Henri Bong (E07) is a French born Chinese entrepreneur who dedicated his whole career to bridging the gaps between East and West. He tells us how to get the best of both worlds.
ESSEC Alumni: Why did you leave France back in 2005?
Henri Bong: I am a French born Chinese or FBC, so I was lucky to be raised with both cultures. Even though I grew up and studied in France, the wish to get back to my roots was always there… When ESSEC offered me to go for a double MBA degree with Beijing University, one of the most prestigious universities in China, I jumped head first! I remember telling my family that I would be gone for a year only… but truth is I never came back.
EA: How was it like to settle in China then Singapore?
H. Bong: I fell in love with both countries, which is surprising because China is unbelievably huge, while Singapore is on the tiny side. But as I settled in, I realized that they have a lot in common, like language and culture. Both places tugged at my heartstrings, because I was eager to understand my origins. I often compare myself to a chameleon, because I fit in perfectly with my fellow French and I also feel a 100% Chinese with the locals. Speaking the language has allowed me to erase any cultural barriers between us.
EA: You didn’t cut your ties with France though, as you served as a trade advisor in French embassies for more than 6 years…
H. Bong: I joined the French Embassy of China just after graduating. Back then, it was more than a job to me; it was a chance to bridge the gap between two essential aspects of my identity which, I realize now, make me unique and resourceful. In a similar way, France and China had a lot to gain from developing closer ties, and I was eager to drive this forward. I was a “Commercial Attaché” within the French Trade Commission – it was called UbiFrance at the time, before becoming Business France. My role was to promote French companies locally, first in Beijing, then Guangzhou and finally Singapore. The job was actually quite diverse: I would supervise the French pavilion during major events, plan customized business trips for French companies, write market reports on specific tech industries in Asia and foster diplomatic bonds with local institutions and enterprises. Looking back now, there was no better and quicker way for me to discover and understand the tech landscape in Asia.
EA: What were the main challenges in the economic relations between France and China and Singapore at the time?
H. Bong: The main challenge was France’s poor visibility as a big tech country. The U.S. has the Silicon Valley and is seen as the Internet leader; Germany has world-renown heavy and light industries; France has always been praised for its wine, cheese, luxury brands… but not for its innovation capacity. Breaking this reputation in order to position France as a groundbreaking innovator has always been difficult.
Another challenge was to breach the cultural divide between our partners, back when China was asserting itself as a global economic leader and no one knew much about doing business with them. Our main task was to help companies address cultural barriers in order to develop partnerships for industries and new technologies.
EA: Did it all change since?
H. Bong: It did! There are more than 200 French Tech companies based in Singapore today; that is three times what existed when I first landed in Changi. France has put a lot of effort into promoting the French Tech label all around the world and we recently rallied behind the image of a “start-up nation”. As an early believer who has defended France as a ground for innovation and entrepreneurship for years, I am really proud to witness the initiatives taken by French enterprises and institutions, and their commitment to change the mindset.
EA: Why did you switch to the private sector in 2010?
H. Bong: I sensed opportunities and, frankly, I needed a change of scene! After spending more than six years helping companies develop their business in Asia, I grew a bit restless. I was really itching to go beyond my consulting role and to jump into business development, so I could understand what real business meant. I got several offers from companies I worked with at the Embassy, but only one stood out for me. It was a position I could not refuse. And just like that, my days as civil servant were over.
EA: How did you end up launching UnaBiz?
H. Bong: I could blame it on my Asian blood because, after a while, working for tech companies was not enough anymore… I have always admired entrepreneurs and I wanted to become one so badly. I had this deep rooted need to start something from scratch. Back in 2015, I was doing business development for Sigfox and looking for some potential partners in Singapore and Taiwan and it just… clicked. The time was right.
These two markets were too strategic for me to entrust to anyone else. I was hooked and convinced that I could build a team and spin a story around this. The challenge, at that time, was to find talented partners who would go on this crazy adventure with me. One of my oldest friends, Philippe Chiu, agreed to leave his dream job in one of the largest French companies to join me. UnaBiz was born.
EA: Tell us more about your business.
H. Bong: In just two years, UnaBiz has become one of the main IoT players in Asia. We raised more than 15 million U.S. dollars, hired more than 50 people, built up two nationwide IoT-dedicated network infrastructures and we are now selling our solutions and services in more than 25 countries, on four continents. We started out as a network operator; we are now turning into an end-to-end IoT solution provider. I would say we developed three main activities: (1) we rolled out IoT networks in both Singapore and Taiwan to offer Sigfox connectivity services nationwide; (2) we sell ready-to-use IoT solutions that rely on or network and hardware technologies; and (3) we provide B2B services to tailor our clients’ access to IoT solutions and network infrastructure.
