Ironman, accountant, biohacker, proud husband and loving dad – these are just some of the many hats that Stefano wears!
When Stefano Passarello came to Hong Kong nearly 14 years ago, it was the start of a new adventure. He came here as an unpaid intern and has gone on to build a successful career, get married and raise a beautiful family in the city. He has dabbled in many businesses, from accounting to hospitality with Kapuhala Resorts. In everything that he does, Stefano has found a way to give back to the community and society, be it with the charitable causes he supports, the tech-entrepreneur mentorship he provides or the healthy living options he encourages. We ask this marathoner about what keeps him and his family going.
When did you come to Hong Kong and how long did you plan to stay initially?
While at university, I did my thesis on Venture Capitalism in China. So in 2004, I came here for an unpaid internship. I didn’t have a plan to “stay” but I had a plan “not to go back”.
Even when I was an unpaid worker, I could see the potential here. I was looking at this amazing business city with the eyes of a homeless person looking at a bakery shop on Christmas day!
So how did you go from unpaid intern to running your own accounting business and moving into the hospitality sector?
I decided to replicate what my internship job taught me, making it 10 times bigger (and this 10x-ing rule has been guiding me for years after that!). That’s how I started People & Projects (P&P).
Eventually, my accounting firm grew so big it attracted the attention of an overseas buyer. I sold my company to them (P&P has now been acquired by Hawksford) and stayed as an employee for a while. Then I took a year off to dedicate my time to mentorship and investments in the start-up and tech world. Recently, I launched a Fintech consultancy business, Monx.
For Kapuhala, our hospitality venture, I really shouldn’t call it a job (lol!) because it is our sweet side hustle. I am passionate about sport, impactful companies and biohacking. Kapuhala Sicily and Kapuhala Koh Samui are luxury resorts with fitness facilities, co-working space and serving farm to table high-end plant-based food. In Hong Kong, Kapuhala is the first “plant-based gym and social space” – we operate as a gym but we also sell natural produce, such as veggies, chocolate, nuts and wine.
Why did you start Kapuhala?
I’ve always loved fitness, so making an investment in hospitality (in our case, focusing on healthy holidays) has always been my dream. I’m happy that we turned this dream into a reality. We want to create a space for people to enjoy their vacations the way we do, spending a few days relaxing, enjoying nutritious food in a nice ambience, being able to work out and work (it’s a reality in these times as we can never switch off) surrounded by like-minded people.
If you know about the “blue zones” – areas in the world where people are happier and live longer – this is what we are trying to achieve.
What does the name mean and how does it reflect the brand’s philosophy?
Kapuhala is a play of words in Hawaiian. It means the “holy tree”. I participated in the Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii in 2017 and fell in love with the place. In every Kapuhala resort we own, there is “the tree”. The three circles of the brand signify to eat, live and train. Every Kapuhala location carries the philosophy of eating, living and training well. By doing these three things, one should become happier and possibly live longer.
Other than Kapuhala, what are the various projects you are involved in now?
Before I sold my previous company, I was already a mentor in the startup scene. I am also a consultant for many tech companies – the 20-somethings these days are amazingly smart!
In 2017, I founded StartIT Asia along with the Italian Consulate General in Hong Kong to attract and select high potential Italian startups to come to Hong Kong and China. I am still involved in that. I also often advise businesses on the best practices to enhance performance via fitness and nutrition.
My newest venture, Monx is a fintech company that will change the perception of the advisory industry. We strive to be extremely responsive, cool and tech-based. This remote advisory business will be tech-powered and human-driven. Our logo is a monk, inspired by Thai monks and also, Fra Luca Pacioli, the Franciscan friar who created accounting in Italy in the 14th century.
What’s more? We will also teach accounting to youngsters and the underprivileged because we believe that financial literacy is not a privilege but a right.
When did you become so passionate about health, wellness and eco-consciousness?
I was previously very overweight. Then in my 20s, I lost weight by running. A lot of running. It made me realise that if we want to live a good life, we need to take care of our body – as simple as that. We also have to respect and take care of nature, it is where we humans live. In a nutshell, I consider myself a biohacker who’s driven by ecological principles and ancestral wisdom.
How are you imparting these values to your children?
Our kids are 8 and 5 years old and they are starting to understand now. We eat very healthy food at home – tasty healthy food made with simple ingredients. We recycle a lot. They know that our recycled toilet paper came from milk cartons and diligently save them every time! My son and I go running together and that’s how we bond as father and son. Through the little things in life, our kids understand what our values are.
