African American, Tech CEO, Attorney, Foodie, Dancer, Pipeline Builder
1st Gen Chinese-American, Cat Mom, Engineer, Executor, Explorer, Connector, Experience Creator
April Johnson: We have this passion for helping people enjoy their life. Life is short. While you’re here, have a good time!
We think that where you spend your time matters, and who you spend it with should be enjoyable. Both Sharon and I had this gift for helping people do that. We were those people that people looked to help create those types of moments.
It was that passion that led us to wonder, how do we scale something like that? The answer is through technology, to create algorithms and databases. That’s the crux behind the original version of Happied, which was a consumer-based app, but it still drives us now in our B2B platform of automated event planning. Now we’re working with organizations and not just with the individual, so one event is touching dozens, sometimes hundreds of people.
We spend so much of our time at work and we think it should be meaningful. Engagement matters not just for the company bottom line, but also for the person and their quality of life. So that’s what motivates us.
Sharon Cao: In addition to helping our clients with team engagement and happiness, we want to make sure that we are supporting our own mission internally first. We want to build a company that our employees are genuinely excited to work for, and one that uses meaningful experiences to further support our company values. So, I couldn’t be more thrilled that we’re building a company where our employees love what they do every day. That is a HUGE success to me. And the icing on that cake is that we can use our own experience to continue to build a platform that millions of other companies out there can use to better engage and connect their teams.
AJ: At the end of the day, it’s really about that connection piece, and that thrill of how you spend your time. The more impact that we have on people and help them have a good time makes me very, very happy.
I was born in 1991 in Beijing, China. For the first 17 years of my live, my name was Cao Xinyun. Right before I turned 18, my parents became US citizens, so that I wouldn’t have to take the naturalization test. At that time, we legally changed my name to Sharon because I wanted an “easy” name. I was about four years old, when we left Beijing and moved across the world to Bayside in Queens, NY. I don’t really remember much about the early years, except that we found ourselves part of the Jewish community – Jewish preschool, neighborhood, and all my parents’ friends – which was a comfort for me and my family at the time.
A few years later, we ended up moving to Leesburg, Virginia to be with my dad’s half-brother, his wife, and son. The shocking way we were treated was eye opening – it was one of the first times I realized that family by blood isn’t always the best family. I started to put more of an emphasis in finding friends who became my family, especially since I’m an only child. When we moved to Leesburg, my parents worked all the time, so I grew up in friends’ homes. A lot of the parents were also immigrants who didn’t have the resources to have a babysitter, so we all took care of each other. These people became my secondary parents and siblings – when my best friend from childhoods mom passed away last year, it was one of my saddest moments.
In China, my mom worked in hotel management at these luxe hotels. My dad was a diplomat with a legal background. Coming to the States was tough for them because, here their degrees didn’t matter. They didn’t speak great English. My mom started packaging makeup at Color Me Beautiful, which I know was upsetting for her because she went from a high-end job to what she felt was beneath her in some ways. She eventually moved into a financial job at a nonprofit. My dad ended up landing a job in IT for another non-profit, but again, very different than anything he had done before. They grew content in what they did because it was a stable job, but life was very paycheck to paycheck, which explains why they were never home. I wanted so bad to spend more time with them and to feel more connected. The most memorable happy moments were when we’d throw Chinese New Year or Moon Festival parties and gather with friends and family to eat, sing karaoke and play cards.
After I graduated college, my dad told me, “I have a great opportunity, but it’s back in China. You’re graduated now, and we’re sad to leave you, but it’s just too good of an opportunity for me to pass up.” It was definitely a sad moment for me then, but I think it’s the best thing that they could have done for themselves. My dad is very successful in that company now, and it’s been really good for them. I’m really proud of them.
Moving to China brought them a lot closer to their aging parents, their friends and their network that they grew up with. My parents have always put an emphasis on staying close to my grandparents. I used to visit China once a year, but with COVID, that has come to a stop, unfortunately. I hope I can travel back soon as my nai nai (dad’s mom) is 97 already and my gong gong (mom’s dad) has been sick with Parkinson’s for years now. We sadly don’t communicate as often because they use WeChat and aren’t great at technology. We speak to each other through memes, stickers, photos and random voice recordings though, which I love.
