Alumni Profile - Rebeca Hwang

Infinite Careers is a collaboration between Career Services (Career Advising & Professional Development) and the MIT Alumni Association to explore career paths and the non-linearity of career decision making. Read profiles of alumni with unique career paths, hear their stories and network at a series of talks.

Rebeca Hwang

Infinite Careers Series: Register to join Rebeca Hwang on August 27th from 12-1pm and hear about his career journey, gain advice about your own career, and ask questions.

Education

  • MIT SB Chemical Engineering ‘02
  • MIT M.Eng. Civil and Environmental Engineering ’03 

Biography

Rebeca Hwang is a Managing Director at Kalei Ventures and a General Partner at Rivet Ventures. She has a strong affiliation with academia — she is a Professor of Practice at Thunderbird and the Senior Director for Thunderbird's new Global Center for Family Business and Entrepreneurship. She is also a Lecturer on Technology Entrepreneurship at Stanford University. 

Rebeca is a venture capital investor who has collected experiences as innovator and inventor, founder and entrepreneur, social entrepreneur, educator and ecosystem builder. Most recently, she co-founded Kalei Ventures, which invests in early stage technology startups from Latin America. Prior to Kalei, Rebeca was co-founded and Managing Director at Rivet Ventures, which focuses in companies targeting women-led markets where female usage, decision-making, and purchasing are crucial to company growth. She is also co-founder of the San Francisco-based startup YouNoodle, which helps companies and governments engage with communities of entrepreneurs for open innovation and co-creation of products and services. 

She has been very active in creating and scaling ecosystems for innovators and entrepreneurs in several countries. She co-founded Cleantech Open, Startup Malaysia and Startup Nations Summit and also serves on the Global Board of Kauffman's GEN, Imagine H2O, TEDx Rio de la Plata Accelerator —the largest TEDx event in the world. She was a member of the WEF's Global Council on the Future of Migrations, as well as co-lead the Access to Capital committee of the Mexico-U.S. Entrepreneurship and Innovation Council. Rebeca has worked closely with several national startup programs, including initiatives in Malaysia, South Korea, Spain, Iceland, Chile, Peru and Mexico. 

Rebeca was born in Seoul, raised in Argentina and educated at MIT and Stanford. She has been recognized as a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader and as one of the Top 35 Under 35 Global Innovators by MIT Tech Review. She was a TED speaker in Vancouver, in TED en Espanol in in NYC, as well as TEDx Cordoba in 2018. 

Rebeca's career has been intimately linked to education. She teaches Technology Entrepreneurship at Stanford University and has been a member of the faculty at Tecnologico de Monterrey for half a decade, and serves in the Board of the preschool Little School. She is an inventor holding 12 patents, with 9 more pending. 

During her career Rebeca has worked extensively with family businesses and family offices who are interested in capitalizing in the opportunities brought by change. She enjoys working with the new generations of families who are passionate about technology, alternative asset investing and entrepreneurship. 

Rebeca loves traveling and culinary experiments, most recently became obsessed with sourdough bread. Before becoming the mother of two very opinionated and entrepreneurial boys, she used to enjoy hiking, boxing, playing rugby, dancing and sailing. Today, she is lucky if she is able to carve out time for some sleep or to read a good fiction book by her favorite Latin American authors.

Rebeca's Story

What influenced your choice of undergraduate major? How has it shaped your career choices and professional ability?

I switched majors twice while at MIT. My advisor used to joke that I should get a degree in Random Studies. I started as a Chemistry major, then tried out Economics and Brain and Cognitive Sciences, and finally ended up settling with Chemical Engineering. Giving myself the freedom to explore and try different "identities" was a great experiment. I have continued experimenting and iterating and trying out new roles and hats over the last two decades. Moreover, I was able to gain exposure to different frameworks of analysis and ways to define problems, which has been very valuable during my entrepreneurial career and as a VC investor.

What influenced your choice of graduate program/programs? Hoe has it/have they shaped your career choices and professional ability?

When I graduated from my B.S. and M.Eng. degrees, I had sworn off from any further studies. I thought I would stay away from problem sets and exams for the rest of my life. So I was not looking into any grad programs, but I accidentally bumped into this particular program at Stanford that was brand new and allowed students to design an interdisciplinary degree that required depth in two fields, as an approach to solving complex problems such as climate change. I fell in love with how entrepreneurial the program was, my fellow students who came from very different backgrounds, and I decided to leave my job in consulting to go back to school. A doctoral program is like a candy store for anybody with a lot of academic curiosity. I could spend all day reading and pondering about interesting questions. It expanded my mind in amazing ways and I finished all my requirements and research, all I had left was to write my thesis... I got distracted with a startup.

