By Hailey Eisen
Having spent 15 years in corporate Human Resources, Yvonne Lau had a strong understanding of the employee experience. She knew that employee feedback held great value for organizations but that, by and large, it was widely underutilized.
“The fact was, I had sat in a lot of leadership meetings and performance reviews, and I recognized a gap between the feedback employees provided to their managers, and how managers conveyed that feedback to leadership,” Yvonne explains. “Most feedback is either misrepresented or not conveyed at all, primarily because there’s a fear of sharing negative feedback and employees are often worried about the repercussions of telling the truth.”
While she was interested in solving for this gap, Yvonne felt there wasn’t much she could do in her current director role. “I felt stuck in the role I was in, and limited by the potential for growth within my career,” she says. With an impressive resume under her belt — having held HR roles with Starbucks, Barrick Gold, and the medical technology company, PointClickCare — Yvonne realized the next move she’d make would be into a role she couldn’t be hired for.
With the intention of starting her own business, Yvonne enrolled in a global executive MBA program through the IE Business school in Madrid, Spain. “Knowing this would be my last degree, and needing the flexibility to fly back and forth to Vancouver, where my mom was undergoing cancer treatments, I chose this international program,” Yvonne explains. Over the next year, she studied in Madrid, Singapore, LA, and Brazil, supported her mom through treatment, and began the ideation, prototyping, and customer validation process for her own business venture.
This was when her start-up, Retainify, was born — developed to gather honest, timely employee feedback and turn that feedback into data, which companies would use to uncover issues, identify relationships that are at risk, and maintain a happy, satisfied workforce.
“Looking back, I honestly think every woman should try entrepreneurship at least once in their lifetime. For women and people of colour especially, we often find ourselves asking permission or waiting for opportunities to come up — but when you go out on your own you give those opportunities to yourself. Now I’m doing rather than waiting,” says Yvonne. “I feel like I’m doing something to break through that concrete ceiling,” she adds, referring to the more challenging barriers women of colour face compared to white women, whose ‘glass ceiling’ at least affords them the ability to see the opportunity of leadership roles.
“We started with nothing but an idea, and we pitched that to customers who took a chance on us and signed early letters of intent.”
Earlier in her career, Yvonne may not have been so quick to take her own advice. “I had said I’d never be an entrepreneur and risk everything, after watching my family almost go bankrupt a few times,” she recalls. Yvonne’s father had come to Canada from Hong Kong with a grade three education and very little English. He left his own business behind to make a better life for his family, who were relying on him to bring them to Canada once he’d established himself. After feeling dissatisfied with the work he found in Canada, he started his own auto body shop.
It was Yvonne’s dad who encouraged her entrepreneurial endeavors. “When I got bored in my career in my late 30s, it was my dad and uncle who told me I had nothing to lose, that I was young, and even if I didn’t make it on my own the experience would help me a lot,” she recalls.
Three years later, Yvonne has never been happier — but she’s worked hard to get there. “The year we started out, we were focused solely on building the software that would make Retainify possible,” she explains. “We started with nothing but an idea, and we pitched that to customers who took a chance on us and signed early letters of intent.”
Yvonne credits her success with these early adopters who supported her through the trial and error process. “These weren’t free users, they were paying us, and supporting us along the way as we made mistakes and worked through them,” she says.
As Yvonne began to experience success, so did her customers. “Our dashboards help leaders pay attention to their employee and customer engagement data with the same urgency they do with financial data,” she says. With staffing as the biggest cost on most companies balance sheets, access to this underutilized data can be directly linked with revenue growth.
Just before COVID-19 hit, Retainify expanded into the senior care and home healthcare space, harnessing feedback to track resident and patient satisfaction. “While long term care is government funded, there’s not enough auditing or feedback process in place,” she explains. “If they had regular pulse checks and were using that data consistently, we would have been in a stronger position to fight against COVID.” This aspect of her business continues to evolve and it’s an area she’s especially passionate about.
Also with COVID came the need for increased employee engagement, providing Retainify with a unique value proposition. “With our software, employers can better understand the needs of their employees as they work remotely — conducting regular pulse checks and building programs and solutions that keep them engaged. If your employees aren’t feeling great, you can’t expect them to perform,” she says.
With a small team and the ability to pivot, Retainify continues to weather the pandemic under Yvonne’s leadership. She in turn has turned to other entrepreneurs for support and guidance. She joined the Tech Undivided program through ventureLAB which she says helped her build a supportive group of women founders she can relate to. “Being part of ventureLAB has always made me feel like I have someone to fall back on, like they want me to be successful,” she says.
It is support such as this, which Yvonne says is key to success. Whether that’s through mentors, other founders, or customers, this unwavering support allows you to make mistakes, learn, and grow. “My customers continue to fuel me to be better, get better, and do better with our software and business ideas.”
Looking forward, Yvonne has a clear view of her mission. “I want people to really know what it means to harness the power of data, leverage feedback, and continue to improve,” she says. “We all need feedback to improve — and I want to normalize that process.”