Just last week, the Hult Prize—a global startup challenge that has been dubbed the “Nobel Prize for students” and awards US$1 million to the winning team—wrapped up its accelerator and penultimate round of business pitches in London. Among the competitors was Joyce Chen, a Bay Area native, recent graduate of the National Taiwan University, and second-generation Taiwanese American.
Back in 2017, when Joyce made the decision to head to Taiwan for college, it was something that no one had expected, herself included. “At the beginning, I still saw myself very much as an American,” she reflects, “so a lot of my friends were actually international students.”
“But by the second semester of freshman year,” Joyce continues, “I realized that I couldn’t just make friends with exchange students because they would leave every single semester. So that’s when I started reaching out to more local Taiwanese students.” This decision would later turn out to be an exceptionally good one.
The process for the Hult Prize began last October, when Joyce, then a senior, was invited by one of her native Taiwanese friends to become part of a startup team. “I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into, to be quite honest.” With a chuckle, Joyce muses, “if I did, I don’t know if I would have said yes.” But of course, she did say yes, and along with two others—Sandy Tsai and Ruby Lin, both NTU students as well—they founded interWellness.
Joyce is now the CEO of their startup that aims to tackle one very specific challenge that comes with having a chronic, diet-related disease: being unable to find restaurant foods that satisfy both cravings and dietary restrictions.
“They come up with a theme every year for the Hult Prize, and this year the theme is ‘Food for Good.’ Sandy’s mom has chronic kidney disease, which is why we wanted to start with this problem. So [putting the two together], it was pretty logical that you solve food problems for people with chronic disease.” And indeed, due to how exceptionally good and convenient the food there is, Taiwan has, lamentably, one of the highest rates of chronic kidney disease in the world.
“interWellness is a platform—so right now it’s a website, and we’re also building our app— where people with special dietary restrictions can find diet-friendly meals. So if you have a chronic disease, like diabetes, high blood pressure, or chronic kidney disease, you have to have low sugar, low fat, low sodium, and all that.
Usually when you dine out, you can’t really tell which foods are safe. A lot of restaurants don’t label their meals with nutritional content.” But that’s where interWellness steps in, and bridges the gap between patients’ foodie dreams and foodie reality.
“We go in [to restaurants], take a look, and we give their food labels, so that when people are looking for meals, they can search [via our website] by the nutritional content they need and find the meals that are diet-friendly for them.
[But] not all restaurants provide things that are already diet-friendly, so that’s why we have nutritionists on our team.”
As an example, Joyce talks about one of their most recent restaurant partners, where green curry is served. “The green curry, in its original form, is not diet friendly. But if you adjust the amount of certain ingredients—for example tomatoes, which are high in phosphorus and bad for chronic kidney disease—then they actually become diet-friendly. It’s all about portion control … and it’s almost like magic.”
Magic it certainly is, and at the London accelerator that Joyce and her team were just at, their main goal was to share and pitch the interWellness idea—of restaurant partnerships to open back up menu options for patients of chronic diseases, and allow them to still enjoy eating the foods they loved before falling ill—to judges.
Their other goal though, and arguably one that was just as important, was to share Taiwanese culture. “If we’re not talking about interWellness, we’re talking about Taiwan,” Joyce tells me, and I can definitely feel the enthusiasm radiating off of her.
“To be quite honest, in the grand scheme of things, a lot of people still don’t know what Taiwan is. They don’t know where Taiwan is, they think we’re Thailand.
So we’re pretty excited when we get to be like, ‘Oh no, let me tell you, there’s this island nation that’s next to China,’ and we talk about all of Taiwan’s food and culture.”
They didn’t just talk though, but also substantiated all the goodness they were telling people about with real, physical and tangible goodies. They brought pineapple cakes, instant milk teas, and many more snacks. “Our office is snack haven. Everyone knows if you’re feeling a little munchie, you come to our office.”
The rationale? “Everyone likes food,” explains Joyce, “so we’ve really been trying to connect through food.” Music, also known to transcend cultures, is another important element that they made sure to share. “We show them our favorite songs—you know, we love Jay Chou.”
