November 17th, 2014

Video: “Awaken Group Journey (5th anniversary)”
Produced by Myles & More

This year marks Awaken Group’s 5th anniversary. As we celebrate this milestone and reflect on our journey, we also wanted to share our story.


5 balloonThis is our story…

September, 2008. Worst global economic crisis the world has every seen signified by the collapse of Lehman Brothers.

November, 2008, So-Young quit her stable job at McKinsey to pursue a crazy dream and a calling to design a new kind of business that was ‘human’ and people-centered. A dream to create a business that really helped companies and organizations transform and be better versions of themselves in an authentic way. Imagine, if businesses can be more than just about making money; but also, about making meaning?

Awaken Group launched in December, 2009 in Los Angeles. In this journey to create an innovative enterprise, we got a lot of help from advisors and friends who helped us shape and nuance who we were and what we offered. Instead of going after clients and doing business development, we spent many months defining our essence, our core values, and who we wanted to be, before we started doing anything.

The vision that emerged over time for us was and is…

To design transformative experiences from the inside out to bring joy and beauty to the world.

That is why we call ourselves a transformation design firm.

Our first year was a tough year. We made a whopping USD$1,500 in revenues in 2009 and barely stayed afloat in 2010 as we laid the foundations of the company.

We opened our second office in Singapore in December 2010 with a small team. It was a year of investment and while it’s sometimes easy to focus on outward successes, we feel that it is important to celebrate our first year of many mistakes, learning and growth. Setting foundations requires tilling the ground and removing weeds before you can even plant any seeds. People didn’t quite get what we were doing as we talked about integrating strategy, leadership and innovation. Multi-disciplinary? Design? Strategy? Coaching, too? What exactly do you do? It was tough. But we plugged away and kept focusing on doing what we love to do.

In spite of the growing pains, we started donating our time and resources back into the community since 2010. We have supported many NGOs and causes including Xealot, The Young Professionals’ Group, Beautiful People, Open University of West Africa, Malachi Foundation, LNKM, and the City of Iloilo in the Philippines. We believe all businesses exist to make a positive difference in the world.

2011 is when our seeds start to grow as we starting building a presence in Singapore especially within the government and grew our team. We extended our expertise and services through global partnerships with our “Creative Collaborative” from multiple industries across architecture, interior design, film, art and design. We based our partnerships on common values and vision.

Inside Out-Front-Cover-webIn 2012, we started global expansion and extended our annual research on leadership and innovation to a broader Global Leadership and Innovation Project (GLIP) and published our first book, Inside Out, as part of that effort. The first of our Inside Out series focused on selected leaders and innovators in Singapore.

Since 2013, we added a few new Studios across Branding, Art Consulting and F&B through partnerships. We continue to innovate and re-invent how we work with new collaborations to stay on the cutting edge of business, design, and leadership.

ag team_2014

Today we have a staff strength of over 20 people globally and we have served over 30 clients in Singapore, the US, Korea, Switzerland, the Middle East, and Japan. We have the privilege of being asked to speak at conferences around the world like TEDx, Universities, Government agencies and make regular appearances on business-related TV shows like Channel News Asia. In 2014, our CEO, So-Young Kang, received the honor of being selected to be a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum.

If we, in business, are ready to take on challenges and face them head-on, and have the courage to reinvent ourselves to come up with creative, innovative and fun solutions, we feel that the world would be a more joyful, beautiful place.

This year we turn 5. It has been a journey. We are happy to celebrate with you – both the ups and the downs. We look forward to the continued journey of constant re-invention into a more beautiful and joyful tomorrow. Thank you for being part of our story.


View photos from our 5th anniversary party on our Facebook page!


October 14th, 2014

“KISS: Keep it Simple, Stu**d” by So-Young Kang, CEO & Catalyst of Awaken Group
(from the October 2014 newsletter)

Simplicity is often mistaken for being easy, quick and not requiring a lot of work. Actually, it’s much easier to be complicated, than to be simple and concise. Simplicity requires refinement, the ability to call out what is most important, and to be able to communicate that in a way that even a child can understand. Simple does not mean quick and efficient. Simple does not mean simple in thought.

Where people are overwhelmed with information, time is limited and people are already stretched, simplicity is critical.

The most difficult parts of work are not to create a 100-page document listing out every single possible scenario and pages and pages of analysis or data. One of the best trainings I ever received was when I was at McKinsey where I learned the power of the executive summary.  The value is in the ability to synthesize and bring out the most relevant points and to draw insights from the information. No matter how complex the project, I was constantly pushed to come up with the one-slide executive summary, which usually consisted of a few bullet points. Six months of work simplified down to 5-6 bullet points on one slide?!?! Really? YES. YES. YES.

When one does not understand the power of simplicity, it could seem overly simple or something that could have been written in an hour. Of course, the actual writing of the few bullets only took a few minutes. But what does it take to get there – to that level of simplicity and clarity?

Screen Shot 2014-10-14 at 2.12.00 PM Screen Shot 2014-10-14 at 2.12.12 PM
Art pieces by Kuni Yazawa from White Ship, Japan

Let’s look at this piece of art. When I asked my friend, artist Kuni-san about what this collection meant, he paused and said “Nothing. I did not ascribe meaning to it and took the freedom to just create. I wanted the art piece to emerge from my motions.” What he created was quite beautiful using stitching and cloth.

In my curiosity, I asked, “So if it’s so free and easy, can anyone including me, create the same beautiful piece?” He paused and then shook his head, “Probably not yet.” He has been an artist for over 30 years refining his craft. He has spent many years learning many different skills as an artist, from painting to sculpture, to design. He has accumulated well over the 10,000 hours of practice that Malcolm Gladwell talks about in his book Outliers to achieve mastery. It was only after he achieved some level of mastery in his craft did he have the freedom to create, innovate, and let go of any preconceived notions of what to create.

He was able to intentionally remove the many layers of structure to go back full-circle to a state of simplicity, nothingness, and pureness. The journey was not a direct one. It was one that involved the exploration of self and identity, mastery of skills, and the development of a craft. It’s this journey that gave him the freedom and space to create beautiful pieces that we call a ‘piece of ‘art’ and perhaps mine would be ‘child’s play.’

The ability to simplify complex ideas and concepts requires deep clarity of thought and a deep understanding of the subject matter. A sure sign that someone is unclear or lacks full understanding is when they describe something using overly complex language, terminology, or phrases. A test I like to use is the “5-year old test.” If you are able to explain any concept (no matter how complex such as astrophysics or neuroscience) to a 5-year old child and they can understand you, then that is a sign that you may have true mastery over that topic. If not, it requires deeper understanding and study or the accumulation of more experience.

So how do you keep it simple?

  1. Conceive it – Take time to clear your mind and thinking. Pray. Meditate. Be mindful.
  2. Share it – Communicate to refine and make sense of your ideas and thoughts. Sketch. Share. Prototype.
  3. Refine it – Cut out what’s not necessary and shape it. Remove. Shape. Synthesize.
  4. Invest in it – Take the time to build mastery in your area of expertise. Study. Practice. Teach.

What do you have true mastery over? How can you keep it simple?



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