Online dating is a relatively new concept in Vietnam, but the market already has nearly 100 mobile applications, including the ubiquitous Tinder and several home-grown platforms. Denise Sandquist believes something is missing – a female-focused app with customized functions for the Vietnamese culture and none of the gendered expectations weighing on women’s freedom to make new connections. Enter Fika, a dating app start-up she co-founded with Oscar Xing Luo, its chief technology officer.
Born in 1991 in Vietnam, Sandquist was adopted by a Swedish couple when she was one month old. Twenty-five years later, armed with a few names, an old birth certificate and a Facebook page, she managed to find the needle in the haystack and met her biological mother for the first time. This emotional reunion sent Sandquist on a quest to help people build meaningful connections and the idea of a dating app for Asian users started brewing. With the analytical mind of a Business and Finance major, she saw Vietnam as a land full of potential and returned to her birthplace in 2018, working for Swedish cosmetic company Oriflame. Before graduating from Stockholm School of Economics, she trained with the Swedish Armed Forces Interpreter Academy and completed her post at the Swedish Embassy in Moscow. Sandquist’s stints in different countries (the UK, Russia, China, Tunisia) and ability to speak six languages fluently make her a truly global citizen.
In a video call from her home, Sandquist discussed her latest venture and how the journey to connect with her heritage has shaped her personally and professionally.
Let’s talk about the most exciting thing right now, Fika. What are you up to?
We officially launched last November, and we’ve just closed our first round of funding. There has been a lot of interest recently. I’ve quit my [full-time] job to just focus on Fika for one month now. Everything is going well, and is very exciting.
What is Fika’s biggest achievement so far?
We have more than 460,000 downloads so far, almost half a million. Other metrics such as active users are also good. For me and my co-founder, Oscar, this is the first time we’ve had our own company. It has been self-funded until a couple of months ago. I think that’s quite an achievement. We’ve grown with the company and with our team.
Why did you decide to name the app Fika? Is it a Swedish word?
Fika means to take some time to relax or eat with friends. It is a moment for yourself or with the person you like. For us, it was important to have a name with meaning, but also easy to pronounce in Vietnam. We like the sound of something ending in “a” and something that sounds positive. The team nominated a couple of names, went through a voting system, and we found that everyone liked Fika and the meaning behind it. We wouldn’t have chosen a Swedish word if Vietnamese people wouldn’t be able to pronounce it.
You spent most of your formative years in Sweden, and then lived and worked in different countries. Why did you decide to build your career in Vietnam?
I was one month old when I came to Sweden, so I didn’t know that much about Vietnam. I didn’t speak any Vietnamese, but I was always interested in the country and wanted to find my biological parents. I first came to Vietnam when I was 22, and really liked it. There were a lot of warm and hardworking people with potential. I had lived in Russia, China, Thailand and the UK, but the opportunities and the dynamics of Vietnam as a market drew me in. I think that Vietnamese people are naturally entrepreneurial – they have their full-time job, and then a side hustle. It’s a very exciting environment. Also, I couldn’t live in a country where I wouldn’t like the food, the people and the weather. The decision came quite naturally.
What was it like growing up in Sweden?
It was good and very cold. I have loving parents and a little sister, who was also adopted from Vietnam. Even though I didn’t have many Asian friends, I was always curious about Asia. When I started asking my mom, “When I was in your stomach, how was it then?” She told me, “You have a Vietnamese mom and dad. They really love you, but they wanted you to have a better life. That is why they decided for you to come to Sweden.” My parents taught me to be proud of my heritage, and it was very natural. I feel like I am Swedish, but I was also adopted from Vietnam.
My adoptive parents were supportive of me wanting to find my biological parents. I think it’s very important for adoptive parents to be open-minded to share about the children’s heritage and make them feel they were chosen. Of course, people look at adoption in different ways, but for me, I always feel happy to be from Vietnam and to have grown up in Sweden.
What was the trigger that led you on the path to search for your biological mother?
It was a combination of a lot of things. I was working at the Swedish Embassy in Moscow at 22 years old when I started thinking about my mother, who was at the same age when she gave me away. Maybe she had a bad economic situation and needed financial help. I grew up imagining she was old all the time, but when I reached her age then, I realized she wasn’t. I also reflected on the way I am, a high achiever who likes to push herself even though my parents never pressured me to do anything. To them, I can do whatever I want to. “Where does this [trait] come from?” I asked myself. Plus, I had never been to Vietnam before, so it was on my bucket list.
You’ve been back in Vietnam for a few years now. How has that influenced your lifestyle or habits? Is there any Vietnamese value that you particularly identify with?
I think I’m a more caring person now. Sweden is an individualistic country, where you do things for yourself. Living in Russia, China and Vietnam changed me a bit. Before, when I went out with my Vietnamese colleagues, I was usually the youngest, so they took care of me, putting food on my plate and ordering for me. In Vietnam, younger people take care of older people, and vice versa. Everyone is very warm and caring. It would be strange for me to continue my individualistic way of being in Vietnam.
In Sweden, sometimes people need to gather a lot of information and think it through before they make a decision. If it’s something sudden, they might not know what to do. In Vietnam, things change very fast. That’s what makes the people so dynamic. Vietnamese people are very positive, too. They are good at adapting to a situation, and I think I became better at that.
What do you think are the biggest differences between women in Vietnam and women in the European countries, in terms of dating habits?
The dating culture in Europe is more established. In Vietnam, it’s quite new. Many are not used to interacting online, especially with strangers. There’s also a certain stigma against dating apps in Vietnam. I know many of my girlfriends don’t want to be on Tinder because they feel unsafe, and they think that Tinder doesn’t seem like a serious platform to be on. It’s important for Vietnamese women to feel safe, knowing the people on the app are real. While it’s okay to be on a platform that can be used for hookups in Sweden, it can be seen as something negative in Vietnam. I think that affects the interaction and how women act in terms of dating in Vietnam.
Does Fika come into the picture, to help women feel safe?
Exactly. We tried to adapt our product for the Asian culture, adding Zodiac signs and 16 types of personalities. We have discussed a lot about how we can make Fika a female-focused and friendly dating app. We have to communicate with women that it’s okay to be on a social and dating app. We want to have a fun platform where females can feel safe and find meaningful connections.
I also wanted to give back to Vietnam in some way. I was lucky to grow up with a strong belief in myself. Amid the expectations from parents and society about things you can and cannot do as a woman, I think it’d be nice to create a community like Fika for women’s empowerment, growth and authenticity.
As a woman in tech, a male-dominated industry, do you have any advice for other female founders?
Everyone should do what they want to do. Believe in yourself and think about how unique you are. I understand that it’s hard sometimes to be alone in a tech business. Try reaching out to other women especially, so they can tell you woman to woman, what it’s like [working in this industry]. For me, I always find people in the business who are the same age as me or someone I can relate to.
If you need a product to solve a problem and you understand that a lot of things are in tech right now, then go for it. Don’t be afraid, as you can always figure it out along the way. You don’t have to be an expert in tech. You can learn the things that you need to learn and find good people that can complement you in the things that you’re not strong in.
The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
This content is also available in: Tiếng Việt