Episode 166

Jingzhou Zhang and Michelle Chen ·  Co-CEOs of Simply Co.

“It's not to say that the road suddenly becomes easier once you have a partner with you, but I'd say gratifying because a CEO, you imagine the CEO when you think like pressing, you think like the top dog, now the person up there, that's making all the decisions, but there's a lot of behind the scenes work that comes into getting that decision.”

Jing and Michelle serve as co-CEOs of Simply Co. and are only juniors at Clements High School. They were core officers of our #4 ranked startup at Nationals in 2021, before taking over reigns as co-CEOs. Under their leadership, Simply Co. has grown exponentially, placing highly in multiple local and regional competitions. Jing is also involved in the Model UN and Dear Asian Youth. She loved photography. Michelle is also involved in DECA and loves reading books.


Social media handles:

Instagram: @thesimplycompany


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Podcast Transcript

Jingzhou Zhang and Michelle Chen

Intro: (00:00:00) Hey guys, welcome to Asian Hustle Network Podcast, my name is Bryan and my name is Maggie. We interview Asian entrepreneurs around the world to amplify their voices and empower Asians to pursue their dreams and goals. We believe that each person has a message and a unique story from their entrepreneurial journey that they can share with all of us.

Bryan: (00:00:23) Hey Everyone, welcome to another great episode on the Asian Hustle Network podcast. Today, we have Jingzhou Zhang and Michelle Chen bright young high school entrepreneurs located in Houston, Texas. Welcome to the show guys.

Jingzhou/ Michelle: (00:00:39) Thank you for having us.

Bryan: (00:00:40) I’m so excited to hear your stories and for our listeners, they’re currently juniors in high school, which is extremely remarkable. So, let’s hop into the first question. We’ll start with Michelle. What is Simply Co?

Michelle: (00:00:56) So Simply Co is like a high school company under the junior achievement entrepreneurship program and our mission is to find sustainable alternatives to everyday products that we use daily in our everyday lives. We had started this company under the idea that our mentor, Tanya actually kind of brought this idea of sustainability to us and sustainable products. From there, we kind of took this inspiration and we were thinking as high schoolers, we can make a greater impact in our community in a variety of ways.

One of the ways we wanted to do it. To address this sort of climate change aspect and to address kind of what our generation can help do in little ways to make bigger impacts towards that issue. So Simply Co is geared around that to get around giving high schoolers opportunities to learn what it’s like being in a business, running in a business, and also kind of getting an idea of what we want to do in the future as well.

Considering many people who’ve been in this program, don’t always end up being entrepreneurs, that’s okay broadening their scallops and seeing what they’re also capable of and expanding what ideas they have. 

Bryan: (00:01:59) So amazing, let’s hear it from your side, Jing?

Jingzhou: (00:02:00)  So it’s definitely what Michelle said I think it’s also on a broader spectrum trying to just give high schoolers experience with the hands-on business. I think it’s kind of one of the only clubs where you can run a real-life business and deal with the marketing and the sales, finance aspect, everything.

And I think that simply because in particular we’re kind of centered on sustainability. So, all the past products and any future products that we decide to do if they all kind of centered on this idea of having to change the planet and kind of. To make an impact, even as high school is, and contribute to sustainability and helping the earth and even because it’s such a prominent subject given climate change. I think that each year we try to center a product around the idea of sustainability.

Bryan: (00:02:42) I feel like sustainability right now is such a huge topic, right? Because maybe it’s my own opinion, but I think we’re starting to feel the effects of it around the world.

You guys know hurricane Harvey a couple of years ago was a big deal right and are kind of curious, like what led up to his inspiration of Simply Co the second question I have regarding that is what’s it like having a co-CEO right? I would imagine there are a lot of moving parts at any company that you guys start working together.

So, first question, Jing, what was the inspiration behind Simply Co?

Jingzhou: (00:03:21) I think the inspiration actually, what kind of like a legacy company? So last year’s heads that they kind of started this as kind of a high school was a dream of being able to make an impact. I feel like every teen and also young adult just kind of wants to make them look.