EA: What are your ambitions with UnaBiz?
H. Bong: When I started the company, I only had “Less is More” on my mind. Seriously! I even have it on a t-shirt! I think IoT should be accessible to everybody, much like the Internet. By crafting solutions that are simple to implement, low-cost and energy-efficient, we seek to make IoT a democratic phenomenon. I believe that our strength lies in this inclusiveness; it is the reason our global ecosystem is so large and diverse. All of our partners can benefit from our services, no matter their size or industry. Our ambition is to reduce costs, inefficiency and wastage on a global scale, to ultimately make the world a better place.
EA: What are the main challenges you still need to overcome?
H. Bong: We have a wide network of more than 200 partners to build upon, and we must double down our efforts now to address digital challenges in key specific industry verticals. Identifying these industries is essential to reaching our next growth milestones.
With the success of our products, scaling up the production process fast enough to meet the growing demand is a challenge for our team. To address this issue, we have an ambitious hiring plan for the next few months.
EA: Is the IoT market different in Singapore and Taiwan than in the rest of Asia?
H. Bong: In our industry, I believe every single market is unique in its own way. Singapore is one of the most forward countries in the world for technology adoption, smart city development and smart government services. Singapore is willing to go through with tech projects, and the financial means to back up their ambitions. Besides, the small size of the territory makes it an ideal test-bed for large-scale solutions.
Taiwan, on the other hand, has a unique ecosystem for electronics. All the main providers of electronic manufacturing services (EMS) are from Taiwan, with or without factories in China and the rest of Asia. Joining this ecosystem and wielding it to build sensors for the global market remains one of our biggest achievements!
EA: And is the IoT market different in France and/or Europe?
H. Bong: To me, France and Europe – on a larger scale – are the most mature markets for IoT. The technologies were invented on the old continent and that is where the applications were tested. I think that Charles Reed Anderson, one of the most famous analysts of the industry in APAC, amusingly framed the “French Mafia” of the global IoT industry. I believe he is right in a way: French nationals have founded, or are driving, many of the fastest growing start-ups in IoT and several dedicated departments in MNCs, including in Singapore. Why? I think French people have been highly successful in leveraging their sense of disruption and long experience in the radio-communication industry, which allowed them to lead impactful innovations in IoT.
EA: Do you plan on developing your activities in Europe?
H. Bong: Definitely! UnaBiz is already selling solutions in several European countries. The strategic markets we target will take us to Europe. As our sales increase, opening an office there will be key to fully understand its uniqueness and get closer to our customers. Additionally, Europe’s R&D potential is off the charts and would allow us to develop synergies that will raise the stakes of the IoT sector.
EA: Would you ever settle back in France? Why?
H. Bong: For personal reasons, I will eventually go back to France after nearly 15 years in Asia! However cutting the cord is not on the table and I will probably keep traveling back and forth. I started a journey more than a decade ago to reconcile both aspects of my culture; I think the best path for me going forward is to bridge the gaps between East and West.
EA: Did ESSEC and/or the alumni network help your career in Asia?
H. Bong: ESSEC was undoubtedly a milestone in my education. It is where I learned essential entrepreneurial and management skills, which usefully complemented my scientific background, taking my career to another level. Few other schools would have given me such an opportunity for professional insertion in Asia and I am very grateful for ESSEC’s commitment to support their students in their international projects.
Also, I had the privilege to lead an ESSEC Alumni Chapter for three years in Beijing and two years in Singapore. The ESSEC network carries a lot of potential and you have much to learn from your academic peers.
EA: What is your advice for young Asians applying to ESSEC?
H. Bong: Embody the Pioneering Spirit! ESSEC is unique because it values multiculturality and course diversity, just the kind of environment you should thrive in. Vincenzo Esposito Vinzi told me recently that the goal of ESSEC is to “former les élèves, pas les formater” (litteraly: “train the students, not trim their minds”). As an entrepreneur who values creativity, this speaks to me on a molecular level! I can finally appreciate the full scope of the skills I acquired at ESSEC. It is not only about knowledge; it is first and foremost about the global mindset you hone.
EA: And for alumni wishing to work in Singapore?
H. Bong: The first thing you should do is contact ESSEC Alumni’s local chapter. Know that, wherever you go, you will find ESSEC friends. Ask them about Singapore, about business and the way they live. Whether you seek to join an industry or start your own business, you should be aware of your environment, potential partners and clients. It is especially important in Singapore, where the network is essential. It is not only about what you know, it is also about who you know.
Interview by Louis Armengaud Wurmser (E10), Content Manager at ESSEC Alumni