Shelli Brunswick Interview with Kiran Chin of MKA Insights
Written by: Space Foundation Editorial Team
Well, hello, and welcome to another Space Foundation Space Commerce Entrepreneurial interview. I’m Shelli Brunswick, the Chief Operating Officer at Space Foundation. Today I have the privilege to interview Kiran Chin. Well hello, Kiran.
Hi Shelli, thanks for having me.
We’re so honored you could join us today. Let me share with our audience a little bit about your background. So, Kiran leads MKA’s global strategy practice, she’s an experienced leader on topics including finance, strategy, and marketing. Kiran works closely with small to midsize firms on business planning, marketing penetration strategies, competitive positioning, scale up and globalization. Kiran has nearly a decade of experience in mergers and acquisitions, integrations, marketing strategy and channel strategies at the business unit level and companies such as Thermo Fisher and GE. Prior to her experience in the private sector, Kiran was a political strategist in Los Angeles advising politicians on complex litigation matters, construction projects, public planning, and economic redevelopment projects. Well again Kiran, thank you so much we’re so honored you could join us today.
Thank you again Shelli it’s great to be here.
Wonderful well the first question our audience always likes to know is can you tell us a little about your background and how did you get to where you are today?
Absolutely so the journey for me I always start when I’m about five years old this is just after arriving to the United states for the first time my parents and my five siblings and I had emigrated from Pakistan and you know I am starting to realize that maybe I don’t fit in with my family I am naturally curious I question everything and I am just getting responses back to some of those questions like why does the grass grow or why does the sun go down in a way that isn’t feeding that natural curiosity and I apply myself in school I find those answers and books. I start to become academically inclined and I’m realizing there is a difference in the way that I think versus the way that the rest of my family thinks primarily my parents and I’m realizing that it’s it’s going to be difficult to continue with the expectations that they have of me and so what I end up doing is realizing at a very young age that I focus on logic and reason I like the Sciences I like the math and and that’s really different from their religious perspective that my parents had and you know we’re going to continue to have these ideological differences and so by the time I’m in the second grade I realized that my path to being who I want to be intellectually is really through academics because one of the things that our parents routinely said to us when they brought us to the US is with an education and in America you can do anything be anything you want to be and I saw that runway for myself and I decided well that’s exactly what I’m going to do I’m going to use this education to really create that path in that life for myself and not only that you know we have ideological differences but I also saw where we were as a family income wise they are now seven kids had a seventh child in the States and I remember sitting at home filling out these free lunch applications with my father and I remember distinctly this number of $36,000 a year of household income for a family of nine. I thought at the time that was great free lunches even better and I realized slowly over time that you know if I’m going to make an impact for myself I’m going to make an impact for my family I really do need to let this education be my path to that different life and so fortunately for me I was academically inclined I did do well in school and you know I had options to go away to college and what I ended up doing was going to USC in Southern California. I moved from Philadelphia to USC and it was a great first step and opportunity for me and this STEM child that I was started studying in a pre-med track and you know it was a lot of fun but I also experienced life for the first time this girl who was in a religious conservative religious household who didn’t quite experience life went to college for the first time and was transplanted into a different world where the culture the food the people are also different and for the first time I was able to experience the real world outside of books. And that’s exactly what I did. I still loved academics and science, but I was learning in just such a different way and unfortunately my academics suffered. I just did not have the time to do the 300 pages worth of reading for o chem or biology every week and so I changed my majors pursued a degree in economics graduated with that degree and didn’t know what to do with that. And so came across a lobbyist and he pointed me in the direction of politics and the County of Los Angeles where I ended up getting a job working for an LA County politician and it was great for a time until I realized I am doing great work helping great people but this isn’t quite as close to the Sciences or math or engineering or technology that I wanted to be it’s actually so far removed so how do I get back to the things that I’m comfortable that I’m passionate about and I have spoken to so many folks business individuals and they said look if you want to jump start your career you really need to go get a degree in business and so I moved across the country again and went back to Business School, Boston College enrolled there for an MBA I got my masters in finance and you know I didn’t know what I was going to do with those degrees before I got there and then when I got there I said well you know it would be great if I could combine this science and math and business combination and investment banking or you know finding that next blockbuster drug and biotech and unfortunately that was not the route for me because I graduated when the economy collapsed the first time the housing bubble burst and there’s a flood of financial professionals and myself with this academically trained financial knowledge just not a lot of investment banking opportunities for someone like myself. So, I ended up taking the job that was in front of me not the job that I wanted and about six months later I ended up getting called back to Thermo Fisher Scientific. We had done an informational interview and they asked me to apply for this business development mergers and acquisitions role which was assisting this $1 billion division of the company there focused on genomics, sol genomics, protein biology, selling raw materials and supplies to biologics manufacturers like Pfizer and Amgen I said this sounds fantastic I would love to do this and I applied and that’s really where the second part of my career in the Sciences really started, the first part of my career in the Sciences really started and that’s where I was for the last 10 years and then about three years ago I decided to start my own consulting firm. I spent about 10 years helping solve different business challenges how do we increase sales in certain regions what are the gaps in technology how do we change market perceptions. I mean I was the tip of the spear in a lot of these divisions and business units helping to solve fairly difficult business challenges and it was fun but I was faced with a layoff and I opted not to look internally and that’s when MKA insights was born.
