Katherine Lo of Eaton Workshop traces the inspiring paths with the intimate anecdotes that led her to where she is today.
Hong Kong is a concrete jungle with no shortage of brilliant ideas. Amid the frenetic energy and cultural amalgam, many an entrepreneur has hoped to turn their dreams into the next big success story. Yet in a city brimming with talent, what does it take to cultivate that spark into a meaningful, long-lasting business?
Arnault Castel of Kapok, Katherine Lo of Eaton Workshop, and husband-and-wife team Jeff Chen and Dora Lam of Slowood are among those who have steered their Hong Kong-founded lifestyle brands with incredible finesse and gusto over the years. From quaint concept shop, to daring family business facelift, and one of the city’s first sustainable grocers, these trailblazing minds have weathered the many peaks and valleys that characterise entrepreneurial life, not least over the last several years of rapid change. Through it all they have remained deeply impassioned about the visions they set out to realise.
And now they’re sharing their insights and lessons learnt along the way. In their own words, these entrepreneurs allow us a glimpse behind the curtain to see why a sparkling idea, grit, hard work, humility, a stroke of luck and light-heartedness go a long way.
Next in the Enterprising Visionaries series is Katherine Lo of Eaton Workshop.
KATHERINE LO, FOUNDER OF EATON WORKSHOP
It’s been eight years now since I founded Eaton Workshop, a hotel company dedicated to transforming hospitality into a force for positive creative, social and environmental impact. My dream of Eaton has always been for it to be the ultimate gathering place, much like the concept of “the third place”, a place outside of home and work where one feels at home. I wanted to reimagine hotel spaces as culturally driven community centres for artists, non-profits, and locals who resonate with our ethos of making the world a better place.
Growing up bicultural between Hong Kong and the US, I’ve always known what it’s like to be an outsider. I grew up adjacent to my father’s (Dr KS Lo) family business, never imagining I would join it, having dedicated the first three decades of my life to pursuing the humanities and the arts and, in my 20s, social and environmental advocacy. A common thread connecting my formative life experiences has been the seeking of belonging and communion with kindred spirits. It is this drive to belong that informs my life’s work, to use the resources available to me to provide a platform for people to belong – and not only to belong, but to thrive.
When we started in 2014, hospitality in that way and at that scale had never been done before, so I faced a lot of sceptics when my vision was just words and images on paper. I think some initially felt the vision was too ambitious and idealistic, yet now that the spaces are alive and activated with people, many have said to me, “Wow, you actually did it!”
It has been powerful and moving to see how the Eaton brand has managed to forge a new horizon for what mission-driven companies can look like. My team and I spent a lot of time meeting thought leaders about what the city needed. After hearing from Hongkongers that space was a precious commodity, we offered Eaton HK Food Hall, art gallery Tomorrow Maybe, and music venue Terrible Baby as spaces for Hong Kong’s artists, changemakers, foodies, and music lovers to convene and commune in. One of our first community listening sessions, held at Salon Number 10, evolved into Vera Lui and Sonia Wong co-founding Hong Kong’s first Women’s Festival and Pokit Poon opening Mum’s Vegetarian Café, an homage to the nostalgic Chinese-British diners and Hong Kong street food of my childhood.
Over two years into this pandemic, I’m especially proud of how the Eaton team has devised creative ways to keep things going, from a programme with the Hong Kong Ballet called Through the Looking Glass where we utilised hotel rooms as theatre boxes while dancers performed on the Terrible Baby terrace below, to online festival Another World is Possible, where we screened 12 original short films produced by Eaton and one feature length documentary, the fruits of many years of passion and hard work. Despite the tough situation the world has been facing these past few years, we’ve learnt that engaging with our loyal community, even in challenging conditions, is always worth it.
Most important is keeping sight of your original vision, inspiration, and mission whatever roadblocks or challenges you may face. Remember why you’re doing this, how much you value your idea, and why you believe a world with this idea is better off than a world without it. That belief will cut through all the unnecessary, trivial, and nonsensical layers and protect the core of what you’re creating. That belief will get you through anything.
None of this would be possible without my mentor who has had the greatest impact on the last ten years of my life: my father, who views business and cities with a deeply thoughtful and pioneering approach. My father embodies what it means to be imaginative in business. I learnt so much from him and wish I had known then what I know now: Be humble and listen, and learn from your mentor because they have a wealth of experiences, wisdom, and insights.
Certainly, my definition of success and happiness has changed exponentially over the last decade. I have heard that many people nearing the end of their life ask themselves, “What am I the proudest of?” For all of them, it was not work but their loved ones that mattered most. I’ve learnt to not look for external validation or social media as markers of success. True happiness lies within. When going through tough times with your work, your business or your organisation, take a bigger perspective and think, “It’s just a hotel – or organisation, or business, or breakup, or person, or insert whatever is making you unhappy! There are bigger things that matter more at the end of the day. Deeper things to work on in the world. People and things to love.
Check back next week for our next entrepreneur!
Originally published in ECHELON Issue 7