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Gobi Partners’ Shannon Kalayanamitr on reinventing herself after exiting Orami

Leaving the company you built is hard, but there are new opportunities to be discovered.

Startup founder turns VC partner Shannon Kalayanamitr. Photo courtesy of Shannon Kalayanamitr.

Shannon Kalayanamitr is not a new figure in the tech industry. Born in the United States to an entrepreneur family, Kalayanamitr was raised to one day start her own business. When she was 12 years old, her family repatriated to Thailand. The multicultural upbringing equipped her with a global perspective as well as an understanding of local roots. It’s a combination that has informed how she conducts businesses.

Prior to working in technology, Kalayanamitr cut her teeth in investment banking with PwC and Lehman Brothers. In late 2005, she joined Thailand’s most popular beer company, Singha, and oversaw its marketing in 44 countries.

Things changed in 2011, when she joined Lazada. Kalayanamitr found her entrepreneurial push there. Shortly after, in 2013, she co-founded the women’s e-commerce platform Moxy. Three years later, the company merged with Indonesian parent-focused Bilna to become Orami. During her years at the company, Shannon served as chief marketing officer. However, in 2017, she left the company she built with her own hands and embarked on a new adventure.

After a series of attempts to start another business, Kalayanamitr was approached by the Shanghai- and Kuala Lumpur-based venture capital firm Gobi Partners to join them as a venture partner in mid-2018. Approximately one-third of Gobi’s 250 portfolio companies, she said, are founded by women, reflecting how the investment firm was able to identify that women were underserved.

In October 2018, Kalayanamitr represented Gobi in a pledge to invest USD 50 million in businesses established by women. It was part of The Billion Dollar Fund, a global campaign organized by the Global Funders Consortium that seeks to raise USD 1 billion over the next decade. Kalayanamitr said Gobi has deployed half of their portion to various women-led businesses across China and Southeast Asia.

KrASIA recently sat down with Kalayanamitr to hear about her experiences as a startup founder and VC partner, her departure from Orami, and more.

KrASIA (Kr): Can you tell us about your responsibilities as a venture partner?

Shannon Kalayanamitr (SK): As a venture partner, I dealt more with deal sourcing. I attend some of the investment meetings. So it is more investment- and deal-centric.

Read this: In Southeast Asia, women investors are a growing force in the startup space

Kr: In Gobi, there are only two women partners, including you. What hinders gender diversity in VC firms, especially in Southeast Asia?

SK: I think there’s a lot of women VCs in Southeast Asia right now. I belong to a lot of VC groups, like the Girls in Tech WhatsApp chat group, there’s a bunch of women in there who are partners or investment associates. And a lot of them are in Hong Kong as well as Southeast Asia. I feel that there’s always something more we could do. There is still some sort of hesitations with women becoming entrepreneurs and leaders.

At least, in this chat group, there are 147 participants. However, there are two to three times more men [as VC partners]. So, women are still underrepresented.

Underrepresentation also means this: Are women decision-makers in that fund or not? Are they being represented? When you talk about conglomerates or people on the board, you might see a woman’s face there. For example, Thailand has the highest number of women C-suite figures in the world; there are a lot of family businesses. So they put their daughters on the boards, sons as the CEOs, but really the decisions are made out of the board room. Maybe she is not allowed to say something.

So, are women leading the charge in different things, are women just running the numbers? Are they saying anything? The issue is more than just meeting a quota. Numbers don’t say much unless these women are given the same opportunities, presenting their diverse viewpoints, and having their say. This goes the same with all women funds as well. I’m not completely for 100% women funds either. The main point is diversity and having equal say for both men and women.

Kr: Can you elaborate more on the hesitation in women to become leaders?

SK: There’s a lot of research in this area. If men think they could do 50% of the job, they’ll say yes, while women feel that they need to be able to do 80–90% to say yes. These are normal gender issues, although in the VC field and banking, there are some women who are really assertive. They know their data, and they are very quantitative, and those are the people who I think are really excelling right now.

