Cover Karen Contet (left) and Karena Belin, co-founders of WHub and AngelHub

Inspired by the passion of startup founders, Karen Contet and Karena Belin reinvented themselves and established startup community WHub and tech investment platform AngelHub to empower them and foster their growth

It’s the day after the Scaleup Impact Summit (SIS) and Karen Contet and Karena Belin, the co-founders of WHub, the organisation behind the conference, are on a high. In the cosy surrounds of a co-working space in Hong Kong’s Kennedy Town where WHub’s team of twenty is based, the atmosphere is triumphant.

Both Contet and Belin are natural leaders and evidently successful entrepreneurs—WHub is Hong Kong’s largest startup community and their other business, AngelHub, is the only SFC-licensed platform for professional investors. Yet neither founder ever saw themselves running their own business.

“I grew up thinking that I would work for a big corporate and had a well-defined career path in my head,” says Contet. “I never thought that one day I would become an entrepreneur.”

Both co-founders boast strong corporate backgrounds: Contet in finance at J.P. Morgan, and Belin in “a different type of finance” at Procter & Gamble, but each was far removed from the tech startup world they now inhabit.

Contet and Belin met in 2005 in Tokyo, years before the idea for WHub was seeded, and relocated to Hong Kong at a similar time, though it wasn’t until 2013 that, in the same way so many businesses begin, they identified a need in the market and a means to meet it. An idea began to germinate.

“We were meeting a lot of entrepreneurs and we were really fuelled by their passion,” says Contet. “They were struggling to get visibility and to recruit. We were sure that if they had the chance to communicate their vision and mission it would help them to recruit, so we had the idea to build a platform for entrepreneurs to showcase themselves.”

So, the duo did something that they had always been told never to do, which was to start a company with friends or family. “Typically, with family it’s because you won’t have the hard conversations, and with friends it’s because you’re too similar,” says Belin.

“But we really complete each other,” says Contet. “We have complementary skills and I think that’s why it worked from the start. I handled all the tech side at first, and Karena was more on the business side. And as best friends, we can have a lot of hard discussions. We know each other well enough to know how to talk to each other and to talk about everything.”

In 2013, the tech ecosystem in Hong Kong was still nascent. Startups weren’t the desirable place to work that they later became; co-working spaces were few and far between; the word ‘unicorn’, which is used to describe a private company valued at over a billion dollars, was rare in contrast to the way it is bandied around today. As Contet puts it, “someone who could raise US$1 million was like a rock star.” Fast forward a decade and you have Hong Kong companies raising hundreds of millions of dollars with valuations in the billions.

The friends saw an opportunity. The next stage was building a platform. However, this required funds that they didn’t have. So, what do you do when you can’t pay someone else to do something? You do it yourself.

“I’m an engineer and I studied [programming languages] C and C++ and all these things in school, so I thought, why don’t I go back and take some courses to learn how to build a website? I had actually always loved coding and I was happy to reinvent myself,” says Contet.

A three-month full-time programme in web development later, the former equity derivatives trader built what WHub is today. And that was just the beginning.

“You become obsessed with a problem or pain point that you want to solve, because if you don’t solve it, nobody else is going to solve it,” says Belin.

“You think it’s going to be easy to have the solution, but the reality is it’s a real rollercoaster, which is amazing. But you need a naivety when you start, otherwise you don’t start,” adds Contet.

Finding solutions is something the pair excels in, and their business expansions have come off the back of identifying more pain points in the tech ecosystem and growing in tandem with it, including partnering with programmes to expand know-how and developing their own conference (SIS) as a showcase of the tech industry. Then came AngelHub.

“After building this strong foundation of community, it was how can we have a bigger impact? Investing is all about people, so when you already know the people, it makes sense to invest into their companies,” says Contet. A deep knowledge of the community combined with their strong overview of the tech ecosystem and its trends informed AngelHub, their platform which allows professional investors to co-invest in vetted startups on a deal-by-deal basis.

In creating AngelHub, Belin and Contet worked with Hong Kong regulators to become Hong Kong’s first SFC-licensed equity crowdfunding platform for investing in startups, and since it went live two years ago, they have invested into 21 companies, including WeLab and Animoca Brands.

Here, the co-founders share some of the highlights of their career journey to date, their thoughts on leadership and being an entrepreneur, and where they hope to be in a decade’s time.

What are some of your proudest moments?