How and where did you meet your wife?
This is a huge cliché. Crystal and I met in a bar in Wan Chai, through friends. We always laugh about it.
What role does Crystal play in your business? How do you divide work and parenting responsibilities?
Crystal and I are both founders of Kapuhala Resorts and she is the Group CEO. I also like to say that she is my #1 COO. I have big visions and she basically makes them happen. We can’t divide work because we are working towards our dreams all the time. Think of a family restaurant in Italy, or a Chinese family restaurant in the US – everyone in the family does everything and no one ever questions it, you just work together because you do! Crystal and I are a bit like that!
For parenting, I have to admit she does a little more than me. My wife is fantastic in time-management and running our family business allows her to be available to our kids at any time of the day. I am lucky to be the fun father – I do movie nights, organise weekend picnics and hikes with the kids.
What are the future plans for the business?
COVID-19 affected all our properties and the Thailand one was shut for the longest time. Now we are open but only in small numbers. We are hopeful that tourism will resume at some point in 2021. Once that happens, we will be ready to rock and roll! After all, if there was ever a time for people to be health-conscious, it is now.
How similar or different are your children? Whom do they take after?
My son has my wife’s face and my personality. My daughter has my face and my wife’s personality. It’s amazing how genetics work!
One of the most frightening moments of your life was when your daughter nearly died. How did that happen?
Emma was 42 days old when she “died”. My wife was breastfeeding her and the next thing we know, she was choking and turned blue. My mother was around and performed CPR on her. She was then taken to the hospital and stayed in the NICU for one week and in the ward for another.
What happened is called ALTE which is similar to SIDS. ALTE stands for Almost Life-Threatening Event. The good news for us is that our daughter is today perfectly fine and completely recovered!
Have you done anything to raise awareness about the subject since? How has that changed you and your family?
One year later, my wife started the Crayon Run in Discovery Bay to donate money to the Society for the Relief of Disabled Children (SRDC) and the Duchess of Kent Children Hospital in Hong Kong. It is a much-loved family run in our neighbourhood, Discovery Bay. We donate all proceeds to sick kids in Hong Kong.
I am so grateful to have a healthy daughter now. After the incident, I changed all structure of Kapuhala resorts to make them disabled-friendly, although it was originally for Emma (in case she had brain damage). This incident made me realise that we needed to be inclusive to people who are not physically able to access facilities and we also needed to hire and train staff that understand their needs.
Which achievements are you most proud of?
I have a healthy family that loves me (I think!) and I broke a few marathon records in Hong Kong.
I am a 3-time local champion of the Hong Kong Marathon and marathon record holder of the AG Ironman World Championship.
What do you most enjoy about living in Hong Kong? Do you like bringing up your kids here?
My kids are basically from Hong Kong, although Francesco was born in Italy. Of course, any European expat would complain about their lack of living space in this city, but I love the fact that our kids are quadrilingual – they speak English, Italian, Cantonese and Mandarin (I’m not even including a smattering of Tagalog as well!). They also get to acquire the “latest knowledge” in the world. My son is into coding and my daughter does drawing via an Edtech company in China. It’s easy to learn about and access these sort of things in Hong Kong because the people here are ahead in technology.
Having said that, it’s equally important for us to expose the kids to nature and rural life. They spend four months in Sicily last year (when we were stuck overseas because of COVID) and picked all sorts of vegetables. I’d say we have the best of both worlds.
What do you enjoy most about being a father? And what is the most challenging aspect?
I am a traditional guy, so sometimes I overwork or overstress because I want to make sure my family (including my staff and their families) are taken care of. The result of this is the time spent with my children may not be as optimised as I’d like to be, but I am working on that!
After a long day, what’s your favourite way to unwind?
Like any good Italian, I cook! My kids’ favourite meal is Zucchinara, a revisited version of Carbonara but plant-based. My favourite evening is to enjoy this together with my family and hang out with my wife after the kids are asleep.
What advice do you have for young entrepreneurs in Hong Kong?
Do not be fooled by “shallow innovation”. One of the big conclusions that I reached is that many great minds these days are focused on incremental innovations rather than disruptive ones. Therefore, emphasis is given to gimmick rather than impact (unfortunately).
My suggestion is:
- Go for deep and ethical innovation
- Be bold, break rules
- Most importantly, never forget to smile! In the end, this is all a big, nice game.