She is Singapore’s first female VC and has decades of steely leadership under her belt. Still, Koh Soo Boon credits the beginning of her journey to her mother, who believed in the importance of women being financially independent. This helped her take a leap of faith in pursuing an overseas education alone in the United Kingdom nearly 40 years ago.
Since then, Koh has had an eventful career leading Vertex Ventures in Silicon Valley in the 1980s before founding iGlobe Partners in the 1990s. iGlobe Partners has certainly made its mark with a slew of stellar investments across the startup scene, helping to build up renowned companies such as Unity, Hoolah, and Anacle, amongst others. iGlobe’s patience is also evident in some of its long-term deals: for instance, a semiconductor company she had invested in 17 years ago recently listed in August, reaping her a 30-fold return.
“When many people were selling, I bought, because I believed in the entrepreneur’s vision. Betting on the right horse takes a longer time and you need patience and perseverance. Think about giving it to your grandchildren, because an investment is for generations,” Koh told viewers of KrASIA’s Venture Matters TV on Thursday evening.
An old economy meets a new world
Over the decades, Koh has witnessed the rise and fall of entrepreneurs in both what she calls “the old economy and the new economy.” “The profile of people from our fathers and grandfathers’ generation is different: As immigrants, they were poor, hungry, and not well-educated. However, they were very hardworking and motivated, because they seek a better life for themselves and their families. They sometimes made mistakes. Those who persevered and became successful are all over—like Hong Leong, the Kuok brothers, and Shangri-la hotel group.” In terms of funding and ownership, these entrepreneurs from the old world bootstrapped their endeavours and owned the majority of their companies rather than seeking external funding. Such towkays—a traditional Hokkien word for ‘boss’— were gritty businessmen who squeezed costs to ensure good revenues, not shying away from the twenty to thirty years it took to succeed.
The profile of entrepreneurs in today’s new economy is markedly different. “Young entrepreneurs are now tech-savvy, such as Tan Min Liang of Razer or Forrest Li of Sea Group,” says Koh. The funding situation is also different. “Founders normally own less than 50% of the company, with the VC owning much more… The business model can scale very fast, and explosively. These kids take only ten years when rich old men took thirty.” And compared to the towkays of the past, new entrepreneurs are knowledgeable and well-educated, which gives them an edge in preventing easy duplication of their technology. “Because these entrepreneurs possess domain knowledge, it is hard for VCs to run the company themselves,” explains Koh.
Still, the same pitfalls can bring any entrepreneur crashing down. “The most common pitfall is arrogance. If you are arrogant, you do not listen to your customer—it is not about what you want to give to the customer but what the customer wants,” warns Koh.
This informs her criteria when picking which entrepreneurs to nurture. “We always consider: Is this entrepreneur coachable? When I meet very successful people, they are very humble. It pays because people talk to you and you listen.” Other timeless leadership traits also help her separate the wheat from the chaff. “Can a founder put the company and the staff’s interests before themselves? Can they work as a team?” Koh queries. “If you want to make money, this is the wrong job for you, because it is very hard to make money,” says Koh. “When an entrepreneur is down, many people may run away, but we will look at the situation. We will help them if they deserve to be helped.”
Stick to your guns
Koh has contributed to the growth and maturation of technologies that many take for granted now. During the rise of the Internet in the mid-1990s, she was also a pioneer investor in smart card technology, the very backbone of commonplace payment and identification transactions in our daily lives.
Despite these tumultuous times, Koh credits fundamental skills for her investment acumen. After she graduated, she joined the Development Bank of Singapore (DBS) as a credit lending officer across a wide swathe of industries from shipbuilding to real estate. Later on, she capitalized on her understanding of risk assessment and loan syndication to inform her approach to VC investment as well. “At DBS, all 8 offices I was in charge of were all over the world. How do I learn how to make remote decisions based on inadequate information? And how much information do I need to make judgments? If there are many moving parts, I have to trust in what the general manager is telling me, know the strengths and weaknesses of each general manager, and intimately understand the industry the potential client is in. The information that people give me will not be 100% true even if they think that they are not lying. Ultimately, judgments need to be made because this is a business decision.”