Karen Contet: I think the first moment was when somebody told me that they had found their job on WHub. It makes you so proud to have made an impact on somebody’s life. Later, we invested into a Web3 company at a time when nobody even knew what an NFT was, and it was very hard to raise that money because people didn’t see how the company could evolve and nobody really believed in the potential. In less than 18 months, we made 19 times return to our investors [in that company] and the company made it onto the TIME100 Most Influential Companies list. And now everybody knows what an NFT is. That’s a proud moment, because you meet an entrepreneur and the team that are just starting to build their company and you believe in them, and you fight for them and they succeed. It’s definitely not thanks to us, but we participated, and we made a small impact.

Karena Belin: One of my proudest moments is being the first to convince the regulator of the business model to get a licence for equity crowdfunding. As Responsible Officers, you sit certain exams and one of the exam questions was, “Is equity crowdfunding in Hong Kong allowed?” I knew that the answer in the textbook was "no", but we had just been granted a licence. That’s when you realise you are shaping something and making an impact on the infrastructure that’s probably going to last longer than WHub or AngelHub. I answered "yes", and just hoped that the person correcting the exam knew that the answer was now "yes" too.

Who are your role models?

KC: I have two. The first one is my mum. She’s a computer science engineer, which is not a small thing, and she always worked. Thanks to her, I never saw that there was anything I couldn’t do. My second is Karena. We complete each other because we are so different. I learn so much from her. She always has an extraordinarily positive attitude, while I’m the cautious one, always trying to assess risk.

KB: It’s the same for me—Karen would be mine. It’s interesting because we are so different, but I think being so in admiration of the strength of the other and wanting to learn is something that we have in common. I’m sometimes very naïve and think anything is possible and love to keep my options open, and so I admire Karen’s courage and determination. Sometimes, I’m like, “How can you be so sure and how are you always right?” Not 100 percent right, perhaps, but 99.9 percent! We complement each other well.

KC: We are also very aligned on where we are going. Sometimes the road can be different, but we are definitely heading in the same direction.

How have you found being a woman in your industry?

KB: Maybe I’m lucky, but I’ve never been in a situation where I have felt being a woman was a disadvantage.

KC: I went to an engineering school that was just three percent women and when I started my career at J.P. Morgan, I was the only woman on the trading floor. Then, when I switched into tech, I actually started Women Who Code Hong Kong, because I was at a meet-up for web developers and there were only two women there. I’m lucky because it’s something I never really thought about until I started getting asked these questions.

Do you have any advice for your younger self?

KB: I would do it all over again, with all the pain as well.

KC: The same for me, because I wouldn’t be here if I changed one small thing, even the pain and the mistakes. I think you should avoid failing—that’s always better, but pain is part of the process.

What does work-life balance mean to you?

KB: I loved becoming an entrepreneur because then I didn’t have to feel guilty any longer that I was the only one getting work-life balance wrong. In the corporate world, you live under the illusion that there is balance. In my corporate life, I never had balance. But now, nobody questions why you don’t have work-life balance as an entrepreneur, because my life is my work and my work is my life.

KC: I’m very lucky because I choose the hours I work. If I want to go home early to spend time with my kids, I will, and then I work in the evening. I work a lot at night because it’s quiet and I can focus. And when it’s your own company, you know you need to get things done, and nobody has to remind you of that. It’s on you. Honestly, I love what I do and I’m so passionate about it. I see where we want to go and what we want to achieve. For my kids, I hope I’m showing them that you can work and be independent and do a job that you love.

What is your leadership style?

KC: I hope I am like the maestro of the orchestra. It’s not that I’m the CEO and I know how to do everything. I strongly believe that what I’m here for is to have the vision, to know where we’re going. I hope that what I provide are the answers and the tools the team need in order to achieve this.

KB: I think we are pretty much aligned. One of the things I took from Procter & Gamble is a leadership framework, which is exactly what Karen says: envisioning, enabling, and energizing. Energising is where passion comes in—you need to keep the sparkle going.

KC: I also surround myself with people that are smarter than me. When you’re working in a corporate you are always afraid that somebody can take your work, because they are doing it better, but as an entrepreneur, you are not afraid of that.

KB: It’s about finding the solution, and you don’t care who finds the solution.

Where do you want to be in the next five to 10 years?

KC: I hope that we’ll be one of the biggest VC investors in the world enabling people to invest in companies, and I’m not only talking about professional investors, but also retail investors. It’s about democratising tech investments and enabling people to be part of the adventure of the tech entrepreneurs that are revolutionising the way we live.

We spend a lot of time vetting the companies. And that’s the core—vetting and knowing the companies and spending time with the founders and understanding the market. If we can do 95 percent of the job for people to be able to invest with one click and understand what the companies are doing and be able to make a return out of it, that’s what matters.

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