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

Several high-profile women from the region’s active investment firms share their thoughts with KrASIA on gender diversity.

At 25 years old, Melisa Irene was promoted to become the youngest partner at Jakarta-based East Ventures, one of the most prolific investment firms in Southeast Asia. This is the venture capital firm that has backed some of Indonesia’s household names, like Tokopedia, Traveloka, Ruangguru, CoHive, and Kudo (which was acquired by Grab).

Her appointment in January 2019 undoubtedly sent a noticeable signal across the region’s tech ecosystem: A woman can become partner in a high-profile office that operates in the complex tech sector of Indonesia.

In an announcement by East Ventures at the time, the firm’s managing partner Willson Cuaca took note of Irene’s remarkable rise at the firm after she joined the team as an intern in 2015.

Since then, she has been involved in some of East Ventures’ major projects, including Grab’s acquisition of the firm’s portfolio company Kudo. She has also been instrumental in supporting the emergence of notable startups such as CoHive and Warung Pintar.

In January 2019, Melisa Irene was promoted to partner at East Ventures, one of the most active VC firms in Southeast Asia. At 25 years old, she is the youngest person ever to be appointed to this position within the firm. Photo courtesy of East Ventures.

Breaking into an industry run by men

In a recent interview with KrASIA, Irene, who is now in charge of East Ventures’ Indonesian operation, recalled the sense of trepidation when she first received the offer to become partner. “Willson told me that ‘you’d never be truly ready when a new role comes,’ which is true, because we’ll always have doubts about ourselves. It took me several days before I finally accepted his offer,” she said.

Yet Irene’s case is an exception rather than the norm. In Southeast Asia, where cash has been pouring in to fund breakneck growth in the region’s digital economy, women often have no say when investors determine where their money will be channeled. 

KrASIA reviewed the rosters of 34 VC firms that are active in Southeast Asia. The results were telling. Only 12 firms have one or more female partners on their investment teams. Among them, three firms stood out: Golden Equator Ventures (Singapore) and RHL Ventures (Malaysia) each have three women as partners, while Gobi Partners (Malaysia) has two appointments for women.

This comes as no surprise, as venture capital has been known to be a male-dominated industry. However, even though women are a minority in Southeast Asia’s newly formed VC circles, they are still a growing force with burgeoning influence.

Too aggressive, too ambitious?

“Sometimes, the gender bias comes from comments such as, ‘You’re too smart, you’re too aggressive,'” said Rachel Lau, managing partner of Kuala Lumpur-based private investment firm RHL Ventures. “If I were a guy, nobody would say that.”

In 2016, at the age of 30, Lau co-founded RHL Ventures with two of her friends, Raja Hamzah Abidin and Lionel Leong, to focus on growth capital investments in Southeast Asia and the United States. Bloomberg referred to the trio as “rich Asian millennials” who want to “attract outside capital and build the firm into becoming Southeast Asia’s leading independent investment group.”

RHL Ventures already had one exit via US-based Sidestep. Its other notable portfolio companies include HealthMetrics, Signature Market (both from Malaysia), and Perx Technologies (Singapore).

Rachel Lau (rightmost) alongside her co-founders and partner at the launch of RHL Ventures’ accelerator program in Kuala Lumpur in November 2019. Photo courtesy of RHL Ventures.

Like Irene, Lau is no stranger to success at a young age. She is the second youngest person ever appointed to the board of directors of a company listed on the New York Stock Exchange. When she was 26, Lau was vice president of Heitman Investment Management in Hong Kong and Australia.

Carrying that early experience from an overseas public market, Lau started RHL Ventures to provide “patient capital” to build companies meant for the long run in Southeast Asia.

“When we first started RHL Ventures, age was a much bigger discriminating factor as opposed to gender,” Lau said. “I got a lot of discrimination from the fact that I was young and that I had never been in venture capital before.” She agrees that the industry can be very tough on women because “it’s long hours, you have to travel a lot, and you have to be aggressive.”

Lau’s sentiments are echoed elsewhere.

Goh Yiping, a partner at Quest Ventures, also agrees that the bias can surface when women are perceived as being too ambitious. Sometimes, people are surprised to see her “partner” title on her business card. “But mostly because I look young—I’m not that young,” said 38-year-old Yiping. The fact that there are “too few female partners at senior positions [in VC firms] probably helps propagate the stereotype.”