And so, they started with hopes of being able to kind of sell the reduced food waste than in the center community and kind of things like that. And then from there I kind of just grew. And so, we’re carrying on the legacy, the CS co-CEOs of continuing to build sustainability and kind of introducing products like Topamax, which I kind of really trendy right now.

They are an easy way to reduce plastic waste and also be able to incorporate sustainability into your lifestyle.

Bryan: (00:04:00) That’s amazing and Michelle what was it like having a co-CEO? Walk us through the nuances.

Michelle: (00:04:07) Well, it’s not to say that the road suddenly becomes easier once you have a partner with you, but it is a lot more, I’d say gratifying because a CEO, you imagine the CEO when you think like pressing, you think like the top dog, now the person up there, that’s making all the decisions, but there’s a lot of behind the scenes work that comes into getting that decision in the first place, working with people around you, trying to organize everything. And sometimes it’s hard to strike a balance.

And I think that’s maybe one of the big things that being a CEO of being somebody who starts something, that’s something that’s a pivotal struggle is always trying to find a balance. And with the COSI, especially with. It’s just amazing to have somebody to bounce ideas off working like on an equal platform as well, and being able to accept constructive criticism, but also know that this is a person that’s going to have your back.

This is the person that the two of you are responsible for. A huge and awesome experience. And you’re both kinds of piggybacking off each other and it’s just not, there are other hard times. There are struggles for sure. And, but it’s easier to weather through when you have somebody that you can trust and somebody that, isn’t saying something to just go along with it, but we’ll step in and we’ll help build, but also help guide, definitely think in the beginning, it’s kind of hard to like balance work between two people. Cause you kind of just want to go and do stuff on your own. If I been having co-CEOs like beneficial, cause it’s someone who gets you. Cause I feel like they understand how much you’re trying to do.

And it’s someone who is as in it, as you are. And it’s just someone that like it, it will be a ride or die despite whatever happens.

Bryan: (00:05:39) I hope you guys never lose that mentality right. I know that this is relatively new for you guys and you guys are pretty young. But that goes a long way right and crazy.

The crazy thing is like the things you learn now, the things you’re saying right now, I hope you realize this is a podcast like 5, 6, 7 years from now as you’re starting your real-like world, like business ventures right. Because they realize that a lot of things you’re saying are still very, very true in the real world, but it’s so, so necessary to have a co-founder or co-CEO or whatever it is that you’re working with because it gets really.

Yeah, like your problems never really go away at all. It always stays. And I know that there’s a lot of glory of like all being the top person, being CEO, being a CEO myself for the last couple of years, I call us and say, this is my least favorite position. So, shout out to you guys too, for making it look so easy right. And I want to ask questions about how you developed your leadership abilities to take on this position. Was there something that your parents sort of helped you groom as you were growing up or an internal desire to become a leader? Like, I just want to understand, like, how do you guys become the person that you are today.

Jingzhou: (00:06:55) When I was little, I could dive into the deep thought I had cancer and I feel like that was a very big moment in my life after that, I was very thankful to make recovery. And I think that made a big impact on shaping me into who I am because I became a lot more extroverted. After all, I realized kind of life is short and I want to do something impactful, anything because as I grew up, I became wanting to be a leader.

I want to be someone who would like to stand up for what I believed in. And I think that kind of expedited my growth. Becoming kind of a leadership position in many ways. My parents were very supportive of it. I think with my internal desire also kind of being able to be in situations where I can be kind of in charge has helped me foster these skills.

I feel like it’s helped me become a coach, but this mindset. Cause I feel like I’ve always wanted to be kind of a leader and order to make a big change. I feel like that’s kind of just grown as I’ve grown older.

Bryan: (00:07:47) Wow. That’s a touching story and I could feel already that desire to do more right. I’m so glad that you overcome cancer and that you’re still here with us today.