Still, Koh understands how intimidating the tech world can be. “In venture capital, there are many unknowns, especially in technology. You cannot touch, feel, or smell software. That is why so many Singaporean companies want to invest in real estate… The only thing people can say about Microsoft is its share price, and if a software company is private, there is nothing to show. That is scary for people who have not fully transitioned to dealing with technology.”
In the face of these unknowns, Koh thinks persistence sets Silicon Valley apart from other communities worldwide. “Silicon Valley culture is different, which is why many governments in the world want to copy this. It is a can-do culture of not giving up. When we started examining the failures of previous portfolio companies looking back, we found that we were quite accurate in predicting their business trends. So when a particular company fails, it is because the entrepreneur gives up. If they don’t give up, they have another day to live, and they will be successful.”
Network, network, network
Koh cannot emphasize enough the value of networking. In her earlier years as a university student, living and studying alone in London forced her to hone networking skills as a matter of survival—which she later deployed for business as well. But aside from her own grit, she credits her extensive networks to a medley of interesting factors.
Koh believes that her first orientation into the Silicon Valley VC industry was catalyzed by the discovery that her children attended the same school as many other VCs’ children. This inadvertently led to her form strong bonds with industry titans while their kids went on playdates. “We did not meet each other through our office. We were friends through our children—so please be nice to your kids! It’s a very natural way of networking because when you go through the door with business first, it is a very different kind of relationship.”
Aside from this, she was also especially grateful to the mentorship she herself received from Mr Huang, the co-founder of Cadence Design Systems, and Mr Choi, former CEO of Lattice Semiconductors. The two men helped open up many networks for her as a fledgling investor, and later on, pushed her to step outside her comfort zone and set up her own fund herself. “I had always been very happy working for other people, so I didn’t think about working for myself,” explained Koh. “But there came a phase where I thought it might be good to do my own thing, which was why I started iGlobe Partners in the USA. In fact, we have a really good address in the US, called The Great American Parkway in Santa Clara,” she added on optimistically.
Men are allies, not the enemy
Koh took a winding road to the venture capital industry. Initially, she had only gone to Silicon Valley on a one-year break from work to accompany her husband, who had been posted there. But as a stay-home mother, she grew restless. Her talent also did not go unnoticed. Shortly after, she was approached to serve as ‘center head’ of Singapore Technologies. Many of her initial portfolio companies were in the fabless semiconductor space, in order to drive synergies between the US industry and Chartered Semiconductor Manufacturing (a fab backed by Singapore Technologies). This was despite her coming from a mathematics background and having no prior industry experience.
To help bring out the potential in other women, Koh decided to give back. “Eleven years ago, I decided to be a council member of the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce. Many of Singapore’s “old rich” are old fashioned. I went there to try to change mindsets,” said Koh. Over her time as a council member, Koh served as chairwomen of their career women’s group, initiating education efforts to help younger women. “In the chamber’s council, 34 of the 36 council members were men—some wanted us, aunties, to help connect with their daughters,” she said with a laugh. “Women have a natural inclination to be more nurturing—such as nurturing both kids and entrepreneurs. We can listen to wants and needs,” she said.
Koh thinks that bringing more women in needs to be an intentional effort. “In my venture portfolio, we have a couple of female CEOs who managed to list their companies on the NASDAQ. If our portfolio’s CEO and key members are men, we try to see if we can get a few more women inside.” Still, Koh feels that self-limitation is often what holds women back. “Many women put themselves in a box…Women must be willing to go in. I can bring the horse to the water, but if it does not drink, I cannot help them.”
How else can the community help women? Koh thinks that it should start from early childhood education—such as through coding lessons and career guidance. This is crucial because the jobs of today will not be the jobs of the future. “I have a crazy idea where the government can give women special tax incentives to start this. In the past, when women gave birth before the age of 28, the government would give out special tax incentives for the next five years,” suggests Koh.
But passion, and a willingness to explore areas of interest despite risk of failure, is the biggest determinant. “Sun Yanzi is independently successful and she has built an empire,” says Koh. “Being an artiste is also a business. It is something very different.”
The “Venture Matters” webinar series will return for its 7th episode soon. Stay tuned for updates.