Want to read more Asian Australian stories? Get notified via email each time a new interview lands.

Subscribe to the Substack here!

Or follow for more on Instagram @quietachievers_au
Hannah Ahn
Portrait of Hannah Ahn
Photo taken by Abby Shen
Interviewed in March 2023

Hannah Ahn is a proud Korean Australian. She is a 3 time founder, with her most recent projects involving running Flair, an unlimited design subscription service aligned for scaling startups and scaling Next Chapter, a social club and next gen media company that helps people reach their vision of success. Her current goal is to hit $1M in ARR by the time she’s 21. 

Prior to her current projects, Hannah was a recipient of the Mike Cannon–Brookes scholarship at UNSW before she dropped out to become a full time product manager at Canva (originally joining the company as an intern at age 17). She is a life-long learner and enjoys sharing her ideas on entrepreneurship, branding, marketing, communication, health, longevity, and leading a fulfilling life in her spare time.   
Like most people, I first came across Hannah on LinkedIn. She made a post about how she left her 6-figure job as a Product Manager at Canva, which went absolutely viral. In it, she detailed how she was going to work on her own ventures, and build towards making $1 million in 2 years time. What’s most interesting? How she was 19 at the time. 

Most people don’t have that much conviction, self-assurance and boldness, even 10 or 20 years into their career. I wanted to interview Hannah, because I think a lot of people will get a lot out of the way she thinks, and how she stays true to herself and what she wants to achieve in life. Also I simply wanted to celebrate her journey as a multiple-time founder over such a diverse range of fields at such a young age - from edtech (by helping teens find quality work experience), to a community with Next Chapter, and a design business with Flair. Hannah is living proof that it’s never too young to start something and live true to your values, goals and aspirations.

I hope Hannah’s story inspires you as much as it did, me.
What are the key values and drivers in your life, that motivated you to drop out of uni, and make the jump from a stable job to starting your own business?
One driver is being able to create impact, and through that serve others. One of the main reasons why I stopped working at Canva was because I didn’t feel like I was making enough impact. Ever since a young age, I’ve always loved building projects, creating intiatives where I could see the impact that it was having on the world and my surroundings. 

The other driver would be my need to constantly grow, learn and push my limits. I like to challenge myself by doing things that go outside my comfort zone. I didn’t enjoy university because it felt like I wasn’t learning anything, and that I was just ticking boxes. Especially because I’ve always known from a young age that I wanted to pursue entrepreneurship. And what better way to do that than by actually starting a business?  

Starting a business combines both of these values; you not only go from zero to one where you’re navigating ambiguous problems and facing new challenges every day, but you’re also creating something tangible that solves a problem and directly impacts people - your customers. That’s why I’ve always been fascinated by starting a business. 
What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced from being self-employed?
The biggest challenges for me would be firstly navigating the ambiguity associated with deciding my own path, and secondly burn out. 

I’m the one deciding the direction of my business - and even though there’s no correct answers, some answers are definitely better than others. One direction might be better in terms of solving for better growth, and another might be better for work-life balance. The flip side is that it’s also exciting because you get to design your life and decide what you create. The ambiguity of what the next steps also worsen when you hire people, and they rely on you to give them clarity, but equally it’s an exciting challenge to lead people.

The other is burn out, which happens frequently since I like to be immersed in what I do. It’s hard when your work becomes enmeshed with your personal life. For me, the relationships I build also impact my business. I’m also just constantly thinking about how I can build something impactful and continually grow the business. My mind is always on 24/7, so I never really get ‘off’ the job.

Do you ever worry that you are ‘missing out’ by not attending university at the same time as your peers?
This worry has always been in the back of my mind, but it’s definitely not at the forefront. There’s a narrative created around college or university, about how those are the best years of your life. The narrative does pull me in sometimes, and I think university is great because you get to be in a cohort of people who are still figuring out what they want in life. 

