Nike, Sharks and the ocean's ultimatum - Meet Miao Wang


 Wherever you look, you can find inspiration. When brainstorming about our next feature, we looked closer to home and got thrilled by the thought of featuring a super source of inspiration, and also our dear friend, Miao Wang.

Miao balances her time as a brand creative strategist at Nike for Greater China during the day time and saving sharks through her swimwear startup "ISWT / In Sharks We Trust"  at night. As an avid diver, she amazes us with all the stories about the immense beauty of Mother Ocean and the misperception about sharks that we have (yes we must admit.. we also had them).

We sat down with Miao to talk about balancing sports and sharks, being a female Chinese entrepreneur and why relax-time is equally as important as productive-time.

Miao, what are the absolute facts we need to know about you?

1. I’m probably the daughter of the ocean but at heart, I’m a city girl — born and raised in Beijing, I grew up living in New York, Los Angeles and now in Shanghai. Cities energize me.

2. As an environmentalist and conservationist, I’m not a vegetarian. We’re a species on top of the food chain: if a lion eating a bunny is nature, there’s nothing wrong about us eating other animals. When it’s local or has a traceable source, I do fish and some meat.

3. I travel solo a lot and I am an obsessive planner. I can research every resort/lodge/restaurant/food stand and every grid on the map to find places lesser-known and paths not taken. Since I started working on ISWT, I have become even more obsessive in planning to create the most compelling stories. I might just start my own bespoke tour agency one day.

What is the biggest misconception about sharks?

That they see us as food. Most people default sharks as blood-hungry monsters that can sense human flesh from miles away and will do everything to hunt and gorge us down. FALSE. No shark will attack us UNLESS they are provoked or threatened somehow.

There are fewer people who die from shark attacks than those killed by champagne corks or falling off the bed while sleeping. Sharks identify food using an electric field, not sight. They essentially see us like rocks.

What is the InSharksWeTrust philosophy?

We believe in conscious consumerism for the win: products can be great platforms for storytelling. For instance, our swimsuits feature prints of real sharks from a designated region and the profit helps fund local conservation talent development in that region. The swimsuits are made from recycled fishnets, which become the underlining narrative around over- and unregulated fishing, a challenge faced by many of these regions. Our swimsuits become the conduit that connects the maker, the buyer, and beneficiaries — creating a long-lasting relationship among them.

Second: People before, and people-based conservation. One of the most enlightening thoughts that shaped ISWT came from chef and humanitarian Jose Andres. He said, “Charity is the redemption of the giver, not the liberation of the receiver.” Often times we approach conservation wearing the first-world lens — we come to a place and determine there are X and Y problems and should be solved X and Y ways, which most likely aren’t even realistic to the communities there. For instance, you want to make a place a Marine Protected Area to save coral reefs, but when the whole village relies on fishing that "solution" will just create more problems. ISWT uses its fund for the people and to empower them to find solutions to these type of problems.

Female vs Male founders - where do you feel the differences?

I don’t have a family to look after so in a sense I have a bit less “baggage” than an average woman in their 30s. I’ve heard a lot about how much harder it is for female founders to receive, especially VC funding — but I’m not fundraising until later this year so can’t speak to it just yet. What I can say is that people tend to take a female founder less seriously. A man starts a business it’s considered ambition, a real startup. A woman starts a business it’s a “passion project”. "If she quits her job for it, it’s probably just a midlife crisis."

If she quits her job for it it’s probably just a midlife crisis

That said, the culture, in general, doesn’t recognize female entrepreneurs as much, which in turn makes fewer women feel comfortable and empowered enough to become one.   

What have been your biggest challenges and wins?

Learnings are my biggest wins. The biggest challenge, surprisingly, is a work-life balance. For a long time, work-eat-sleep-ISWT was everything I did next to my full-time job. I thought my full-time job was my “work” and ISWT was my “life” and there I had it: my work-life balance. However, it was extremely hard because I didn’t have time to dedicate to friends, family, work out and do all the other things I used to go to for relaxation. They were trade-offs I made and I would feel guilty whenever I would spend time on them. I went through a very stressful time at my full-time job and had less time to work on ISWT, which resulted in even more guilt and even stress.

Family and friends were trade-offs I had to make, and I felt guilty when I did.

I reached a point of burnout and took a break. The surprising thing is that I celebrated my biggest achievements when I decided to take that break: I took time to see friends, made new ones, talked about ISWT, got back to fitness, travelled and the entire process fed me incredible energy. I had a fresher mind, new ideas and created valuable connections. I came to realize what fulfils me in life, other than sharks, and what I value in people, as well as a partner: Starting a purposeful business is not just about self-actualization, but also self-awareness. And as my story and the story of ISWT gets shared among more people, more than sharks, it also propels them to find out about their purpose and legacy. And I see that as one of my biggest wins.

The biggest learning is that if you want to do something to save the world, it’s far more than that “something” that can change the world. It’s that AND everything you do and every one person you talk to along the way.

If you want to do something to save the world, it’s far more than that “something” that can change the world. It’s that AND everything you do and every one person you talk to along the way.