Both grandmothers are amazing cooks, but my nai nai is the best dumpling chef. We make dumplings from scratch every time we are together. It’s just such a warm experience, and I think contributes majorly to why I love food and drink and experiences so much. It’s very teamwork oriented, too. Even if you’re not good at it, someone can salt the meat or stir the filling; somebody else can make the wrappers or the dough; someone else can boil them. It’s low pressure, and even if it looks ugly, it’s always going to be good. When my parents come to visit, there’s at least one dumpling session, and every year I host a Chinese New Year party where dumplings are a huge part. I love introducing my favorite experiences to my friends. It’s something that makes me feel warm and fuzzy and connected.
I was born and raised in Inglewood, California, by my mom and her sister. My dad wasn’t very active, but I’ve always known him. We’re cool. There’s no bad blood, but he’s just not very fatherly. My half-sister through him is 13 years older than me and we’re super close. She also lived with us, even though my mom and dad were not together like that.
My mom’s side is from Florence, South Carolina. When they were little, my mom and aunt used to work on cotton fields to bring in money. Their mom died when my mom was nine. Being the oldest, my aunt basically raised the rest of her siblings, especially because their dad was an alcoholic. My aunt didn’t go to college so that her siblings could go. My mom was the next oldest, so she went to college. And after that, both she and my aunt moved to Boston and then Los Angeles together. After taking care of everyone, my aunt started doing hair, and my mom opened a salon for her, which was really booming back in the ‘80s in LA. Then my mom transitioned careers to go to law school and became a solo practitioner, so both my mom and aunt worked for themselves.
My mom was always there for me. She took me to dance class. She drove me to school and picked me up every day. She had the time to do so because she ran her own practice and set her own schedule. She was her own boss. My mom was very successful, made a lot of money and did that by herself, literally from nothing. I had a very good childhood. I felt I had everything I wanted. We weren’t rich, but we were fine.
People usually associate Inglewood with crime and gangs. I saw it, but I was never in it. We lived in a condo that had a lot of gangs outside, but I just played within the bounds of our condo. I have cousins that were more involved in that, but I separated myself from it completely.
I went to a wealthy public high school. We had a mix of people from different communities, but it was very segregated within the school. I was in honors and AP classes, where I was often the only Black person. Even in high school, I stayed close friends with people from middle and elementary school.
I was very shy in high school. I didn’t get recruited for any sports teams not only because I sucked at sports, but because they were very social teams, and I didn’t talk a lot. My high school was at least 94% white, so being a person of color there definitely contributed to my shyness. I felt like I had to get in with the white crowd, to assimilate. There were smaller Asian, Black, and Latinx communities there, but I just wanted so badly to be part of the majority.
Growing up, I was super into technology, computers, websites, and the world of the internet, which is funny because that was my hobby and now it’s my life. I was constantly surfing the web, finding new and cool sites, building things. I even taught myself to code. I knew that I was probably going to do something in engineering because I’ve always loved to build things.
Eventually, I ended up getting into a math and science magnet high school part-time, called The Academy of Science, so a lot of my classes and after school activities revolved around research projects and doing nerdy things. I found a lot of new friends there that were like me and had similar hobbies. It was easy to form social connections with them because they were less judgmental than the kids at my primary high school.
I went to the University of Virginia for college. UVA is also a predominantly white and male school, especially in engineering. While I loved my time at UVA, there are some experiences that now, as an adult, I reflect on a lot. I became a huge slacker once I got into college. I skipped class a lot. I wanted to have fun, come out of my shell, be part of things I missed out on in high school and go to parties. I wanted to reinvent myself. I tried to get in with cool crowds and do cool things.
I went through the rush process not knowing anything about Greek life. I went into it being completely myself because they told me to be myself, so I talked a lot about my upbringing and being Chinese. I talked about how cheap my clothes were, because I always thought it was cool to be financially savvy, but I got cut from all of the sororities where I talked about those things. I realized after the fact that they really wanted you to be the constructed version of yourself: smart, cool, attractive, funny, and somewhat rich.
