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Not All Founders Can Be CEO, This M’sian Realised As She Stepped Down To Save Her Company

As a board games enthusiast, one of my favourites has to be We’re Not Really Strangers (WRNS). It’s a card game launched in 2017 that facilitates honest connections with the group you’re playing with. 

Most of the card games these days are just for laughs, while WRNS gives you the chance to be as raw as possible to “strangers” around you instead.

At the end of the game, it felt like we all imprinted a piece of ourselves on one another and it was quite a meaningful experience.

It wasn’t until recently that I discovered a card game like WRNS made by Malaysians called The Empathy Box

Made by Tribeless, a training and consulting company founded by Gwen Yi, it teaches empathy.

The cards in that box are a tool to facilitate a safe space for empathetic group conversations, and they personally helped Gwen when she stepped down as CEO of Tribeless.

Started From Dinner Parties

Tribeless and The Empathy Box were never what Gwen had in mind even though she always knew she wanted to be an entrepreneur.

Creating a safe space for honest conversations with just cards / Image Credit: Tribeless

4 years ago, her mental health took a dive and caused her to drop out of university overseas and return to Malaysia. 

“In that space of pain and solitude, I was trying to figure out what to do with life. And then I started hosting dinner parties,” she shared with Vulcan Post.

“It was just a fun thing that I was doing and never for profit. But if you attend, there was one rule: no small talk.”

Gwen wanted to break the conversational default that we’re used to, like how are you doing, what are you working as, is your business good or not

These dinners became a regular part of Gwen’s life, and she also realised that people started opening up more and creating deeper connections during these sessions. 

This was what inspired her to transform these meaningful experiences into The Empathy Box, though she is far from a natural conversationalist in person.

“You wouldn’t be able to tell but I really suffer from great social anxiety. If you put me in a room full of strangers, I’ll be the one that sticks to the corner and only talk to my friends,” she confessed.

However, she’d always wanted to talk about things beyond the surface level with others, so these cards were her safe space to share her stories with others and vice versa.

Accepting A Hard Truth

Though the concept had been here 4 years ago, Tribeless was registered as a company only in February 2018.

Gwen had also taken on the role company CEO, but she was very new in the startup world. Titles like founder and CEO didn’t mean much to her at first.

When they launched the first version of The Empathy Box, they were getting orders from 22 countries, which she personally remembers as a very stressful time. 

“I didn’t know how to do fulfillment, distribution, manufacturing, sales, HR and all. But my co-founder and boyfriend, Shawn, knew exactly what to do at the time,” she recalled.

Shawn and Gwen / Image Credit: Tribeless

The more she worked together with him, the more she realised that he was much better at being a CEO than she was. But this wasn’t the reality that Gwen found easy to accept at first. 

It took 2 months for her to fully accept giving up her CEO position to Shawn, during which their relationship faced some conflict. 

She described having an almost-existential crisis because it was when she realised her identity was very intertwined with the company, to the point her mental health deteriorated.

So, she had to ask herself many honest questions to understand why she was clinging on to the CEO title so badly despite not being suitable for it.

Founder =/= CEO

Growing up, Gwen Yi had always looked up to her parents, who were both entrepreneurs with their own businesses, which indoctrinated her to believe that she was destined for the same path of leadership.

“I kept thinking, all this time I thought I was this hotshot CEO-entrepreneur-woman. How is that not only not true, but I’m the one that’s causing the company to fail?”

“A part of me was dying, but a part of me was dying in order for that company to survive,” she realised.  

After a year of power struggles between her and Shawn, they reached a sweet spot when Gwen finally let down her ego and admitted she needed help.

“My ego was humongous, you couldn’t say a bad thing to my face. But when I learnt that skill of taking criticisms and having hard conversations, it transformed our relationship of power struggles to what it is today.”

Today, Shawn handles the internal work of Tribeless like management, tech, legal, and accounting, while Gwen handles the external work like partnerships, clients and leading trainings. 

Since Shawn took over in November 2018, Tribeless has doubled its revenue and Gwen now has full faith in his leadership. 

Shawn in a session with a group for The Empathy Box / Image Credit: Tribeless

They’ve also reached corporates, international nonprofits, and a national kindness campaign which has impacted 750 schools. 

-//-

This interview was done as part of our new Vulcan Post video series, Open Book.

Gwen’s story is chapter two of our new venture, and you can watch the video interview here:

  • You can learn more about Tribeless here and The Empathy Box here.
  • You can learn more about other Malaysian startups we’ve written about here.

Also Read: Malaysia Is Leading A Key Agenda In Asia-Pacific For 2020, Here’s What You Need To Know

Featured Image Credit: Gwen Yi, founder of Tribeless

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