Amazing, amazing journey. And I know one of your nicknames or they call you is the fixer so that’s going to come into into your journey so can you tell us more about your company then and how did that start? I mean I can understand how you got there but why start your own company and again we’ll have to learn more about you being called the fixer.
Well so the company is another origin story. I feel like I have distinct times in my life where I’ve started and stopped and when MKA Insights first started it was on the tail end of something that would otherwise have been a little bit painful. I was laid off from a company that I’ve been working for for several years and it was something that I was thinking about doing just separating from the company and venturing out on my own and I didn’t really pull the trigger until that trigger was pulled for me when they said OK well you know we shifted strategy for what we’re trying to do you can either look internally or you know here’s your package and that was the moment I said you know I have run into a couple of roadblocks in this corporate world I’ve kind of climbed the ladder as far as I can go and you know I just don’t want to continue going through that heartache of hitting my head against that ceiling and wanting to breakthrough and not quite knowing how to get through that door. So, I said I will just take my destiny and control it so let me start this this company. I don’t quite know how I’m going to start it or what we’re going to do or how we’re going to get clients but I’m going to take a leap of faith and start a company where I’m the boss I drive the culture and we’re going to change the way we treat people. So that’s where MKA insights was born. The company itself is a management consulting firm I mean I do a lot of what I used to do for internal business units and divisions we solve difficult business challenges and the term management consulting I laugh at myself I did not know what it was until I actually started this company. And the term really comes from consultants that help management that help business leaders owners and executives solve some fairly difficult business challenges that often end up moving the needle for that company. And it’s perfect for who I am as a person and what drives me. I saw difficult different challenges every day some challenges I’ve seen before some I have not but I’m a fixer as you pointed out I like to solve problems I know that about myself. This business journey that I was on over the last decade and a half it’s let me do the things that I love to do and while science and math are my passion and I love it I know what I do exceptionally well is solve problems and I get to do that on a daily basis and it’s a lot of fun.
Fantastic! So, I’m going to ask what is the most interesting thing that has happened to you since starting your company?
Well I think in many entrepreneurs hopefully resonate with this comment but I feel that I know myself for the first time in a long time that person has always been in there but I tried to fit myself into one box or another because I was going for a specific role or doing a specific job and now that box no longer exists and I can truly discover who I am and what I do really well and what that is being a fixer knowing and liking solving problems and so the most interesting thing that has happened is I’ve discovered who I am truly for the first time in a long time it’s like this person that has always been in there has been trying to find you know what are you good at what do you like doing how do you apply that into a job in a company and I somehow just not fit a fit but kind of on a different axis and now I know what that is and that to me is that the best part of being an entrepreneur is the self-discovery process.
Amazing amazing so again you know some people you know they they want to be entrepreneurs, but you aspire to that. So, what is it about entrepreneurship and being a CEO that really attracts you to this?
Well, I like being the captain I think the people that know me the people that work with me know that I like to take a leadership position it’s something that I gravitate to naturally it’s something that people have assigned to me whether I have asked for it or not and it’s fun to have the ability to steer the ship in a direction being the first one out there looking on the horizon saying this is the direction that I want to go or that we should go it’s going to be a fun journey or we’re going to learn a lot or we’re going to be successful or there’s going to be a win in this direction and then getting the organization or the company to rally behind that idea and convincing them that that is in fact the right direction to take. That entire process to me is extremely thrilling and I like seeing the end result and so that CEO position that I hold is a lot of driving the ship or steering the ship as an entrepreneur you get to do the same and then in the industry or the company that I run I get to do that again for our clients we get to help other managers and business leaders and owners see that direction and help them steer the ship as well. And so that entire “helping people steer the ship” means during the ship-everybody seeing what that opportunity or that potential is and sharing in that excitement and rallying the troops to make everybody align in that direction and then executing in that direction. A lot-all of that combined is just what attracts me to the entrepreneur role the CEO role and then specifically the CEO role at a management consulting firm.
