Sara is an entrepreneur, a renowned international etiquette expert and star of her Emmy-nominated reality makeover show on Netflix, “Mind Your Manners”.
With deep conviction that etiquette is an essential aspect of life, Sara Jane Ho is an accomplished entrepreneur and etiquette expert who calls herself a microcultural anthropologist.
Sara is the star of her Emmy-nominated reality makeover show on Netflix, “Mind Your Manners”, a fascinating series that portrays etiquette as the utmost form of wellness, a way to promote genuine and healthy individual growth. In addition, Sara announces her new venture, Antevorta Laboratories, a women's wellness brand formulated with ingredients from traditional Chinese medicine.
TUNE IN as we explore how Sara helps her students become their better selves by teaching them manners, letting go of the inner obstacles holding them back, and giving them the confidence to shine in any situation.
Sara Jane Ho is an entrepreneur, a renowned international etiquette expert and star of her Emmy-nominated reality makeover show on Netflix, “Mind Your Manners”. The 6-episode series chronicles how she transforms students’ lives by teaching them manners, letting go of the obstacles holding them back, and giving them the confidence to shine in any situation.
A native of Hong Kong and a true global citizen, Sara was inspired by her late mother and founded China’s first finishing school Institute Sarita in 2013 helping people become their best selves. She is also the author of the best-selling etiquette book in Chinese “Finishing Touch – Good Manners for the Debutante”, and currently writing her second book in English due out in 2024. Sara is soon launching Antevorta Laboratories, a women’s wellness brand formulated with traditional Chinese medicine. She has been included in Forbes’ list of "Future Women in the Mix in Asia" and BBC 100 Women.
Growing up in Asia, Europe and the US, Sara is fluent in four languages and three dialects of Chinese. She holds a Bachelor's degree from Georgetown University and an MBA from Harvard Business School.
[00:04] Jennifer Wu: Hi everyone, thanks for listening to The Founder Spirit Podcast. I'm your host, Jennifer Wu. In this podcast series, I interview exceptional individuals from all over the world with the founder spirit, ranging from social entrepreneurs, tech founders, to philanthropists, elite athletes, and more. Together, we'll uncover not only how they manage to succeed in face of multiple challenges, but also who they are as people and their human story.
You can find us on Apple, Spotify and Google Podcasts, as well as social media and our website at TheFounderSpirit.com.
”As humans, we all want a sense of belonging. That's what makes us human - needing that face-to-face connection, to feel comfortable with each other. And I think that is really the biggest benefit that one can have from understanding etiquette.”
”And I spent a year in Beijing - it was such an incredible experience, and I really enjoyed working with Casey. It was very rewarding because I did a lot of different kind of work, and I was able to really give an impact. And that's when I really developed a deep appreciation for the power of community and the importance of service. And instead of just achieving personal success, it's really important to use your skills and resources to benefit others.”
Joining us today is the remarkable Sara Jane Ho, an entrepreneur, a renowned international etiquette expert and star of her Emmy-nominated reality makeover show on Netflix, “Mind Your Manners”. The 6-episode series chronicles how she transforms students’ lives by teaching them manners, letting go of the obstacles holding them back, and giving them the confidence to shine in any situation.
A native of Hong Kong and a true global citizen, Sara was inspired by her late mother and founded China’s first finishing school, Institute Sarita, helping people become their best selves. She is also the author of the best-selling etiquette book in Chinese “Finishing Touch”, and currently writing her second book in English due out in 2024.
Sara is soon launching Antevorta Laboratories, a women’s wellness brand formulated with traditional Chinese medicine. She has been included in Forbes’ list of "Future Women in the Mix in Asia" and BBC 100 Women. Growing up in Asia, Europe and the US, Sara holds a Bachelor's degree from Georgetown University and an MBA from Harvard Business School.
Hello Sara, welcome to the The Founder Spirit podcast!
[02:37] Sara Jane Ho: Hi, Jennifer, thanks for having me today.
[02:39] Jennifer: By the way, you're my first Asian guest on the show. So like one of your students on Mind Your Manners, I'm also embracing my Chinese roots.
[02:48] Sara: Incredible, I'm happy to represent.
[02:51] Jennifer: Growing up, you were very much inspired by your late mother, who was a consummate hostess and also your role model. Can you tell us what influences she had on you as a child?
[03:06] Sara: One of my most memorable stories is my Mom, and I lost her when I was 21 to cancer. But I always feel grateful that I had her even up until the age of 21.
So my mother used to love hosting parties at home, and Christmas would be 30 people at our house - dinners all the time. She would take me everywhere, and it was almost like getting a little mini-finishing school/MBA experience with her.
And from her, I really learned that etiquette is not what a lot of people think it is. A lot of people think it's middle-aged women, bun in their hair, very rigid and strict, and that it's out of date and old-fashioned and makes people uncomfortable.
But actually, etiquette is the opposite. It's fresh, it's dynamic, and it's really about putting people around you at ease.
[03:52] Jennifer: I love that and you've certainly developed a modern concept of etiquette. What about your father? Because I think these days fathers don't get as much credit for raising daughters. And I've heard you describe him as a true gentleman. What qualities did you see and what did you learn from him?