Michelle: (00:08:00) As for me, my story, I think the story starts with my immigrant parents because they moved from Taiwan to Hawaii, actually as a reason, why for about 12 years and they had started their own business, right from the ground up like no money, no support, nothing just started it.

And you may like this food truck and switch up was popular. And every day after school, my dad would pick me up from school, and take me there. I’d like to clean the tables. I’d be like playing with the customer sometimes. And it’s the idea of a small business that has always been in my family. Like even moving to Texas, they started a restaurant from the ground up as well with a little bit more support and I was still there and working, but this is what I’m getting paid.

So that’s great. And I don’t know my Asian parents, like, I kind of relate to you in the sense that they didn’t want me to grow up into the kind of being like a doctor or lawyer like they opened all these pathways to me, but I did appreciate this kind of change in mentality where they’re no longer pushing, pushing you towards these paths.

They’re like if you want to be someone who starts their business from the ground up, like we did, like, I support you. I will help you there. And that’s helped in pushing me towards things that this is related to because I’ve always seen them work hard and get their fruitfulness from it.

And I’ve also wanted to experience the same feelings that they did with their support for you as well.

Bryan: (00:09:14) I love it a lot. So inspirational to hear both of your perspectives and the reason why you guys are so highly motivated, right? I don’t remember myself being as motivated when I was a high school junior per se, but it just reminds me of a story.

Going back to what you said, Michelle. So, I’m a little bit older. So, I worked, so my career, I worked as a software engineer for about 10 years, and then I quit my job. I’m an entrepreneur and I remember my parents didn’t talk to them, for like five months. That’s a big job because their mentality is, that we worked so hard for you guys.

We sacrificed so much for you guys and you’re just right. But the thing with Asian parents is that as long as their kid is happy with making money, that’s the most important thing. As long as you can demonstrate to them that you can be self-sustainable, that’s all they care about right? At the end of the day, they watch.

Jingzhou: (00:10:14) I think there has been a bit of a change mentality. I feel like they just gently push you towards like the stereotypical doctor, lawyer stuff. These days. I feel like my parents, like, I feel like a lot of parents, Asian parents now, they’re kind of more accepting of the world. How are these more jobs that are coming out?

I think what you said, like as long as their kid is like living a good life and happy, I feel like they’re not as critical as past generations have been. I think the root of it is just that as immigrants, my parents, wanted their kids to be happy and not have to suffer if they think they have this mentality.

I don’t know these standards, jobs, other ways to go like an engineer, as you’ll always be a needed and I could be like this, no, like job insecurity and I feel like now they realize kind of, I think they’ve become more open these past few years about how there’s like entrepreneurial jobs and things that like business-related that are also booming.

And that like, is kind of, not that like standard, but also are really good options and that they are more encouraging towards like following dreams like that.

Bryan: (00:11:09) I like that they’re so different from how my parents were kinda like that too. But yeah, I’m going to ask you a really hard question. So, what do you think is key to success? And let’s hear it from Michelle first.

Michelle: (00:11:31) I think the key to success is surrounding yourself with the right people. And I’m not talking to the right people. Like the people who get straight, A’s all the time or the people that have similar backgrounds to you, or the people that you grew up with.

I’m talking about the people that are like the same mind as you, the same motivations maybe, or the same drive to like achieve something greater. And surrounding yourself with those types of people can help motivate you to be better because your kind of like competitive is pretty competitive and reached in.

And so, you can’t find quite the same experience anywhere else in the sense that you’re constantly pushing yourself, but you’re also building each other up. It’s not tearing each other down type of mentality. And having that mentality makes jobs and makes doing things like building a business from the ground up, or leading these entrepreneurship businesses very more fulfilling, I would say, because it doesn’t feel like a job anymore.

People work together towards a greater goal. So, surround yourself with the great temp people, the people that can motivate you, but also can build you up and make sure that they’re, that you’re going the right way. The way that you said that you want it to go is a great aspect of have

Bryan: (00:12:41) Yeah, that’s a good answer. Your surroundings matter a lot and what I love about the answer. The right group of people isn’t the ones with straight A’s or whatever, or whatever a is to greet people by way, because I believe that everyone has a unique skillset, right. And that’s still set may not be school.