Awesome! So here’s here’s a fun question-how has this job and how has this worked out? What is the difference between the actual job and what you thought the job would be and do you have any other lessons learned to share with our audience?
So two thoughts here-the first one being what I thought this was going to be running a company being a CEO and management consulting firm is very different than what I spend a lot of my time and energy on and that is human resources. I am absolutely blown away by the amount of time that I spend trying to find the right individuals that fit with our culture that have matching skills and the aptitude to learn and that is a tremendous challenge I think for any organization and I did not realize how big of a challenge that is as a CEO of a small startup and not only that we are constantly training and trying to upscale the people that we have so that they can grow into their roles. It just really is constant how much HR human resources recruiting and development work that I am I am personally focused on. And the second lesson or thought here is the amount of responsibility you have for another person’s livelihood. I think one of the scariest parts of my job is making decisions that affect, directly affect the lives of the people that work for you. And I think for me the very first thing that I did where I made a decision to bring anyone into the company was can we hire this person and retain them for two years? Do we have enough revenue to be able to do that and I’ve worked in large companies and I know they generally keep three months worth of payroll and that might be OK for larger companies it just wasn’t enough for me as a small startup the the person that we’re bringing in I felt a personal responsibility to that person their family their house the personal decisions that they’re making to buy a house start a family all of those things that as individuals people do and starting a job with a startup is extremely risky and I wanted to take that fear of working for a startup away. And so, what I do personally is just take on this responsibility of keeping our company going so that we can employ that person and give them the stability that they need. And every day that I wake up that two year clock resets and so I’m always thinking well how do I make sure that today we find the client or that we grow or we’re sustaining what we’re doing so that these people that we’re employing have another two years from today from tomorrow and so now I guess that’s another HR element that I guess I’m speaking to you but the personal responsibility of affecting another person’s livelihood is just a big lesson or responsibility that I carry with me every day.
I agree with that as well-as the Chief Operating Officer 80% of my day is consumed with HR and people and ’cause at the end of the day people accomplish the mission I mean I was in the Air Force so you know taking care of your people helps take care of what you’re trying to accomplish in your organization so I wanted to ask you a question-you know at the Space Foundation we have our Center for Innovation and Education and we have a workforce development road map of awareness, access, training, connecting, and mentoring. So I wanted to ask you have you had any mentors or individuals that have helped you in your journey and what have they done and what is some great advice as a mentor to others that you would like to share?
I feel so fortunate to have had several individuals across time that had extended a hand visible, invisible in just promoting me as an individual assisting me in making decisions there are several people that I can think of off the top of my head-it’s this neighbor that lives three doors down from us that told my mother let me be free let me fly because I will do great things and it’s the teachers that fed my curiosity it’s the lobbyist who pointed me in the right direction and then mentored me for the next 20 years it’s that first manager and friends at my job who also mentored me it’s my husband it’s my children it’s my parents there are just so many people that I can think of that have collectively come together and fueled me and the best thing that I get from all of them is confidence, it’s this ability to keep going and that I can do it and that I am capable and everyone over time has said that and being an entrepreneur I think this story may also resonate is it’s such a psychology to running your own business because there are so many days you go am I doing the right thing should I stop should I continue and just leaning into that collective sail the wind in my sail that all of these people have provided me with has really kept me going and I’m tremendously grateful for all of those individuals in my network that have helped me along the way.
I completely understand. We don’t get to where we are in life without others being part of the journey, so I thank you for sharing that. The other thing that’s always important is what are critical skills do you feel you have helped you start and continue to grow your business and are those skills required for all entrepreneurs or were they just helpful for you?
So, I think sometimes people think like to be entrepreneurial I have to have this skill in this go in this goal so I really would like your thoughts on that yes so I have the perspective of being an entrepreneur as well as helping other small startups and companies so seeing what I have done for myself and then seeing how other business leaders are successful or not successful and we we talk about hard skills and soft skills-hard skills are things like knowledge technical awareness project management problem solving then soft skills are the people management abilities it’s the confidence it’s a certain je ne sais quoi as you will and I think the soft skills lead in on balance I would say about 80% what I do of what I see these successful leaders startups business owners do well is the soft skills it’s the people development it’s the people management it’s the confidence the risk in making a decision you know it’s it’s all rooted in in the soft skills. So the ones that do well and I think what’s helping me do well and I spoke to it just a minute ago is competence it’s making decisions knowing that sometimes you’ll make mistakes but then learning from those mistakes and then moving on so I think that soft skills are just incredibly useful and more importantly if you’re if you’re an entrepreneur and you’re thinking about what can I do to be successful here the best lesson or the best advice that I can say here is to believe in yourself.
