As the co-founder and CEO of Big Bang Academy, Sarah Tong wants the next generation to fall in love with learning through hands-on experiences and to promote science as a favourite subject for both boys and girls
When Sarah Tong enrolled in her engineering degree at the University of Cambridge in 2011, the stats were stacked against her. She was not only in the minority as an Asian, but also as a woman, with, she says, just 20 to 30 percent of her cohort being fellow females. The stats for her tutors and teachers were even worse. She recollects that 95 percent of them were male.
“I realised there was a problem, because when you don’t see a future you in that field, or you don’t have people who look like you surrounding you, you feel like you don’t belong,” says Tong, who did some research and discovered that a lack of representation meant there was a higher chance of young girls leaving the field of STEM. “This was part of the reason why I wanted to start my academy. I feel like the love for science and the love for learning should be equal, no matter your gender or race.”
Tong’s own love of science started early. “I was a huge science geek growing up,” she says, reminiscing about reading encyclopaedias and the Chinese science book One Hundred Thousand Whys. But her most memorable moment—the one that triggered a love of figuring out how the world works—occurred when she was six years old. An avid television watcher, her father, who was an engineer, hated her spending time glued to a screen so he removed the fuse. Tong found the fuse and eventually figured out how to put it back into the television set and make it work again. “I didn’t know what a fuse was, but it solved this problem in my life. So, I started reading about electricity circuits and how a TV works,” she says. Later came physics, astronomy and string theory as she immersed herself in the world of science. And until university, she never felt like she didn’t belong there. “I went to an all-girls school, so I wasn’t subjected to any biases or stereotypes for girls in science,” she says.
After graduating, Tong didn’t know what she wanted to do. “Coming from a top university a lot of people aspire to become either a consultant or an investment banker. I didn’t think twice and just went for something mainstream,” says Tong, who began pursuing a career in the latter. But, a few years into investment banking, she’d had enough. The hours were inhospitable, and she wanted a change. “Reflecting on what I wanted to do, it came back to my childhood passion and what I naturally liked while growing up. And that was science.”
At the time, Tong worked with Nixon Chan, a fellow Cambridge graduate with a degree in biology. Like Tong, he had nurtured a passion for science from a young age. “We clicked on the idea that in early childhood, a positive memory can change a kid’s life forever,” says Tong. “That’s why we wanted to start a business that could influence kids from all over the world from a young age to fall in love with learning hands-on science.”
The pair started doing in-person classes and workshops part-time in 2019, before leaving their respective roles at the bank in 2020 and committing fully to the Big Bang Academy. In the midst of Covid, quick pivoting was required and the model for Big Bang became one of hybrid learning, offering both online and offline education. The secret to its success? Using animations and actors to present the science concepts to ensure that online learning was engaging, while also sending science kits to kids at home so learning did not comprise solely of passive listening, but there would be hands-on experiments to capture kids’ attention.
The hybrid learning also meant that Big Bang Academy was not limited to the Hong Kong market, and the duo currently boast customers in Taiwan, Singapore and South Korea as well as in Hong Kong. Additionally, the Big Bang Academy YouTube channel has a global audience with around two million organic views currently coming from across the globe, predominantly from the US, India and Canada. Tong shares more about her journey from banking to Big Bang and how she hopes to inspire a whole generation to love science.
How did you find going from banking to becoming an entrepreneur?
It’s very fulfilling, but at the same time it’s the most challenging thing I have ever done in my life. As an entrepreneur you have to learn quickly and deal with not being perfect. I think if you grow up in traditional schooling and then go into a big corporate, especially for women, we always want to be perfect and perform the best in everything. But as an entrepreneur, you can’t be perfect all the time, because if you want to be perfect, you can’t execute. A lot of it is about embracing yourself and moving fast. That’s been a big challenge for me because it comes with a lot of failures. If you move fast, it means you’re experimenting and you’re not perfect.
