Simone Koo Ishikawa has a background in financial services and currently works across several platforms as an advisor to platform start-ups. Her varied career has included working as Director of Customer Success at OakNorth, before which she joined Goldman Sachs and remained in financial services for twenty years, working across Morgan Stanley, Credit Suisse, and JP Morgan. Simone has her own fintech advisory and consultancy company, Ishikoo. As well as this, she is a partner at FinTech Connect and is a tutor at Oxford University’s Saïd Business School, in their entrepreneurship centre working with MBA students.
What is your background? What made you decide to get involved in supporting entrepreneurs?
I am from Korea, and after graduating from Georgetown University, Washington DC, I got a job at Goldman Sachs and I remained in financial services for twenty years, working across Morgan Stanley, Credit Suisse, and JP Morgan. During this time, I probably overstayed both my interest and my welcome in that sphere. I think I was craving something different from the corporate career path. If you have the mind of an entrepreneur, a corporate career can be a very stifling experience. I became disheartened with the politics of corporate hierarchy. My job had become very little ‘doing’ and I was itching to get out. I was working with a lot of fintech providers, and I received the opportunity to join OakNorth bank, where I ended up spending a year. When the pandemic hit, and I took time to reflect on my time at OakNorth, I realised that the part I found stimulating and exciting was working at the early stages of companies. Subsequently, I repurposed RSK Finance as a business that focuses on advising start-ups in their scale-up journey.
What is your definition of entrepreneurship?
Entrepreneurship, essentially, is a business of asking how do you make something that people want that you can then charge for? And while it’s something of an over-used phrase, I see being an entrepreneur as someone who makes something out of nothing.
How and when did you know your idea was good enough to develop it?
While working at OakNorth, people in fintech start-ups would approach me to ask about its success— it was clearly an area of interest. These enquiries prompted me to adapt RSK Finance so that I could advise early-stage start-ups.
What would you say are the top 3 skills that needed to be a successful entrepreneur? Why?
Being able to pivot and change.
Being able to take advice but say no; and being able to take criticism and ignore it.
Being stubborn, and a little bit arrogant in order to disregard people’s warnings and carry on. There will be many people who will warn you away from trying new things. You need motivation and hunger to have the resilience to be knocked down and to get back up again and continue.
What is your favourite part of being an entrepreneur?
The sessions I have with founders are generally one of my favourite things. I get to guide founders in directions which help them solve problems, and sometimes I just need to be a listening ear and a sounding board. I love asking founders questions that make them think about things they haven’t thought about before. And I like making connections between people who can benefit from each other.
What individual, company or organization inspires you most? Why?
There are loads of companies I’m a fan of as a customer. I’m particularly a fangirl of female founders who make it big in fun areas.
I love Canva, the social media graphic design platform. Canva has a woman founder, Melanie Perkins, and it is a great product that has been able to give design capabilities to a wide range of people. Given how the product resonates for me as a consumer I can only assume that the founder is amazing.
If you had 5 minutes with the above individual/ company/organization, what would you want to ask or discuss?
As a customer, I would have a lot of feedback to give on how Canva can make the product more user-friendly and more varied. As an advisor, I would like to find out where they want the product to go; whether they are having conversations with buyers; and whether I could help make connections for them.
What would you say have been some of your mistakes, failures or lessons learned as an entrepreneur?
There are always going to be mistakes. Ninety-seven percent of the things I have done have been mistakes. In entrepreneurship, you don’t target to do everything right and if you do, then you’re in the wrong profession. Generally, you want to get more right than wrong in the end, but there are always going to be mistakes along the way. For example, figuring out how to negotiate the price of your service — there is always the possibility that you will either price too low or too high and I have done both. The intuition for where to pitch that negotiation only comes through the experience of getting it wrong.
How have you funded your ideas?
I haven’t been funded myself. All my business revenues have come from customer flow. If you have your own enterprise that can turn revenue and business, then you don’t always need funding. It can be harmful to view funding as an entitlement. The only reason you want funding is to speed things up, because with funding you can hit milestones at a third of the time.
Are there any sector-specific awards/grants/competitions that have helped you?
None that I know of.
If a new entrepreneur or startup came to you looking for entrepreneurship resources, where would you send them?
There is no one place to go. It depends on the product, the market, and the founder. Peter Thiel’s Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future is a good book for getting a sense of the start-up landscape and if you are suited to it. The Y Combinator website is also a good resource that has lots of free courses.
Have you faced any challenges as a woman entrepreneur? If so, how have you overcome them?
In my experience as a woman in the financial services industry there have been issues. I would be lying if I said there weren’t. It’s gotten better over the years, but when I started at Goldman Sachs, I was not taken seriously and there were very few women to look up to. Now it’s a lot better, but when you look at the ‘Richest Lists’ there aren’t that many women. I would love to see those lists have equal gender representation.
As a woman entrepreneur it is harder to raise money. There are more avenues now, but then it is important to ask; are investors investing because they believe in the product, or is it because they want a woman on their portfolio? You need an investor who is aligned with you for your product not just your gender.
Some women feel that the investor world is shut off to them and so they are extra motivated to get clients and that’s a perfectly acceptable source of capital. That can also mean that they establish a more rigid and sustainable business based on client flow rather than investor money.
What resources would you recommend for other women?
The biggest resource is yourself. You must be in the mindset of being able to do whatever it takes to get things to happen.
How could institutions such as the University of Oxford better support women entrepreneurs?
Institutions can always be helpful. If institutions provide resources and support, like coaching for example, it does help to make the entrepreneurship journey easier.
Do you have any advice specifically for other women who want to be entrepreneurs?
Back yourself and ask for help. Generally, men don’t think twice about asking people for help. Women rarely do. Of course, it is also important keep in mind that being an entrepreneur is very personally driven — your experience will be founded on your own approach and your own character.
Any last words of advice?
There is a lot of hype about entrepreneurship which has given it a glossy image – but it is not for everybody. Prospective entrepreneurs need to have an honest conversation with themselves where they ask: ‘can I stomach humiliation, rejection and agony and still survive and talk about it with a smiley face?’. That’s what it comes down to and if the answer is no, then it is probably not for them.
Enterprising Oxford is a University of Oxford initiative to help connect people to the entrepreneurship resources they need, and to promote entrepreneurship across Oxfordshire.
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