Ep 75: Scarlett Ong Rui Chern: Passion Plus Perseverance

Diva Tech Talk enjoyed interviewing Scarlett Ong Rui Chern,  budding entrepreneur, founder and CEO of Peerstachio.  Scarlett represents the epitome of entrepreneurship:  courageous, persistent, yet agile in her approach to creating a technology venture.  She grew up in a small town in Malaysia and left to pursue her higher education in the United States. “I had one year of community college in Kuala Lumpur, and then transferred as a freshman into the University of Michigan (https://umich.edu/).”  As a 10-year old girl, Scarlett said: “I was interested in tech, especially the gaming field. I was very ‘into’ role-playing games, and multiplayer, collaboration games. I was always interested in the collaborative aspect of tech, which is the basis of what I am working on, right now.”  

Scarlett matriculated to the University of Michigan, after researching online, and looking for a sense of “community” among colleges she evaluated. Everyone was very friendly, from her perspective. But her first year at the university was difficult. “My first year was not a good year. But I really believed in myself, although I was struggling to adapt to the whole situation,” she said. “Besides being an international student, I was a first-generation college student in my family. And I didn’t have any family members around.”    Scarlett initially faltered, academically, particularly with calculus. “It was a shock to me, to realize that I was coming from far behind. Not having enough peer support, from an academic sense, brought me into a space where I felt very alone, and not sure of what I was doing.” She had to swallow her own pride, and “figure out strategies of how to reach out” for help, which was time-consuming and difficult. Even with her assigned academic advisor, she felt that “there was a barrier in communicating.” Scarlett initially closed herself off; but now “I have grown to be a more open person, more self-aware” knowing when to reach out and ask for help.  “It really motivated me. There are a lot of other students that face this issue, too.”

Scarlett had one certainty as she began her time at the university.  “I knew I wanted to ‘do’ business. But I was not certain WHAT business,” she said.  She was influenced by some of her friends to join the university’s “optiMize Social Innovation Challenge” in her freshman year. “Initially, I was just there for the experience,” she said.  Her first project created a “gamified” classroom experience for elementary school students.  She learned a lot and then successfully entered the university’s business school, with an emphasis on consulting, in her sophomore year.  “I joined a pro bono consulting club on campus. I actually learned more about myself and how to give back to our community.” She worked with the famed Zingerman’s, (renowned for leadership in employee engagement) as one project, and helped create the framework to enable past employees stay in touch with the current Zingerman’s community.   During this time, Scarlett discovered that consulting was NOT her personal life mission. “I am the kind of person who likes to get her hands dirty, make that ‘hands-on’ impact, and see things through,” she said.  “Everything was too high level for me. I wanted to do something, create something. This is when passion comes into play. Not only did I pick myself up, but I wanted to create something that would help others pick themselves up.”

Scarlett admitted that “it was pretty hard to get a job”, but she needed one to defray expenses. “I am a pretty stubborn person. When people tell me: ‘no’, I like to prove that ‘no’ means ‘not yet.’ I’ll get there.”  She began to explore the world of venture capital and acquainted herself with U of M’s Zell-Lurie Institute, dedicated to advancing knowledge and practice of innovation.  “They offer a lot of support in terms of mentorship, grant-funding; they have been one of our biggest supporters.”  She also got an opportunity at the Michigan Venture Capital Association, as a summer intern, where she worked on the association’s 2017 annual landscape guide and “changed the game” in terms of its data collection, data collation, and interactive reporting.  

Scarlett also decided to “get more serious” about EdTech projects. With a fellow student, she entered U of M’s CAMPUS OF THE FUTURE competition, which “reimagined” techniques and spaces for teaching and learning in the 21st century.  Scarlett and her partners tried to create a “study mentor” using artificial intelligence (AI) as its engine. Her team was one of 5 finalists that had the unique opportunity of meeting with Amazon’s Vice President of Development for feedback.  From this, Scarlett learned one of her key life lessons: “What makes a startup successful is not just a cool idea. Ours was too far in advance. There wasn’t yet a market for it.” Scarlett then made a big pivot; shed that original team; and used the kernel of the concept as the foundation of her current startup: Peerstachio, conceptually launched in September 2017.

Scarlett stays abreast of technology by taking both computer science classes and Udemy courses. “But I knew, deep in my heart, that even though I love tech, I wouldn’t be a professional coder by any stretch. I partnered with a friend of mine, who is currently our co-founder and CTO (Chief Technology Officer).”  She also recruited a UX designer and front-end engineer (currently founding members of the startup) to implement the “front end” of the Peerstachio platform while the CTO manages the back end operational database engine. Scarlett manages fundraising, the company’s overall vision and strategy, market research, marketing, competitive analysis, and sales.  Peerstachio’s main mission is to help students improve their grades by connecting underclassmen with a trusted cadre of older students --- mentors connected with mentees, tutors connected with students needing support and tutoring --- to get academic questions answered in a highly responsive fashion. “Kind of an instant messaging platform,” Scarlett said, “where students pick a course, go to the topic, and then ask their questions, with access to trusted upperclassmen.”  Peerstachio’s MVP (Minimum Viable Product) launched on a django, html5, scss and javascript coding stack Website, and sqlite3 (PostgresSQL in future) on the back-end of the site. Having learned from her previous experience, Scarlett ensured that she validated real customer need by conducting detailed surveys of potential clients. “It was a lot of work,” she said. (At the time of our Diva Tech Talk interview, the Peerstachio team had interviewed 110 students, all over the world.)  

Through all this, Scarlett is becoming a highly experienced entrepreneur.  For instance, she said “If any startup tells you there is no competition, they need to do more research.”  For Peerstachio “I feel fortunate we have competitors. That means there is a market, and room for us to improve.” Scarlett thinks that passion, perseverance and sense of purpose are propelling her future success, as well as her empathy for the customer. “I would add one more: positivity,” she said. “In a startup, not everybody can see it through.  Positivity helped me keep at it to find resources to get to that better future. A ‘growth mindset’ has kept me going.” Scarlett shared her fond hope that she, and others like her, can show that “if you have some goals, and you try to get what you desire, that is ultimate happiness.” Scarlett has a strong fear of having regrets in her life --- a fear of missing something that she could accomplish.

Scarlett’s leadership lessons for women interested in tech and/or entrepreneurship are:

  1. Develop deep listening skills – “Listening has really helped me to understand strengths and weaknesses” particularly in her own team;

  2. Collaborate – “In a team, I think the most important thing is making sure everyone is inspiring everyone and building a vision, together;”

  3. Be confident and decisive– “Decisions that you make may not be the best decisions but that’s life. Give people faith;”

  4. Lead by example – “No matter what I say, I try my best to SHOW it. “

Scarlett stressed that, in a startup, “there is no such thing as 9 to 5. Work and life are intertwined.”  To balance that, she follows a “process of layers of priority” so that she can juggle multiple goals, successfully. And for Scarlett, many of the goals are tied to making life better for others. She also recoups her physical and psychic energy through exercise and by reading, watching videos, and reflecting.

Note:  Peerstachio has received grants since this interview including a grant from DTX, at TechTown Detroit: https://techtowndetroit.org/?press-release=u-m-startup-peerstachio-receives-inaugural-10000-gm-go-award

Scarlett can be reached at ongruich@umich.edu/scarlettong@peerstachio.com

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