I think for me, it’s different because I already know what I want. And I counteract the great experiences that university can bring by actively meeting like-minded people and interesting entrepreneurs who know what they want to do and are building impactful things every day. I actually appreciate not going to university, because it gave me a lot of drive and initiative to go find my people, rather than wait around for them in university. It’s also allowed me to create impactful things now, instead of waiting around a few years and requiring permission to do so.
A lot of people feel limited by their own age and ‘inexperience’ in whatever they want to pursue. Have you ever felt this way? If you do, how have you overcome it? 
I don’t think anyone is immune to imposter syndrome or feeling like they’re too inexperienced. What’s really helped me is surrounding myself with other people who are on the same path as me. That’s part of the reason why I started Next Chapter in my gap year. And now I have a community and tribe of people who want to build and create amazing things ‘despite’ their age and ‘inexperience.’

Being young is quite the double edged sword. If you’re young, more people are willing to help you so it’s a lot easier to get your foot in the door. At the same time, you might get to the place you want to be at, and people will congratulate you for having gotten so far, but not necessarily teach or give you the ropes to do what you want to do. When I was at Canva, I always felt like I needed to prove myself all the time, in order to get to the next level of work that I wanted to do. Even then, I had such a small scope of responsibility because I felt like people just didn’t trust me as much because I didn’t have the standard qualifications that everyone else had.
You are extremely well-versed in building in public. One LinkedIn post you made about leaving your job at Canva in mid-2021 went viral with around 37,000 likes and 4.5 million impressions. You’re also currently posting your own version of a 'monthly investor update' of how Flair is doing online. How do you think the concept of ‘Building in Public’ helps you?
One way it helps is that it creates accountability. I’m way more likely to do something about my goals if I know other people are going to hold me accountable to them. The social pressure puts me into overdrive. It scares me if I don’t hit my goal, because I feel like it’ll reflect how I have low integrity - by not doing what I tell others I’m going to do. 

The other way it helps is, it allows me to document my learnings more. When you’re building, it’s so easy to go full throttle and not take a step back and reflect. Because of my habit of building in public now, when I fail at something I’ll reflect on it and ensure that I don’t make the same mistake again. For example with my monthly investor updates. 80% of the reason why I do it is because it acts as an exercise for me, to go through my company financials.

Building in public has also just been great in brand building. It’s allowed me to meet so many interesting entrepreneurs and founders. It’s helped me source clients for my business. Just because I'm making a lot more noise compared to other business owners. More people see and know about my work, so they're more likely to share it with other people. My surface area for attention and opportunity is much greater because I'm building in public.
Where are you hoping to take Flair in the future?
The short term goal is to fulfill my challenge of making $1M in a year. This is great from a cashflow perspective. To be able to achieve financial freedom. I’m creating personal cashflow while learning the ropes of how to build a business, which I can then use to invest into other businesses or create new ventures.

Longer term thinking, I’m really excited about taking Flair to the next level - for it to become a much bigger design partner for people. For Flair to have multiple services like having a monthly salary retainer, or doing something similar to Mischief Studio which partners with interesting brands and works on cool campaigns. Taking Flair down a more creative an artistic route is exciting - once I have the capital and talent. Or even just growing the design side of the business - productising templates and building out the design team. 
What would you like other young people to take away from your story?
I want young people to realise that you can create your own rules in life. In high school, I had this great mentor who introduced this idea to me - that I don’t necessarily need to go down a conventional path. He introduced me to the idea of lifestyle design. It’s so powerful because it makes you think a lot more intentionally about how you want to live your life. It makes you truly answer the questions of what fulfills you and what gives you energy. And more importantly, how can you surround yourself with everything you thought of just then?

I think a lot of people just do things that seem right, and that they’re expected to do. They follow arbitraty rules that someone else made up for them. Most people don’t take a step back and think about what they would actually love to do. To be fair, this comes from exposure to a lot of different ideas, and a desire to explore. 

For example when I did this exercise for my own life, I realised that what made me really fulfilled was creating things, specifically businesses. And I realised that I didn’t necessarily need to go to university for that. I didn’t need to do a course or learn design in a classroom. Creating my own rules and playing my own game has made me a lot more motivated to try new things and get outside of my comfort zone too. 
on culture and identity
What has your relationship with your Asian Australian identity been like, and how has it evolved?
I’ve always felt Australian, quite innately. On the other hand, my relationship with my Korean identity is moreso tied to my relationship with my parents. If it wasn’t for my parents and family, I wouldn’t feel exceptionally different from other Australians apart from the fact that I love Korean food. Especially because I can’t speak Korean. Even though I do appreciate the culture, it's very distant to me.