That’s still said to be somebody else, but it’s all you want to work with someone who has a different story. Because you all have the same strain, then that means you all pretty much have the same weakness. And what happens to that? Not, we’re not very well-rounded to deal with any sort of situation. So very, very impressive answered Michelle. I thank you for that.

Jingzhou: (00:13:23) I think the biggest key to success is probably to find something that I’m passionate about and don’t give up on it. I think that we’ve had kind of road bumps along the way, having to recreate our product and things like that. But I think we’ve had this central idea of wanting to be sustainable.

And I think even though we’ve had to go back to the drawing board, like. Able to keep that it’s like central mission kind of, I think that’s kind of the most important thing. If you want to be successful, you have to figure out like, what’s your goal or what you’re trying to do. And even if the journey turns out to be different, you still have the same info that you want to succeed at.

Bryan: (00:13:58) agree, having a vision that we’re going into streaming. Well, there’s one more thing I want to add to its consistency. You have to do it. You have to put in the work almost every day to see results right. And you’re not going to see results tomorrow. You have to see results will be catheter sometimes even a year. But you will eventually see results and we don’t give up and keep going and going and going right? Yeah.


Michelle: (00:14:20) Something I’ve been to her said is Tanya had said this, the whole company journey, it’s not like a sprint, it’s like a marathon. So that kind of puts things into perspective when you take like victories, because at the beginning we participate in these like competitions, like pitch competitions.

And at the beginning, I will say it was rough. We were trying to figure everything out and we kept taking him and when she said that to me, I was kind of putting into the second. We’re going to get there one day; we just got to learn and learn and learn. And eventually, we started winning, so.

Bryan: (00:14:50) Exactly and it’s the same way in the real world, right? You’re going to go out there. You’re going to build your company and you may be losing to your competitors right off the bat, but things can happen in 20 years, 30 years, you think very long. And I don’t want to throw in brands with this, but one of my favorite books is like Shoe Dog.

Right? It’s your dog by Phil Knight. So, he talks about his Nike story and it’s crazy because, inside the book, this is like, the 1940s, fifties, sixties, but there’s a chapter where he said that we want to be like Adidas. And they’re like the giant that we’re taking on. I like nowadays you look at it. You’re like, wow.

Like Nike is arguably bigger than Adidas right it’s crazy because things will fluctuate so quickly over time. As long as you don’t give up routine intervening and keep working. So, I appreciate both the answers a lot.

Jingzhou:  (00:15:47) I think that’s the biggest thing like to find something you’re passionate about so that you don’t give up, because I think that goes with any junior life, especially as high school, as a lot of people like do extracurriculars just for the college app, but by the end, not passionate about it.

And I feel like it shows because like if it doesn’t go the way they think they give up pretty easily, versus if you’re pretty intimate and passionate, you’ll never give up. Even if like it starts from.

Bryan: (00:16:09) Yeah, agree and regarding the topic of college, have you two thoughts of where you guys want to go to college? 

Michelle: (00:16:22) To be entirely honest. I know what I’m passionate about. Not sure about the place that I’m going to go, but I think wherever I ended up, however, I ended up there, I think I’m gonna enjoy the path as long as I can pursue that.)   

Jingzhou: (00:16:36) I think for me, I’ve thought a lot about kind of pursuing maybe business and then also maybe something about medicine or international relations. I thought about the east coast a lot, just because there’s a lot of like kind of industries there and things like that and it’s kind of like, especially in New York, it’s where everything’s happening, but I think I haven’t settled on anything and as Michelle said, I kind of think that wherever I end up I’ll make the best out of it, but I just want to pursue doing what I love and then kind of figured out where I want to do that.

