Denise Sandquist, one of the youngest female CEOs of a technology startup in Vietnam

October 20, 2021 | 21:28
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Fika – the world’s first female-focused, AI-powered Vietnamese social and dating app – has raised a $1.6 million seed funding round led by VNV Global with participation from a host of leading angels and entrepreneurs. Fika co-founder and CEO Denise Sandquist shared with VIR the company's core values and ambitions in Vietnam.
Denise Sandquist, one of the youngest female CEOs of a technology startup in Vietnam
Denise Sandquist, Fika co-founder and CEO

What is Fika's biggest achievement so far and what will Fika do next after the successful fund raising?

Fika’s accumulated biggest achievement so far is definitely to have become Vietnam’s fastest-growing social and dating app, building up a community of almost 50,000 members in our Facebook group where people can discuss and share tips about dating and relationships, being very active at top universities in Vietnam, and boasting a network with hundreds of Campus Brand Ambassadors whose skills we have helped improve in marketing, entrepreneurship, and events.

We have created job opportunities for 30 people in Vietnam so far. Raising $1.6 million is an amazing achievement in itself, showing that international and local investors believe in our vision of creating a female-focused social and dating app, helping people with their self-growth and being with them from learning more and loving themselves, creating meaningful connections to maintaining them in our Couples version that will be launched shortly.

Being born in Vietnam but adopted to Sweden at a young age, I always dreamt about doing something for Vietnam and its society. When coming to Vietnam for the first time as an adult in 2013, I remember being amazed by all the strong, beautiful, kind women I saw in this country. To be able to create a tool to empower them, a community in which they feel safe and can create meaningful relationships, is the biggest achievement in itself, for me personally and for our whole team at Fika.

Being a female CEO for a tech company – or being a female CEO at all – is not too common. We live in a very male-dominated world and being a young woman who grew up with few female role models in business, I would love to hopefully inspire other women to be confident and go for what they want, with a “dare-to-do” attitude. I have always had a strong belief in myself, but if you do not have anyone to look up to and when you are standing out, I know it can be difficult at times. Therefore, I am extra passionate about supporting and helping other women around me to go for their dreams and stand up for themselves, in business and personally. We women should support and encourage each other, in business and in private.

After now successfully having raised this fund, we will build up our Fika community even more with relevant articles and content with regards to relationships, dating, mental health, and self-growth. We are launching our self-growth part in the app where users can get to know themselves through personality tests and find others suitable for them. We are also improving our AI algorithm, collecting more data and the more users we have and the more they use Fika, the better their recommendations and matches will become.

What can we hope to see from Fika in the future?

Fika aims to not only become Vietnam’s leading social and dating app but also a leading community when it comes to women’s mental health. We create a community based on our core values of growth, authenticity, and empowerment. For us, it is very important that all women feel empowered and have the confidence and courage to become the best version of themselves, not pleasing anyone else and based on how others think they should be. Fika is more than just a dating app, it is a social app that is built to empower people and help them create but also maintain meaningful relationships.

We want to take this vision further, from Vietnam to the rest of Southeast Asia. We have seen ourselves as a global startup from day 1, being very proud of being Vietnamese and 100 per cent developed in Vietnam – starting in Vietnam and putting Vietnam on the map as a country that can create world-leading tech products, led by a woman and with a team consisting of 50 per cent women.

Dating apps are nothing new to many Vietnamese people now, but the COVID-19 pandemic seems to have increased their popularity. Could you share opportunities and challenges for the Vietnamese market and Asia?

Vietnamese people are familiar with western dating apps like Tinder and Bumble, made in the US and developed with other than the Asian culture in mind. Here I believe me and my co-founder Oscar Xing Luo’s backgrounds, having the perfect mix of western and eastern, comes well to hand – since there is definitely both a challenge and an opportunity in creating a product that already exists in the market, adapting it to the target audience, and making it better overall.

The opportunity definitely lies in that we have a huge young population in Vietnam, where mobile penetration is high. How we meet and interact has changed a lot in the last 20 years and to interact with someone online is what all of us do, every day. Meeting new people online has been going on in the US and Europe for quite some time and it is quite common to meet someone online. As a matter of fact, more people met their partners online than offline in the US last year.

