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Elise Tan: Bridging VCs and Founders, NOC Mafia and Impact Investing

· VC and Angels,Founder,Singapore,Southeast Asia

So to summarize this, you can actually refer to the ikigai concept, the Japanese concept. I think that is really what keeps me going all the time because investor relations connecting people is something that I can do because I’ve been doing that for the past three years. And then secondly, is something that I love to do because I just love to be helping people, you know, seeing that they realize their goals and being able to connect to people who then have a great working relationship together and end up investing to each other. You know. And then thirdly, is just supporting the startups, helping them to create the company that solve the problem of the world - Elise Tan

 

As a tech ecosystem builder, connector and investor, Elise's mission is to bring the global ecosystem closer together and nurture the next generation of entrepreneurs who will change the world for the better.

Currently, she is Director of Communications and Community at Vertex Ventures.  Previously she was VP of Investor Relations and Partnerships at LongHash Ventures, a blockchain-focused fund and accelerator

In her free time, she runs www.Asiastartup.network with like minded peers. One of the initiatives organised under ASN was #Mentorforhope, which gathered over 300 tech startups and 250 mentors together from the Asia Pacific region to support each other’s growth and entrepreneurial journey. Through the initiative, founders accessed over 520 hours of mentorship on areas ranging from business strategy to fundraising.

She is also an advisor to the NUS Angels Ventures, SouthEast Asia's first student run angel investment network, established in 2020 to connect angel investors and mentors with startups.

 

Jeremy Au: (00:30)

Hey, Elise, good to have you on the show.

Elise Tan: (00:32)

Hi, thanks for having me, Jeremy.

Jeremy Au: (00:34)

I’m so excited to have you to show because you’re not only someone who’s very excellent in understanding what startups need, and being a bridge with fundraisers, fund raising and VC’s in your various roles as a formal connector between those two worlds. But you also, with a big heart, have been doing a lot of you could say CSR or philanthropy or volunteerism and bring that to the tech world, especially in the early-stage startups which is very rare and very new from my perspective, so I’m really excited to introduce you and your story to the world. 

Elise Tan: (01:06)

Thank you. Thanks for the opportunity.

Jeremy Au: (01:09)

So, Elise, for those who don’t know yet. How would you introduce yourself professionally?

Elise Tan: (01:13)

I am currently the founder of Asia Startup Network which formed the initiative Makan for Hope and Mentor for Hope, which Jeremy mentioned earlier, is really to bring a tech community together and also encouraging the spirit of giving back to the Community. I also have a day job so that is more pro-bono work, part time. My day job is investor relations so I’m leading that at LongHash Ventures which is a global blockchain fund and accelerator. I am actually on sabbatical for three months. Some people asked me was it to organize the festival, The Makan for Hope festival? Yes, maybe, but I actually just needed time for myself and with my daughter. My daughter is two years old now. 

Jeremy Au: (01:55)

Amazing. I gotta ask, how did the startup bug first bite you?

Elise Tan: (01:59)

Basically, I was just thinking about the question earlier. I feel like I have actually always being enterprising, ever since I was young. The reason is that enterprising means being resourceful, finding solutions, being opportunistic, right? So, the reason is that my family was not well to do and I really have to make do with what limited resources and capital. So, I think it is a natural fit in terms of me being in a startup ecosystem and also just working with startup and even working as an operator in a startup. But, really, I guess my understanding of entrepreneurship started when I went for the NUS overseas college program when I was in year two of university. That was when I really worked in and when you will define the startup in the US and then also attending entrepreneurial courses at University of Pennsylvania. So that really helped me to better understand what it means to start a company and then what it means to run one.

Jeremy Au: (03:00)

Yeah, let’s talk about that NOC because it’s become a mafia, we always like to use the phrase, right? and I think there’s a new article recently by Tech In Asia about how the NOC mafia so, so let’s talk about what’s so special about NOC? Isn’t it just another out-placement program to stick some fresh undergrad into some startup somewhere in the world just to get some exposure. So, what is it?