[04:10] Sara: It was so interesting because I'm a big believer in traditional Chinese medicine and I'm always seeking out different masters. And I remember once I went to a Chinese doctor a friend had recommended, and he was supposed to be feeling my pulse to then give me herbal medicine. He said, she has the inner strength of her mother and the outer strength of her father.
When I reflected on that, my Mom, she was very much outer strength. She was very social, she was very confident, she was very loud, she was always the life of a party. But on the inside, she definitely had her insecurities, too, whereas my father was the opposite.
My father went to London, Imperial College and studied engineering. He's got the English reserve and he's much more calm. But his inner strength is very strong, and it's the kind of strength that is quiet, it’s unassuming, but it's very comforting and it's very calming and soothing.
And he treats everybody - doesn't matter what age you are, where you're from, what you do, whether it's the cleaning lady in his office or Margaret Thatcher, who he once had a meal with. He treats everybody with the same amount of respect. And that is something that's so invaluable that I learned from my father.
[05:22] Jennifer: Sounds wonderful - it sounds like you got the best qualities from both of your parents.
Sara, you also had such a unique upbringing. You lived in Papua New Guinea before moving with your family to England. You attended the German Swiss School in Hong Kong and then transferred to Phillips Exeter, which is a boarding school in the US. How did these multicultural experiences shape your life trajectory?
[05:49] Sara: What started out as a survival tool became my ethos and now my career. I mean, I was always moving, I was always going to a new school, leaving old friends, having to make new friends, sometimes in the middle of the academic year. And, you know, these were very different cultures; it’s not like I was moving across different cities in the same country.
I remember when I moved from Papua New Guinea to the UK, in Papua New Guinea I ran around barefoot everywhere, and I didn't want to wear shoes in the UK. And all of a sudden, in the UK, I started my schooling and I had to wear uniform and a hat and little Mary Jane shoes. And my parents said they had such a difficult time making me keep my shoes on.
And then when I moved from the UK to Taiwan, my parents struggled because I thought I was English - I didn't speak any Mandarin, and I didn't see myself in Chinese. So that was sort of another existential crisis. And then it was when we moved back to Hong Kong, where my parents are originally from. So for them, it was like moving home; and for me then, that was also a big adjustment.
But what I did learn and especially as now, I'm teaching etiquette and thinking about distilling my method, I see myself as a micro-cultural anthropologist. And actually, we all live across different microcultures in a day, whether it's at home, at work, at school, different social groups.
And each time I enter a new microculture, I'm observing the codes. I'm thinking, what is the slang that they're speaking? What is the volume of their voice? What are the gestures they're using? How are they dressing? And so it's very observational. I learn their codes of conduct, and then I use them with this group.
And as humans, we all want a sense of belonging. That's what makes us human - needing that face-to-face connection, to feel comfortable with each other. And I think that is really the biggest benefit that one can have from understanding etiquette.
[07:43] Jennifer: Sara, these days you're known as the etiquette guru, but a much less known fact is that you actually started your career on Wall Street. What lessons did you take away from those years as an investment banker?
[07:59] Sara: I think, as with all young people, you don't really know what you want to do in life. And for me, at Georgetown University, I was an English major, much the chagrin of my mother, who is very typical Hong Kong tiger mum, and thought that I should be studying something useful like finance and accounting, but very much supported by my father, who is very much about study what you love, and you will do well no matter what.
So I had no idea what I wanted to do. But when I thought about the role models I looked up to at school, they were pretty much going into two industries, investment banking and consulting. So today it's a little different - I think today it's like AI and tech and venture. But back then, the high-achieving kids, and that's what I identified myself as, too, were going into investment banking consulting.
So I went into investment banking in New York City at a boutique firm called Perella Weinberg, and I ended up loving it. It was a little rocky when I began because my mother passed away (in) June, and then August was when I started a very intense job on Wall Street, where I was already a foot behind compared to other analysts because I didn't have the finance and accounting training that they did.
So actually my first review was a very negative review. I had a lot of improving and catch-up to do, and I almost quit. Literally I burst into tears one day while at work privately, and I called one of my role models and I said, I'm going to quit, I hate my job, I can't keep up.
And that role model of mine sat me down over the phone and said, you really need to think about this, are you a quitter? What are you going to do then? How are you going to learn anything? This is one small challenge in what will be a very long career of yours. And it really resonated with me.
I ended up staying, changing my mindset, and after I finished my busy work at midnight, I would stay an extra hour just to study finance and accounting. And of course, those times on Wall Street is so intense, we'd go into the office at 9:30, midnight was the average time that we would come out, and weekends would be the same thing.
But I have to say that by the time I completed my two year analyst program, I learned so much. I loved it, I loved my work, I loved my peers and my bosses, and I'm still very very close to them to this day. Every time I go back to New York, I visit the office and I visit Joseph Perella, who is a dear mentor to me.
[11:22] Jennifer: That's wonderful. It sounds like of all the lessons, you really took grit with you for the rest of your life.
And after spending two years on Wall Street, you joined a non-for-profit in China, providing microfinance loans in rural China. How did this opportunity come about and what motivated you to make such a big shift to the opposite end of the spectrum, not to mention the other side of the world?
[10:51] Sara: Yeah, well, when I was on Wall Street, I actually got involved at the same time with Wokai, W-O-K-A-I, which was this microfinance nonprofit. And it was very exciting, BBC called them the Facebook for farmers in rural China, so that John Smith sitting in New York City could scroll through the Wokai website, see profiles of different farmers in China who said, I need $300 because I want to grow crops, or I need $500 because I want to grow piglets.