Venture capital needs many different types of people, from those with entrepreneurship backgrounds to others who are quantitative. I feel that because the VC industry is still relatively new, some women say, “Oh, do you think I can do it?” And I’m like, “You just have to know what you are supposed to do, what your roles and responsibilities are, and then just go for it.” You have to think you’ll be able to do it.

I think gender diversity, especially in international venture capital across the region, we’ve been pretty good. But there’s still a long way to go.

Kr: Did you have internal struggles when you first joined Gobi? How did you overcome them?

SK: I still do. There’s still a learning curve in things that I need to pick up. I know myself. With every new job that I take, it takes a while for me to understand what it is that I need to do. It takes a bit before I can think, “Okay, I get the hang of this.” That’s phase two.

Then, phase three is this: “Okay, I’m doing really well now and I feel like I’m adding value.” The great thing is, I’ve had some really great mentors here at Gobi.

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Kr: What do you think are the benefits of having a gender-balanced team?

SK: Men and women have different traits and characteristics. For example, women nurture and men are assertive. We have seen the correlation between nurturing and having employees stay longer. We’ve seen financial gains as well, in terms of diversified teams versus all-male or all-female. Women are a little bit better in terms of controlling finances, but perhaps we don’t have a man that is more aggressive. Or, sometimes you’d see the male being the conservative one and women being the assertive ones. Basically, it’s a mix of different characteristics.

For example, when I was in women’s e-commerce, we needed a woman’s point of view in running a company targeting women. At the same time, there are pros and cons that sometimes a male can add as well. So, I think, the main essence is that there are many different views; everybody has different perspectives. It’s always good to see things from all sides, and that’s reflected all the way down through management, stakeholders, suppliers, employees, and also the consumers. You’ll see that it comes with a diversified team.

Kr: What have been some of the most challenging points in your job?

SK: Well, it wasn’t part of the job. When people are in a career, sometimes they feel like it’s their identity, and it was really difficult to reinvent my self—what interest did I have, what did I want to tackle, what did I do well and badly. . . You can experience a loss of identity.

After I left Orami, I wasn’t sure about what I wanted to do next. And it was a battle internally, in my mind. I tried to do one or two things, I went through a series of iterations—design sprints of what I wanted to do. Some of them worked, some of them didn’t. Then I decided to open my mind to not having an identity, and new opportunities came my way. Because of that, I was able to find Gobi and they found me.

I think a lot of people go through this. After you put aside your job, who are you? After you get divorced, who and what are you? I think that was the hardest thing I had to do, because it was a battle in my mind, and maybe I was being too hard on myself.

It was difficult. I didn’t want to leave Orami, but I had to.

Kr: You brought up your departure from Orami. Do you mind sharing why you left the company you helped build?

SK: I don’t know what’s in the press, but the founders and I did not agree on the strategy, and it was time to leave. It was amicable. It really was a difference in strategy and difference of opinion, and I could not add any value to their strategy.

Read this: Orami sets sights on becoming the first parenting super app

Kr: What are the differences between the operational side (Orami) and the investor side (Gobi Partners)? How did you adapt? Was the transition difficult?

SK: It is very different. Orami was very, very operational and we had a lot of projects. I was doing marketing, we had campaigns. I guess the difference is handling one company versus many companies. Functionally, I am doing different things.

For the other companies, what I’m doing is more portfolio management and helping to add value to them. They want to expand to another country, they are looking for funds, the portfolio company needs HR help—I help them. I also help them link up with other people when I don’t have the answers or core experiences. For Orami, what I was doing is more marketing, for the other ones, what I’m doing is more like business development.

In terms of functionality, I did fundraising at Orami, and I did fundraising at Gobi Partners. That’s pretty much the same, but I do have to brush up on capital markets, understand the investment climate—and not only on the VC level. I need to understand all the asset classes. When you are an investor, you might not invest in VC stuff, you might invest in private equity or retail, so you have to understand more on the banking side, and how investors or LPs actually allocate their assets.

