May 12, 2022
Three AAPI founders building apps on the App Store that cultivate community
Founders of Coffee Meets Bagel, HmongPhrases, and Weee! reflect on how their personal experiences shaped the vision for their apps, and look ahead to the next generation of app creators
Many of today’s most impactful creators are combining the power of technology with their personal experiences to offer valuable spaces for users to learn, share, and connect on the App Store.
When Larry Liu first immigrated to the US, he realized there wasn’t an easy way for the Asian community to buy the goods needed to make some of their favorite dishes. Wanting to provide a place to celebrate and bring widespread access to Asian and Hispanic food, he turned to the App Store to launch grocery delivery app Weee! People would no longer have to be limited to the small “ethnic” aisle at mainstream grocery stores.
As big advocates for human connection, Dawoon Kang and her twin sister Arum teamed up to find Coffee Meets Bagel, a dating app with an intentionally “slower” approach. Their algorithm focuses not on getting users the most likes, but on guiding them toward meaningful conversations. As one of the most popular dating apps, Coffee Meets Bagel has facilitated over 150 million matches to date.
Annie Vang, a participant of Apple Entrepreneur Camp in 2021, created HmongPhrases to help preserve the Hmong dialect for future generations. Though the Hmong population has been in the US for over 40 years, it is widely considered one of the most marginalized Asian groups. Her app allows users to search for a phrase in Hmong, hear what it sounds like, and then practice saying it out loud. As a true labor of love, not only does Annie do the coding for the app herself – she even records the phrases in her own voice.
Liu, Kang, and Vang discuss how they used technology to transform their ideas into powerful platforms, how their apps uplift their communities, and how they influence positive change.
Why do you feel like the world needed your app?
Annie Vang (founder, HmongPhrases): When Apple said, “There’s an app for that,” I knew I had to make one for the Hmong people. I wanted us to have a presence on the world’s stage. So I bought an iPhone and took a course. That was a monumental moment for me because I was building an app and doing something no one else was doing – documenting my language using Apple’s platform. Building HmongPhrases is a celebration of my Hmong identity. We are on the cusp of losing our spoken language in future generations, and I hope that my app will be helpful to all those wanting to learn the Hmong dialect.
Dawoon Kang (co-founder and Chief Dating Officer, Coffee Meets Bagel): Love is the reason why we are here, and love with our romantic partner is one of the most important loves of all. We saw a need for a dating app that’s not just about casual dates but about giving everyone a chance at love.
How does your app support and uplift your community?
AV: Not many people know who the Hmong people are because we don’t have a country of our own. My vision for HmongPhrases is to serve as a digital footprint to preserve the language for future generations and anyone who wants to learn Hmong. I also hope that the app can help bridge the language gap.
Larry Liu (founder and CEO, Weee!): Food brings people together. It’s about shared culture, community, and identity, and a celebration of life. Changing grocery shopping from a rote chore into something fun and shareable is a crucial part of Weee !. Consumers are rewarded for sharing their thoughts and recommendations with the community of shoppers. Weee! also creates a feeling of being at home and being seen, particularly for immigrants, but also for second- and third-generation consumers who can access ingredients to make their mom’s congee, or whatever their favorite comfort food or snack is.
What are some challenges you face as a creator and entrepreneur? How have you overcome these challenges?
LL: It was a huge challenge to gain support and raise funds in the early days of Weee !. Some folks have never even stepped foot inside an Asian or Hispanic grocery store, and have a hard time grasping the idea that food could be a source of comfort, nostalgia, and familial connection. I had to provide deeper context into why food can be so meaningful.
AV: It’s been hard not seeing very many Asian American women in the digital app space. At times, I feel like I’ve had to work twice as hard to prove my worth. I’ve had to step outside my comfort zone to show people what I can create outside of the social norms of being an Asian woman, and I am learning that I am as valuable as anyone.
How have your experiences influenced how you’ve created your app and how you run your business?
LL: When I immigrated to the US and couldn’t find the foods I missed from China, I went on a chat app to network with neighbors and to try to source some of these items. I saw the impact of fostering a community and how excited people were to connect about food and recipes. This influenced how we designed Weee! as a social commerce platform. I also wanted Weee! to be inclusive and accessible for all ages, generations, and across languages, so that everyone can benefit from what our app provides.
DK: I knew from the very beginning that dating is a cultural phenomenon, and it was important to have diverse representation in our workforce and our dater research. I can empathize with others thanks to my upbringing as a minority, but my perspective is also limited to my own experiences. I knew I needed people of different backgrounds who could serve different types of daters better. Ultimately, we want to get to a point where dating becomes so personalized that we don’t have to make general assumptions about a dater based on their identity group. But we are not there yet.
AV: When I was young, I was ashamed of being Asian. I wasn’t born in the US; I was born in a refugee camp. As a foreigner, I tried to assimilate, but all at the cost of losing my native tongue. I didn’t have a lot of role models that looked like me, and it wasn’t until I was in my 20s that I fully embraced being an Hmong American. I wanted to be proud of my heritage and culture. I love our food, language, and cultures, and this growing love has helped me strive to build tools to bring us closer together as a community.
What feedback have you received from users?
DK: The AAPI community makes up over 45 percent of Coffee Meets Bagel’s user base, which is huge! They send 1.6x more chat messages per day and 1.3x more chat messages per connection than any other community of daters in the US When we ask Asian American daters what they like about Coffee Meets Bagel, they always mention how much they value the quality of the people on the platform and the focus on long-term relationships.
LL: It’s most gratifying to hear from customers across the country, whether they’re in an ethnic food desert in the Midwest or in a metropolitan city with limited access to ethnic grocery stores. We’ve made efforts to source an array of products that some customers haven’t been able to enjoy in the States for years or even decades, and our customers resonate with the belief that food is meant to be shared and explored together.
AV: Many HmongPhrases users like how the app represents both dialects for Green Hmong and White Hmong speakers. Many have told me that with the help of my app, they were able to learn phrases to speak to their grandparents and family members. When people learn that I am a one-woman show and the sole developer, designer, sound editor, and creator of my app, they tell me they feel inspired, and I hope I can encourage young aspiring creators to pursue paths in technology.
What advice do you have for those who are looking to find their own company or create their own app?
AV: Find your spark. Even if no one believes in you, you must believe in yourself. Write down your vision and how you plan to achieve it. Seek supportive advocates and mentors who can help inspire you, keep you motivated, and help you reach your goals.
LL: Try to solve a problem that is important to you. Find out if the problem and solution relates to big shifts in society. Then seek how you are uniquely positioned to solve it.
DK: Know that starting a company is fundamentally different from starting another job. Make sure it’s a mission you feel is worth dedicating over 10 years of your life to! Yes, you might not work on it for 10 years, but you just might.
What do you hope for the next generation of AAPI founders, entrepreneurs, and creators?
LL: I hope we can leverage our understanding of diverse cultures. In a world that is fast globalizing, that can be a huge asset.
AV: I hope we can continue supporting and uplifting each other. I feel so inspired when others share their story, even if we are all on different journeys and come from different places.
DK: Celebrate and be proud of the unique perspective our heritage and experiences have gifted us with. When there are negative stories about our communities, we have the power to try and change that narrative.
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