Co-founder of Coffee Meets Bagel Dawoon Kang
Noam Galai | Getty Images Entertainment | Getty Images
Behind the Desk

Founder of multimillion-dollar dating app Coffee Meets Bagel: ‘Being an immigrant had a huge impact on my identity’


This story is part of the Behind the Desk series where CNBC Make It gets personal with successful business executives to find out everything from how they got to where they are to what makes them get out of bed in the morning to their daily routines.

For Dawoon Kang, co-founder of dating app Coffee Meets Bagel, entrepreneurship is in her blood.

Both her parents started their own businesses in Korea, even though that wasn't typical there, Kang tells CNBC Make It.

Kang emigrated from Korea to the U.S. when she was 12 with her twin sister, Arum, and their older sister, Soo. A family friend looked after the girls while their parents stayed in Korea to run their business.

"Being an immigrant had a huge impact on my identity," Kang says. That and being a woman "really shaped my world view," she says.

In the U.S., the sisters overcame challenges together, including acclimating to the U.S. and learning English. It bonded them, and as adults they became business partners.

Arum had the idea to create Coffee Meets Bagel in 2011, and the following year Kang quit her job at JPMorgan to launch the app with Arum and Soo.

"It just felt natural," Kang says.

Coffee Meets Bagel founders on ABC's "Shark Tank" in 2015
Tony Rivetti | Walt Disney Television | Getty Images

Kang originally took on the role of COO, then became CEO in 2016. Today, she is the chief dating officer, focusing on "the science of dating" to improve the app's user experience and match results.

Here, Kang shares her experience adapting in the U.S., leaving her job at JPMorgan to start Coffee Meets Bagel, her daily routine and more.

On immigrating: 'I was very quiet for a long time'

I was a very vocal, outspoken child when I was in Korea. That was such a big part of who I thought I was, and not being able to [speak English and] do that, it really shook me to the core. Because I was very embarrassed about speaking up and making grammatical mistakes, I was very quiet for a long time.

It took me a very long time to get over that and be able to even think about actually running a company and to articulate my vision to people. It takes a lot of courage.

At the end of the day, I realized it didn't really matter if I was making mistakes. The emotion that I was having, it communicates. If you believe [mistakes matter], then it's going to become an obstacle to whatever you want to do.

Coffee Meets Bagel co-founders and sisters Arum (left), Soo, and Dawoon Kang (right).
Courtesy of Dawoon Kang

On her entrepreneurial parents: 'That was really inspiring'

My dad started his own scrap iron business when he graduated from college. He actually never worked for anyone else in his life. I grew up seeing how much love and passion he was putting into his business and the legacy that he wanted to build. So, that was really inspiring.

My mom also operated a few shops. She had to speak in front of people and be a leader, and that wasn't something that was natural for her. In her generation growing up in Korea, that's just not what women did.

She actually enrolled herself in a Dale Carnegie kind of institution to learn how to speak better. She would practice in front of us. It was so endearing. Even though it was uncomfortable and embarrassing, she was still willing to go through that.

That's what life is all about. You learn, and then it becomes comfortable, and then you try something else. That persistence I learned from her.

On quitting JPMorgan: 'You never know how it's going to play out'

[At JP Morgan], I was enjoying my work. But I knew that at the core, it didn't fulfill some of the needs that I had.

Then my sister [Arum] graduated from Harvard Business School and initiated the idea: "Hey, we always talked about starting a business. Why don't we actually do it now?"

I saw Jeff Bezos speaking about how he makes major decisions in his life, and he looks at himself when he's 60 or 70 and asks himself things like, would I regret this decision if I don't take it? I knew immediately, instinctively, that I would [regret it] if I didn't actually take the time to try this. So, when I used that framework, it was a very easy decision.

Everything comes together in the end, even if you didn't really plan for it, which is why I think it's important to just follow your gut. See what kind of things draw you in, because you just never know how it's going to play out.

On diversity: 'That has an impact on how we show up'

When we think of an entrepreneur, we typically think of about Mark Zuckerberg, quintessential classic Silicon Valley. And if you don't fit into that specific role, you could feel like, maybe I'm not cut out for this.

I remember every time I walked into an investor pitch, my investor committee was all white guys, and I'm the only person who is female and Asian. That had an impact on me. Subconsciously and consciously, that has an impact on how we show up. When you walk into the room and you're the only person who looks like that, whatever that is, or you're "the only," then immediately, you're going to feel that you're not seen or understood.

To create an inclusive environment is very, very important. As a business person, you're actually servicing all kinds of consumers, and if you don't have those consumers represented in the people who actually work on the products, you just don't have the edge. From a business perspective, it's no brainer. Diversity has to come first.

On parallels between business and dating: 'Why don't we apply quarterly reviews to relationships?'

It's funny, one of the key skills that I learned to be a better leader and manager at work translates to my dating life – "compassionate communication." I learned it for work, but I also used it in dating and with my current partner.

A lot of business practices, Iike quarterly reviews — why don't we apply this to relationships, like relationship reviews? It's an opportunity to step back and think about areas that are working and not working well in your relationship, because you could always be doing better.

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On her daily routine: 'I get so sucked into work'

Sleeping has a critical impact on my mental health. Without it, I just can't function. That's actually why I also cut out alcohol, because I realized that when I drink, I don't sleep well.

I go to sleep at 9 p.m. these days. I don't have an alarm clock, so I wake up whenever, usually between 5 a.m. and 6 a.m.

Once my day starts, I get so sucked into work. So meditation, exercise, affirmation and writing [in a journal], I always do each day in the morning. My routine is based on "The Morning Miracle: The Not-So-Obvious Secret Guaranteed to Transform Your Life Before 8 a.m." by Hal Elrod.

I [also] reflect and I share what I am grateful for each day with my sister, Arum, because we are able to uplift each other. It is such a simple thing, but it's so powerful. It's not a magic pill, but once you [express gratitude] consistently, you're going to see it has an impact.

So much of your life experience and the choices that you make is based on your beliefs and how you see the world. And your view depends on your mental state. So, I'm a big believer of getting into the habit of keeping your mental state happy.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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