And it was founded by two American girls, one of whom was living in Beijing running the business. They were in China on a scholarship studying microfinance and ended up setting up this nonprofit. I thought it was very meaningful, and they were just about to launch. They had little chapters in all the major cities in the US.
I joined the New York chapter, and there was a fundraising drive. So I went to every single banker at Perella Weinberg, and I wasn't shy about asking them, would you like to make a donation? And very soon I became Wokai's top fundraiser.
So Casey Wilson, the CEO, reached out to me and said, can we chat about fundraising strategy? So we would chat very regularly, and I really respected and admired what she was doing; I realized that she needed a lot of help. And as my two-year analyst term was coming to an end, I said, how about I come work for you? And she said, we can't afford you. And I said, well, you don't have to pay me, I would really like an opportunity to live and work in mainland China; and also, I really like you and what you're doing, so I just want to come help you.
And I spent a year in Beijing - it was such an incredible experience, and I really enjoyed working with Casey. It was very rewarding because I did a lot of different kind of work, and I was able to really give an impact. And that's when I really developed a deep appreciation for the power of community and the importance of service. And instead of just achieving personal success, it's really important to use your skills and resources to benefit others.
And it's funny, I went from high finance to microfinance, from working on teams that were serving CEOs of listed companies to understanding a farmer, how he was running his business of growing pigs, but then his pigs were getting too fat and couldn't make the 30-kilometer walk to the market to be sold (chuckles). It was delightful.
[13:05] Jennifer: That's a beautiful story. So from there you went on to Harvard Business School, is it true that you almost failed out of HBS?
[13:17] Sara: It is, it is, I hope no one will judge me.
It's very funny as I entered Harvard Business School, my dad said, Sara, I don't have many expectations of you, but I just hope one thing, that you do not fail out of Harvard Business School. And I was like, dad, I was Cum Laude at Georgetown, always studying, I had very good grades, and I was like, are you kidding me? And my dad just kind of had this Confucian look and said, you know I know my daughter.
So I went in and all my friends were second years, and they told me the grades are on a bell curve. So top 10% get a grade 1, bottom 10% get a grade 3, middle 80% get a grade 2; and it's really hard to get a grade 3. And I was like, whoa, it's impossible to get a grade 3, and I'll just float in the middle and I'll get a grade 2; I'll be fine.
So, first of all, I went to every single class; I absolutely loved my classes, did most of my reading because that would help me get a lot out of class. And I loved listening to the professors and engaging in conversation and hearing my peers. But I never studied for exams, I'd take the exams cold because I just thought, oh, it's impossible to get a three.
And to me, it was very clear I wasn't going to Harvard Business School in order to get a 4.0 GPA because I didn't want to work for Goldman Sachs or McKinsey afterwards. I wanted to do something more alternative, I was coming from a nonprofit. So I'd do a finance modeling to see what was the bare minimum I could get away with in order to pass and so I just made it to year two.
Senior spring, I did an independent study, did all my exams, and there's this two-week break between when classes finish and it's graduation, and I actually did a trip to China. I remember I got an email during dinner from my professor and said, Sara Jane, you didn't make the revisions that we agreed you would make in your essay that you handed in; so as a result, I'm not going to be able to give you a 2, I'm going to have to give you a 3.
So I'm sitting there in this restaurant with friends in Shanghai, and I'm like, if this two becomes a three, I'm not going to graduate. And I immediately left, and I redid all those revisions and then submitted again. And I just graduated with a skin on my back. And I don't think I ever told my dad (chuckles) because I didn't want my dad to grumble and say you know, I told you so. Even to this day, my dad doesn't know.
[15:32] Jennifer: Sounds like a self-fulfilling prophecy, (chuckles) but maybe if he hadn't mentioned that, you would have done just fine, Sara.
[15:40] Sara: Yeah, if he had mentioned that, I might have studied for my tests. (chuckles)
[15:47] Jennifer: Exactly, exactly. Now let's talk about Institute Sarita. I'm curious, how did the idea come about and what inspired you to open China's first finishing school over a decade ago?
[16:01] Sara: I was a full-time volunteer for a nonprofit; and this commitment to public service has always been a driving force, even behind my work at Institute Sarita.
So going beyond the traditional etiquette or finishing school model, I actually saw it as an opportunity to help legions of female leaders in China, to help them acquire a deeper understanding of the world, and also to help them develop their own communication style in a country where, unfortunately, gender stereotypes are still far too prevalent.
Especially ten years ago in China, I was often the most Western-exposed Chinese person in the room, and I saw how this gave me an advantage. So moving back, I've made it my mission to democratize such an advantage, firstly with the etiquette school, and then over time, as I gained confidence with that, I adopted other formats to include those with lesser means, whether it was via podcast, talk shows, social media, or now eventually, a Netflix show.
So it's been ten years now, and I really honestly had no idea what I was doing when I think about it. I'd done a stint at Swiss Finishing School, which I absolutely loved, but I also knew that it could not be a carbon copy. There had to be a lot of changes, and it had to be localized.
