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Elena Chow: Tech Wars, Winning A-Talent & Regional Trends

· Women,Web3,Start-up,Singapore,Podcast Episodes

That's the first thing I would tell founders. So you need to be able to pitch just like you would pitch to your VCs, and you need to be the one, the general at the front line and not getting your chief of staff or your HR person to be pitching to a talent. No A talent will want to be talking to a non founder at a first meeting, so you got to be on the front line -Elena Chow

Elena is the Founder of ConnectOne who since 2013 have partnered the early stage technology startup ecosystem to build and optimize teams for growth. In doing so, she and her team have met, coached and built a robust community of entrepreneurial minded individuals. She is well known for her generosity in mentoring startup founders, teaching at accelerators/incubators and doing corporate-to-startup career transition coaching.

 

Prior to ConnectOne, she had spent 15 years at Procter & Gamble. She is a proud mum of 4 kids aged 14 to 24. Outside of work, she teaches the youths in church, sits on a board of a kindergarten and is an advocate of functional training.

Jeremy Au: (00:30)
Hey Elena. Happy to have you on the show. I'm so glad to have a founder who is building out a talent platform for other startups across Southeast Asia, fighting the talent war and it's just amazing to see someone who's pushed through the COVID scenario, which has really bedevilled so many other companies. So thank you for coming on the show.
 

Elena Chow: (00:48)
Yeah. Hi Jeremy. Happy Friday. We should be out for drinks rather than looking at each other over the video. But anyway, you made me sound like a Goliath holding a shield and going out to war. Perhaps I'm more of a David with a slingshot.
 

Jeremy Au: (01:01)
Well, you can be both, I guess. Elena, who are you professionally?
 

Elena Chow: (01:05)
I'm the founder of Connect One. As you rightly introduce me to be, we actually help earlier stage startups build successful teams in Southeast Asia up to Hong Kong. So what does a successful team mean? Number one, we help them find the best talent, which summarizes as recruitment. Number two, we help them develop great teams. And that's where our H.R. or organization consulting kicks in. And the third part is actually living up to our name - Connect One where we help founders actually make meaningful connections to help them scale and that could include mentors, advisors, even investors. And that's only because we're fairly entrenched in the community, having been around from the early days and it's been eight years since we started working with startups.
 

Jeremy Au: (01:48)
So why found a talent platform.
 

Elena Chow: (01:51)
Hmm. Interesting. The first half of my career was spent selling Pringles and Pampers at Procter & Gamble. I was in customer business development, which is actually a cross between sales and marketing. So nothing to do with talent, nothing to do with H.R. At P&G be exposed to many different tasks and activities because we promote from within. We had to go to all the top universities and the different countries to actually sell the company.
So every year I would be the campus recruitment champion where I would lead a team of my fellow colleagues to the universities and we'll wine and dine the dean's list. We will conduct all these show and tell to would-be joiners. On reflection, actually, that was what I remember. That was the best moments, actually, of my career.
Not just bringing them in but also then helping them develop into better leaders. One of my most memorable ones would be this first class engineering student. He accompanied his girlfriend to our career talk. He had no intentions of being in consumer goods whatsoever. I liked him and I spent many hours talking to him about why P&G, why consumer goods.
He eventually joined and he told the many people that he had met thereafter in the company that he joined because of my passion because he wanted to be surrounded by people who love their job and company. So when I left P&G, I truly took a pause because I was pregnant and I gave birth to baby number 4, and I told myself that I needed a break to look after the kids; wasn't fair for me to be away for so many hours.
And so when I took that pause, I reflected on what I was going to do next. Actually, I thought I was going to be a housewife forever. But life is full of surprises, isn't it? So as a housewife and a full time mother, I did the right thing. I went to volunteer at my kid's school and was part of the parent support group and serendipitously I met this gentleman called Kelvin Tan, who is a fellow father who started work, actually joined NUS Enterprise and they were, as we know it at that time on tech entrepreneurship was really vibrant in the university. He was hired to actually optimize the startup incubation program, which was an addition from the NOC program that was already going on there. And he asked me to help. So for me at that time, start up, what's that but anyway, I just went along. There I was in NUS, I met a lot of founders in the university, learnt about what they were doing.
It was not tech, really, nor the problem that they were solving that I was sold on. But really the dreams and courage of these student entrepreneurs. I never had that when I was in NUS. Entrepreneurship was never even considered, not even an iota of mindspace. So when I hear all these, I mean to me this was the future of Singapore and I really wanted to help and maybe be a small part of this dream.
I did not have the money nor could I help build a product. And we know that obviously money and product would be the first two very important pillars for a startup to succeed. But I could certainly help with building teams and as I reflect that on what energized me in all my days in P&G and what I've learned, it was a perfect fit in a way
In fact, it's a dream come true. To be able to spend my second half of my career doing something that I so enjoyed at P&G. So that's kind of how I came and started this company in 2013.
 