Bryan: (00:17:06) Yeah, it goes there, those are good answers as well. It’s still, you’re still in your junior year. I don’t want to add in too much pressure is the one where you’ve sat college ass. And then by the time I asked you guys next okay, now I’m going to this because I want you at this school.

Jingzhou: (00:17:20) Even then if you catch us in the middle of college applications, we’re just going to drowning in those essays, writing them, writing them, not sure where we’re submitting to.

Bryan: (00:17:28) Well, I wish you guys the best of luck with your college applications, and I’ll kind of want to hear about how you view your feature. And again, a very, very hard question and I know when I was younger, I used to hate this. What do you want to do when you grow up? I don’t know, but yeah, I mean, going back to your answer earlier, Michelle, like you want to see a place where you can continue your passions. What is that passion and how do you define passion?

Michelle: (00:17:55) I think for your first question? My passion is I do want to end up working kind of in the business field, going more towards like the finance rail kind of maybe being a financial analyst. If I go big, maybe like a consultant of some sort and one of my biggest passions or what I define as a passion is just seeing something that you’re interested in and then seeing what’s behind it.

I was kind of very interested in stocks and I took a course in high school. I got kind of into the science, the science quotation marks behind it. And it just really interested me to the point where I was like, no, I may not have had any real experience with it as I have with a business. But I do want to see more of this in the future.

Something that you see yourself doing in the future, but also seem like this is not something that’ll ever bore me. This is not something I’ll ever feel. It’s like, like a job. This is something that’s more like interest. And while it’s something that I’ll take me further than where I am now. And so, I’m hoping that in the future, I’ll be able to pursue more finance and stocks.

Jingzhou: (00:18:56) I’m still figuring it out. I feel like I have like a lot of interests. Like I’m very interested in medicine and business relations, as well as the kind of international politics seen at the, I think I kind of want to go into entrepreneurship and maybe start up something, but I feel like it’s kind of a blurry thing because business is such a vast field.

And I feel like maybe as I grow up and I enter the real world, I’ll see a problem and I’ll be like, I want to start a company. I saw that, but for now, I am thinking of maybe working in administration in the hospital, or maybe venturing into more of the international relations scene, but I’ve always had this kind of dream of being entrepreneurial, but I feel like that’s something that has to work itself out if I see an opportunity for that to happen.

Bryan: (00:19:39) Yeah, as I said earlier, this is a hard question, right? Because that’s the question I used to hate when I was growing up too. The crazy thing is my own opinion is that when I was younger, I did have a lot of, I did have a lot of interests right. For example, my college major was business engineering and pre-med,

I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I always hated that question right. But the crazy thing is whenever you guys start to start your venture. You will draw upon each of these experiences at different times, right? For example, as I’m starting my startup, I use what I thought I learned in business to incorporate my engineering side, which is hiring more engineers.

And when they gave me deadlines, I know exactly. That’s not the right deadline. Then you have to reorganize your schedule but, right. And as weird as the sound, when I was pre-med, I learned about how health insurance works. So, when you see an entrepreneur and you have to buy your health insurance, I’m like, oh, I kind of understand what I need to buy for myself right and you may think that you have to have things figured out right now, and you have to focus on one thing. If the crazy thing is like in life, you draw upon all these experiences that you learn good and bad to help you grow as a person. So, my advice is don’t be afraid to be like, I have a lot of.

right because we as human beings are so multifaceted that we’re, we can be good at a lot of things at the same time, stop this mentality that you have to be good at one thing. So that’s what mentality is, so, I do have a final question for you guys. The next question is, what advice do you have for other high schoolers for high school juniors who want to get into this entrepreneur program and serve as co-CEOs in a high school startup?

Jingzhou: (00:21:30) I think that to be untreated shipment is kind of this worldwide immune global business kind of program. And so, I think that if you contact them and then you can like, get in, get in contact with your local mentor like Tanya is our local mentor and they can help you start up there and kind of grow.

I feel like it’s just something they kind of have to grow on their own. Obviously, from the start we’ve had a lot of kinds of bumps around the road coming up as a teenager, teenagers, I feel like a lot of people have. It may take us seriously and obviously; you have to find the target market for your product and things like that.

