On Conan & Cynicism: Reflections on the Road Less Taken


In the midst of aimless time-suck instagramming the other day, I came across a post with Conan O’Brien’s words overlaid on a pixelated screenshot. The post itself was worth sub-10 likes, but the snippet made me curious enough to search for the full quote online.

“All I ask is one thing, and I’m asking this particularly of young people: please don’t be cynical. I hate cynicism, for the record, it’s my least favorite quality and it doesn’t lead anywhere. Nobody in life gets exactly what they thought they were going to get. But if you work really hard and you’re kind, amazing things will happen.”

Turns out, this is a quote from Conan’s farewell speech on the back of his acrimonious split with NBC in 2010. The context is relevant but not crucial to appreciating its universality; apparently it resonated with a lot of people after it was spoken.

I am expanding on this particular quote because throughout the course of my journey as an entrepreneur, it has been incredibly easy to become jaded. By default my personality errs towards the cynical side, so I have to be extra careful about not slipping into a dark place of no return. I used to call it a healthy dose of skepticism, one serving dually as a protective barrier and a source of humor for people who got it. As shitstorm after shitstorm hit though, I found myself conscientiously making decisions to reflect a more optimistic worldview in order to survive. This sometimes came back to bite me in the ass, but more often than not, maintaining a positive attitude resulted in things working out for the best. For example, when first setting up ZAOZAO, no payment provider was willing to take a risk on a crowdfunding platform – what was this foreign concept of accepting credit card information before physical exchange of goods happened? Three lawyers, two crooks, and a threatened lawsuit later, we managed to narrowly escape an extortion case at the cost of delaying our site launch six weeks! If we had given up then, there may never have been a ZAOZAO. And that was just the beginning.

There were the letdowns from application rejections and red tape encountered because of systematic inefficiencies, being led astray by male “investors” who turned out to be sleazebags, witnessing nepotism in action on a more frequent basis than expected. Let’s not forget when someone you’re paying and who is supposed to be on YOUR side turns out to be a handful, or worse, the opposite: non-responsive and non-accountable. Eventually you learn how these things work, and the next time a similar situation comes up, you have an idea of how to handle it better than the last time around.

These days, I get approached a lot for advice by business school students and college-aged aspiring entrepreneurs alike. Previously, in public interviews and conferences I would have given lame, cliché answers: “Do what you love” or “Prepare to sacrifice a lot”. While both of these platitudes hold true, they are also painfully stock standard as far as the entrepreneurial narrative goes. Ramen dieting, couch surfing, look at me suffer in pursuit of my dream…whatever.

I recall when I first started out on the other side of the table, seeking the wisdom of seasoned veterans. By and large, most were friendly. Some gave the same namby-pamby answers I gave on record, and a select few thought they were doing me favors by being “real”. In the latter category fell the cynics: those who had gotten burnt along their own journeys who then felt entitled to vehemently discourage the pursuit of mine. I appreciated their soul-crushing “realness” at the time and rationalized this tough love approach, but in retrospect, they were actually awful. There is no need to tear down the dreams of some bright-eyed youngun with (maybe) delusional dreams of achieving his or her goals. Sure, a reality check is sometimes warranted. But so much of that delusion is what keeps us going, and it is what ends up driving us for a long time to come. It’s the magic that could turn into the game changer.

As I advise the upcoming generation of inventors and hustlers and dreamers, I realize that I now have a better answer to give. Cynicism helps no one. Hard work is a given. To be kind is a difficult thing to do in times of struggle, financially and emotionally, but on top of that, also try to be generous. At the apex of my selfishness as an entrepreneur, I valued my time so highly that I would count every minute spent not on my startup as an opportunity cost. Don’t be that person who refuses coffee with someone because they’re a nobody, or worse, one who ignores a vetted introduction. That’s just a dick move. Be kind.

Conan’s words just enabled me synthesize from a jumble thoughts that have been swimming around my head for 3 years these clear takeaways. I already had the answers. They were simply hidden in various reminders of my experiences…that in spite of unexpected detours along the journey, amazing things do and will happen.

They certainly have for me.


Visit to the CCPCR in Phnom Penh, Cambodia


Of the many places I have traveled over the years, none have quite the effect that Phnom Penh does…and that is of pure heartbreak. In light of a recent partnership that ZAOZAO entered with the PP-based NGO, Cambodian Center for Protection of Children’s Rights, I paid a visit to the site to do some due diligence. You hear stories about some awful charities that take advantage of rich foreigners, using donations to buy fancy cars instead of paying for a kid’s schooling, so I went down there to check things out for myself.


Phnom Penh in and of itself is a rapidly developing city; compared to 1.5 years ago during my last visit, new buildings have been erected and roads have been increasingly paved. Despite recent developments, to be very honest – PP is still a dump. Visiting as a tourist is depressing, its main attractions are the Killing Fields and Genocide Museum where you learn about how the Khmer Rouge basically ruined all that was good up until the 70’s. Visiting as a volunteer worker didn’t change things much, as the shiny new developments belie its history of torture and destruction. Pretty heavy stuff. Regardless, my mission for the week was to spend time with the organization we were to begin working with, whose goals are to improve conditions of society by fighting against human sex-trafficking, common in those parts because of a lack of education and extreme poverty.


