Self-described as ‘The Accidental Entrepreneur’, Wai Hong Fong is a University of Melbourne alumnus who went on to be listed in The Age’s Top 100 Most Influential People in Melbourne.
Now back in Malaysia as Chieftain and co-Founder at Storehub, a cloudbased enterprise POS system for SMEs, we spoke with Wai about the impact his international education had on his career, and advice he has for international students everywhere.
Why did you decide to study in Melbourne?
I had just graduated from high school in Singapore, and even though I was offered another scholarship to continue my studies there, my mum felt that I was not suited to the rigidity and rote learning approach of the Singapore system. She gave me the chance to go to Melbourne and I took it.
What did you enjoy most about your time in Melbourne?
The first thing I remember experiencing was learning to call my teachers by their first name. This was definitely very unusual and in many ways was the first of many wonderful things I would enjoy about Melbourne. Being Malaysian meant that I was a massive foodie, and Melbourne delivered on that front with the best brunches and coffee in the world while still being able to offer the variety of Asian/Western cuisines at a high standard.
You started OzHut while you were here. Can you tell us how that came about and what you learned from that experience?
I had just graduated from Melbourne University and was wanting to take a short gap few months but was asked to help my uncle with his retail business. Being the good Asian nephew I was, I obliged and before I knew it one thing led to another and OZHut was born.
In my five years as the managing director, I learnt everything from business fundamentals to leadership through my days packing the warehouse tables, answering the customer phone calls and building the technology for our website. There was literally no stone unturned during my time there and I grew tremendously as a result.
You were named one of the top 100 Most Influential People in Melbourne in 2011 (among many other achievements!). How did that make you feel?
It was definitely the most unexpected award to have received since I didn’t even apply for it and to be placed on the same list as big names like Cadel Evans [winner of the 2011 Tour de France] and Ruslan Kogan [internet millionaire and founder of Kogan.com] was crazy. I guess the only thing I remember feeling was this overwhelming sense of gratitude.
You’ve since moved back to Malaysia, how are you finding life back home after all these years?
Malaysia has some seriously good food, if not some of the best in the world, and at reasonable prices. I’ve been thoroughly enjoying that part of my life here. Being surrounded by an entire archipelago of very diverse and interesting cultures here in South East Asia that is a mere two hours flight away keeps me excited about the opportunity to engage and solve the vast problems of this part of the world. It is this dynamism that gets me up every morning and keeps me on my toes everyday.
Wai Hong Fong's Storehub system. Image courtesy of Storehub.
Do you think your international studies have helped provide you with an edge as an entrepreneur?
There is so much about who I am that has been shaped deeply by my experience in Melbourne. The cross cultural experience forces you to constantly put yourself in other’s shoes while trying to figure out a whole new world. It is this experience of being comfortable with the uncomfortable that really prepared me for what entrepreneurial life is about; days of constantly uncomfortable situations and challenges waiting to be overcome.
What advice would you offer to international students studying, or planning to study, in Melbourne?
Don’t stay boxed up in your own circles. Surround yourself with people who are not from your native countries. I made an unexpectedly good choice in doing a Bachelor of Arts at Melbourne University, where I was forced literally to interact with local Australians since the vast majority of students were not international. This helped me be unafraid about sharing my opinions and critically thinking about subject matters on my feet. Skills that have served me well throughout my life.
Finally, what is one thing you think every international student should do while they’re here?
Volunteer at a local charity! There is nothing quite like giving back to the community which has done so much to build an environment that we can enjoy. Also, the experience of engaging with a city is never complete until we engage with the fringes of its society. There’s so much we can learn from talking to those who watch the city walk by them everyday.