When I was younger, I rejected my Korean identity a lot more because I was much more disconnected with my parents. I had quite a bit of resentment towards my parents because of our financial struggles - there were a lot of extracurricular activities that I couldn’t do, like take piano lessons, because my parents couldn’t afford to. I think this is why I’ve also been so motivated to start businesses and reach financial freedom, because I wanted to break out of this economic struggle I experienced when I was younger. 

As I got older, I really understood and empathised with my parents’ struggles a lot more. I could also see how they just wanted to support me, no matter what I did. So as I’ve gotten closer to my parents, my relationship with my Korean identity has improved too.
What is a significant cultural memory of yours?
When I was around 14 years old, my mum asked me to go to a Korean Buddhist temple with her in Western Sydney, to perform some rituals for my grandma who had recently passed away. I remember my mum brought a whole box of mangoes, since it was my grandma’s favourite fruit. It’s sweet, my mum always says how I’m connected to my grandma because we have random parallels - such as loving mangoes and tomato sauce.

Going to the Korean Buddhist temple (my first time), and getting immersed in my late grandma’s culture and religion was quite magical. It was a shrine completely run by Korean monks, and they had this traditional banchan (Korean side dishes) that I had never even eaten before. They performed a really extensive ceremony and prayer for the anniversary of my grandma’s death.

Something that really stuck with me was when this female Korean monk spoke Korean to me. My mum wasn’t there at the time. The monk got really frustrated with me when I wasn’t following what she was saying, because I think she wanted me to follow her. I told her that I couldn’t speak Korean very well, and then she just started laughing at me. A few minutes later, this male monk started blessing me in Korean and I see in the corner of my eye, the female monk from earlier laughing - because I was nodding and pretending like I understood him, when she clearly knew I had no clue what he was saying. To be honest, I also found it really funny. I just kept on nodding.  
What is your favourite food from your culture?
Probably Galchi-jorim. It’s Korean spicy braised beltfish. It’s quite hard to get this fish in Sydney (and the type of fish is really important to the dish), but you essentially make a stew with it, and put in some radishes and spring onion. It’s sweet and spicy. I love it, not only because it’s delicious, but because I would see the amount of effort my mum would put into making this dish. She would always get to the store early because it would always sell out, and make it for special occasions. She would always make it for me especially, because I love it the most in our family. I really want to make this dish for her one day.

I have a special memory associated with this dish too. When I went back to Korea recently, I visited Jeju Island for the first time. I felt really proud, because I was able to pay for that part of our trip and treat my mum. On Jeju island, we went to this restaurant that has no name - you can’t find it on Google Maps - but it’s very famous and popular with the locals. We ordered a $200 version of Galchi-jorim - the portion size was massive and my mum and I were so full afterwards. It was amazing, but honestly nothing beats my mum’s cooking. 

I also love Walnam Ssam, which is essentially the Korean-version of rice paper rolls except we’ll have all kinds of vegetables, and put in pineapple and imitation crab. All the ingredients are often on a platter, and it’s such a good way to get the family altogether. 
Who is an Asian Australian that inspires you, and why?
I'm generally inspired by female Asians pioneering some intersection of entrepreneurship, technology, and art. For example, an Asian Australian that inspired me when I was in high school was Sarah Tan. She's a multi-disciplinary designer that's been featured in exhibitions meant to raise awareness on social issues, has led design at tech companies like Google, Atlassian, etc., and created awesome immersive experiences using AR/VR like the AR Opal card that went viral a couple years back. Other Asians (not necessarily Australian) that inspire me are Karen Chang, Lucy Guo, Amanda Phingbodhipakkiya, and Alice Lee.

Seeing people that look like me innovate in new tech or launch projects to affect social or societal change lends me the confidence to follow in their footsteps. And I'm excited in the future to hopefully show younger folks that Asians can create things that are on the cutting edge and inspiring and can design things that are beautiful and uplifting for people.