Featured Leader: Stuart Koe

Challenging the Status QuoStuart Koe

Stuart Koe (PharmD 1995) has built a career on challenging the norm.

Koe is founder and CEO of Fridae.com, Asia’s leading gay and lesbian media and networking portal. The website has half a million members across Asia, where homosexuality is highly stigmatized. In Singapore, where the site is based, homosexuality is illegal.

“We’re breaking rules left, right and center,” said Koe.

With the founding of Fridae, Koe dovetailed three related interests into a unique sustainable media business, social networking enterprise and public health resource.

As a media company, Fridae reports on gay news from the region that mainstream media will not touch, serving as one of the few independent voices for the community. As a social networking site, Fridae continues to break into new markets and in the past year was ranked the top gay site in China, Hong Kong and Singapore.

Fridae also has a strong public health component. Koe is actively involved in programs in the region sponsored by the World Health Organization and United Nations development agencies, and Fridae receives funding from the United States Agency for International Development for projects related to HIV.

“We are recognized as a pioneer in online interventions for HIV prevention and education, and have been a leader in online behavioral research,” Koe said.

For example, in 2009 Fridae contributed significantly to advancing public health by conducting the world’s second-largest survey of gay men. The survey focused primarily on men in East and Southeast Asia, and included nearly 8,000 gay men from Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong, China, Thailand, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea and Vietnam. The English-language survey was successful, and in 2010 Fridae conducted an expanded survey that ran in nine languages across Asia… “Something which I know is unprecedented,” said Koe. “I am excited to break new ground and create new knowledge and understanding, to contribute to this field in our own unique way.”

Koe credits College of Pharmacy Dean Emeritus Larry Weaver as a major influence in his early development as a leader. “He constantly challenged me to not accept the status quo and to always find elegant yet creative solutions to seemingly intractable problems. He was an inspiration for being humble and humane, no matter what I was doing.”

To encourage his interests, Koe says his professors at the college supported his requests for unusual internships beyond Minnesota, including a rotation in Beijing at a traditional Chinese medicine academy.

“My professors gave me that room to do what I felt was necessary for my education,” said Koe. “They taught me yes, the rules are there, but sometimes the rules are written by people who don’t see all the possibilities. They taught me to always try new things.”

During his tenure at the College of Pharmacy, Koe served as president of the College Board, working closely with mentor and associate professor Bruce Benson, and was president of the Rho Chi Honor Society. He was also a regional delegate to APhA-ASP and campaigned at a national level for leadership of the student organization.

Koe also remembers fondly his time as a pharmacy representative at the Center for Health Interprofessional Programs (CHIP), where he enjoyed the interactions with students from the other allied health sciences, making some of the longest and deepest relationships from his years at the college.

Koe has taken that philosophy into his work, challenging the status quo on an international level. He now serves on the Board of Directors of AIDS Concern in Hong Kong, as well as trustee of the Action for AIDS Endowment Fund in Singapore, both the largest HIV NGOs in their respective countries. In August 2009, he was nominated to lead the formation of a new regional network for HIV amongst gay and transgendered populations in Southeast Asia.

“There’s so much stigma and discrimination around HIV that we have to overcome, so many obstacles,” he said. “The things I learned early on – thinking outside of the box, offering creative solutions, being able to identify allies, always seeing things from other peoples’ perspectives, pitching an idea that appeals to their interests – these have been very valuable lessons that are still applicable.”

Koe says balancing multiple leadership roles can pose a challenge, and wearing the hats for so many groups can present conflicts in honoring the needs of each group he represents, as well as his own business goals.

“Being a politician where you are elected by constituents is a different kind of leader from being an entrepreneur, which is very different from being a human rights advocate and activist. Each has a different place and motivation, and you speak for different people. If you are elected to that position, you have to be the voice of the people who elected you, rather than push your own agenda. Those all are things I have to balance on a personal and professional level. It’s tough when you’re multi-tasking – but that makes life fun.”

Koe’s leadership roles have taken him out of direct pharmacy practice. Although he misses the patient contact, he finds his current positions allow him the opportunity to do what he also likes best about pharmacy: helping people on a personal level.

“People come up and say, ‘You’ve changed everything, you’ve changed the landscape. Thank you for fighting for our rights.’ It could even be as simple as, ‘I met my life partner on your website.’ It makes me happy to know I’ve made a difference in someone’s life,” he said.

This Featured Leader is part of an ongoing series from the Center for Leading Healthcare Change that profiles pharmacy leaders in the community.