"Leadership isn't really about systems. It's all about trying to understand their day-to-day psychology and build win-win situations where you seek out what they're trying to optimize for." - Chia Jeng Yang
Chia is a Principal at Saison Capital, a leading FinTech-focused venture capital fund, who has done especially well in emerging markets like Southeast Asia and India. Their direct investments include Grab, Southeast Asia's largest startup and super-app, as well as ShopBack, Southeast Asia's largest shopping and cashback rewards platform. Their limited partner investments include some of the top- performing funds in Southeast Asia, like East Ventures and Beenext, as well as global funds like Quona Capital and Antler.
He runs good-admissions, a Harvard Business School admissions advice platform where all proceeds go to charity. He also angel invests in marketplace and consumer startups in emerging markets like Indonesia, Bangladesh, and Egypt. His educational background includes a law undergraduate degree from Cambridge and will be doing his Harvard MBA in the future. He likes indie music, hiking and writes about venture capital at his website, which can be found at www.chiajy.com.
[00:02:21] Jeremy Au: Welcome Chia! What do you not do?
[00:02:25] Chia Jeng Yang: Hi Jeremy, it's great to be on the platform. Thank you so much for having me.
[00:02:29] Jeremy Au: Yeah, it's an absolute pleasure. So, everybody wants to know about your personal journey. Why don't you tell us about your personal journey in leadership?
[00:02:41] Chia Jeng Yang: Yeah, absolutely. It's been an adventure for sure. I think I've been one of the people who have taken an unconventional path into multiple fields, as well as being involved in different organizations in different geographies. One of the places where this really began was after high school, being conscripted by the Singapore National Service and immediately being thrown as a 19 year old to lead platoons of firefighters fighting fires in Singapore, and eventually helping to manage an entire (firefighter) company of 200 over people. Taking that experience and going to university in the UK where I was helping to build a thinktank in Cambridge from a 3-person outfit to a 120-person registered charity.
Being involved from firefighting to public policy, and then moving to the tech and startup world that we all know and love, I joined Rocket Internet, where I was helping to build the team of 50 in Sri Lanka to a hundred and over person team. That was then eventually bought over by Alibaba, before moving on to manage other teams and impact investing in the venture capital world through Antler, building Shaper Impact Capital, which is now a 60 person platform on the side, and now also running my investment team at Saison Capital.
[00:04:21] Yeah, super good fun, I learned a lot along the way, and it was definitely a messy experience, but you get a lot from that.
[00:04:27] Jeremy Au: It's just been amazing to see your journey over the years. What I've heard from you often has been about the leadership and its importance in the high growth technology industry. Could you share a little bit more about why it's so important?
[00:04:42] Chia Jeng Yang: Yeah, absolutely. One of the questions that I had when I was trying to start my career is, "What are the skillsets and areas that we should optimize for? How do you scale those things that you optimize for?"
[00:04:58] A couple of those things that came to me as being very important was capital and being able to manage and scale capital. A lot about business is really about understanding finance, understanding how to apply money to get results.
[00:05:13] The second thing which is equally as important is that these companies are made of people. It's not just "Throw money on an Excel sheet and you get results", it's about how you organize a group of people, give them processes, tools and leadership to allow them to build something that you've envisioned.
[00:05:34] So at the end of the day, the two things that I thought were really important - and why I really love my job - is the understanding of how do you scale capital, and also how do you scale people. As an investor into tech companies, that's something that I see on a daily basis.
[00:05:51] Jeremy Au: You've had such an interesting journey personally as well, from being a law undergraduate to where you are today. How did you get started? Talk us through it.
[00:06:03] Chia Jeng Yang: Yeah, it was definitely a messier experience. There's no job portal to apply for this career path.
[00:06:12] How I started was really starting out as a law student and deciding after I interned in a bunch of firms that that (path) wasn't really for me. It wasn't being in the pilot seat that I always wanted to be, and so making a hard pivot against the advice of some of my smarter colleagues at the time to go into startups and tech and try to understand that world around me. So second year undergrad, I reached out to my network, tried to grab anything I could and fortunately landed a venture capital internship. Really enjoyed it.