I tried to do some research on what finishing schools existed in China, but just to show you how Western my frame of mind was, I was Googling. And as you know, Google does not work in China. China has its own search engine called Baidu, which I didn't even think to use.
And I had a lot of challenges when I moved to Beijing. Firstly, my Mandarin was very basic. I was conversational, but I was a product of English-speaking education. So when I came back, even just trying to explain what I was trying to do in Mandarin was a struggle.
And I had a tutor in Beijing, she was a professor at Qinghua University. And as I was trying to explain to her in very broken Chinese, she looked at me, said, your Chinese is not good enough for you to do what you're trying to do, how about this? I'm going to send over students from Qinghua University to your house - you give them free classes, and in return, they will help you write your PowerPoint and your teaching notes.
Pretty much like three times a week, there'd be a couple of students, and I would project the PowerPoint up onto a white wall at my house, I'd also prepare dumplings for them to eat, and I'd be teaching them the correct pronunciation of foreign luxury brands and also how to identify whether a piece of pan-fried foie gras is good quality. When you cut through it, there should be no leakage; it shouldn't be soggy, it should be as clean as pudding.
So you can imagine these kids, they're mostly from third and fourth-tier cities, and they're brilliant kids, but the look on their faces. I was like, am I going in the wrong direction? But they helped me with my teaching notes, my PowerPoint. And after that, I did what is the best way to learn language, especially Mandarin - memorize. So every single one of my modules, I memorized all my teaching notes, and I'd just be like a voice recorder.
So that was my one big challenge that I overcame. And in fact, when people ask me today what my greatest personal achievement is, I actually say that it's achieving fluency in Mandarin because China is hard nut to crack, especially I was very much a foreigner coming in, even though I am ethnically Chinese, I was still very much a cultural outsider. And now, people don't believe I'm from Hong Kong.
[19:19] Jennifer: Sara, I remember first meeting you ten years ago when you had just founded Institute Sarita. I knew it was a startup, but the way that you ran your operations, I thought you had been operating for a number of years.
So it didn't appear at all to me that you didn't know what you were doing, I remember your office was immaculate, and I thought you were very professional, you were very hard-working, which you still are today.
And my first impressions were that you are gracious, and much more mature than I think most people your age. So it was interesting to hear you say what you went through compared to what impressions that I had of you at that time.
[20:06] Sara: Thank you. So the other biggest challenge, in addition to my language skills, was how to redefine etiquette in the eyes of Chinese people. Because when you say the word etiquette, which is li yi in Mandarin, it's not as elegant as what it is in the West. It's perceived in a different way; it’s seen as more service-oriented, not something that is seen as aspirational in China.
And for me, I had to let people know that this was a very different kind of finishing school, that it was very elegant, that it was very inspirational. And that's why our first office was in the Park Hyatt Residences. And I actually collaborated with a lot of exquisite French brands, German porcelain brands, and I had a chef who used to work at the French Embassy. He was making fresh souffles, pastries every day for afternoon tea for our students.
And it's always hard work to be the first mover. When you're the first mover, you're educating the market. It's actually easy to be second or third. And after we opened, then a lot of people came in and opened finishing schools, too, which we actually felt it was good for the market, because then everybody was helping me educate the market.
[21:18] Jennifer: Sara, you often talked about etiquette as behavior therapy. So how do you help people become their best selves through teaching etiquette?
[21:29] Sara: Oh, that's a great question.
The other day, I received an email from a student at Georgetown, and she said, Dear Miss Ho, I just watched Mind Your Manners, I absolutely loved it; but I was also fascinated by your portrayal of etiquette as the utmost form of wellness, a way to promote genuine and healthy individual growth. And I replied to her and said, wow, you've hit the nail on the head, this is my ethos.
So when we think about what goes on today in the world, people don't know how to communicate anymore, there's an absolute lack of etiquette. We see this on Twitter, workplace bullying, street violence, even in politics, I feel like, what happened to statesmanship?
And so I feel that every aspect of life needs an injection of etiquette. And now there's a huge distrust of thy neighbor, which is deepening day by day, especially in the US. The social fabric is fraying, everyday I read a fresh story of epic rudeness and even violence. And after the epidemic, people have come out of lockdowns, atomized and alone.
So my approach is about increasing your confidence in social interactions. And even for a lot of my students, which you also see in my show as well, is that it helps them break the cycle of loneliness and enables them to achieve a sense of belonging. So that's how it's like behavioral therapy, it works from the outside in. Because by changing our behavior through the power of etiquette, we change our lives.
Let me give you an example - I had a student, she was very sweet, from Northern China. Her father enrolled her in my course, her father's a very successful businessman, and he was complaining that his daughter was painfully shy. So he managed to find me and send his daughter my way. Well, usually if a child is painfully shy, it means they had an overbearing parent.
She was so shy that she would speak in a whisper, and she couldn't even really do much eye contact. So when we went to a restaurant,I said, I want you, when the waiter next comes, to look him in the eye and smile and tell him, the food is very good, thank you. And I said, and don't whisper it in your mind, you need to yell it, but in everybody else's mind, it's normal volume. So she did this. And then when we left the restaurant, I said, I'd like you to proactively look at the host, and say, thank you, I will come back again because the meal was so good. She did it.