Now thinking back, I can’t believe I did Greek life. I don’t want to downplay how great my experience was because I ended up meeting some of my best friends in my sorority. But it wasn’t the healthiest experience for me to go through, especially since I was already having a lot of identity issues. If I look back at photos at any of these sororities and fraternities, including my own, there was maybe one token Asian person or one token Black-identifying person. I think about that a lot and how it brought me further away from my Chinese roots. I wish I’d been more involved with the international crew instead because I think it would have felt easier and more natural. I often felt that people at school didn’t really understand me, so I stopped talking about my background, except with my really close group of friends.
My parents put a heavy emphasis on trying to assimilate – they just wanted me to be successful, and that’s how they thought I could be successful. Obviously, they didn’t want me to lose my Chinese roots – they tried to make me go to Chinese school and hang out with their Chinese friends – but they wanted me to be like the other white kids in our neighborhood. They were proud to be the “model minority”, which don’t get me wrong, I sometimes still take advantage of inadvertently. It’s a tough place to be because in some ways we get to reap the benefits of it, but in others it’s holding us down.
Being a Chinese American woman has affected every single experience I’ve had, whether it’s relationships, friendships, jobs, or interactions with people. Sometimes it’s good, often it’s bad, but it’s taught me to learn from all of these experiences and use them as future data points. I gravitate toward other people of color or people with similar cultural upbringings because I feel like it’s easier for us to naturally understand each other.
I went to UCLA for undergrad because it was an in-state school and my mom made me go. I did not want to go. I felt it was not up to par. I wanted to go to Stanford or Cornell, but my mom said, “No, I’m not paying for that when you have in-state tuition here.” I didn’t have to take out financial aid since she paid for room and board and tuition. UCLA is a very good school, but I cried. I felt I could easily get lost because there were so many students. I think it was fine for what it was, but it wasn’t the best fit.
I worked from the time I was in high school and throughout college because I wanted to see what it was like to have my own money and do what I wanted to do. My first job in high school was at a movie theater. In college, I worked at Washington Mutual Bank in Inglewood for several years. My third year of school I started working at ING Bank in Santa Monica selling mortgages. I thought I was going to be working there full time immediately after college since I was one of their top performers. But this is when the economy crashed in 2008, so there were no jobs, even though ING was not part of the mortgage crisis. I was trying to figure out something else, but I hadn’t been interviewing at other places because I already had this good job.
My best friend, Stella, and I had started thinking about a tutoring business right before we graduated, where we hired college students for in home tutoring gigs throughout Los Angeles. So we ran Westside Student Tutors for two years and it was profitable. We were up against Kaplan and Sylvan, but our whole thesis was students helping students which is more affordable. The experience taught me that I knew how to sell, how to get people to work for me, and how to create something.
I always knew that I wanted to be a lawyer like my mom, but I didn’t have any legal experience, so while running Westside Student Tutors, I got a job at a law office in LA doing legal and marketing work for Vampire.com. I helped with trademark issues and marketing. I just wanted to get some experience being in the law space before going to law school. After about a year, I moved to DC to attend Georgetown University Law School. I really loved this place, and they gave me the best offer in terms of scholarships. My grad school experience was very different from my undergrad experience; I was really immersed in Georgetown because it was part of a new city. I lived on campus. I have a lot of close friends from there too.
After law school, I wanted to practice corporate law because I felt there was this veil around what corporate lawyers do. You may have a contract or negotiation course, but they don’t actually teach you what contract and corporate lawyers do. I found out it’s because it’s pretty boring and monotonous. It’s literally drafting the same documents over and over. But I’m glad I did it. I really loved the firm that I worked at, and I had great colleagues. They supported me a ton and I was on partner track, but I knew that I always had this bug to go back to entrepreneurship.
I wanted to go in the corporate space when I graduated college. My dad always wanted to be an entrepreneur, or maybe took on ventures to make ends meet. He tried to start various companies but had a lot of failed ventures. That’s why I did not want to work for a small company, which is funny because here I am now. I think it was in my blood ultimately.
I had this really cool internship at GE before I graduated and thought that I would love the corporate world. I knew GE ultimately wasn’t for me since it was too big and way too bureaucratic. I ended up doing IT consulting at Hitachi for a little over a year, which is obviously a very large company. I was part of a National Archives data migration project in a data center, which sounded awesome, but I realized very quickly that I did not want to be in a data center on a computer all day with no cell service, no internet, and very limited people to talk to.
