12 May 2022
Three of the founders of AAPI are building apps on the App Store that grow society
Coffee Founders Meet Bagel, HmongPhrases, and Weee! Think about how their personal experiences shape their app vision, and look to the next generation of app makers
Many of today’s most influential creators combine the power of technology with their personal expertise to create valuable spaces for users to learn, share and connect on the App Store.
When Larry Liu first immigrated to the United States, he realized there was no easy way for the Asian community to purchase the goods needed to prepare some of their favorite dishes. Wanting to provide a place for celebration and widespread access to Asian and Hispanic foods, he turned to the App Store to launch a grocery delivery app Weee! People no longer have to be confined to the small “ethnic” aisle at major grocery stores.
A big advocate of human communication, Dawoon Kang and her twin sister Arum teamed up to found Coffee Meets Bagel, a dating app with an intentionally “slower” approach. Their algorithm does not focus on getting the most likes of users, but on directing them towards meaningful conversations. As one of the most popular dating apps, Coffee Meets Bagel has facilitated more than 150 million matches so far.
Annie Fang, a participant at Apple Entrepreneur Camp in 2021, created HmongPhrases sentences to help preserve the Hmong accent for future generations. Although the Hmong population has existed in the United States for more than 40 years, they are widely considered to be one of the most marginalized Asian groups. Its app allows users to search for a Hmong phrase, hear its sound, and then practice saying it out loud. As a true labor of love, Annie doesn’t just code for the app herself – she records phrases with her own voice.
Liu, Kang, and Vang discuss how they have used technology to turn their ideas into powerful platforms, how their applications are uplifting their communities, and how they influence positive change.
Why do you feel the world needs your app?
Annie Fang (founder of HmongPhrases): When Apple said, “There’s an app for that,” I knew I had to create an app for the Hmong people. I wanted us to have a presence on the world stage. So I bought an iPhone and took a course. It was a historic moment for me because I was building an app and doing something no one else had done – documenting my language using the Apple platform. Building Hmong phrases is a celebration of my Hmong identity. We are on the verge of losing our spoken language in future generations and I hope my application will be useful for all those who want to learn the Hmong dialect.
Dawoon Kang (Co-founder and CEO of Dating, Coffee Meets Bagel): Love is the reason we are here, and love with our romantic partner is one of the most important things to ever love. We’ve seen the need for a dating app that’s not just about casual dates but about giving everyone a chance at love.
How does your application support and raise the level of your community?
AV: Not many people know who the Hmong are because we don’t have a country of our own. My vision for HmongPhrases is to serve as a digital footprint to preserve the language for future generations and anyone who wants to learn Hmong. I also hope the app helps bridge the language gap.
Larry Liu (Founder and CEO, Weee!): Food brings people together. It is about shared culture, community, identity, and the celebration of life. Turning grocery shopping from a chore into something fun and shareable is an important part of Weee!. Consumers are rewarded for sharing their ideas and recommendations with the shopper community. Wee! It also creates the feeling of being at home and being seen, especially for immigrants, but also second and third generation consumers who have access to ingredients to make their moms, or whatever their favorite comfort food or snack is.
What are some of the challenges you face as an innovator and entrepreneur? How did you overcome these challenges?
LL: It was quite a challenge to gain support and raise funds in the early days of Weee!. Some people have never stepped inside an Asian or Hispanic grocery store, and have a hard time internalizing the idea that food can be a source of comfort, nostalgia, and family connection. I had to provide a deeper context on why food is so beneficial.
AV: It was hard not to see a lot of Asian American women in the digital app space. Sometimes, I feel like I had to work twice as hard to prove my wall. I had to step out of my comfort zone to show people what I can create outside of the social norms of being an Asian woman, learning that I am as valuable as anyone else.
How have your experiences affected how you build your app and how you run your business?
LL: When I immigrated to the US and couldn’t find foods I missed from China, I went to a chat app to connect with neighbors and try to get some of these items. I’ve seen the impact of community strengthening and how excited people are to communicate about food and recipes. This affected how we designed Weee! As a social trading platform. I also wanted Weee! To be inclusive and accessible to all ages, generations and across languages, so that everyone can benefit from what our app has to offer.
DK: I knew from the start that dating is a cultural phenomenon, and it was important to have a diverse representation in our workforce and our back-end research. I can empathize with others thanks to my upbringing as a minority, but my view is also limited to my own experience. I knew I needed people from different backgrounds who could better present different types of data. Ultimately, we want to get to a point where dating becomes so personal that we don’t have to make general assumptions about a date based on their identity group. But we are not there yet.
AV: When I was young, I was ashamed of being Asian. I was not born in the United States. I was born in a refugee camp. As a foreigner, I tried to integrate, but it was all at the cost of losing my native language. I didn’t have many role models who looked like me, and it wasn’t until my twenties that I fully embraced being a Hmong American. I wanted to be proud of my heritage and culture. I love our food, our language and our cultures, and this growing love has helped me build tools to bring us together as a community.
What feedback have you received from users?
DK: The AAPI community makes up over 45 percent of the Coffee Meets Bagel user base, and it’s huge! They send 1.6 times more chat messages per day and 1.3 times more chat messages per connection than any other data community in the US. People on the platform and focus on long-term relationships.
LL: It’s a pleasure to hear from customers across the country, whether they’re in an ethnic food desert in the Midwest or in an urban city with limited access to ethnic grocery stores. We’ve made efforts to source a range of products that some customers haven’t been able to enjoy in the US for years or even decades, and our customers conform to the belief that food should be shared and explored together.
AV: Many HmongPhrases users love how the app represents both the dialects of Green Hmong and White Hmong speakers. Many told me that with the help of my app, they were able to learn phrases to talk to their grandparents and family members. When people know that I’m a one-woman show and that I’m the sole developer, designer, audio editor, and app creator, they tell me they feel inspired, and I hope I can encourage aspiring young creators to pursue paths in technology.
What is your advice for those looking to set up their own company or build their own apps?
AV: Find your spark. Even if no one believes in you, you must believe in yourself. Write down your vision and how you plan to achieve it. Find supportive advocates and mentors who can help inspire you, motivate you, and help you reach your goal.
LL: Try to solve a problem that interests you. Find out if the problem and the solution relate to major shifts in society. Then find your unique niche to solve it.
DK: Know that starting a company is fundamentally different from starting another business. Make sure it’s a task that you feel is worth dedicating to more than 10 years of your life! Yes, you may not work on it for 10 years, but you may.
What do you hope for the next generation of AAPI founders, entrepreneurs and innovators?
LL: I hope we can benefit from our understanding of diverse cultures. In a rapidly globalizing world, this can be a huge asset.
AV: I hope we can continue to support and uplift each other. I feel so inspired when others share their story, even if we’ve all been on different journeys and come from different places.
DK: Celebrate and be proud of the unique perspective that our heritage and expertise have given us. When there are negative stories about our societies, we have the power to try to change that narrative.
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