And then, I had to cut her hair because her hair was so long down to her waist, and she would wear black head-toe, which I said, from Feng Shui wise, is really not good. It's too much Yin energy. So when you think of Yin and Yang, Yin is the negative, Yin is the feminine, Yang is the sun, Yang is the bright. I was like, you're way too yin right now, go buy some colorful, bright clothes.
And then I said, your homework for the next 30 days is that you have to initiate conversation with one stranger each day, and I want you to send me a weekly report. And a week later, she told me it changed her life. She said it began when she got on the plane to fly back to Northern China and she struck up a conversation with the person next to her and ended up having a very pleasant conversation.
So step by step, and a habit takes 30 days, you form a habit. But I'm just so proud of her now because she's such a much more confident person, whereas before she was shy, she was afraid of speaking to other people, not because she was being snobby, but it was really because she was worried that she would bring them trouble. And then now having her go through the rounds, she realizes she's a much happier person.
[25:07] Jennifer: This is incredible. Going beyond the traditional sense of the word etiquette, you're helping them overcome the inner obstacles, not just by changing the color of clothes that they wear, but also working on the issues inside. You called yourself a microcultural anthropologist, and maybe a therapist too. Sara, thanks for sharing that story.
I wanted to mention also during this time when you were teaching etiquette to your students in Beijing, you not only wrote a best-selling etiquette book in Chinese, but you also competed in the Longines Equestrian Beijing Masters as a showjumper. What has equestrian sport taught you over the years?
[25:52] Sara: For me, horse riding has been very much a father-daughter sport. So I have memories of just spending my weekends with my dad at the stables, mucking out, grooming horses. And you know what, on Central Park South (New York City) where it smells like horse manure and everybody thinks it's so stinky. I actually really enjoy that smell because it reminds me of my childhood with my dad horse riding.
Oh gosh, there are so many beautiful things about horses. Horses are very healing animals, they feel your energy. Pets do as well, but especially horses. And they're so kind, they give unconditionally. And in fact, once you sit on a horse, that horse can read your energy. They know if you're cruel, they know if you're nervous. Sometimes horses will take advantage of that; they know you're nervous, they bolt. They know if you're confident; they know if they can trust you or not. So I think it's one of the most beautiful things that a parent can let their child do.
And also the idea of horsemanship. When you think of back in the day, the cavalry gentlemen, they had the spirit of horsemanship, and there was a whole etiquette and behavior around that as well. And how it trains you to have courage, to be sensitive because you're feeling the horse through your hands by holding the reins. When to give, when to take, often you're like a parent to your horse, so you're giving horses all the courage to jump something. And so for me, it was very healing.
In fact, in episode two of Mind Your Manners with William, I put him with a horse, which most would have thought, oh, that's quite unconventional to put your etiquette student with a horse. But I could feel that William was very guarded; he had all these walls up, and he was also a very nervous person. And I wanted him to relax, I kind of wanted to strip away all those walls he was putting up.
So I put him on a horse, and you can literally see his posture change. When he gets on the horse initially, he's all tight, But then as we go through the motions and he comes to trust the horse and to move his body with the horse, like being in partnership with this 11,000 pound wild animal, you see him relax, and he's able to hold his head up high and sit up tall.
And then I put him face to face with the horse, and it was a very emotional moment for him where he actually said, I think I'm crying a little bit now. So that's, to me, what horses do to people.
[28:24] Jennifer: That non-verbal communication, what you teach people to do is to read the room.
Sara, I think for people who don't know you, it must feel somewhat intimidating to meet you for the first time. What have been some people's reactions over the years when you tell them that you’re an etiquette teacher?
[28:44] Sara: Usually what happens is that if we're having a meal, as soon as they find out I'm an etiquette teacher, the people sitting close to me get very nervous, (chuckles) and it's really funny.
And, in fact, just the other day, we were at a Michelin restaurant, and there were a couple of girls I was meeting for the first time, but they'd all watched the show. And one of them said, oh, you know, I'm so nervous eating with Sara after watching Mind Your Manners, I hope I mind my manners. And I just started laughing.
Actually, I'm a very relaxed person. And some people do ask me, does it really bother you if you have a meal with somebody and they have really terrible table manners? And actually, it doesn't bother me. I choose not to let it bother me. And I also don't bring it up, I won't point out something to the other person, unless they're my student where they're paying me. Or unless they actually ask me, is this the right way I should be eating my oyster? Is this the right way we should be eating bread?
So there are things that one should take seriously and things one should not. And of course, once you learn how to use table cutlery and you know what to do at the table, the point is that it gives you the confidence, and you can focus on the actual conversation at hand or other things.
[29:48] Jennifer: For the listeners out there, Sara is very approachable and she is really able to connect with people from all different walks of life.
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[31:32] Jennifer: I want to shift gear to Mind Your Manners, which came out in November 2022 on Netflix Worldwide and recently got nominated for a Daytime Emmy in the lifestyle category. So congratulations, by the way, well done! How did this opportunity come about of making your own reality makeover series?
[31:54] Sara: Yeah, well, I was just very lucky. A lot of shows take years to get greenlit and pitched around all these different platforms. But for me, they found me; they'd heard some news about me and what I was doing, teaching etiquette in China. I put together a sizzle reel and then it got greenlit just in a matter of months.