I ended up getting recruited to Alarm.com, a software company that powers a lot of the major security and home automation systems. When I joined, it was fairly small, and I had autonomy to do my own thing. I felt like I was running my own job, and it was cool being part of more of a startup culture because everyone was young and fun; it almost felt like college part two. But I didn’t love the culture there, so I wanted to be responsible for building a company of my own that I felt was very inclusive. And when the company went public, I thought to myself why can’t that be me ringing that bell at NASDAQ one day?
So I set out to find something where I could be one of the founders. I ended up briefly working at a not-so-legit startup after my four years at Alarm.com and simultaneously started building an app with a couple of friends, but they decided to stay committed to their full-time career. I really wanted to be part of the startup world, so I searched for DC-based startups with missions that I supported. When I saw Happied’s Instagram page, I knew it felt right. I messaged the account, and that’s how I met April.
The idea for Happied began when I was still in law school. I started trying to build it my first and second year of law school, but I knew nothing about technology, had no coding background, was not familiar with the startup scene. I also didn’t have any money because I was in school and had no way to fund it myself. In 2016, while I was still practicing at the firm, I put up some social media and a website that was pure blog with no search functionality, but the Instagram slowly started to grow, and people signed up for the newsletter. I found a freelancer in Bangladesh and worked with him to build out an initial search functionality.
Then the question became, how do we make money? Consumers are interested in the restaurants and bars on our platform and are trusting Happied to tell them where to go. The initial monetization was a subscription, where consumers would pay $10/month to have access to special deals through these high-quality restaurants and bars that we had relationships with.
In 2017 I had a reminder that life is short when two of my close family members passed away, back-to-back: my aunt that raised me and my cousin, who was only 30 at the time. At this point, I was working at the law firm. Happied was gaining momentum, so I decided to go part time at the firm and launched the subscription pilot. Over 100 people signed up in one night. We had a big launch party, and I knew it was time to run full time with Happied, so I quit my job in July 2018. I made the decision to take that shot. I’d rather try and fail then never know what happens. I got a co-working space and started going to all the DC startup events where I was warmly welcomed. I felt like I had a community of people that really wanted Happied to succeed.
Now, I’m selling to restaurants and bars; I’m selling to consumers. I’m doing all the product contracts and I’m stressed. Because this is just a lot. At the time, we were looking for ambassadors to help promote the app as we were readying for launch. They would go to restaurants and bars, post photos, be using the app; these were super users. We received over 100 messages from folks who were interested in becoming ambassadors, and that’s when I met Sharon, in February 2019. I remember reading Sharon’s email and thinking, I don’t know who this person is, but this is my spirit animal. It was this serendipitous moment because she already sold to restaurants and bars so she could help Happied sell too. Sharon said, “I’m excited to be an ambassador, but I’m wondering if there’s other opportunities to work for the company. I really like what you all are doing.” I told her, we’re a very early-stage startup and didn’t have money to pay her, but she was ready to hit the ground running.
In 2019, Sharon and I were going everywhere, all day, every day promoting and talking to people. We’re working our asses off to try and get people to sign up for our service. We have this app, we have people on it, we have restaurants and bars signed, but the technology was not working. From the outside looking in, people think we’re killing it, but in reality, we ran into a lot of hurdles with the actual execution of the technology and scaling for growth. There was a lot of drama and stagnation with someone who was helping us develop the app. He seemed to not be paying attention to what the developers were doing, and he refused to go into the code and fix it. It all came to a head in November of 2019 with a big blow up at a public event. It was really unfortunate.
So going into 2020, we’re wondering, what do we do? We still had customers, but the technology is so bad that we couldn’t just hire someone and have them come in and fix it. We also don’t have any money because I literally spent all of my savings in 2019 funding the app. I was freelancing to keep myself afloat, and even did some contract work at my old law firm. It was a mess. And then COVID hit, so the app didn’t even matter anymore because we don’t have restaurants and bars to go to. It gave us the time to reevaluate. We started hosting paid virtual events to help the restaurant and bar community and ourselves stay afloat, but also to have people have a buy in. We did it better than just about anyone because we’ve always been very serious about the quality of the experience. Google was our first B2B client, which kicked off our B2B strategizing and journey. We immediately saw the power of connection in the online space, and it just took off.