Jeremy Au: (05:30)
Looking at your profile here. You've also done so much work for so many startups since then. You've placed so much talent over the years so I'm so curious about what you've learned about placing talent over the years. I mean, any tips and tricks around what it means to win talent in the technology world in these tech wars, as we talked about?
 

Elena Chow: (05:53)
So yeah, I've worked with definitely more than a hundred startups, maybe and maybe going back a bit. When I first started working with startups, first 18 months was sans income. There was no way any startups could pay us any money. It was a lot of pro bono work, this journey with the founders, advising them and thinking like, oh, a bit of an adult in the room that could help them be their coach and sounding board.
My first big break came during the taxi app wars, if you remember that, where there was Grab taxi at that time, there was Uber, there was Easy Taxi and my client was the fourth one. They were a Series B company from the UK called Halo, which was famously invented by Richard Branson, and they were coming into Singapore and Southeast Asia.
So that was really my first startup, I would say. Very soon after, it was also a fairly famous or infamous startup. And I think these two startups were really, I would say, the most memorable ones for me because that was when I could feel the impact of the stuff I was doing, especially with the second one, because they were scaling very quickly across the region and I was exposed to…so I had the mandate to actually help them fill or find the first boots on the ground for each country that they were in. At that time, I remembered I was literally pounding the streets. People didn't understand what startups were. Perhaps there was Lazada, there was Zalora, there was Grab and Grab was really small at that time, like ten people in Midview.

Elena Chow: (07:23)
So I was really pounding the streets and I would say selling dreams and trying to almost career coach these people to help them figure out that there's an alternative beyond being in a bank. So I think from there I learned really that to separate the fits and the non fit based on their mindset and a motivation and a mindset is like, Are you ready to do something different?
Are you ready to take a bit of risk in the job for your long term career? I told them very clearly that for a startup, they may not exist in 18 months. Are you prepared? Are you prepared to do that? And what do you wish for yourself? By joining at that time?
So it was a lot of that mindset and also then the motivation, like what's motivating you to talk to me? And also where are they in the Maslow hierarchy of needs? Do they have a kid? Do they have a family to look after? Because if they do, then I think we need to have a very open conversation because I think it's fair for you to suffer.
It's not fair to drag your family into it just because you want to have this dream. So there was a lot of that conversation and so I put it as the two M's, the motivation and the mindset. And only after that then let's talk about mastery. Let's talk about what skills do you have and what experience do you have.
And we start to then put you into different roles. So if you ask me what I have learnt along the way, it's these three points. For someone to succeed in the startup, it's really these three M’s - Do you have the right I know it sounds cliche, but really what is the mindset that you have and really what is the motivation?
What is the why? What is the reason you're going to give up this big banking job or leave Google to join a startup? I got to be very, very clear about that, or else you don't last more than three months or even six months. And then the third part, then we talk about skills and that's mastery. These are the three factors that has actually helped me to find successful talent and help startups build successful teams.
 

Jeremy Au: (09:28)
One interesting that you shared was about the taxi talent wars. Any good stories about the talent war in the context of the taxi wars?
 

Elena Chow: (09:35)
It was only positives because I came from a space. I came from FMCG where I would never talk to my Unilever competitors about what we do. So it's a very typical old school corporate, like let's keep our war chest to ourselves. So when I started working for Halo or hiring their team, I didn't know anything about Taxi App.
So, I just called up the Easy Taxi country manager. I called up the Uber country manager, and I just said, I'm trying to do this can you help me understand what this space is about? And I was totally surprised at how open they were. There's no holding back. They would share about what was happening in that scene.
What were some of the challenges they were facing with users, with the product, with the taxi drivers, and with monetization. That was one of an eye opener for me. That the startup world is actually a very generous world. And at the end of the day, everyone can have the idea. Everyone has the same product, the platform could look the same.
But you know what? It's execution. That is something dear that I hold even to now. And what's more important, both managers, if they are listening to this, they would know that we still have a very, very good relationship right up to today.
 

