TOWER cranes lured her back to the Philippines. Ten years ago, Katrina Rausa Chan graduated at the Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) with a degree in materials science and engineering with additional major in business administration.
But the United States was still reeling from an economic recession and tensions against immigrants were running high.
A Christmas trip to her homeland one day gave her a different view: Tower Cranes everywhere, she said.
In an e-mail interview with the BusinessMirror, Chan, now 28 and the current executive director of Qbo Innovation Hub, bared her journey from an atmosphere of recession to a budding ecosystem of start-ups in the Philippines.
In this question and answer, Chan also shared the roots of her patriotism, planted during her life as a student of the Philippine Science High School fondly called by alumni as “Pisay.”
What do you consider your “milestones” in Pisay?
As far as milestones are concerned, I think that just like any other high schooler, the most memorable moments weren’t necessarily academic—like directing in my first play, leading the debate team or attending the prom. That said, I was selected to be part of international science research fairs and competed and won my fair share of competitions. I won special citations for being the best in economics and biology in my year and graduated with high honors.
I’d be lying if I didn’t say it does feel rewarding when you’re recognized for something knowing that you were competing with some of the best and the brightest.
How did you prepare for Carnegie Mellon?
Entering college, I knew I wanted a different challenge. Graduating from Pisay, you were compelled to enter a Stem (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) course, but engineering and technology, in particular, appealed to me because it was practical. I wanted to build and create things and it was a lot more appealing to me than pure research or theory.
I ultimately chose to go to (CMU) because I was looking for a top-tier engineering and technology school that also had a good business program. CMU, perhaps, isn’t very well-known in the Philippines, but a number of people I admired I found out actually studied there and they were working on cutting edge stuff.
Fortunately, I got admitted into the dual major for engineering and business, which were the courses I wanted to pursue. So it really made sense for what I wanted to do and learn, which was to build things but also make money doing it. In terms of preparations, to be honest, most of the work is in applying, writing essays, taking the SATs [Scholastic Assessment Test] and getting recommendation letters.
I got accepted into a few top-tier US universities so I had to make some tough choices. But once I decided to go to CMU, the preparation mostly involved buying winter clothing and finding a place to live since it was my first time being away from home.
How would you describe the CMU campus experience?
Campus was beautiful, especially since you start school in the fall and you get to see the colors in the leaves change. There’s a real sense of community, plus the facilities are everything one could hope for.
The most impactful experiences though really revolve around growing up and learning to be independent—to live by and take care of yourself; to have to start afresh and establish new relationships when your family and everything that’s familiar isn’t there; and, to join organizations and pursue your different passions.
That said, CMU was incredible and instilled an intellectual rigor that I’d never before experienced. It’s incredibly humbling but also stimulating to be in an environment where people are smart, have big dreams and are always pushing themselves. It brings out the best in you.
Did you become a more competitive individual in CMU?
I think your first instinct is to be competitive—after all, I was used to being good, if not the best at things—but in the end, I think to be able to thrive in a challenging environment one actually learns to be less competitive and more cooperative.
Again, it’s humbling to realize there are so many out there that really are better than you. On the other hand, you also more fully understand your own strengths and the value that you bring.
You’re optimizing for results and, over time, that leads to more collaboration once you learn you can achieve greater outcomes as a collective than what you might be able to get by competing and just looking out for yourself.
How do you assess studying in a foreign school?
I do think studying in a foreign school changed me and brought out the best in me. More than the quality of education per se, I truly believe that in the same way that the best wine vintages come from drought years or diamonds are made through extreme stress and pressure, it’s pushing your limits and getting out of your comfort zone that makes you grow.
I actually had a UP Oblation Scholarship so it would have been a lot easier to just go to school here where the path was well laid out, but I knew I wanted to see how I’d perform out there competing in a different country and testing my limits.
I think being your best self involves pushing yourself to the point where it’s a bit uncomfortable.
What are prospects of start-ups in the Philippines?
As it appears to happen a lot in this archipelago, a lot of the Philippine start-up ecosystem is fragmented. It may take a lot more patience for me to realize the dream, but we’re working on it at QBO.
I’m excited about a lot of the things we’re working on. It’s hard to believe it’s only been a year since we started, and I’m incredibly grateful that QBO in our very first year has been recognized as the best accelerator for the Philippine Rice Bowl Start-up Awards. Just in the past month, we ran a project with the UNDP, called “Start-ups to the Resque,” our first competition where we gave out $16,000 worth of prizes, conjunction with Slingshot Asean for high-impact start-ups in the DRR space, and published the Philippine Startup Survey with PwC (PriceWwaterhouseCoopers), which is the first comprehensive report of its kind to examine the start-up ecosystem from the founders’ perspective. I think both initiatives really help elucidate on what’s happening here and drive more interest from partners and investors on a global stage.
We’re definitely looking forward to continuing with more high-powered collaborations like these that can really add value to the ecosystem. I’m also looking forward to developing our “Qmmunity” (brand) further through our signature Q programs (Qlitan, Worqshop, Basiqs and Feedbaq) and, especially our Inqbation program.
(In 2018) we plan to put together a platform to match investors with start-ups to create even more funding opportunities (Showqase), as well as bringing in top-notch mentors, both those that have achieved a degree of success in business (entrepreneurs in residence), as well as seasoned executives (executives in residence). The first “Philippine Unicorn-Revolution Precrafted” was announced earlier (December) and we’ll be looking to ensure we’re able to highlight Filipino achievements, and inspire the next generation of entrepreneurs through start-up champions.
Finally, now that we have some momentum and experience under our belts, I’d like for us to expand our footprint, both locally and internationally. I’d love to bring our Qmmunity (brand) online so we can (collaborate) from around the world, and have QBO be accessible to every university and fledgling start-up community, even outside of Metro Manila.
We’re really just getting started.