And there are a lot of components you have to consider. I feel like if you believe in business along the way, you’ll be able to grow with people. And I feel like what Michelle said previously, you must find a team we’re co-CEOs, but we have other people working with us.

Like I head of sales, marketing the capitalization and together we help carry each other along the way, even when we’re feeling down. And I feel like it’s really important to find that team to support you no matter what and to have a mission, kind of think of what you want your business to be.

And outside of being a junior achievement in general, even if you can’t get involved, probably should get your things started. Maybe kind of look for other business things in your school and your community, and kind of, even on your own, you can try to talk to people who are in the business field and follow your passion.

Like there might not be a linear way because every people have their journeys, but even if you just have a little step along the way, you can begin your business journey and kind of just pursue that passion from there.

Michelle: (00:22:59) Well, Jing got up a lot of group points personally for me, something that I. What’s relevant to us. I wish other people knew as well. So, it’s like a hurdle that they can get past is that it’s okay to kind of struggle. Even as the leader, like when you’re a CEO, people kind of look to you for solutions, people kind of look to you to be the person making the choices, having the final say. So, therefore, it feels like ra esponsibility on your chest and letters, we’ll do it on your shoulders to make the right call. And sometimes you don’t, sometimes maybe somebody else’s suggestion was a little bit better or maybe sometimes it just wasn’t the right timing, anything kind of like that, that makes success feel a little bit bittersweet.

But I think that as a CEO and as somebody trying to start their own thing, it’s okay to have failures along the way. It’s okay to embrace that, especially like maybe for us. I don’t know if it’s a little bit, I think everyone, maybe in a high school scenario. Dealt with this before, but that feeling like when you’re in junior year and you feel like every choice that you made sure as extracurriculars where its assignments test-taking, like sat, act, all these things.

If you feel like you make the wrong choice, it’s going to majorly impact your future. And that’s not precisely true. It’s okay to make mistakes. Okay. To retake that test. Okay. The B the C the F it’s okay. To not be able to communicate or not communicate initially, just as long as you learn from those mistakes, you take them in stride and you’re able to move past them.

That’s the key thing to keep in mind throughout the entire journey, whether it’s business-related or not.

Jingzhou (00:24:39) Yeah, I think Asians too, I feel like this is like Italia. You always have to get and I feel like it’s important to kind of have your foot still Leah. Cause I feel like from then like where you’ve hit bottom and then you can only go up from there.

Cause I feel like it’s important to be able to recognize that sometimes things will not go as well as you think they will, even in general, but you just have to stick through it. And if it’s something that you’re dedicated to you, if you put it on the wall, it will pay off in the long term, but it’s just important to acknowledge that things don’t get done in a day and that you just have to be in there for the long term and to be passionate about it.

Bryan: (00:25:04) I appreciate both of your answers today. I wish that you guys are realist realistic. Larry listens is our cast one before you apply to college to after college, because I hope that the message that you have in there in his podcast will never change right. What you said is great. And I hope that if it does change, it will continue to evolve because you guys are becoming more, more, long journey.

Jingzhou (00:25:29) Thank you so much. This is already liking this podcast.

Bryan: (00:25:31) Of course and thank you guys so much for hopping on the podcast. One more question. So how can I listen to is reach out and email you guys online if they have any questions?

Michelle: (00:25:39) So, our easiest way to reach out to us is your Instagram at the simple company. That’s the best day to reach out to us. And if they have any questions or want to talk to us more about our entrepreneurship journey.

Bryan: (00:25:53) Awesome.

Jingzhou (00:25:55) Our website’s www. simply.co store up, www dot simply calls that store and they can check us out there.

Bryan: (00:26:02) Awesome. Well, thank you guys so much for being on the podcast today. I love your answers and I can’t wait to check you guys in a few years.

Jingzhou (00:26:10) Okay, thank you so much for inviting us today. Appreciate your time.