Elise Tan: (03:26)

Yeah, I mean this question comes out my mind when I saw that Tech In Asia article as well. What makes this group of 3000 alumni special, right? Maybe the interviewers, they saw something nice, something resourceful, enterprising, entrepreneurial in us. Then when we go over to different core valleys, just being able to work in startups, to live and breathe that startup life and also being on our own, forced to be independent and then trying to survive with the limited stipend we have and then also being educated on entrepreneurship modules. I think maybe you know change our mindset and then show us what it’s like to be an entrepreneur. I think really, just being immersed in that environment help us to demystify a lot of what people think about what entrepreneur is and then just become like naturally become part of you. Because with this we really spent a year over there. So, a year is like 365 days. Yeah, so that helps to transform us into someone much more entrepreneurial. And then secondly, is definitely the network or community, how we support each other in our entrepreneurial growth and I think it helps as well, you know, to have role models. So for me I would say that one of my role models was Ee Ping Go that I work for short time in her startup and we were, really like, just maybe smaller than a ten-man team, but what I really love is being able to solve the problem, think about new revenue streams and then be able to execute on those ideas that we have like almost right away and then immediately earn money for the company. So, that was like a really mind-blowing experience. 

Jeremy Au: (05:11)

Yeah, so true. How does the NOC mafia, you know, article was talking about how this group stays in touch with each other and helps each other over time. And I think that’s pretty special because there are lots of people who graduate from the National University of Singapore, any kind of university program, but not every network helps each other along the way and stays in touch. So how do you see the NOC group and mafia network help each other stay in touch over time? 

Elise Tan: (05:38)

I would say, firstly, we have email lists, so there’s someone with NUS enterprise will diligently add all of us, you know, to the mail list, so that helps in terms of disseminating information, sharing about events, jobs, and updates. And then, secondly, the startup ecosystem is growing, but it’s still pretty small in Singapore, right? The numbers are, you know, it shows we have around 3800 startups in Singapore. So given that it’s relatively small network it’s just easier for all of us to bond to each other or stay in touch. Yeah, and there’s so many like before COVID-19, there was any conferences so many events that we would be able to attend and then just continue to stay in touch so that helps. Then thirdly, I think most of us are in tech startups and then in some way or another it helps to work with each other. For example, it makes sense for that ShopBack to work with some of these B2C companies that have gone on the NOC mafia and just through working together, yeah, we stay together. Actually, want to see something about the mafia word, because maybe because I’m in blockchain, I feel like having an open ecosystem is so important that we support each other because we are from the same background, the same network. Yeah, because ultimately what we want to do is to create better jobs. Then want to create good companies that solve problem which are painful la. As much as I am privileged to be part of this NOC mafia, I encourage all of us from this group to support others, other entrepreneurs because it’s only when we band together and we really put our head towards a common mission or encouraging entrepreneurship, being able to grow startup companies together that we would be able to realize the ultimate outcome which is creating meaningful jobs solving problems, creating great solutions for all.

Jeremy Au: (07:34)

That’s an interesting dynamic, right? Which is the tension between closed networks that have that tight support, peer support, but also the desire to be open and give access to everybody, right? What happened to all of the poor NTU or SMU students for those who are listening from overseas like these are different universities that are not part of the NOC Mafia or they may be from different countries as well, right? So that’s a big challenge. Do you feel like it’s a tension, or do you feel like there’s space for both types of networks? 

Elise Tan: (08:34)

Yeah, I think there are definitely ways to collaborate together. Even if we look at Singapore, Singapore is so small, like 6 million people and I can see that different universities are becoming open for example, I would say SMU being really open in terms of despite all the different background of their entrepreneurs, they would support. I think what helps as well is that ever since last year, there are quite a few programs where it’s just open to people from different backgrounds and then being organized by this institution of higher learning. So I think gradually people will open up and work with each other because that’s the only way to grow more quickly, right, to share resources and not create overlaps and recreating the wheel. Yeah, so, how can we partner with each other to be able to capitalize on the resources, the network, the capitalists, or without that. 

Jeremy Au: (09:00)

Yeah, and that’s something, that you not only think about but you’ve actually, as they say, you know, put money where your mouth is in the sense that you’ve actually worked a lot in opening up access to folks because you did that as advisor to NUS Angel Ventures, which is working there. You’ve mentored social enterprises. You have been a head of funding at Entrepreneur First, connecting, basically, VCs with new founders who were very much often first-time founders and vice versa. So, what do you think is the dynamic there, right? Because aren’t VCs supposed to do the leg work in finding the founders and aren’t founders supposed to do all the legwork in finding VCs themselves right? So why you being to use a phrase, boliao? You got nothing to do, is it? Why you being a middleman or advisor in the middle? Why are you helping VC’s find founders? Why are you helping founders talk to VCs? 

