Having watched her parents emigrate from China to Canada when she was 6, and make sacrifices to provide her with the best opportunities, Nina Chen found herself drawn to the idea of creating better access to education and employment for underserved communities.
“The vast majority of people in the world don’t have access to the opportunities we do here,” says Chen, a Harvard grad who has worked as a management consultant and a venture investor. “I feel that on a deeply personal level… So I’ve thought a lot about what I could do to create better access opportunities with the networks and tools that I had.”
How did your international upbringing affect the way you’re approaching your career?
My parents were typical white-collar immigrants, and I watched the sacrifices they made. They went to the best universities in China, but these credentials weren’t recognized when they moved to Canada. They worked manual labor jobs before climbing their way back up into white-collar jobs. As a six-year-old, seeing my parents do that so I could have a better life, I gained a keen awareness of how much pure luck played into where I am today.
We would go back to China every couple of years, I would hang out with my cousins, and I began to see the ways in which our lives diverged. I was going to summer camps in Canada for kids who were interested in business, entrepreneurship, innovation, etc., while my cousins in China spent their summers cramming for the gaokao — China’s national entrance exams for university. When I got into Harvard for undergraduate, that was beyond what anyone in my family thought was possible or expected. I remember seeing my parents cry with happiness and feeling like I’d finally paid them back for the sacrifices they’d made. But I also felt so lucky to have had these opportunities. It was a lot of effort on my part, but it was 99% the cards I was dealt and the luck that I had.
So that’s why you’re interested in educational technology and access to education?
I’ve thought a lot about what I could do to create better access to opportunities with the networks and tools that I had. The biggest gap is access to high-quality employment, because that enables a dignified life and a path to upward mobility. I see so much funding going into education, but often without links to employment outcomes. That’s where I want to focus. I’ve also recently become excited about the intersection of education and climate/sustainability innovation — at Stanford, we’re seeing billions in funding going toward solving the greatest challenge of our generation. Getting the right human capital in place to fuel innovation and growth in the sustainability space is going to be critical.
Was going to Africa part of your plan all along?
No, it was very serendipitous. I was 25 and working in management consulting in New York, and had the opportunity to do a six-month externship at a different organization. I stumbled across this opportunity with Technoserve, which was working with the Gates Foundation and the Chinese government on a project in Zambia to leverage agricultural technology from China in Sub-Saharan Africa. I was excited about the idea of linking Western ideas for economic development with Chinese approaches to development that are different from those of the West, but been successful in specific contexts. I landed in Zambia in 2018 and was completely astounded by the caliber of the founders I met and the kind of problems they were throwing themselves at.
What are the most pressing challenges for startups there?
Access to capital, financial and human. For any business to grow, those are the two sources of fuel. Startups in Africa are far more capital-constrained than anything you see in the Bay Area. A lot of VC investors are moving into Africa now, and that’s changing that landscape for the better. But the lack of access to human capital is a much harder systemic challenge to solve. You have high unemployment in many countries, and you know the talent potential is there.
What was the most memorable venture you invested in while working at Raba, and how is that business doing today?
One of my favorites was a company called Cloudline, which builds autonomous airships to facilitate logistics deliveries to areas without road access. A billion people around the world live without reliable access to roads, whether due to floods, natural disasters, or just living in remote areas. For them it’s incredibly difficult to get essential deliveries. Aviation is a tough space to be in — hardware means slow iterations, aviation has lots of regulatory hurdles, and supply chains can be tricky. Not the kind of easy win that VC investors tend to go after. But we made the investment because Cloudline’s founder, Spencer Horne, is just brilliant. He he grew up in a newly post-apartheid South Africa, still deeply segregated by race and class, navigating that space as a person of mixed race. It was this upbringing which inspired him to innovate to address structural differences that drive deep inequities around the world today. He’s one of the most resilient, charismatic, and caring entrepreneurs I’ve ever met. They’re going live with their first customers this year, with deployments in South Africa, Kenya, and Namibia.
You worked with a company in Zambia that had a big impact on you. Tell us about that.
FirstWave is a “vertically integrated aquaculture company” — in other words, a fish farm — whose mission is to provide affordable, high-quality tilapia to consumers across Southern Africa. The company operates a sustainable tilapia farm on Lake Kariba in Zambia and has created over a thousand jobs. Working at FirstWave taught me what it takes to build a real, operationally complex business. The founders set out to produce fish, but they ended up having to build out all the infrastructure around themselves — cold chain logistics, animal feed production, retail outlets. We never had enough cash, and it was a constant fight to survive. Driving home from work alone at 2 a.m on Zambian dirt roads, it forced me to reflect on why I was doing this. What does it mean to me? Is it worth it? That shaped me. Entrepreneurship is a grind. It’s uncomfortable. But when you know yourself and know why you’re doing something, you have this internal compass. You have to trust that.
Ever had a mentor who had a particularly strong impact on you?
I feel incredibly fortunate to have had many mentors who lifted me up at various steps of my journey and who have shaped who I am today, such as George Rzepecki at Raba, and Fred Swaniker at African Leadership Group. One particularly memorable mentor was my boss at FirstWave, Tembwe Mutungu. Our mentorship relationship developed over many four-hour drives over winding, hilly roads from Lusaka to Siavonga, where our fish farm was located. We’d be up at 5 a.m, chatting about everything from fundraising to life values. He has been an incredibly thoughtful sounding board in the years since we worked together. He’s the one who has always pushed me forward when I needed a push and kept me accountable to chasing down the crazy dreams I’d shared with him on those many long drives. He once told me about a line he wrote about me in my recommendation letter: “Nina is someone I believe will make a dent in this world.” It’s such a huge vote of confidence.
You list “hosting dinner parties” among your interests. Name three special guests from the business world you’d invite.
One would be Yvon Chouinard, the Patagonia founder, because of the radical way he thinks about capitalism and building businesses to achieve social good. Another is Sophie Adelman, the co-founder of Multiverse, which is one of the biggest and most successful startups tackling apprenticeships. She’s now working on a new venture that reimagines how people learn. Third would be Lyndsay Holley Handler. She successfully scaled an off-grid solar company across Africa, and is currently building a Pan-African venture studio to invest in founders tackling climate challenges in Africa. I really respect and admire her, having seen firsthand how she combines a deeply empathetic leadership style with being visionary. All three of them found a way to create social impact at scale through private sector innovation.
What would you serve them?
I usually team up with someone who’s a better cook than me. But it’d probably be a Mediterranean brunch. I’d make shakshuka, hummus, and my signature banana bread for dessert.
Photos by Elena Zhukova