Fern Ho is the founder & CEO of The Leaf Protein Co., a company on a mission to bring back biodiversity in agri-food systems by introducing a new category of plant proteins, leaf protein.
1) To kick things off, could you tell us a little about your career background and current role?
I’ve had quite a global career working in the UK, US and Asia as a Product Manager and Product Marketer. Much of my +17 year career has been in the Tech & Telco industries working for large multinationals as well as mid-size startups.
Although tech and the telco industry are integral to modern life, we use it ALL the time, it’s never been a subject matter that I’ve been truly passionate about.
That’s why I took the dive in 2020 to found my startup, The Leaf Protein Co., and side-hustle Superfood Seasonings business, Flavour Pop. I wanted to take all of my corporate experience and build something that fuels my personal passions, and has a meaningful impact for me and others.
2) What does a day in the life look like for you? Can you take us through a recent workday?
Every day is different for me, and currently as a solopreneur, I have to think very carefully about how I’m spending my limited 24hrs every day. I’ve focused on different aspects of The Leaf Protein as it has taken shape.
Initially it was all about wearing my sales & marketing hat to validate the market for the business; speaking to as many food companies as I could to test interest in using leaf protein ingredients.
Now that I’ve validated the strong market interest I’ve started to move into the operations and further R&D phases so I’m now spending more time lining up supply and working on partner relationships.
I also love that my side-hustle, Flavour Pop, is something that I can relax into when I need a break. Just as some people enjoy cooking to relax, I’m often mixing Flavour Pop’s spice and herb seasonings to chilled beats or jazz in the evenings or at night as a way to unwind from the day.
3) Does your current role allow for flexible or remote working? If so, how does that fit into your life and routine?
As a startup founder I have to work flexibly. Networking is a critical part of building a startup and I often have to look beyond Australia to make connections with food companies, food scientists and researchers overseas.
This means if I’m attending a virtual conference in Europe then my day will extend into the later hours at night, or if I’m connecting with investors in the US then the early hours of the morning. So I have to be really flexible with my schedule.
I mostly work from home which helps with the flexibility but that can also mean I end up being in “work-mode” 24/7. I don’t think any Founder ever stops thinking about their business, but I sometimes use a co-working space in the city where being in a new physical environment helps to break up routine and also changes my mental mode travelling to and from that work space.
4) What does work-life balance mean to you and how do you work to achieve that goal?
Work-life balance for me means being able to balance what I do so that I can bring energy to my work and also not be completely drained from it so that I don’t have energy to do anything else. I guess the challenge with being a Founder is that I love what I do so it is hard to stop working on something you enjoy.
When I first started The Leaf Protein I pushed myself so hard during the week and into the weekend that on a Saturday evening I’d be so exhausted I would collapse on the couch and not be able to enjoy any time with family or friends.
Although I love my work, I believe that having balance is important. So now I consciously set aside time each week to spend with my family and friends or treat myself to a night out to make sure I’m getting that balance.
5) In the past 12 months, have you started or stopped any routines or habits to change your life?
There are definitely a few habits I’ve tried to cultivate to help maintain better work-life balance. One of them is making sure I get some form of exercise or meditation in my day, even if it’s a 10min yoga stretch before bed or a quick walk in the morning before the day starts.
Then at the weekend I make sure I get some “outdoors” time, going for a cycle or playing tennis, especially during winter when it’s so easy to just stay indoors all the time. Getting a breath of fresh air is a real energy booster for me!
6) Do you have any favourite books, podcasts or newsletters that you’d like to recommend?
I have a fairly eclectic taste in books and often switch between fiction and non-fiction. I have a long list of books I love, but three of the more recent non-fiction reads I recommend are:
Dark Emu by Bruce Pascoe – this really highlighted the huge opportunity we have to re-learn our approach to food production from cultures that have a much closer bond and respect for nature.
Loonshot by Safi Bahcall – this was an important read for me as a startup founder to understand how innovation can change with organisation size and structure, and how to maintain the right structure for high innovation.
Phosphorescence by Julia Baird – is a wonderful book on how the darkest times can also shine brightly, which as a founder riding the startup highs and lows is a wonderful perspective I try to maintain.
7) Are there any products, gadgets or apps that you can’t live without?
Although I’ve always used technology because everyone does, and it’s readily available, pen and paper are actually my most essential tools because they help me think best. Everything else I could quite happily live without if I had to!
8) If you could read an interview about work-life balance by anyone, who would that be?
She’s a bit of a villainous character but I would love to hear how Claire Underwood from the American House of Cards series approaches work-life balance, and surviving really tough career and life situations.
9) Do you have any last thoughts on work, life or balance that you’d like to share with our readers?
I’ve always had the unconscious goal of finding work that I love, and finding my “life’s work” has been a big part of also finding my identity.
When I finally gathered up the courage to leave a secure corporate job and start working on plant proteins and how we can change what we eat I began an exhilarating and scary startup journey, but I haven’t looked back because this is something I truly believe in.
I’ve found that if you believe in something strongly enough you’ll find the courage to step outside of your comfort-zone, and then you’ll surprise yourself with all the things you never knew you could do!
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