Jeremy Au: (10:54)
Interesting. Execution is really a big piece of it. And generosity, big part of it, of course, is the talent needed to execute. Obviously, generosity is there's a lot of long term relationships in this sector. So I'm so curious is that, you know, it feels like it's a dog-eat-dog world for talent. Everyone's like begging for engineers, for great peers or great business leaders are great executives and it's just people hunting around.
So how should executives or founders or companies be thinking about how to win or play or nurture in these talent wars?
 

Elena Chow: (11:32)
So the first point that comes to mind for me is that as founders spend a lot of time fundraising, they spend hours perfecting their pitch deck. They date many VCs, cold call many before they can even get an audience with one. So much emphasis is placed on getting that venture capital, and they celebrate whenever it is made. And I would say that they need to have that same perspective or approach to human capital.
So are you spending time pitching to a would-be talent in your company? Are you putting together a deck that will impress your would be talent as much as you are doing to your VC? So that's the first paradigm I would like founders to have. That same approach to a VC venture capital, you must have with human capital, because we know that having the right team or not having the right team is the third largest reason for failing for any startup to fail.
So, I mean, that's the first thing I would tell founders. So you need to be able to pitch just like you would pitch to your VCs, and you need to be the one, the general at the front line and not getting your chief of staff or your HR person to be pitching to a talent. No, A talent will want to be talking to a non founder at a first meeting, so you got to be at a front line.
So I think that's the first thing I would say. So your conviction is super important to win in this war for talent. Number two, I think we need to take a more creative way to hiring in this current times. Are you ready to hire for potential, meaning that you do not necessarily need to check all the boxes?
Maybe there are some boxes that you can’t check. For example, I've just completed a report which I am going to release on hiring for potential for product managers. Many of our clients come to us with, Oh, I want this person to have five years building product from scratch and blah blah blah. But we know that, say, product managers is a dearth right now. We don't have enough of them. It's also a very new field in this part of the world. So there's no maturity in this in this scope, in this field. So we did an analysis on some of the top unicorns, who they hire and who is succeeding in the product management role. And we found it that the number one previous job that this person have is actually a business analyst or data analyst. Analytical skills, for example, is important in a product management. So I'm just giving an example. Like if you can’t hire an experienced product manager, you hire for potential and what do you look for? How do you ascertain potential for example, in this product manager?
So are you prepared to do that? Number two, in this current climate, are you prepared to hire wherever? That could mean remote hiring. Are you prepared to work and engage and build a distributed team? I think we know it…most startup founders already know that we might not have a choice, but that's the other thing to note - are we willing to hire wherever. Third one would be the dream or this attracting a talent with just plain equity does not work today, especially with technology talent. I think even a year ago we could still sell this story. OK, how much cash are you willing to give up for equity? And here's the dream that we're building. This is going to be your upside. That's the story. The same story that we've been selling for years and it has worked.
But I think in this current talent war, where anecdotally I think we're seeing a plus 25% increase in technology salaries for tech folks salaries, I think we can't do that anymore. We've got to be prepared to pay market salary for cash or else every three months, your CTO is going to be tempted by lots of recruiters or hiring companies, calling them.
Things have changed and I was having this conversation with someone from the VC, one of the VCs, who still believes that their portfolio companies can compete just based on equity alone. Not going to happen in this current situation. I mean, realistically.
 

Jeremy Au: (15:48)
Wow, lots of great advice and a good point there. This is increasing competitive intensity across the entire sector. How do you see that playing out in the next five to ten years? Do you just think it’s going to keep going up? Just becomes more and more competitive, more and more people hiring for potential, more and more remote, more cash and more equity? Is that how you think it’ll play out?
 

Elena Chow: (16:12)
Well, hopefully, because I think the universities and all of the matured upskilling programs that's happening. So universities will be one channel source of talent and the concept of universities democratizing. So we have education institutes that are complementing the university, Singularity University, and I think that this whole last year there's been more of that. So hopefully we will be able to find a bigger pool from the young.
And then secondly, I think the matured professionals are also upskilling themselves and going for courses. So in Singapore, we are very fortunate because the government has pumped in so much and the universities are collaborating that the top tech companies are coming in to upskill and to introduce professionals to these sort of new skills in the technology world. So I think with these two pipes that will start to fatten up, hopefully there is going to be some catch up that will happen, the problem will not be as acute. Undoubtedly, I think of it has done that magic in unleashing that digital transformation of the whole world.
So, whether you are SME or whether you're corporate, suddenly you realize you cannot do without digital. And I think that's one of the sources of what's happening today. And so, yeah, so as the pipes fill, hopefully the skill gap will start to narrow and that we won't face this problem in five to ten years. I'm not an economist.
I don't have a financial model to this, but I think that could be one solution, the other solution, and I think that it's a bit divisive for me to say this. I think because there's so much money, inspiring dreams of many young people to start their own startup, of which, maybe many would fail along the way. But as they run their startup, they're actually taking their precious talent away from startups that’s got product market fit that's dying to grow and dying for their talent. That is something I'm noticing as well, especially in the last year.
 