Elise Tan: (10:00)

That’s a very interesting question. In a perfect world, the VC will find the right startups and the startups will find the right VCs. But then, what we have is an imperfect world. And the truth is that if you have a great network, you know you do find your VC noise a bit, and that applies to other parts of life, right? And I think for me it’s really thinking about how do I provide a platform to? How do I create platforms that enable the matchmaking to happen more easily? I also think about, you know, am I reinventing the wheel, like are there other platforms that are really there? So that’s how I started working with NUS Angel Ventures and I’m really open to working with other organizations as well, because if it’s already out there then why, you know, duplicate efforts and all that? It’s more meaningful to work together, yeah, and I think there is so much attached to…you just mentioned that dynamics, right? So, I think there’s a lot emotions attached to, you know, be able to prove that you help us makes certain achievements, right? So, let’s say for accelerators, you are looking at how you can do some parts of your startups get done well and all that and if you are an association, you’re trying to do that as well. So, who is the mother of success now for startups after they made it? So, for me, I think that we can’t help it, we can’t help it that. People will become close network just so they can really be able to articulate that their achievements that they will be able to realize, but then I also strongly urge about thinking like the overall the big picture. The overall outcome, like what do we really want? That what we really want is to to grow that ecosystem over in Singapore in Asia, right? So that we may be able to even become the Silicon Valley of Asia. The hub for startups in Singapore. So is when we kinda alleviate ourselves to think of like the overall goal. That may change the dynamics and also remind us to work together. 

Jeremy Au: (12:06)

Yeah, that’s amazing. I think it’s a huge goal and a very meaningful one to go for that. Since you work with so many startups and you worked so many VCs. What’s something that you wish every startup just this knew from day one like this one lesson that you wish you didn’t have to repeat over and over again that you just wish that you just like I don’t know what this imprinted, what lessons would you want him to know upfront? 

Elise Tan: (12:28)

Sure. Thanks for asking this question. So I’ve been thinking about it a lot and I think being in Entrepreneur First has inspired me to think this way. So meaning that for startup founders the journey to start a great company is really difficult one. So I strongly urge that you find something which you can do then secondly that you love to do and then thirdly that the world needs your skills, your solution. So to summarize this, you can actually refer to the ikigai concept, the Japanese concept. I think that is really what keeps me going all the time because investor relations connecting people is something that I can do because I’ve been doing that for the past three years. And then secondly, is something that I love to do because I just love to be helping people, you know, seeing that they realize their goals and being able to connect to people who then have a great working relationship together and end up investing to each other. You know. And then thirdly, is just supporting the startups, helping them to create the company that solve the problem of the world, is something that the world needs so I really encourage founders to create a business that resonate with you that you can do, that you love to do, because then that will see you through the dark times, they will see you through all the obstacles that you face and that will help you to be the right decision all the time. Because it’s very difficult to make this decision on the fly, so that’s something that I would want to repeat to all founders, that I meet.

Jeremy Au: (13:55)

That’s so true, right? It’s not just about the product market fit, which is what every founder is trying to go for on a logical/business side, but it’s also about whether they fit with the market and the problem, the founder market fit. but it’s actually do they love what they’re solving before actually going to build it. 

Wow, that’s so true and I didn’t expect that answer. But when you say that way, yeah, I think there’s something, yeah, I often wish was there for a lot of folks, right? Because being a founder is really not easy. Probability adjuster, you’re probably not going to get more economic returns than working at a normal company, so you gotta love what you’re doing and trying to tackle. What advice you have for founders who have ended up building a company that is successful or doing some interesting signals to help fund raising? But there is some level they may not really love what they’re solving. I see a lot, right? A lot of university students, they’re like OK, I’m going to tackle food and beverage because I know there’s a problem to solve and after a while, they do it, and they’re like whoa, FnB industry is bit different than what I thought, but as a market signal. So how did what advice you have for that? 

Elise Tan: (14:55)

Yeah. And interestingly, I was just speaking with Sam, who founded End Hours yesterday. So, the thing is, our company that we built evolved over time as well and expectation comes aligned. For most of us what we’re talking about is also finding the fit for yourself in terms of the role they play within the company, because it depends on who you are as a person it depends on what you love to do. It depends on whether the role that you play, it makes sense when communicating to investors, to customers. To answer your question, I think it’s more of like the company has grown and things have changed along the way so…what next, right, for this founder? I would say that fill a different role in the company. I think quite commonly, people become chairman and take on the chairman position or director position rather than the operational role. When the company now mature to a certain stage so that there could be one solution. But then nothing really stop you from really selling off your shares to someone else you know who you think can continue the mission and then continue to build this company and continue to deliver this, the promise to the customers? Yeah, so there’s just many ways of solving this problem. Yeah, but I think firstly it’s so important to make sure that you love yourself, you love what you’re doing because when that happens, you know everything flow, so only you know the answer, yeah. 