It’s a steep learning curve. And I have amazing mentors and good friends. Mok [Kay Mok-Ku, Managing Director of Gobi ASEAN] is a great mentor. I’m trying to understand the roles and responsibilities and actually perform to match expectations. Of course, there are hits and misses.

Externally, I have a bunch of PE friends and some friends in investment forums that are really kind. It’s a very nice, very open community. I ask them questions, they give me answers. I talk to LPs too, and ask things like, “What are you looking for? What are your goals?” It’s a lot of getting up to date. Just like startups. You have to understand your clients, provide what they want, and understand the solutions.

Kr: Does your background as a startup founder help?

SK: It does. Because I need to be scrappy, need to quickly acclimate to this environment, and quickly understand all of it. There’s always more to learn. My banking side helps as well.

Kr: You have almost 18 years of experience in banking, entrepreneurship, and now venture capital. You are also very involved in women empowerment programs, especially in tech. What do you consider to be your proudest achievement?

SK: It changes over time. I’m proud of starting a business that did pretty well. It was a team effort, an achievement to be able to work with that team and be able to bring it to good days. The reason why I was hesitant [to present my work at Orami as an achievement] is because Orami is doing well, but I’m not there anymore.

When it comes to a lot of the women initiatives that I have done, I am really proud of those achievements. Because, again, it was not singlehandedly done by me, but by many other women in the region. The result is the climate now, for women, is different from ten years ago. And I was a part of it, and that was an achievement that I contributed to. The reason why I’m proud of it is because, now that I have two daughters, they will grow up in an environment where they don’t have to worry as much, where they know their opportunities, they know how to seize it.

Kr: Suppose your daughters want to follow your steps and become entrepreneurs. What advice would you give them?

SK: I’d have a pep talk about all my failures. My main message is really to keep trying. This isn’t the end of your book, there’s always another day. One of the main things I really want for my kids is just to keep trying. I don’t really like the saying “failure is a good thing.” It is, but it should not be taken lightly, you should learn from it. You actually have to, so I want them to keep trying, to have great persistence. I want them to be independent in their own way. They will have challenges, obstacles, but the main thing is how you pick yourself up. You can cry for three or six months, but don’t keep yourself down.

Kr: What skills should startup founders possess to leverage their business and position in the industry?

SK: For the founding team, you need to have the fundamental skills and functions taken care of. Obviously, there’s somebody who does product, which could be tech, and they really need to know your product. There’s somebody that’s very operational, because you need to have things in check. There are people in marketing and sales. There’s somebody who understands cash flow and how to maintain the company and grow. A lot of startups get stuck on their cash flow. It’s important to have a strong team that has a composition of core skill sets.

The second thing is that people need to understand chemistry and how to complement each other. A lot of founders split up, sometimes at the stage of Series A, B, or C.

Every company needs to have its competitive advantage by illustrating how they are different from everybody else. I say this a lot; take a pragmatic view, because a lot of pitches basically say, “I don’t have any competitors.”

Of course, you don’t have any competitors for this specific thing, but what is the value you bring to people? And how are you fitting their needs? There’s a ton of e-commerce platforms, a ton of logistics startups, so how are you different?

Kr: Can you offer any advice on how to convince investors when raising funds?

SK: Number one is this: Investors need to be confident that the startup will perform well. That’s really important.

The second point is that we [VCs] have to talk to the LPs to understand their needs. We have to work very closely with them. We work with LPs who are on the third or fourth round of funding us. And vice versa, because [learning about] their needs helps us with the portfolio companies and doing business partnerships together, and hopefully it helps them with their strategic views. Usually, LPs invest in with us [VC firms] for financial or strategic reasons, sometimes both. Angels usually want in for financial reasons, institutions as well. Conglomerates and family business groups want in for strategic reasons.

So, in short, have good track records and be able to provide what the LPs need.