And we were supposed to shoot, but unfortunately COVID hit, which is why the shooting was delayed for about a year and a half. But I think what I'm really grateful to Netflix for, and I think also the reason why they remain ahead of the game in terms of other streaming platforms, they're always ahead of the curve, they always look for different ways of telling stories. So I think that while most people would have thought, well, an etiquette show, gosh, that's just so disconnected from everyday, it's so old-fashioned, but Netflix just completely saw that what I do is so much more than that. And I'm grateful that they were able to bring my method to a global scale as opposed to just China.
And it's an unscripted show, it's a very real journey of students and the transformations, they're all real. I actually prefer to call it observational documentary filmmaking (chuckles). Because every high is high, every low is low - the emotions are so real.
And that's what my classes are like, too. My class is usually about ten people or sometimes even smaller, and I've become very close with my students. I think that to be a good etiquette teacher, you have to be invested in your students. And the crux of etiquette is empathy. So teaching takes a lot out of me, actually, emotionally.
And in China, we talk about Qichang, right? It can be loosely translated to mean energy or vibes. And I'm vibing with my students all day long. So their fears, their hopes, their dreams, I'm always thinking about them and how I can help them be their better selves. And every person has a different story.
My students, they come to me for etiquette, but the reason behind why they want to come is different; for some maybe they just recently had a divorce and their self-confidence is a bit low; for some maybe they just got married and they want to be the best wife they can be to their husband or the best mother to their children. So it's quite interesting.
[34:11] Jennifer: I found it very unique, and I think for those of you who haven't seen it, the series is really bit of a Queer Eye meets Marie Kondo and East meets West. I know this because I've binged watched it twice, most recently last week, and I found it to be very heartwarming and very uplifting.
And I have to say, when it first came out, I sent the link to a couple of my girlfriends, and one of them immediately pinged me the next day and said, it is much deeper and much more thought-provoking than I had expected, so I misjudged her. But your show, it's not just about the outside, it's much more about the inside.
And to your comment about empathy, I could feel watching the show how much empathy you had for your students. I remember in the first episode with Stephanie, you made her take off her makeup, and then you also took off your own makeup at the same time to support her, which was just a beautiful moment for me.
And it also features a wide range of people from different cultural and ethnic backgrounds. And I love the human element behind every episode because I felt like in some way, I could relate to each of your student on the show.
[35:36] Sara: Yeah. A lot of people think that etiquette is one big not, like you cannot do this, you cannot do that. But to me, etiquette Is like one big can, that you can achieve anything you want to achieve. You can communicate whatever you want to communicate, so long as you know how to do it in a way that is not offensive to other people. And it's empowering, actually. And when I'm with my students, I'm not telling them how to be. It's more about being mindful, and then they take their own journey.
[36:06] Jennifer: I'm a big fan of the show. Sara, what was the most enjoyable part for you during the production process?
[36:14] Sara: Filming the show changed my life, not just from being the biggest thing I've done in my career to date, but on the 9th day of shooting, I ended a four-year relationship, which should have ended much sooner, really. It was an on-and-off again relationship that was long distance, but more importantly, it really wasn't the right relationship for me.
But I was hanging on to it because I thought, oh, I've invested X number of years, maybe it can work out, but I really wasn't very happy. And it took me something as intense as production and filming a Netflix show to, number one, realize I had no space for anything that was not nourishing in my life. And number two, I was like, hang on, I'm teaching my students to be their best selves, but over here, I'm in this relationship that is really bringing me down.
And so on day nine, we were actually going to Steph's house, episode one, and I was like, I'm done, and I sent off a WeChat message. So that was life-changing. I'm the type of person where once I break up, I pour myself everything into work.
And then, funny enough, as soon as I got back to Shanghai, my now-husband slid into my WeChat messages and basically from first date to getting registered was seven months. And that was a year ago, and I just feel very happy that I found somebody who really nourishes me and I have so much fun with and who makes me a better person. So that was one big life changer on the show.
In terms of my favorite thing, the crew was just so incredible, I was so lucky. At the end, I started bawling and I said to them, I couldn't have done a better show with a better group of people. you guys are just top of your game, so professional. We were like a family - there was no drama. And some of them that had 20 years of experience working on production, they said that this was the most positive, happy crew and production team that ever been on.
[38:14] Jennifer: I think you could see that in the show, you can really feel it, Sara. Just watching the series, you get a sense that there's a lot of positive energy coming from you and also the students. So I would imagine that the atmosphere is permeated through the crew.
[38:31] Sara: We had so many laughs, we had such good times. And I wasn't supposed to shoot with this crew. We were supposed to shoot (in) January of 2020 in China, in Shanghai. But then COVID happened, so everything was put on pause.
And it was only because Australia handled COVID well, mainly because they were so strict with closing their borders. And by the way, a lot of Hollywood had moved to Sydney during that time that were shooting in the States. They said, we're going to fly you in and then just rebuild your school, do a set, everything.
And I was learning so much from the team and it was really incredible. And I actually spent my birthday on set, December 5th. One of my favorite photos is me holding a birthday cake, blowing out the candle and with the whole crew.
[39:19] Jennifer: One of the other aspects that I really enjoyed about the show is that you're really bridging the east and the west, and you introduce many aspects of the Chinese culture throughout the series, including having this woman eat congee, playing Mahjong, and taking one of your students to see a traditional Chinese medicine doctor, but also this concept of Feng Shui.
