle Obama.

Their stories posted on FLIK received responses from young women in 20+ countries across the world, all asking one common question: how could they connect with amazing female leaders themselves. FLIK morphed — we relaunched as a global portal allowing ambitious young women to apprentice under top female leaders. Applications poured in from beyond North America; women from Rwanda, Lebanon, Bangladesh, Estonia, Germany, and the Netherlands, among others, have come to FLIK to boost their careers and companies. The community has now grown to over 3700 game changers from over 41 countries around the world, and we are starting to see the impact we are creating by connecting diverse, talented women with mentorship opportunities that we had struggled to find not even a year ago. 

One of the most jarring moments at the beginning of FLIK was when my co-founder and I entered a pitch, and the male investor said, “I see the immense value in what you’re building, but I don’t even know where I can start to help you. I just don’t have the network for it.” Right then, FLIK’s entire existence was validated. Despite the lack of funding, we prepared to bootstrap FLIK and threw ourselves wholeheartedly into our mission to facilitate game-changing connections that would lift communities of women.

While covering the Michelle Obama event at the beginning of FLIK, one thing she said has stuck with me ever since: “There’s so much about our lives we don’t think is relevant. You can’t figure out the future until you really know you.”

Looking back, I can see the seemingly unrelated pieces of my puzzle coming together to form a purposeful image. Going through pre-med helped me improve my analytical thinking; learning to overcome external pressures to follow genuine passions gave me the self-confidence to pursue social entrepreneurship; being a leader at an all-girls school during my formative years showed me the global importance of female mentorship and empowerment; and my work during college allowed me to develop the community-building talents that are so key to FLIK’s success.

It is my personal mission to prove to all young people that following your passion is a possibility, that you always have a choice, and that women excel as entrepreneurs when they embrace their self-confidence. I’ve now had the great privilege of being flown out to speak at schools across North America about diversity and inclusion, overcoming external expectations, shattering barriers, and elevating women globally wherever I can. I will always dedicate my life to creating positive impact and leveling the playing field for all underrepresented communities, whatever their ambitions may be.

Everything happens for a reason.

Ravina and I were never meant to be here. We followed our path, discovered a gap that we knew we could bridge, and that we were passionate about, and pursued it with an unexplainable, blazing self-confidence. We are extremely lucky and grateful that we have been able to show that young, diverse founders are able to create an impact.

It is more important than ever that Canadian immigrants are encouraged to pursue non-traditional paths. It is up to our generation to break down barriers, provide diverse perspectives, and advance all communities forward, especially through innovative entrepreneurship.

I know my family would still love for me to be a doctor. Maybe one day, but not today. No matter if we flop or if we rise, this has been one of the most meaningful chapters of my life and I wouldn’t trade it for anything else. No matter what happens, we’ve got to see this through and we hope that we can inspire other youth, from all backgrounds, to keep pushing the envelope.

Stay open-minded. Believe in yourself. Take your blinders off.

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