I think that’s amazing, that is excellent advice believe in yourself find mentors find people who encourage you those are great. Do you have any other advice you’d want to share with entrepreneurs that you’ve learned that might be like oh I wish I had known this before I got to this point it might have not changed your mind but it might have been just helpful because maybe you got surprised by something?
I don’t know if there is anything that I was surprised by but again I think one of the the skills or abilities or advice to share with an entrepreneur is believe in yourself but also listen to objective reasoning and I think anyone again who knows me knows that I’m a glass half full kind of a person but I’m also pragmatic in solving problems. I mean I’ve said before that no does not exist in my vocabulary can’t does not exist in my vocabulary but I’m also someone who knows that there is a reality that we need to deal with and so some of the things that have helped me is knowing when to step back or change direction and listen to objective reasoning. I think all of us who are business leaders owners entrepreneurs we run the risk of becoming very passionate about what we’re doing and believing in it so much that we don’t hear objectively what when others want to say or have beneficial things to say about the direction that you’re taking and so the advice that I would give here to others is just take the time to listen when other people are providing their feedback and you know you’re the ultimate decision maker so you know the context in which this information is coming across so when you’re evaluating that feedback just be mindful of what the objective is a bad person or that individual and objectively listen to it before making your final decision.
That is great insight, that is great insight. Let’s talk about over the last year obviously you know COVID has happened and you know how has that impacted your business is there anything you want to share whatever you maybe learned over the last year during COVID?
Well COVID has been obviously a world impacted travesty for everyone. Our business, however, I think has been insulated from that a little bit because of the industries that we serve so we are again in the Sciences some of our industrial verticals include life sciences clinical diagnostics biologics manufacturing all of the industries that really came together over these last 18 months or so and came together to solve this collective world challenge of how do you diagnose quickly diagnose someone who has been exposed to the coronavirus and then separately how do you quickly research and develop and then manufacture the vaccines so that this doesn’t continue to persist as a pandemic. So those are the industry verticals that we serve that’s where our clients come from and I have been fortunate that you know as a small business this science and technology field is where we have chosen to be as well. Fortunately for many industries they’ve taken a hit this industry has really just continued to grow and expand.
Fantastic. Well Kiran, thank you so much for joining us today. We’re so fortunate to have you. Do you have any last comments for our audience?
I do have one final thought for your younger audience as well as parents of children who have kids who are inclined to the science and math and engineering-they’re problem solvers. What I would say to them is get them to college get them to study some kind of scientific discipline and then let them figure out out from there, there isn’t just one job or one career path in the Sciences and I learned that I had a preconceived notion of what I thought I was going to do when I grow up and I’m not doing that in the in any way shape or form I’m so far removed from it but somehow I’m still very close to the science and very close to innovation and technology but I’m just applying myself ever so slightly differently. So I would you know plug shamelessly education, and love for science and technology and math and say please continue studying and loving the Sciences and note that there are just so many jobs out there for people you and I who you know are problem solvers, who love science, who love math, and I think that’s how you and I connected too, Shelli, is you know I loved space I was space enthusiast I still am I recently learned through a lot of conversations of the last couple of years that we have a burgeoning space industry through the privatization of space and now there’s a whole new set of jobs out there that I never knew existed when I was young so that’s the greatest thing about what we do in this field is as science is ever evolving it’s constant discovery new fields new industries are emerging. So if you’re a kid who loves science, the math or love soft problems keep at it don’t think you have to figure it out today just get to the next rung and I bet you by the time you’re in college you have so many more options than you have today.
That is fantastic Kiran and I don’t think I could have said it any better than there’s a place for everyone so thank you so much for joining us. And for our audience if you’re interested in learning more about our Space Commerce program or watching another entrepreneurial interview go to our website at SpaceFoundation.org and check out our Space Commerce series. Thank you again and we look forward to you joining us and Kiran, we hope you’ll come back in a couple months and tell us how things are progressing coming out of COVID.
I would love to.
Awesome, and there is a place for everyone in the new global space ecosystem.
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Shelli Brunswick Interview with Kiran Chin of MKA Insights