How have you found being a female entrepreneur?
The problems female entrepreneurs face are very similar. I love talking to female entrepreneurs that I meet and have a close circle of female entrepreneur peers and we share and are very transparent. I think female entrepreneurs have a lot of empathy and care about our teammates, so a lot of the discussions we have are about how to give feedback and not be too harsh but still motivating. Our discussion is often people-oriented. But we also talk about more personal things. Some of my entrepreneur friends want to have a family, but at the same time it’s hard. Should they freeze their eggs or embryos, do surrogacy or do it themselves? It’s something I’m sure a lot of younger people don’t think about. Discussing this openly helps plan your life, not just your career and your business.
What is most rewarding about what you do?
I think it’s the same for every entrepreneur who works in education—the power of education is that you can influence and impact a life. It’s not just doing something faster or more efficiently, like a lot of new technology firms, it’s seeing changes in kids. You feel like everything you do is worth it because you are inspiring kids and potentially changing the course of their life.
What does work-life balance mean to you?
In my first year [as an entrepreneur], I worked 24-7 and I felt guilty for every second I was resting or chilling or not thinking about work. But then I learned that this is a marathon and not a sprint and that if I didn’t work for 30 minutes, that was fine; I was resting for a longer journey. If you are overworked, you get burned out, and I didn’t want that to happen. It’s been a learning process and there are a few tips and hacks I’ve adopted along the way. Now, at a certain time of the day, I put my phone away physically so I can’t access it. I also journal, which I know a lot of entrepreneurs also do. I treat is as a form of meditation. I do it in the morning when I wake up and at night before I go to sleep. It helps me to remind myself of the important things for me that day and to reflect.
Who is your role model?
It would have to be our business advisor, Norma Chu, who is the CEO of DayDayCook. She is currently trying to take her company to IPO, which is super inspiring. She also has this hustle and can-do spirit, and she’s really a role model that I look up to.
How important is it to you to work with girls at Big Bang Academy?
We’re very proud that our student gender ratio is 50-50. And in terms of the content that we produce, we make sure that there are no biases. For example, we don’t only show scientists with a male face or of a certain race. We make sure all nationalities and genders are covered so that they can be successful role models.
A lot of girls come to us and say, “I didn’t know that I like physics, but now I like physics." And it’s really inspiring because, even within science, there are certain subjects that are more male-oriented, like engineering or physics. And sometimes people think more girls like biology. But that’s a cultural stereotype, so when I see shifts like that, it’s very encouraging.
However, on the adult side, we still see these kinds of biases. We still hear parents say, “I’m not sure if my daughter likes science, but my son loves science.” But when we ask why, and whether they have exposed their daughters to science, they say they have not. So, they just categorise their kids into whatever is the mainstream and don’t realise that there is this untapped potential.
Do you have any advice for your younger self?
Don’t care too much about what people think. When I was in high school and university, I really cared about what my peers thought of me, what my parents thought, and what my teachers thought. There are a lot of different sets of standards and expectations, and that didn’t help me in finding out what I wanted to do and who I wanted to become. So, try to block out the noise and find what you truly want to do. It’s a process—I still can’t block everything out, but I’m learning.
How would you describe your leadership style?
I am very transparent and direct. I always tell the team that we need to give radical feedback directly and quickly because feedback is the only thing that can help the team trust each other and improve at the same time. The other thing is open-mindedness—to not make judgements and assumptions, but to question why people do things and why things work that way. It’s important to try to remove all biases when leading a team.
What’s your vision for Big Bang—where do you see your self in the next five to ten years?
We want to go global. Looking at our YouTube is great encouragement because our viewership is really global, from the US and Canada, to Vietnam, Malaysia, the UAE and South Africa. Science and learning should be a global passion. Our vision is to empower every kid to fall in love with learning through hands-on experiences and to inspire as many kids as possible to say that science is their favourite subject.
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