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the ladder

Eva Wong, co-founder and COO of Borrowell, plays ping pong at their office in Toronto on July 20, 2018.Mark Blinch/Globe and Mail

Eva Wong, 41, is co-founder and chief operating officer at Borrowell, a Toronto-based fintech company that specializes in low-cost personal loans and free credit scores.

I grew up in Whitby, Ont., a small-town, suburban kid. Middle-class, children of immigrants [from Hong Kong]. I taught piano all throughout high school, and I made pretty good money for a 14-year-old.

My first job [after a bachelor of commerce degree] was as an analyst at Oliver Wyman, and there are a lot of things I learned from that first job that I still take with me today. One is managing expectations. If you’re tasked with something and you’re having trouble completing it, just say it. The other thing is, under-promise and over-deliver. It’s not just about saying you’ll do something, it’s about executing.

I’ve often been interested in positions that allowed me to bring in business skills where they weren’t before. I spent a year in Malawi working with an international relief and development organization. I researched different business ideas that this not-for-profit could run and generate income to fund their activities. I went from village to village, talking to potential customers about what their needs were. It was a chance to apply some of my management consulting experience in a completely different context, in a way that was very hands-on and grassroots.

I joined the international division of Maple Leaf Foods out of grad school, in a business development role. I investigated new opportunities in Mexico, Southeast Asia and spent quite a bit of time in China. Then I moved to Trinidad to work on a project with the OTF Group, and also worked in Jamaica, Guyana and Haiti.

One of the things I loved about living and working in a new country was the challenge. With so much to learn and absorb, my brain would go into overdrive, and it was really exhilarating. There's learning a new industry, but also learning the geography, traffic rules, local expressions, best grocery stores and local markets – and most importantly, the challenge of building relationships with people. I think I developed a pretty high capacity for learning that is definitely helpful today in building a disruptive company, where so much is new and changing all the time.

When I came back to Canada after being overseas, an opportunity came up to work for The Meeting House, a church I’d been attending for a number of years. I was also involved in a volunteer capacity building a social venture called Toronto Homecoming with Andrew Graham [now chief executive of Borrowell]. It was a side business, not-for-profit and very successful, so I think that probably planted the seeds of entrepreneurship for me.

When Andrew quit his job and came up with the idea for Borrowell, I volunteered to work for a couple of weeks for free. Then I never left. I didn’t necessarily know it was going to go [well], but I knew I wanted to be part of it and I thought to myself, I’m going to have total fear-of-missing-out if I don’t do this.

I’m very thankful for all the experiences that I had throughout my career that were scary. If you’re not doing anything that scares you, or anything you’re worried that you’re going to fail at, it’s going to be really hard for you to learn.

Humility is a value that isn't talked about a lot, but it’s pretty key to our success as a company. Humility means we recognize that individually, we may not have all the answers, even though we're smart and we work really hard. Humility encourages us to work together and to listen to others.

I had no background in technology, startups or financial services before co-founding a fintech company. I was not your stereotypical computer science or engineering grad who’s 24 and a dude wearing a hoodie. I was in my late 30s and I had two kids when I founded Borrowell with Andrew.

You don’t have to have the perfect background or look a certain way in order to pursue a career in technology or even found a startup. I definitely think it’s easier when you see other people who’ve been successful who look like you. I want to show people who may not see themselves represented that it is possible. Whether it’s women, or people [from] diverse groups that aren’t represented in the majority, I want to encourage people to go for it.

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