Entrepreneurship, Collaboration and Sustainability: A Conversation with June Chen

Pete CodellaArticles

Here is the latest in the series of conversations with inspirational Utah women in business. GOED’s Jessica Jerome is our latest correspondent speaking to the women behind the business, research and ideas that are changing the world. These women share their work, thoughts and advice. Note the opinions expressed by interviewees do not necessarily represent those of GOED, but they do promise to be interesting. Jessica sat down with June Chen of Church & State (and other pursuits) and talked about entrepreneurship, collaboration and sustainability.

Tell me what initially brought you to Utah and why you stayed.

I first came out to Utah to learn how to ski, so it was purely a lifestyle decision. I ended up staying for the business opportunities I found here. There is so much that I value about Utah—there is a level of access and connectivity here that I haven’t seen anywhere else. I think it’s a combination of the smaller population, the warmth and friendliness of the people, and the spirit and the culture of Utah itself. I’m always going to be an East Coast girl at heart, but both the sense of community and the opportunities available in Utah are unbelievable. It’s a great place to live and work, so for me, moving to Utah changed my life.

What has your career path looked like– what led you to where you are now?

I wouldn’t really call it a “path” as my career has unfolded as a serendipitous series of opportunities. I got my degree in English and American Literature from Harvard before earning my MD at Duke Medical School and completing my internship in internal medicine at Yale. While I had a talent for medicine, I just didn’t love it the way that I felt I should. So, rather than continuing on that trajectory, I decided to take the two very different aspects of my education—writing and medicine—and start a life sciences strategic communications company.

I launched Paperjungle in 2006 with a single ad on craigslist and got my first consulting job within two weeks. After that, I never had to do any marketing again. The business grew through word of mouth and the power of networking, and my client base included Fortune 500 companies, like Merck, Pfizer and Amgen, and global pharmaceutical giants, like Novartis, Roche, NovoNordisk and Shire, as well as start-ups and early stage companies. Over time, the business branched out to other industry verticals, including finance and technology. In 2015, I merged Paperjungle with LDD Partners, a management consulting firm, and began to take on new endeavors.

What specifically are your endeavors?

There are three different, but related, endeavors I am involved in. The first is Church & State, and my role is Chief Evangelist for our community here. Our mission is collaboration and building an ecosystem where entrepreneurs can find the resources they need to build sustainable businesses.

My second endeavor is LDD Partners, a strategic management consulting and angel investing firm. My partner and I have a small portfolio of companies, and our level of involvement in these companies depends on what the company needs and where we think we can add value. The third enterprise I’m involved in is the Mountain Pacific Fund, a joint Utah/Korea venture capital fund focused on life sciences, medical devices, and medtech. [June recently joined GOED’s trade mission to Korea.]

What these three endeavors have in common is the goal of accelerating innovation and shining a spotlight on Utah as the best place to do business. Through Church & State, LDD Partners and the Mountain Pacific Fund, we’re helping innovative Utah companies grow and globalize and we’re also helping innovative international companies gain a foothold in the U.S. using Utah as a gateway.

Focusing on Church & State, what makes it different than other business incubators?

Our strategy is unique for two reasons. The first is our intense focus on public-private collaboration. We don’t consider anyone to be a competitor. Given the wealth of resources available to startups and small business, we believe that if we each better define what we do, then we can serve entrepreneurs more efficiently. Our goal is not necessarily to be everything to everyone. Instead, we want to be the first stop for an entrepreneur who needs some guidance, because we know the landscape well enough to point them in the right direction. We want to be the hub that connects entrepreneurs to their next mentor, their next strategic partner, their next investor.

The second thing that makes us different is our sustainability. The founders of Church & State—Thomas Lee and Ron Heffernan—bought the building and donated its use to the community. So, from day one, our focus has been on building a community, rather than simply acquiring tenants. For us, it’s about having the right people in the space, so we can create the spontaneous collisions and collaborations that spark innovation.

We are really fortunate to have received grants from multiple organizations, including the Department of Workforce Services, that help accelerate what we’re doing. But, we are not reliant on those grants for our viability in the long term, and that’s actually really important. The revenue we generate is enough to keep the building and the community running, and all profits are donated back into the community to continue to expand our programming. If we can prove this concept works, then Church & State is a model we can replicate in other cities.

What is the best part about what you do?

The most rewarding aspect of my work is being able to help people. Having a very nurturing personality has driven me since I was young. My interest in medicine was born out of wanting to help people, and I’ve been really lucky that my life and my career have unfolded in a way where I can still help people, but in a very different way than I originally thought.

What are some challenges you face in your line of work?

Being involved in a lot of different projects can sometimes be challenging. The three endeavors I talked about— Church & State, LDD Partners and the Mountain Pacific Fund—are all different, but they’re connected by a shared vision of building a sustainable and replicable model of collaboration that helps to elevate entrepreneurs and the state of Utah.

Another challenge when we’re dealing with international clients or investors is the perception of Utah. There are often misconceptions about what Utah is like, and people don’t know Utah for its business friendly climate. We are extremely diverse in terms of the people who live here, the languages we speak, and the opportunities available. So, promoting Utah on a global stage is really important to us—I see it as both a challenge and an opportunity.

Have you ever faced challenges specific to being a woman?

I have taken a nontraditional path, so my circumstances are probably very different than they are for most women. I grew up surrounded by fearless women, the only girl among a whole host of male cousins, and I’ve been extremely fortunate to have never encountered gender as an obstacle to opportunity. When I find myself the only woman at the table, it’s empowering rather than intimidating. Being the only female voice means my voice is that much more impactful. The world is moving in a direction where people are taking less traditional paths, so hopefully as more people carve out their own paths, that gender gap is going to get smaller.

What advice would you give to a young person, out looking for a job in today’s world?

Number one, value your passion, don’t settle for anything less than pursuing something you absolutely love and working with people you like. Number two is to believe that the opportunities are out there, you just have to be persistent and relentless in going after them. And three, don’t go it alone. Find the right support, make connections and find a great mentor. I’ve been lucky to have had employers, mentors and clients along the way who pushed me to accomplish things I never thought I could’ve done. So, follow your passion, pursue your opportunities (you never know where they might lead you), and make sure you get the support you need.