Jeremy Au: (18:20)
Yeah, definitely. How would you say this story is diverges across different countries? So Singapore, Indonesia, Vietnam, I think would be the top three obviously, and to a lesser extent, like Thailand, Malaysia, Philippines. Any thoughts about how this story plays out across the different countries?
 

Elena Chow: (18:41)
I think there's a weakness, usually a wave, I would feel. So it's all about norms, you know, so young people be like, if I see my friend doing a successful startup, getting funded, going on stage to talk, being a CEO at 20 years old, I would also want to be that. I think that's that wave and you can see that wave stronger for sure in…I mean, obviously Singapore is boiled by also the government incentive schemes. There's a lot of government entrepreneurship schemes, but if you look at the private funding itself, I think Indonesia and Vietnam, there's a lot of that hunger to want to be able to do something different. I think it's also a lot to do with the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
As more exits are happening now and more startups are reaching unicorn status, the pot of gold looks real; no longer like some fudgy looking cloudy thing, it’s looking real. So I think that wave will continue as long as there’s money in the end and we're seeing success. But from a talent perspective, that could also mean…I mean, I don't want to be narrow or in this regard, but that could also mean taking quite a bit of precious talent away from hypergrowth startups or growth stage startups who would need these talents for that 18 months or 24 months?

 

Jeremy Au: (19:55)
What's interesting is that, of course, we see a lot of this like labour arbitrage happening across the region as well. So we see the remote...like you mentioned earlier, digitization means that a Singapore companies working with teams across the whole of Southeast Asia and India and in China and vice versa, Chinese companies are hiring across Southeast Asia. We see Filipino companies hiring across Southeast Asia. So everyone's all over each other. And this is interesting, labour arbitrage. And so salaries are obviously rising faster in certain countries and especially for certain roles. How should people be thinking about it? You know, is it good, bad, positive, negative? How do you think about it?
 

Elena Chow: (20:35)
I think from a startup perspective, it's obviously positive because the world is at my feet in terms of talent. So if I can find a way that is compliant to regulation and I'm able to find a way to engage everyone and build a cohesive, high performing team across the world, why not? I have a few billion talents rather than just the talent within the country. Yesterday, a startup founder told me I don't care where they are. I just want to hire the best. Straight off, very assertive female founder said that to me. For sure, that's going to solve some of our talent problems, I guess, especially in Singapore where, again, this has been quite a bit of a sensitive topic over the last two days, especially with tightening of EP and things like that. But I think it's not just about a tightening of EP.
I think for startup founders it is just about we want the best talent. After what happened with the pandemic and the idea of remote and distributed teams is no longer just confined to tech. I think tech has been doing that for the longest time, but now even in commercial and operational roles, it is perfectly fine; it's a really big shift.
However, I think founders will need to start looking at compliance as they built this up over the long term and I think that's where your employer's record and some of these startups are coming in to help bridge that gap between in terms of compliance.
 

Jeremy Au: (22:06)
One interesting policy dynamic actually that I was discussing with another founder was that a country like Singapore, historically, founders saying they want the best talent would historically have meant that the best talent would have moved to Singapore and therefore moved and migrated and maybe even settled down to Singapore because Singapore is a great country to live in terms of a place to live and settle down and have a family which would have been net positive in a longer term in terms of the education and mentorship of new generation of people and the GDP and so forth.
And that's not happening anymore. So all this venture capital that Singapore is having is basically flowing into great startups in Singapore. Is hiring the best talent, which is now in Indonesia, Philippines, et cetera, but now they are being housed overseas. And so they’re stuck there or happily stuck there because they are being remote. And now we're fostering the next generation of founders in those countries.
So net net is good obviously for startups in the short term, but from an economic sovereignty perspective, maybe not so good for Singapore because you're no longer bringing in the next generation of founders into Singapore. What do you think about that?
 