[00:06:49] When I graduated, I cold-emailed about 80 CEOs and asked them, "Hey, I'm a law student. Give me a job." Wasn't the most effective pitch, but I got a bit lucky and a couple of CEOs were willing to take me on and say, "Yeah, okay, I'll give you a chance". That landed me from Cambridge post-graduation to two weeks later, landing in the airport in Karachi, and helping them build e-comm companies.
[00:07:15] Jeremy Au: Amazing. So which hurdles did you personally face and how did you overcome them?
[00:07:21] Chia Jeng Yang: Yeah. I think that the main hurdle for me at the time was really about trying to persuade people that I was valuable to them. Having a legal background wasn't something that most people were particularly excited to have when they were trying to build companies.
[00:07:40] One thing I really learned early on was that I need to be a really good salesperson because I need to sell myself somehow because I have zero skills for them. That was obvious.
[00:07:52] The second thing also was reframing the way I thought from "This is who I am. This is what I've accomplished. I'm really good. Trust me. You should hire me" to " Is there any problems that they were looking out for? Could I proactively be helpful and just demonstrate the value that I had from what I was actually doing for them in that moment rather than anything on the CV?" As a result of that, you're learning how to look at things from the other perspective.
[00:08:20] Jeremy Au: Definitely. You've really gone through quite a journey and you've seen many leaders in play, both as people that you've reported to as well as invested in. Who would you say would be a role model for you in terms of leadership?
[00:08:36] Chia Jeng Yang: Somebody I've really looked up to from afar is HBS (Harvard Business School) alumni and Singaporean Philip Yeo, who used to run Singapore's Economic Development Board. So, this is basically the board that helps to increase investment as well as foreign MNCs (Multi-National Corporations) building companies in Singapore.
[00:08:58] That is why Singapore is now a key hub for the region. One thing that he does really well, in the book that he recently released a couple of years ago, was to talk about and really emphasize not grand theories of leadership , not only philosophical/ psychological things or very academic systems, but he really goes and talks about how to tackle problems in a very pragmatic way. Being very aware of the details, being very aware about how individuals on the front line react to particular policies. I think his attention to ordinary psychology and attention to detail was something that I really enjoyed.
[00:09:43] Another person that I really look up to is Magnus Grimeland from Antler. He was one of the leaders that could easily inspire somebody. If you were having a really rough week, just have a few minutes with him and you'd be really pumped up about what you're going to do. I haven't seen many people who can really stir the people that work under him. The big takeaway from these two people is emphasizing the message that leadership isn't really about systems. It's also about day-to-day psychology. If you don't have a good understanding and good mental model about how people work, I don't think that you can really understand how to manage a team or even invest.
[00:10:27] Jeremy Au: That's so true. Could you share a little bit more about how you came to understand that and how that plays out in the real world around you?
[00:10:38] Chia Jeng Yang: I've had a unique experience managing volunteer groups and helping to scale volunteer groups from two people to a hundred-plus. That for me has always come across as a really interesting challenge because that's the ultimate test of motivating people to get things done in an organized way.
[00:10:58] In work, you can pay them or threaten to fire them. But for volunteers, you don't really have that many levers. So, the ones that you have, you better know how to use them really well. When I'm talking to volunteers, especially convincing them to join a project of mine, it's all about trying to understand their psychology and build win-win situations where you seek out what they're trying to optimize for.
[00:11:22] When you scale that to a certain size, when it's 10, 20, 30 people, you then start to think about it in broader, systematic terms of how can I institutionalize some of these benefits for volunteers, etc.
[00:11:38] Jeremy Au: I've often found that at the end of the day, every person who is in a high growth startup is not just an employee. They're also a volunteer who has made an intentional choice to sign up with the vision and the mission and the team at play. So, there are so many similarities between what you just said and the real-life dynamics about growing a high growth business.