AJ: There are a couple of things that go into the online experience: the hosting talent, and a physical component if you’re including food and drink. We started working with a third party to provide the drink kit, but we realized we didn’t have any control over the differentiation of the kits, and that didn’t fit with our thesis in terms of quality of experience. We started shipping our own kits, but we had no clue what we were doing. We didn’t wrap our glassware, so it was broken when it arrived. Fortunately, people gave us the benefit of the doubt because we were so new to this.
Sharon was doing all logistics – shipping, operations, ordering. I handled sales. We were both hosting events. I think that’s what differentiates us from a lot of folks in the space: we’ve actually done all pieces of it, from the kits, to hosting, to the bartending, to literally every single piece. We started finding hosts, which allowed us to scale. We started training our bartenders. Everything became standardized. We now have 35 hosts and instructors. We moved inventory from Sharon’s house to a storage facility to my basement to now we’ve been in a warehouse for almost a year. We filled close to 10,000 kits last year.
We call ourselves DC-based, but now that we’ve expanded to do in-person events, it’s not just DC. We’ve done events in Scottsdale, Chicago, San Diego, and New York. I’m really proud of where we are now and how we’re scaling. It’s exciting to see the relationships that we’ve built and the ability to solve true pain points for their organizations at scale. This learning led us to our scalable model: automated event planning software for corporate teams that allow them to plan and execute events at a fraction of the cost and time of them doing it themselves. Whether it’s online, in-person or hybrid, our software takes care of all of the steps for them.
We’re excited to have joined the Minnesota TechStars Accelerator Program this past winter because we knew that we needed some help. Access to developer networks has been a hurdle. I’m always saying, if we just had a very strong developer, we could do this, we could do this, we could do that. We do have five full time employees now, but we needed that assistance to work through the tech component, scalability, and fundraising. Even though we did well last year, we need to fundraise to scale, but don’t have those connections.
SC: I’m proud of how far we’ve taken Happied and where it’s come. We’ve created a community and a company that is supporting our teammates and employee happiness generally. We’re spending work hours doing something we’re actually excited about. It makes us happy, and it doesn’t feel like work.
We see our team every day, and it seems like they’re genuinely excited to do their jobs because it’s what they’re passionate about. During their free time, our event planners like to do logistics around events. Same with our warehouse manager; she loves doing a million things at once. This has given her that freedom to enjoy what she’s doing but still have flexibility and work life balance. So I think that’s a huge success.
AJ: When we started Happied, we were funding ourselves. I think I’m most proud of the turnaround from 2019 to now; to go from literally having nothing to now being able to create something that employs people. That true grit, that true grind. To go from zero to $1 million in annual sales with no outside capital, that is a competitive advantage. We had our retreat last week with our team and they’re talking about where they live and their families. It’s still surreal that what was once an idea in my head now employs so many people. They’re people who believe in that same vision and enjoy being part of the company.
I’ve always just been the type to say, I’ll just do myself. I do not like rules. I do not do structure. Just let me do what I’m going to do because I know what I’m doing. But that does not work when you have a growing team, so to now know how to work with such an amazing team and inspire people to want to work with us is something that I’m super, super proud of.
As a Black woman, you always have to work harder to show that you’re capable. That’s one of the reasons why I make sure that I don’t give anyone a reason to think badly about anything we do at Happied. Everything is triple checked and super professional. Our contracts are well done. Our emails are well done. You’re not going to look at this and say, they don’t know what they’re doing because there’s a Black woman leading it.
When we launched the ambassador program, no one knew who the founder was, it was just Happied. My photo was nowhere on the website or social media. About 85% of the people who signed up to be ambassadors were white. We hosted our first event and all but one of the white people dropped out. You can never say for sure that it was because it’s a Black-owned company, but all of the Black people stayed on as ambassadors. When people see a Black woman, they think it’s a Black company, that it’s a Black app, for Black people only. Now that we’re B2B, it’s less of a thing because we’re selling to corporations.