“[We’re] just really trying to take advantage of being in a global space, and introducing Taiwan’s culture to other people is really interesting too, because after they walk away, now they know, now they can tell other people about Taiwan.”
And Joyce remarks, all too accurately, “I always like telling people that Taiwanese people are very passionate about being Taiwanese. We try to show a little bit of Taiwanese culture in everything we do.” So of course, it wouldn’t have made sense to leave out Taiwan from interWellness’s logo design.
“interWellness’s logo, two red blocks. And people are always like, what the heck is that? And we get to explain, ‘Oh let me tell you, Taiwan has this tradition of bua bui, and they are these prayer blocks.’ So we’re then able to use these blocks and our logo to tell people more about Taiwanese culture. We also have sets in our office. We’ve given them to at least ten different CEOs, CFOs, COOs—a lot of important people here—to share a little bit of that culture with them.”
To sum things up, Joyce shares, “I will say that we have succeeded—of course not speaking in terms of startup things—if we just are able to share a piece of Taiwan with the people here.”
Although Joyce is technically American by nationality, she still “very much think[s] of [her]self as being Taiwanese” — that is, Taiwanese American.
“I went to school in Taiwan, my parents are Taiwanese—I’ve learned so much about Taiwanese culture that I’m excited to share with people around the world.” And Joyce’s duality in identity gives her a unique advantage, beyond the bilingual or trilingual-ness that most people usually think of.
“I think because I’m Taiwanese American, I’m able to distinguish what is so special about Taiwan. Because I think from my teammates’ perspectives, they see everything as just normal. But they don’t realize that every little thing is something … that we can share with everyone. So it’s given me that kind of unique perspective where, as an outsider, I can identify what people care about when they’re learning about a new country.” And even better, as a Taiwanese person herself, Joyce knows not just what people are curious about, but is able to satisfy that curiosity by sharing the knowledge.
Because after four years of living in Taiwan, and not having returned to the U.S. since the pandemic started, Joyce is no longer a foreigner. Though not quite one-hundred percent native yet either, she’s already an active part of Taiwanese society, and has represented Taiwan through the Hult Prize competition in more ways than most native-born Taiwanese people will ever get the chance to do.
And as for the results of the Hult Prize…
The interWellness team was one of thirty-seven teams that made it to the global accelerator, and the three of them had made it past the competition of 300,000+ competitors to get to where they are today. Ultimately, they weren’t named one of the top six finalists, but Joyce says that from the moment they entered the competition, they were well aware of how slim the chances at winning were, and had always been prepared to keep running interWellness regardless.
Since their startup was first founded nearly a year ago, one of the trio’s largest driving forces have been their platform’s users. “For us, having talked to a lot of chronic disease patients, a lot of sick people, you start to feel like you’re really making a difference in their lives. That becomes your motivation, when you see, ‘I’m actually doing something that could—not change the world—but could genuinely help someone in the process. And once you have that, you start to realize that even if we lose this time, we’ve built something so strong that it can keep going afterwards.”
So when I asked about her plans for the future, Joyce tells me, “I plan to be in Taiwan for the next four to five years at least, until interWellness is established, fully running, and then we’ll see from there. I don’t like to plan too far in advance—because if there’s one thing I learned in COVID and in college, it’s that you can’t plan for anything.
I thought that I was going to be spending my summer last year in New York, and my senior year in France, but COVID cancelled all that. And now I’m doing a startup, and I’m in London [having finished] an accelerator. It’s wild.”
Amidst all this unpredictability though, one thing is for certain. Joyce will finally be flying back to the Bay Area in just a couple days, to visit home and apply for a visa. And after her visa comes down in a few months, she’ll be flying right back to Taiwan to continue running interWellness, growing the number of restaurants and users from the current seven and 200+ that they have, among other more technical things.
“I think generally the reception [for interWellness] has been good. Obviously there still is a lot of work that has to be done on our end—getting more restaurants on board, letting people have more options that they’re familiar with, having restaurants that they love—but I think there’s a lot of promise here.”
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Guest contributor Jessica Cheng is a high school junior and second-gen Taiwanese American living in the Bay Area. In her free time, she likes baking jiggly pudding, browsing Reddit, and snuggling with her dog Mojito, whose namesake comes from Jay Chou’s hit song.