[00:12:03] What would you say are some common myths in the leadership for high growth companies?
[00:12:09] Chia Jeng Yang: There are a few myths out there that people have both as a founder and also as an investor. One of it especially comes when we talk about hiring and growing a team. It is seen frequently as a very passive role until you reach the point of time where you're sitting in front of someone else. And then you might have some elements of selling that position.
[00:12:35] It’s really a reflection of who the company is, what the company has done and how they communicate it themselves way before that interview or interaction is taking place. It's about building up your identity. It's about building up your philosophy and it's about being someone or the organization that people can feel real empathy and want to contribute to. That's not something that you do only when you have someone in front of you when you're doing that final interview. So that's a key piece that a lot of people miss.
[00:13:10] And I think that leadership also is about supporting a team that is proactively smarter than you. A lot of people think of leadership as "We're going to do anything that we are going to do because we are the leaders and that's going to be awesome". But it's about first getting a team of people that are smarter than you to, for some reason, work for you. And then also managing all of what they want to do because you are the vehicle to channel all of that ambition in a productive way.
[00:13:45] Jeremy Au: Great. There are others who are considering a similar personal and professional journey to yours. What support, resources or process would you recommend to them?
[00:13:55] Chia Jeng Yang: It's a question I ask myself a lot. I found it to be one of the fields you really can't read up much on.
[00:14:03] I enjoyed personally talking to psychologists and founders because they always seem to have a unique and diverse philosophy when it comes to how to manage and deal with people.
[00:14:16] I do enjoy seeing founders across different geographies, across different stages of business, across different mental archetypes, deal with particular situations. Their reactions to that, and then compare and contrast that, has been a very fascinating part of trying to understand what might be a better approach in what situations. And so that's been really helpful.
[00:14:41] And of course, the very rare, super good podcast that Jeremy is building.
[00:14:46] Jeremy Au: So, wrapping up Chia, people just also want to know you personally. What are some recent books that you've read recently that you'd like to share with the people out there?
[00:14:58] Chia Jeng Yang: I've recently been rereading, while trapped at home, has been a very old book by Bilahari Kausikan, who is Singapore's very famous ambassador and diplomat. I really liked the way he thinks and the way he writes, because he always tears apart conventional narratives by talking about the nuances within them, rather than speculating about what the future might hold and having very grabby headline quotes. The title of the book is "Singapore Is Not An Island: Views On Singapore Foreign Policy".
[00:15:45] What I really like about it is that he talks about cause and effect among different stakeholders that you might not have read about, and it really helps you put yourself into the shoes of other actors, which has been a really interesting way for me to say, "Oh, this is how an actor is treating me in real life. What could some of the hidden nuances, stakeholders and issues be affecting him that I should or can predict?" So, the way that he applies that nuance to geopolitics is something I try to also apply to my day to day lives.
[00:16:29] Jeremy Au: So, Chia, you like hiking, which is also a passion that I share. What has been one of your favorite hikes ever?
[00:16:38] Chia Jeng Yang: So, when I was a lot more foolhardy, I did Everest Base Camp by myself, which was not as smart of an idea as I initially thought because it's basically a 10-day hike. Day Six I started puking blood and I thought to myself, "This is just a cold. I should reach the top, which is Base Camp, and then come back as fast as I can so that I can recover quickly" , which sounds semi-intelligent until I realized post-haste that I was not a doctor and what I actually had was altitude sickness.
[00:17:21] So the faster I went, the sicker I got, which to my mind was a very strange correlation. And as I successfully reached the top puking blood all the way there, I had to be helicoptered out of Everest Base Camp. In hindsight, not a super smart, decision to do, but Nepal looks great from a helicopter.
[00:17:44] Jeremy Au: Wow. That's one hell of a story to share with people at a party. Well, thank you so much Chia for sharing your perspective and experience with everyone out there.
[00:17:53] Chia Jeng Yang: Thanks for having me, Jeremy. This was a really fun conversation.