Goh Yiping is a partner at Quest Ventures, a VC firm that has backed prominent startups in Singapore, like Carousell and 99.co. Photo courtesy of Quest Ventures.

Before joining Quest Ventures in 2015, Yiping had already worked in tech for more than two decades. She previously founded several startups, including All Deals Asia, an online aggregator of retail deals that was acquired by Indonesia’s Lippo Group in 2014. Last year, she was named by Harper’s Bazaar Singapore as one of the city-state’s women aged under 40 who are “paving the way in the tech and digital spheres.”

Why did she decide to cross the line and go from founder to investor? “I wanted to know whether venture capital could be my cup of tea in the future,” Yiping told KrASIA. “I want to become the kind of investor that I would have wanted to work with when I was a founder.”

More women investors are needed at the table

In 2014, after years of working in government-backed venture capital initiatives in Singapore, Carmen Yuen got a call and was asked to join Vertex Ventures’ team that covers Southeast Asia and India.

Six years on, Vertex Ventures has made a name for itself in Southeast Asia, having backed star startups such as Grab, Warung Pintar, Validus, and Spacemob (which was acquired by WeWork in 2017). Last year, Vertex Ventures closed its fourth fund for investments in Southeast Asia and India at the record amount of USD 305 million.

Yuen said she loves working in venture capital because “you’re in constant conversation with founders who have ideas about how they want to do things better, how they want to shape the world better.”

“Entrepreneurship is such a lonely journey, and entrepreneurs are human beings. You can listen to them. You can give them constructive input. And in that process, your circle of friends expands and it becomes meaningful,” she said.

Carmen Yuen joined Vertex Ventures in 2014. She loves working in venture capital because “you’re always in constant conversation with founders who have ideas about how they want to do things better, how they want to shape the world better.” Photo courtesy of Vertex Ventures.

As the only female partner at Vertex Ventures’ office in Singapore, Yuen does not think her approach to her line of work is different than her male counterparts, but agrees that sometimes women investors might be able to better understand the “nuances” of how founders communicate, especially when it comes to the dynamic between male and female co-founders.

Sharing similar sentiments, Irene of East Ventures believes women investors sometimes have a softer approach. “For example, when a company is in trouble, I wouldn’t confront the founders. I’d rather have a deep discussion with them to find out what went wrong and what we can do to fix the problems,” she said.

Although only 5% of the founders in East Ventures’ portfolio are women right now, Irene sees constant improvement. In the past four deals that she managed, the companies all have women in leadership roles, including healthy food startup Greenly (Indonesia) and on-demand caregiving service platform Homage (Singapore).

As to whether women investors are actively looking for women-led entrepreneurs, the female partners whom KrASIA spoke to all agree that their priorities lie in robust business models, although there is an appreciation for business ideas with women at their core.

Yiping from Quest Ventures said about 37% of the firm’s portfolio companies have at least one female co-founder, and her own experience of giving birth made her more appreciate of operational models that benefit women consumers with strong business trajectories meant for long-term sustainability.

Can Southeast Asia do better than Silicon Valley?

According to a study by All Raise, a nonprofit organization based in San Francisco that has the goal of boosting the amount of funding for female founders, 65% of venture firms in the US have zero female partners.

For Gobi Partners chairman and founding partner Thomas Tsao, Southeast Asian investors can “absolutely” do better than their peers in the US. Those in the field of venture capital are keenly aware of the need to have different perspectives at the table.

“We don’t have to repeat the same mistakes [that were made by] Silicon Valley. We can do better.” he said. “Women understand women consumers more, and that is extremely important for us as we go into different markets.” Gobi Partners currently has two female partners on its team. The goal is to have 50% female representation on the firm’s senior leadership team in the future, according to Tsao.

According to a white paper on overcoming barriers to women’s leadership by US-based Center for Creative Leadership, gender diversity for any organization should not be about hitting a diversity target, but about cultivating an inclusive culture.

A recent study from the center polling 319 professionals working and residing in the Asia Pacific region—including Singapore, Malaysia, and the Philippines—shows that when it comes to breaking down career barriers, women see a lack of support from men and their employers as a much more significant hurdle than men do.

“In investment, we always talk about net weight average. And if we bring this concept into VC or PE, the net weight average of voices on the table are now all men,” said Yiping of Quest Ventures. “I believe that with more diversity, the future of startups, VCs, the M&A space, or even the world would become more sustainable.”