While prostitution rings aren’t as ubiquitous in Cambodia as they are in say, Thailand or Vietnam, that’s because girls get exported (sometimes by their own families) across the border fetching a heftier sum. It is truly a horrible thing, unimaginable…but commonplace in the villages and sometimes even the poorer cities of Cambodia. So how can this be fixed?


Rather than just accept cash donations in to address the poverty issue (a temporary fix, but still necessary), the CCPCR focuses on more sustainable solutions, like teaching vocational skills – weaving, sewing, hairdressing, computer literacy – so that once equipped with skills, these children (all of whom have been rescued from sex slavery) can earn a livelihood on their own. Imagine that – so many of the things we in the developed world call “hobbies” – they are the ticket to independence and really, a chance at having a life.


While the Main house is primarily for girls that have been rescued by the NGO and their local partners, boys from a local shelter attend classes (reading, computers) when they’re not at public school.


We chose to partner with this group because they are one of the oldest running local NGOs on the ground in Cambodia. International humanitarian and nonsecular groups can be great, but often volunteers (like myself) will fly in and out, or have some other agenda to fulfill. Having a partner that is run by Cambodians for Cambodians ensures continuity and the purest alignment of interests which is why we are excited and proud to be working with the CCPCR.


In my downtime I was treated to a Cambodian delicacy… fried tarantula. Thanks, but no thanks! Until next time…


Beijing photo diary


Finally past the Great Firewall and belatedly posting pics from my week in Beijing, the cultural and political capital of the People’s Republic of China.


The last time I properly visited the Mainland capital was 4 years ago. Back then, my stylish friend who was living there at the time introduced me to 798, the arts district. Among the many shops was this one in particular lined with a wall of ukeleles.


For the week I spent in Beijing, I stayed with a friend who lives in a hutong. Hutongs are basically shacks in back alleyways that look really dilapidated from the outside, but many of which have been beautifully renovated on the inside as residences. Despite being the epitome of old-school Chinese, the feeling of community in the hutong was not unlike being part of an extended family. On one jetlagged late-night after completely missing my dinner plans by taking a “nap” at 6pm, I grabbed a chuan-r dinner by myself (skewers of meat, usually advertised as lamb or chicken, but probably cat or dog) with drinks and fried bread and seafood for a grand total of 56 RMB or approximately $9 USD. Not wanting coins for change, I handed the waitress 60 kuai and walked out. About 5 minutes later I hear breathless panting behind me – she had come after me to hand me the equivalent of 65 cents in change. “Hope to see you tomorrow” she smiled and walked off. Definitely not the typical mainland Chinese city attitude.


Although I can speak Chinese proficiently, having a notebook for the week was crucial to communicating with people. Especially since my VPN drained my phone battery and google maps is basically useless in China anyways. Writing addresses using characters made getting around so much less painful. Thanks Mom for sending me to Chinese school all those Saturday mornings!

While I prepared for PM2.5 with N95 masks and even brought a box over from Hong Kong for my China hosts as a thank you gift, the skies were “APEC blue” for the week. In light of the conference, the government shut down factories and created a holiday so locals would leave and decongest the city a bit. As a result, pollution wasn’t a problem (ostensibly) and traffic was bearable. I picked a great week to be in Beijing, albeit not representative of typical living conditions there. Let’s hope the next time I’m back there’s some important international meeting going on again!


ZAOZAO Pops Up in Seoul!

Heading to Seoul to curate a jewelry pop-up corner for Level 5, a retail shop in Seoul that showcases the best emerging Korean clothing designers.

Been wanting to share this exciting piece of news but had to keep it under wraps as we were in discussion mode for a few months. We were invited by Level 5, a retailer in the ultra hip neighborhood of Myeongdong, to curate a jewelry pop-up corner this fall. Level 5 showcases dozens of Seoul’s best emerging clothing designers, including past participants of Project Runway Korea, in individual concept shops on the same retail floor. I was blown away by the variety, quality and workmanship of the designs when I first visited Level 5 last October. For someone who frequents fast fashions chains, it was such a breath of fresh air to be able to shop pieces I knew no one else would have, without breaking the bank. Naturally, I was thrilled when I learnt of this opportunity to collaborate and give Seoul shoppers a taste of what ZAOZAO has to offer.

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Unexpected lessons from exploration

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For Vasco da Gama, Ferdinand Magellan, and non-Portuguese explorers alike, their voyages were more or less shots in the dark. These intrepid travelers set out with lofty goals in mind, aided by some funding and supplies which in many cases proved insufficient. Little did the explorers know, the journeys would be met with attacks, delays, letdowns, but ultimately discoveries that proved significant (like the Pacific Ocean) even though they were not part of the original plan.

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In search of Muggle Magic


A few weeks ago, after being given abrupt notice to leave the West Village apartment I was living in, I packed my bags and decided to take a break from New York City, working remotely as a solution. I did not have any particular destination nor duration set in mind, just the goal of temporarily disappearing to focus on the business and myself – things which go hand in hand. And, of course, to do so within a certain budget. Fortunately, thanks to miles tickets and AirBNB, I ended up in Spain, and now Portugal for less than it would have cost to maintain my old living situation in Manhattan. Beyond that, traveling in a way that I have never done before – in shared accommodations, without google maps, and completely solo – has proven to be yet another new and enriching learning experience (though admittedly, at times, painful).


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