Is there anything you wish you had done differently or more of while you were at MIT?

Yes, sleep more! (easier said than done!)

What has been the most rewarding aspect of your career?

I have enjoyed helping build startup ecosystems in different areas of the world, continuously learning and reinventing myself. I have found enormous joy in educating and in training the next generation of entrepreneurial minds.

What motivates you to do the work that you do?

As an investor, I get to see behind the curtain to get a peek at how the sausage is made in many startups that represent very different sectors. For a curious mind, this is addictive! As an educator I get to re-live the types of questions, decisions, anxiety and innocent enthusiasm for the future that I had in my 20s, but now equipped with more information and wisdom, so I have the power to help and make a difference. In summary, I get to meet extremely diverse and inspiring people of all ages. What could be better than that?

What is the biggest challenge you’ve encountered in your career? How have you managed or overcome it?

As a member of a minority group in tech and in investing, it's been an interesting challenge to navigate through biases, stereotypes and harassment. It's also been humbling to be surrounded by a lot of very unhappy and extremely successful people (in a financial sense). Figuring out how to find my "sweet spot", how my unique combination of skills, passions and experiences (including failures) could provide an original and differentiated value proposition to the world, has been a very rewarding challenge to tackle.

Making decisions, especially important-feeling career decisions, is really challenging. What strategies have you used to make career decisions? 

I had an important motto: always work hard for the future but never at the expense of the present. I also constantly ask myself what my bucket list would be if I knew that the world were to end tomorrow. And I ask myself what I would be doing today if I found out that I would live forever. Those are usually good questions to calibrate priorities that inform my decisions.

What professional development experiences or opportunities shaped your early career?

My freshman year I was part of an organic chemistry lab UROP and I worked for a very difficult boss. That taught me what I would NEVER want in a work environment. During Summers I often looked for international opportunities - those never disappointed. The MIT India Program really changed my perspective on what I wanted to do in my life. Participating in MIT 100K, MIT GSW, and MIT Ideas Competition, they sparked my entrepreneurial fire early on. I took a class on improv acting at MIT which was really helpful in helping me gain confidence and develop a thick skin in front of crowds.

What professional development activities do you find really useful these days?

I highly recommend to anybody in the startup world to take up stand up comedy, improv or story telling.

What’s the best piece of career advice you’ve received?

You don't have to choose one career, you can have both multiple careers in parallel, or have a different career every decade. These different identities can co-exist, you just need to get really good at knowing how to articulate how each piece fits the puzzle.

Also: build a resume of failures, not only of successes. This exercise will help you learn from mistakes and to gain self awareness and resilience, which are probably the most important attributes many employers look for in leaders. Somebody told me when I was at MIT that in a few years nobody would ask me which grades I got, but rather focus on the diverse experiences I had. This proved to be true!

What career advice do you have for current MIT students, or those interested in entering your industry? 

Talk to as many people as you can in those careers/industry. Try to gain insight not only on the role and the professional tasks required of those jobs, but also ask questions about the type of value systems that prevail in that sector/community/industry. Ask about lifestyle, happiness, life goals of insiders.

Do you have any tips for networking or job searching for current students and recent graduates?

First, identify central connectors. Ask yourself what YOU can do to improve their lives. You can always contribute something positive to someone, independent of age or experience. When you start giving, you plant seeds that eventually grow following the laws of reciprocity. When you are generous, people want to give back to you. Think long term, not short-term/exploitative.

Second, make your wishes explicit. When more people who care about you know what you want, you are going to be in their minds when they encounter opportunities that may be relevant to you. Social network theory shows that in most cases, jobs come from people who have "weak ties" from you, they are not your immediate family members or closest friends. Expand your network to have a wider radius of influence. Be intentional in looking for opportunities, tell the universe what you want, loud and clear.

Third, help people help you. Don't ask for an intro, do your research, draft an email they can copy and paste, send them the people or companies that are in your target list and articulate why you would be a good fit. Most people will be happy to make an intro if it takes them less than 5 min. If they need to think hard on how to position this email, or they have to put together a target list, this task will fall low in their list of TO-DO items for the day.

What do you like to do outside of work for fun/relaxation/inspiration?

Lately, I do a lot of stuff in nature, hikes, walks, sailing. And I have been baking a lot. of sourdough bread!

Do you participate in any volunteer/community service activities? If so, how do you balance your professional and personal responsibilities? 

I am a member of several non profit Boards (e.g. Imagine H2O, GEN). Balance is an elusive state, but I try not to stress out about anything that is not health, family and friends. And I learned to say no much more often.