Can you explain to the audience what Feng Shui is and how you incorporate Feng Shui in your life?
(39:50) Sara: Yeah, gosh. I grew up with Feng Shui monsters running around the house. Coming from Hong Kong, we placed a lot of importance on Feng Shui. So Feng means wind, Shui means water. Wind, water; but Feng Shui, it's just about how things feel.
And when the Feng Shui is good, you can feel it - again because it's energy and it’s vibes. It's very broad-ranging; Westerners mostly understand it as rearranging your home so that everything flows into place and is auspicious. It can also cover things such as choosing auspicious dates to hold ceremonies, fortune telling. This is all considered part and parcel of Feng Shui.
How your home is, this is where you spend most of your time. So if it's messy, if there's a lot of stuff that's piled all over the place, stagnant energy, if there are dark corners, if there are ashes, whether it's from pets.
After one of the episodes showed, a lot of people messaged me on Instagram saying, I read that it's not good Feng Shui to put your dead fish or dead pet in your garden. What about my father's ashes? I have his urn in my bedroom. And I'm like, oh.
So it's a balance of Yin and Yang, and it's also a balance of Jing Mu Shui Huo Tu, which is the five elements. So metal, wood, water, earth, fire. When I go into a space, I'm already kind of thinking about, okay, how do I make this space better? And so it's just very authentic to me. And even today, every week I get acupuncture, I’m always going to my Chinese doctor.
I put in Mahjong because Bunny, she needed to go back to her roots. And I knew that she would benefit from having a group therapy session with the Chinese ladies. And it would make her more familiar and comfortable to do it over Mahjong, because that's intergenerational bonding.
What was interesting is because I just did these without a second thought, to me, it was like, okay, let's put this in. And what's interesting is that a lot of Asians reached out to me saying, thank you for, well, number one, finally showing Chinese culture in a cool and elegant way. And secondly, for the even representation of Asian culture.
Like even our students - one spoke Mandarin Petrel, she was from mainland China; Joey was from Hong Kong, she only spoke Cantonese; Siouk was from Singapore, she spoke a little bit of both, but neither very well (chuckles); and then Jesse, she took my course in Beijing in 2015 along with her mother,so that really touched me.
And then secondly, a lot of viewers of the show reached out to me and said, your show opened my eyes to Chinese culture; please recommend a traditional Chinese medicine doctor just like the one in the show - I live in Orlando, Florida. And I'm like and some even said I found one, but he's white, and I feel he's not authentic. I want a Chinese one, which I just always really put a chuckle on my face.
So part of my mission, in addition to empowering women, is bridging east and west. And especially, I see myself as an international woman, as a citizen of the world. When I'm in the States, I feel very American. When I'm in China, I feel very Chinese. But it's important to me as well just to share. There's so much in Chinese culture that can and should be shared with the world, just like there's so much in Western culture that is shared in the east. A happy product of the show was building this bridge.
[43:13] Jennifer: So coming back to traditional Chinese medicine, you are now launching Antevorta Laboratories, which is a women's wellness brand formulated with traditional Chinese medicine. What inspired you to start yet another venture?
[43:31] Sara: I’ve always considered myself an informal student of Chinese medicine. And for Antevorta Laboratories, I've teamed up with my friend Annie. Her grandfather actually founded TCM clinics in Taiwan in the 30s, which are operational to this day.
According to Traditional Chinese Medicine, a woman's health begins in her ovaries. The health of your reproductive system is representative of your health as a whole, even when you get your period. This is like a report card on your health. Are you going into early menopause? And there's a lot of talk about how you really shouldn't do anything for your vagina.
But the thing is that, yeah, that worked during cavewoman days, but now women you're going to the gym, you're taking antibiotics, women are just getting more stressed out everyday with all the things they have to juggle, lack of sleep, all these things will affect your vaginal health. Yeah it’s great to do nothing if we are back to caveman days. But in today’s modern world, that’s very difficult to do.
For us, we really see Antevorta Laboratories as a modern women's wellness brand that's anchored in 2500 years of proven ancient formulas of Traditional Chinese Medicine. And Antevorta in Roman mythology means goddess of the future. So what we're trying to do is reimagine self-care for the future of women. So if we take ancient formulas, we rewrite them using modern science. But it's about meeting the needs of today's most ambitious women, and that will help women reach their best potential both out in the world and intimately.
(45:14) Jennifer: Sara, you're full of surprises, you just said the V word on the air. (chuckles) I must admit when you first told me that you were launching a new brand, I thought it'd be some high-end luxury skincare or a fashion line, I would have never thought that it would be in femcare. (chuckles)
[45:35] Sara: Well, beauty and grooming is very important.
[45:38] Jennifer: I have a lot of friends who are now dealing with menopause, pre-menopause and post-menopause. And it's a big challenge for us when you're of a certain age. There you go, we broke the taboo. (chuckles)
[45:52] Sara: Woohoo. But menopause was something women didn't even talk about even last year. This year, a lot of celebrities are talking about it - Drew Barrymore just talked about it on her show; Naomi Watts talks about menopause. And it's something that's very real. And it's incredible to think, how did our mothers go through this without having anybody to talk about this? Hot flashes, you end up on the floor. And of course, the dryness is very real.
[46:17] Jennifer: Sara, you are calm, collected, and measured. Do you ever lose it like the rest of us? When was the last time you got really upset over something?