It’s hard as a Black woman entrepreneur, especially when you think about raising money. That’s definitely one of the hurdles, especially in our line of business. People say, “Oh, events, that’s cute,” and they don’t take it seriously. I’ve gone into potential investor meetings and they look at our traction and say, “this is great. Why do you need to raise?” They would never ask a white man that. Instead they’d say, “Wow, this is amazing. What can we do to blow this s**t up?” I know because I’ve seen it. We were the only women in our cohort in the Minnesota TechStars Accelerator Program. I’ve seen with some folks who have raised with nothing more than an idea. They don’t have a customer; they don’t have anything. Yet here we were actually doing the work to bring in revenue and showing proof of concept but having a harder time raising. That to me is really upsetting, but you just have to find the right investors.
It’s not just the workplace that’s tough. Dating and life are also really hard because – and there are a ton of studies on it – Black women are seen as the least desirable in terms of dating partners. I do have a fiancé, who I love dearly, and who is an awesome support, but it hasn’t always been that way. Not having that is hard, especially when it feels the chances are slim. Fortunately, my mom gets it because she was an entrepreneur. She’s always rooting for me, during the big times and if stuff doesn’t go well. I also have my former co-founder and best friend, Stella. We support each other in entrepreneurship, friendship, and just life. Oh, and the startup community here in DC is pretty strong. There are a number of us – specifically Black women – who help each other, so that’s been amazing.
SC: What does success look like for Happied? I would be lying if I said there wasn’t some sort of financial success associated with it. I didn’t leave the corporate world just to build something small. I do want to be financially stable, and for Happied to be financially stable. Money was always an issue growing up, and I don’t want that to be the case for me, or for anyone at Happied to not feel like they’re getting paid their worth.
AJ: If Happied were to fail tomorrow, I wouldn’t think that it was a failure. I think that we’ve shown that we can do some really amazing things. But we did this for the big win. We were already doing well and had great careers. By this point I would have been making probably $450,000 per year without bonus if I hadn’t already made partner, in which case I’d have been making even more. And so to go from that to now paying myself $60,000 per year…it’s a financial sacrifice. But even though I could have been a great lawyer, I’m so much smarter and stronger because I’m an entrepreneur.
SC: We’ve already hit $1.5 million in revenue, and we’re continuing to grow and scale. That’s exciting because hopefully we can make it easier for other women and women of color to be able to follow us in the same path. It makes me proud to have gone against what my parents – and what I – originally thought: that the corporate way is the only way. But there is this amazing alternate route that I’ve taken and there is nothing more exciting than seeing your blood sweat and tears come to life. I love that I have a team of superstars who feel comfortable talking to me about anything, and view Happied as a means to support their livelihoods.
In my previous jobs, I knew exactly what I should be doing. When I was done with my tasks for the day, I was done. I was not committed to go that much above and beyond, so after work I’d go do something that I actually enjoyed. Whereas now, Happied is our life, so we will do whatever it takes to make sure it’s successful and that the team and ourselves are taken care of. And sometimes that means being uncomfortable. That means having to work late or get up early or do things you don’t want to do. But while it’s hard work, it’s meaningful work that I deeply care about.
AJ: When you’re an entrepreneur, there is no set path that you take. As a lawyer, you go to law school, you get a job somewhere and work your way up. Same thing in engineering and consulting. But now it’s literally every decision can make or break the company. Every dollar that we have, we had to make happen. We had to create that for ourselves and our team, and now fundraising every dollar we bring in we’re accountable to our investors. There’s no guide on how to do it. So that sense of security is something that you have to give up.
Building a billion-dollar company is obviously a very hard thing to do and very, very few people get to do it. I think as minority women founders, to be able to reach that status would be a definite sign of success. Sharon and I didn’t come from money and privilege, so to be where we are now is a success. But we also want to continue to strive for the highest level of impact where we’re able to use our returns to invest in our communities, in whichever respective ways we choose to do that.
SC: Success also means that we will be role models in some way for other women of color and pave a path to hopefully make it easier for them. I know it sounds cliché, but we’ve learned a lot in this experience being women of color. What we can say, what we can’t say, what we should do, what we’re expected to do, what we can wear, what we shouldn’t wear, how to not be viewed as just cute, how to be viewed as down to business and serious. It’s not fair. But unfortunately, I need to play by those rules for us to be successful. So if it means I have to play by the rules so that the next generation doesn’t, that is success.