Jeremy Au: (16:21)

That’s really good advice, and I’m glad you shared that. What advice would you give for VC’s that you wish every VC knew? 

Elise Tan: (16:30)

I don’t know whether I’m like able to say something smart about this ‘cause now I think about like the VC’s that I work with, they’re like guys who’ve been able to raise like 200 million and 400 million. Like who am I to say what they should do? Thanks to the people who I have met, across the past year is really about, you know, changing the mindset to think about people before profits and just running a sustainable organization. Even myself, I sometimes I think about how do I become effective at my work? Do I…how do I make choices? Do I optimize based on the KPI that I’m given and then if I optimize on that, would I sacrifice on my moral values to reach that goal and I will say that I’m not perfect. And so, I had times where I think about I must achieve those objectives so that I will be getting that bonus, but then now that I have gone through what I’ve gone through the past few years, I think that it is so much more important to put people before profits or like put your values before profits because at the end of the day or even on your own on your deathbed, you can tell yourself that and answer to yourself. You know what you have done, yeah? So, I think really putting that perspective is quite important.

Jeremy Au: (17:52)

That’s a tough one, right? Because every VC is like throwing millions of dollars to achieve a certain, yeah, they chose to achieve a certain nett IRR, internal rate of return for the limited partners. You also know them because you met them before as well. So, everyone is trying to hit a certain level of targets and the founders all signed on without fully understanding 25% nett IRR means in terms of the actual growth rate, because they need to not only grow for themselves, but to grow for the other 90% of the portfolio, that’s not going to make it. So, they got to work even harder than that, right? 

Elise Tan: (18:24)

Yeah, but mindsets are changing. For example, was just speaking to someone from…there’s a tool that you can analyze the VC… So, they actually have a filter for companies, VC firms that are ESG, that have the ESG mindset and focus. Yeah, I wouldn’t say ESG simply means values before profit or people before, right? But what I’m saying is that the world is changing. The world is moving towards more of thinking about besides measuring outcomes based on money, how else can we measure the outcome of what we’re doing? And also investors might say that investors, meaning their limited partners, right? Investors meaning they invested into these funds. Their mindsets are also changing, the objectives are also changing as well. I do feel hopeful thinking about more of objectives other than profits other than there the IRR.

Jeremy Au: (19:17)

But it’s tough because it feels like if the VC level is like if I care about it, but lots of other people don’t care about it. The other people who don’t care about it will get to do better performance and report better nett IRR which allows them to raise more funds from LP’s who fundamentally, I feel like they care only about the net returns at the end of day. So, what advice do you have for that conversation? If we all agreed that we will surrender 5% of nett IRR to improve the world, I think we can all agree to that as a collective action, but there’s a little bit of a prisoner’s dilemma. Which is why should I focus on ESG when other people are not so what’s your point of view and that?

Elise Tan: (20:02)

Yeah, it’s such a difficult question to answer, but I would say that sometimes that data…being able to analyse that  data of the past portfolio for you, you may uncover interesting trends because we always think that maybe a very fast growing company or in a in solving problem where you serve the biggest group of people who are willing to pay and able to pay, that will mean a golden egg opportunity, right? But then, but then, what if there’s a business that you can invest into that do good and, yet, maybe in three years it won’t give you the IRR that you want, but it’s gonna give you the profit that you know you want on a more sustainable basis. Just because it is a more constant, the business model is this something that you need to build slowly over time. Yeah, so I think, all I’m describing is maybe something like a social enterprise or something, right? Yeah, so how these actually help to diversify the risk of your portfolio and so I think maybe this is really going back to the data and then seeing other assumptions made that could be challenged. Are there assumptions made that on getting through that profit that you promised your limited partners? Is there a way of changing that model so that you actually are able to deliver somewhat and, yet, is on a sustainable basis? Yeah, I’m sorry, I’m saying things that are really vague, but, you know, to borrow an analogy, right? I think I’m quite inspired by like microfinancing kind of projects. I don’t have numbers here, but I noticed that when you give micro loans to people, let’s say we have $2 to $6 a day to survive, what people realize over time is that the said the loan, the percentage of those that paid back the loans is super high compared to loaning it to some other groups of people. So hypothetically, you may be funding a company that seems to give you lower returns, but then the performance might be good, consistently over time, right, compared to another startup that would grow really quickly in a short time, but later on, the growth tapers. Yeah, so it’s about, but thinking about the assumptions made, challenging that, and also, thinking about how can you diversify your portfolio so that we do deliver sustainable returns and not just short-term growth? 