What are your daily doses of energy and motivation?

Internally, it’s the passion that comes with a sense of urgency. Because saving sharks and the ocean has an ultimatum — the chance of being “too late” keeps me on the top of my toes.

Externally it’s the feedback loop from people. Meeting and working with teams in the field and seeing the work they do and their enthusiasm for ISWT. Also, talking about and hearing the feedback on ISWT from friends, new connections, organizations and through social media all add to the confidence in the business and keep me going every day.


So... is there any energy left for your day-time job, Nike?

Yes! Coming from a design & advertising background I’m kind of in a dream department doing creative for Nike marketing. The work that I get to do — making films and disruptive brand campaigns, and the talented artists, writers and filmmakers that I meet along the way are both inspirational and energizing.

Nike vs ISWT, corporate vs startup, sports vs sharks. Your honest verdict please

The Nike brand is about sports and human potential and essentially selling a dream and vision. Championing that message is inspirational in pretty powerful ways. On the other hand, it doesn’t come without the burdens of being a listed company on NYSE and having to meet business KPIs. For a company as big as Nike you certainly can’t control how it’s run; complexities around new ideas and decision making are formidable given the number of stakeholders. It definitely also comes with frustrations and challenges.

Starting up something on your own obviously has none of that: it’s as fast and as nimble as you want it to be and you have 100% say on everything. But without established protocols and processes that you have readily available at big corporates, it’s a much bigger learning curve for startups.

One red thread between the two is navigating ambiguities. One is more finding your place in a huge organization and the realistic/effective ways to affect change, which is very hard. The other is more about getting something live from scratch. Being able to strategically identify opportunities and move forward applies to both cases.

Where do you go for inspiration?

Trave and more travel to places that are off the grid, so foreign they make me uncomfortable.

To places that are off the grid, so foreign they make me uncomfortable.

Talking to people and hearing their point of view never ceases to humble and inspire me both on a personal and work level. One person that inspired me to do what I’m doing today is Rob Stewart, National Geographic photographer turned filmmaker, first to make a full-length shark documentary (Sharkwater 2006) that influenced so many people and changed the scene of shark conservation forever. When I googled “shark documentaries” early 2017, Rob’s name popped up with the message that he was missing in the Florida Keys. After 3 days of searching, they found him dead on the bottom of the ocean floor — he died in a diving accident while shooting Sharkwater 2. Every NGO and individual who knew him were posting about Rob — filmmaker, shark conservationist, explorer, etc. that’s the moment that hit me: if I die today, what will I be remembered for?

If I die today, what will I be remembered for?

Everything I do with ISWT and all the things that come with it, is to build my narrative and my legacy that I can be proud of when I leave this world.

What pulls you through on the most sh*tty days?

My team and the partners who pour so much heart and enthusiasm into this work. They want to see me succeed too so we can do the right thing together, which is to empower the brightest locals to conserve sharks and communities alike. So when it gets really challenging, these partners and faces of the future beneficiaries of my work, carry me through and hold me accountable.

I also remind myself to chase big goals and incremental wins. The ambitious mission serves as the guiding light to make sure I don’t lose track even during hardest times. And focusing on small achievements helps me get through the challenges one at a time.

Chase big goals and incremental wins.

What's your most heartfelt advice to any aspiring entrepreneur?

Socialize your ideas. Not just with people in the relevant industry but friends, family, other entrepreneurs or anyone who’s interested in lending an ear. You want to test out your idea - whether it’s easily understandable and whether others with zero context interpret your intention the intended way. Sometimes the best advice comes from those least expected.

Sometimes the best advice comes from those least expected.

ISWT’s long term vision was in fact derived from a chat I had with a friend who works in a hedge fund. Also, as you tell and retell your stories you also get to improve your “30-second pitch”. Meanwhile, continue to deepen your understanding, sometimes even get a refreshed perspective what your narrative means and why it’s important to you.

Some people are so worried if they tell others about their million-dollar ideas they’ll steal their ideas. The truth is nobody cares about your ideas as much as you do. It takes much will power to execute an idea, which is the hard part and 90% of starting a business.

The truth is nobody cares about your ideas as much as you do.

Why China? 

China is largely responsible for the global shark fin trade, overfishing, overconsumption, and the 100mm sharks that STILL get killed each year. Shark conservation is particularly relevant here. Also, given the sheer size of China, there’s a large enough community of ocean enthusiasts and conservationists that are worth tapping into. It makes a lot of sense for me to be based in China, at least for this phase.

What are the best places for shark diving? 

Galapagos, Ecuador, Darwin and Wolf Islands at Galapagos are the ultimate shark heavens. You'll predictably see hundreds to thousands of schooling hammerheads mixed with Galapagos sharks and silky sharks. Every June till November you also see these giant female whale sharks passing through the area. It's just magical.

Ok, our last one: Give us your most awkward truth

When I did my first liveaboard (it's dive cruise where you dive, eat and talk about diving-eating-sleeping every day for a week), it was an advanced site and everyone else on the boat had 100s of logged dives whereas I only logged 28... So I lied and said I had 40.


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