Elena Chow: (23:16)
At the end of the day, I think there will still be a large enough pool of top talent that will want to come to Singapore. I think government has made a really good job. I mean, it's a great place to live and people who come here tell me that it feels unreal, like so perfect. So Singapore will still be able to attract the top talent so when the borders open, I believe that this flow will start to come in.
We don't need all of the top talent to be in our country. But, you know, just a small proportion of it is good enough to have that transference of skill, that diversity in the workplace. Yeah, the kind of dynamics that most companies would want the team to be. However, I guess it also depends on the personal motivation of the individual.

Some of them may just because of family constraints or whatever other considerations want to be in their home. So I think it's going to be just a diverse pool depending on what their personal motivations are, really. Yeah, I don't I don't think there'll be any negative material effect.
 

Jeremy Au: (24:17)
Awesome. And so wrapping things up here, could you share with us about a time that you have been BRAVE?
 

Elena Chow: (24:23)
How many moments do you want me to share?
 

Jeremy Au: (24:27)
A personal one?
 

Elena Chow: (24:29)
Oh, OK. One would be a long time ago where I was on the brink of expulsion from school. I grew up in Malaysia and I came to Singapore on a scholarship and I was put in the top girls school in Singapore, but I was really homesick and I desperately wanted to go home so I skipped one day of school so that I could get on the train or else there were no tickets for the whole week.
And my CCA teacher who disliked me a lot because I was voted as president of the CCA and ousting her favorite student. She blew the whistle, she went to the principal, and so I was hauled to the principal's office with this impending expulsion, can you imagine how scared I was? Funnily, instead, I thought, I'll be in a pool of tears. Instead of crying, I actually explained the principal why I took a day off because I needed to go home and see my parents. At the same time, I took the opportunity to share with her how I was being…how would I say…my CCA teacher was really making things really difficult for me emotionally because of the fact that I ousted her favourite student.
She would make things so difficult for me as a president, and so I took the opportunity to share with the principal, and so it became a really good session. I was suspended for a few days, so she had to…it was protocol, but I think it just gave me that bravery, in a way, to stand up for what I felt was right or wrong, even at as young as 15 years old.
I think that was one brave moment for me, if you want me to share. There were others, but maybe we don't have time.
 

Jeremy Au: (26:09)
Wow, that is a brave moment because you stuck up for yourself to be home and see home and you stuck up for yourself and for yourself with your principal about being home. I think that was very brave.
 

Elena Chow: (26:23)
Yeah. I mean, not, not just about being home, but the teacher was not very fair and was giving me a very hard time, and there was no avenue to share that. And being called into the principal's office gave me that avenue to share that as well. And, well, I would always remember that situation. And recently I was left on a kayak in the open and choppy sea a few months ago, and that was scary as well.
And that took a lot of whatever bravery in me to stay on course and not be swept to sea. But anyway, that's a story for another day.
 

Jeremy Au: (26:59)
That'll be the Kayak podcast.
 

Elena Chow: (27:02)
Yes, yes. Yes.
 

Jeremy Au: (27:04)
Awesome. So to wrap things up here, I’ll love to paraphrase the three big themes I got from this conversation. The first, of course, is that you shared so much about what I call the regional tech wars and that you shared in different dimensions.
The first, of course, being in the context of what it was like to be thinking about different dimension of the taxi wars that let you have your first big break as a startup founder in building out tech and talent placements, but also in a context of facing folks across different countries like Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam and even Hong Kong.
The second that I really enjoyed was of course how to win a talent. So in the context of how you recommended that founders really take the time and focus to pitch talent the way they would pitch VCs, and to also celebrate winning talent the way they would celebrate winning funding rounds and so that they should not delegate the hiring process but they should also take ownership and be that general on the frontline of it.
So really good advice to really take ownership of that front line process.
And lastly, I think I really appreciate what I call, I think, the personal dimension around all the advice of the small moments of what it means to be a human person around making career decisions in Southeast Asia. And I think you show a way means to be aware of the context around how to negotiate in the sense of what is market for equity, what is market for cash these days, what is market for the upcoming supply and demand for talent, for different roles and contexts in the region.
So thank you so much Elena for sharing all of this.
 

Elena Chow: (28:44)
Yeah, thanks, Jeremy. It was fun, of course, for me to reflect and be able to articulate some of the thoughts that are silent and so it's amazing that you gave me this venue to talk. I thought 45 minutes was long, but you're right, it passed by really quickly and we could go on for another 45 minutes to talk about chapter two.
So thank you, Jeremy. Thank you so much.
 

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