[46:25] Sara: Oh, gosh. I mean, I've definitely lost it. I think when I was younger, maybe more, but as I get older, what I've learned is that you can't control everything that happens to you, but you can control your reaction to it.
Running a startup, especially in China, there's always these games that come up and nothing is easy, but everything is possible. There are many days where I'm very frustrated or something happens and my team is freaking out. But usually the more of a crisis it is, the more calm I am. Because at the end of the day, it's not like I'm saving lives, nobody's dying, and shit happens.
So if I'm with other people and I feel I'm losing my cool, one tip is to actually slow your movements. So I slow the speed of my voice and I slow my movements, and I zoom in on a tiny detail of something. Maybe it's the lead of my pen or it's the corner of my phone. And that brings me into a Zen meditation state where I just calm down.
But at the end of the day, I just think big picture. I'm like, how important will this really be a week from now? A year from now? Five years from now? Not really.
[47:34] Jennifer: That's actually a trick from CBT, cognitive behavioral therapy - to slow down, to pause and focus on a little detail. If we just have a moment of silence or a moment of pause, then we learn how to take a step back.
[47:50] Sara: One of my favorite authors, and I was an English major so I loved reading books, was Oscar Wild. And he had a quote that was like just think of yourself as watching your own movie, you’re just eating popcorn, drinking Coke. And I just see myself as a third person, take myself out of the box. And I just think, well, this is another story to talk about, like another anecdote.
[48:12] Jennifer: That's a great attitude. To those entrepreneurs who are struggling out there to survive this downturn. What advice would you give them?
[48:21] Sara: I made a lot of mistakes in my day. In Mandarin we say Jiāoguò hěnduō xuéfèi, jiāo xuéfèi is to pay school fees, which is when you lose money, pay for your mistakes, but at least you learn from it.
I would say one thing is persistence. I'm born in the year of the Ox, I'm very hard working and very persistent. When I was younger, my parents taught me that as long as you have a goal and you work hard towards it and don't give up, you can really achieve anything you want to achieve. But obviously also you have to know when to quit, so it is a fine balance.
I would also say, I guess for the women out there, just don't be too hard on yourself. I think a lot of people are really too hard on themselves. There's no such thing as perfection. There's no such thing as having it all. And it's important sometimes not to take yourself too seriously.
[49:08] Jennifer: I agree with that 100%. By the way, I'm also an Ox, which is probably why we get along really well. I'm also a Taurus, so I'm a double ox. I'm extra stubborn, according to my husband (chuckles). We can unpack that another time.
We're soon coming to the end of this episode. Can you tell us what your favorite books are over the years besides Oscar Wilde?
[49:33] Sara: Oh, yeah, amazing book that I just finished reading is called Manifest Now by Idil Ahmed. And I absolutely love it. And there's this phrase in China, it's called Xīn xiǎng shì chéng - your heart thinks of it and success will come of it.
For our dreams, our greater dreams and desires, you can use that same manifestation process. And it's just an incredible book, I would advise everybody go read it.
[49:57] Jennifer: Great. And where can people find you, Mind Your Manners and Antevorta Laboratories?
Mind Your Matters, it’s on Netflix; it's a Netflix original.
[50:24] Jennifer: And you, people can find you on Instagram?
[50:27] Sara: Instagram @sarajaneho.
[50:30] Jennifer: That’s Sara without “h”, goddess of the future.
And last but not least, what does the Founder Spirit mean to you?
[50:37] Sara: Anybody can be a founder, it’s incredibly challenging, and I think that's part of what being a founder is about. You have to have that grit, that persistence, putting out fires all the time. You have to be able to think on your feet, you have to know when to hire, when to fire, when to bring in people (who) ideally are more experienced or even smarter than you, and when to give up some responsibilities and when to take them.
It takes a certain kind of personality to be a founder, and usually it's somebody who has grit.
[51:11] Jennifer: We're now coming to the end of our interview, and as you know, we end every episode with a quote. And for this episode, we have a quote from Coco Chanel, a French fashion designer and entrepreneur:
“Elegance is when the inside is as beautiful as the outside.”
Sara, many thanks for coming on the podcast today, and showing us what true elegance is.
[51:35 ] Sara: Thank you, Jennifer, it was a pleasure.
You can find us on Apple, Spotify and Google Podcasts, as well as our website at TheFounderSpirit.com.
[51:50] END OF AUDIO
(03:06) How Sara’s Parents Inspired Her Growing Up
(05:49) How Did Her Multicultural Upbringing Shape Her Life Trajectory?
(08:00) Lessons Learned as an Investment Banker
(16:01) Founding Institute Sarita
(21:29) Etiquette as Behavior Therapy
(31:54) The Making of Mind Your Manners
(39:49) What is Feng Shui?
(43:31) What Inspired Her to Create Antevorta Laboratories
(48:21) Advice for Entrepreneurs in a Downturn
(50:37) What the Founder Spirit means to Sara
Social Media Links:
Wikipedia: Sara Jane Ho
LinkedIn: Sara Jane Ho
Instagram: Sara Jane Ho (@sarajaneho)
Twitter: Sara Jane Ho (@sarajaneho)
YouTube: Sara Jane Ho
Sara’s Favorite Book:
Manifest Now by Idil Ahmed