Elisa Chiu, Founder of Anchor Taiwan, On Leaving A High-Paying Job To Build A Global Platform Connecting Startups
The Taiwanese entrepreneur discusses taking risks, what makes a great mentor and the power of knowledge sharing and collaborations
Walking away from a high-paying job to pursue a passion that won’t pay as well is a tough decision to make—Elisa Chiu knows this first-hand. The uncertainty of pay and job stability may put some off from taking the leap.
In Chiu’s case, it took more than two years for her to finally hand in her notice and quit her job as a hedge fund trader at a global asset management firm, where she was overseeing a portfolio valued at over US$1 billion. She was set on chasing her dream to become a war photojournalist.
“Stepping away was harder than I thought,” recalls the Gen.T x Credit Suisse Social Impact Awardee. “It took me at least two years to pull the trigger, with numerous mental calculations and way more risk assessment than any trades I’ve ever done.”
When she eventually realised that no amount of preparation could help her feel fully ready, she took the plunge. “The biggest lesson I learnt here is that while these mental exercises and practical preparations matter, to the extent that we should be responsible for our actions, ultimately, I can never be truly ready unless I switch my mentality.”
Her photojournalist dream didn’t work out in the end, but it brought her to countless destinations around the world, including Silicon Valley, where the seed for her current business, Anchor Taiwan, was planted in her mind. Today, the platform she’s built since 2017 has connected startup founders, investors and corporates from 15 countries through its matching, community and cultural exchange programmes.
She shares more about her journey from trader to entrepreneur, and how cross-border exchanges can lead to unexpected opportunities and collaborations.
It must have been a huge decision for you to leave a high-paying job as a hedge fund trader. What made you do it?
Sometimes, after you seemingly “have it all”, you get to examine life with an additional layer of clarity. I was nowhere near “having it all”, but I was fortunate to realise early in my career that while money is an important tool for change, it isn’t my key driver and North Star.
For a period of time, I felt trapped. I was promoted year after year, with a higher package each time, but instead of seeing an equal increase in my happiness level, I often felt emptiness and confusion. What’s the purpose of making money? Beyond the basic level of human needs, what am I doing this for? What contribution do I bring to the world to deserve this?
Towards the end of my hedge fund days, there was a disconnect between my life as a hedge fund trader and my vision of who I wanted to be. I didn’t have a clear picture of what I should be doing exactly, but I knew I would never find out if I didn't take the leap.
What made me get my one-way ticket to embark on my pursuit as a war photojournalist, I remember, was when I told myself one day, “I am enough, and I will be okay.” Even if I needed to work at a coffee shop, I will be a goddamn good barista who comes up with the coolest ideas to be productive and impactful. I will find my way, no matter where I am and what I do.
In the end, it’s that sense of self-assurance and belief in the human capacity to adapt and persevere that sent me off. It took years to brew yet just seconds to “teleport” me to a brave new world. The key was already sitting within me.
What motivated you to start Anchor Taiwan?
Anchor Taiwan is the product of an odyssey. It is the answer to my quest to connect people through entrepreneurship and culture, my belief in community and capital as powerful tools to advance the world, my vision of how cross-border collaboration can be, and my desire to integrate my life purpose with my work.
The longer version of that story is that after traveling to more than 70 destinations with my failed attempt as a war photojournalist, I landed in Silicon Valley, where I immersed myself into the world of entrepreneurship and impact investing.
I soon became frustrated, as conducting business across borders has so many obstacles and inefficiencies. There are still a lot of myths around the markets in Asia, and particularly a lack of understanding about opportunities in Taiwan, where I grew up.
I believed there should be a better way, so I started Anchor Taiwan. We run entrepreneurial residency programmes and innovation sprints, and host founders, investors and tech professionals from around the world in Taiwan. Through curated business activities, market immersion experiences and hundreds of ecosystem events, we’ve become a conduit for softlanding in Taiwan. Operating at the intersection of technology, culture and venture with governments, corporates, investors and numerous innovation stakeholders, Anchor Taiwan embraces the belief [that we can] break barriers between borders.
There’s a saying, “Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.” This seems to align with Anchor Taiwan’s goal of building a global community of collaborators. What are the benefits of collaborations?
I believe in finding ways to realise people’s ultimate potential. When we exercise our superpower, we can liberate ourselves and others around us. We can only achieve this if we work together, through collaboration, and identify the win-win sweet spot where we each bring in different skill sets and perspectives, so we are each in our element.
I think instead of learning or copying from your direct competitors, drawing inspiration from a player in an unrelated field may bring about unexpected possibilities. This is the power of open innovation. Did you know that conveyor belt sushi was invented when Yoshiaki Shiraishi saw beer bottles on a conveyor belt in an Asahi brewery? Who would have thought that there is something to learn from at a beer brewery for a sushi restaurant owner?
The benefits are amplified when we take collaborations global. We expand the opportunity set and get more diversity, which can lead to greater innovation. With the pressing issues we are facing as a human race, we need to join forces and use our collective wisdom to find solutions.
Mentorship is a big part of what Anchor Taiwan does. What value does a startup founder stand to gain from having a mentor?
Successful startup founders are often either borderline crazy or borderline normal, depending on how you look at it, and by default, they thrive by not following the rules.
So the founder-mentor relationship is a delicate dance. As a startup founder, you want to be coachable, agile and open-minded, but you also want to stick to what you believe in even when the world is telling you to give up. The wisdom lies in how you pick your battles.
The best mentors are coaches, not instructors. They have tremendous experience so that conceptually and emotionally, they can relate to what you are going through. They guide with empathy, inspire with questions, and hold you accountable so that you ultimately find the answers yourself. Many mentors are also extremely well-connected and valuable allies for business.
The best mentors are similar to mirrors. Their observations and evaluations help you see yourself in ways you otherwise would not have seen before. They sometimes know you more than you know yourself. That insight, when played well, can be extremely potent.
What’s been most rewarding about founding Anchor Taiwan?
It is hearing from our cohort members, ecosystem partners or event attendees that we’ve brought positive change to their lives.
When you carefully curate the right people with common goals in the right atmosphere, you will witness beautiful bondings, even among the most senior leaders. The most valuable aspects of ecosystem building are sometimes difficult to quantify based on what society defines as “successful”. But I feel lucky and thankful to have some positive feedback loops to remind me of the reason we fight the fight. The hugs, thank you cards and pure magic from the people we bring together will continue to fuel my devotion to this lifelong mission.