The cultural differences are several, and one difference I believe is quite clear, is the focus on family and marriage in Asian culture. A lot of people, especially women, are facing a lot of pressure from society and their families to get married and settle down at a relatively young age in comparison to the West. With this cultural difference, deeply rooted in the culture, and a young population not only in Vietnam but the whole of Asia, where mobile penetration is high, we have a huge opportunity.

By understanding our target audience we can create an app more suitable for them, but we have even higher goals than to just conquer Asia. We want to develop a new generation of dating apps that follow the person from learning about herself to maintaining the relationship in the Couples version. All of this is powered by AI and big data.

The challenge lies in that many are first-time dating app users, why there is a stigma and mistrust to use a dating app, which I can also understand since there are no guarantees that the person you are talking to is real and the environment is not safe. We only allow 60 per cent of our profiles at Fika and 40 per cent are not approved due to fake and abusive photos. This problem is extremely common on dating apps overall. Through a strong focus on safety and authenticity and creating a culturally adaptable social and dating app, I believe that we will conquer this stigma, even though of course there is a challenge presented.

What are the key things that make your app stand out from others?

The key things are definitely the security and quality aspect. We manually verify all our profiles, ensuring a safe and authentic environment for our users. In terms of quality, we also put a relatively high standard on the photos that our users upload since a social and dating app is not much better than its users. We have guidelines that users need to follow and abusive photos are completely forbidden.

In terms of quality, we integrate personality tests, zodiac and compatibility tests with other users. This is a part that is under development and will be launched next month. We have a strong focus on self-growth and getting to know and love yourself first, to then be able to know what you want and who you want to be with. The more you use Fika and the more we know about you, the better our AI becomes and we will be able to recommend users that are most suitable for you.

This strong focus on safety, authenticity, and quality is unique. Our marketing and branding are focused on women since they are the ones most reluctant to use dating apps, and we are creating a product with features based on their needs: more psychology than only appearance-based social and dating apps.

Another very big difference is that we are the only social and dating app that does not lose money if our users become a couple. All other dating apps out there are not gaining anything on their users finding love, since that means they will take away the app when they start their relationship. For Fika, we are developing our Couples version that users can join after they have found love. They can continue to use Fika as Couples, booking dates at our dating spot suggestions, create selfie timelines from experiences together, and keep track of their anniversaries and birthdays.

In this world, an app that also maintains the relationship is needed, with a high divorce rate and people often being busy with work, things that change that make it difficult to feel “in love” again and take time to focus on one’s relationship. Fika wants to be there to help, which is why we really are a full-journey app and so much more than other dating apps on the market.

Why is it so important for you to run a business that empowers women? And what does Fika mean?

I always want what I do to serve a purpose and as our time is limited, I could not imagine myself spending my life working with something that I am not truly passionate about. I strongly believe that we must become the change we want to see in this world. If we want to change something, it is not enough to complain or talk about it, it is also important to act.

Empowering women is especially important since we women have a lot more pressure on us than men, from society and from ourselves. I have lived in many different countries in my life and have friends all over the world, and no matter where I go it is the same: women face much bigger pressure than men to perform well in more areas. Women are also more caring and self-sacrificing than men overall, meaning that women sometimes put others in front of themselves. This is a very kind trait, but to live too much to please other people or to change yourself to fit someone else's liking are also not good. This can result in women being hesitant to try new things, taking risks, or simply believing in themselves since they are too concerned about what others and society would think about them.

I believe it is important to dare to be oneself, unique, and not feel that we need to adapt and fit in all the time. I had the chance to grow up in Sweden, one of the world’s best countries, but what I have accomplished in life so far is simply because I have always believed in myself, my capacity, and that I have been strong enough to do unconventional things that maybe society and people around me would think was standing out. This has all created me, a person based on my own decisions and choices, and not someone else’s. That is why I know that a strong belief in ourselves is one of the most important things because it always starts with ourselves.

That is why Fika is having our core values of growth, authenticity and empowerment, and when building our app and creating our community, Fika and I personally hope to create this inspirational platform focusing on self-growth and connecting with others in a meaningful way – because life is too short not to spend it with nice people, in a platonic or romantic relationship.

By Phuong Thu

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