Jeremy Au: (22:15)

How should founders think about that because you want to be mindful that investors are thinking about ESG outcomes slowly, over time and I think a lot of founders also care about it on a personal level and they see that way, but they’re worried that when you pitch, they don’t want to come across as a tie-dye Berkeley hippie, which I am right, you know? But you know, but also, they want to focus on that. They want to show some of the East Coast Harvard capitalism into the deck and everything. So how would you recommend like founders, think about articulating that? Their sense of mission and purpose, tying some ESG, tying in also like the return dynamic, how do you help people through that?

Elise Tan: (23:02)

I don’t think I answer your question directly, but what I’ve been doing is giving a talk on the topic, finding funding for your startup and what I share about is that finding VC funding for your startup is not only way. There are grants, there are angel funding, there are funding officers, bootstrapping as well, friends and family. All of this, they do have a different investment horizon, expectations, right, compared to the VC investors. So, thinking about the different options and also thinking about like what kind of lifestyle, what kind of investors you want to have on your cap table. Because if you raise from VC given the kind of expectation their own investors have, the kind of lifestyle you’re going to have is definitely going to be quite hectic because you need to achieve their numbers and growth metrics and all that. Yeah, but conversely, if you were to bootstrap, you were to apply for grants, raise from funding officers, will invest in your vertical, things will look quite different and even philanthropists, yeah. So, it really depends on what you want, and sometimes about the fit for the kind of business you are running. And I was also saying that there’s no shame in bootstrapping, or that there’s people would think that being funded by VC is such an honorable thing, right? It’s something that can really shout about and all that. But The thing is, go back to the fundamentals, right, go back to why you want to start this thing. Why you wanna start a business? Because you see that as that there’s a gap and you want to solve the problem. You want to create a solution that is effective, that makes sense for your customers. So, when you think about it that way right? Then I will say that why do you mind so much about the glory of being funded by a particular investor or VC, right? This is more about thinking about how can you raise enough funding. How do you grow your company sustainability so that you can achieve the outcome you would like to see and then being kind of really prudent with the shareholding, the shares that you’re giving away so I think when you think about it that way, then maybe that the decision that you make will be different. 

Jeremy Au: (25:20)

I like how you, as a bridge between VCs and startups, are saying – hey, VCs are not all that it’s cracked up to be, right?

Elise Tan: (25:30)

I think in every decision that you make, there are pros and cons. So, it’s more…I’m not saying that it’s wrong to take funding from VC. It is good, it’s great. Some of the VC, for example, Monk Hill, you know. You guys give so much support to the companies and I think more of the startup founders being able to make a right decision for themselves and for their company. I think it’s important to realise that bootstrapping is cool, it’s still cool. There’s so many companies like Github like GoPro that actually bootstrapped and later on, become acquired. Yeah, so there’s beauty in bootstrapping.

Jeremy Au: (26:14)

I love it. I, too, am a believer of bootstrapping. I always tell people it’s like my grandfather saved money from the plantation, working on the plantation, to set up a provision shop and it’s called bootstrapping today. But, you know, that was the only way to build a business at that time, what, British-Malaya, right? You know, working on a rubber plantation is called…weird…it’s upside down. I’m not gonna get money from a bank, let alone a venture capitalist, right? And I think that’s the way you have to build a business. I think the crux of what you were just saying is like, you know, the business first, right? The fundraising or funding is really the secondary piece of it.

One interesting part is, obviously, in your role you see a bell curve of founders, right, you know, at that one point of time. Now, when I say bell-curve, it doesn’t mean they’re average forever or they’re great forever, but at the moment that they pitch, some founders have stronger pitches in terms of their deck, some people have stronger businesses, fundamentals, and some people have very strong presentation skills, right? And, of course, in a perfect world, all three of those things align – great business, great communication, great deck equals one of those blockbuster VC rounds that we see all of the Tech In Asia and so on and so forth, and obviously for them, if you’re listening to this podcast, like, don’t worry about it, you know, you’re gonna crush it anyway, but for everybody else, it’s a struggle to get there, right? Your business may not be fully there where you want it to be as you thought or planned a year ago, you know that you’re not as strong a founder/speaker/seller as you could be for VCs because who has ever sold a company to a VC; in terms of pitching, it’s a totally new skill and then, of course, it takes a lot of work to actually also build out the pitch deck and story board, so, it’s a lot of work. How do you advise founders to get there and improve themselves to be ready, in front of other people and VCs?

Elise Tan: (28:04)

Yeah, I’m glad you brought it up. I think it’s really difficult to be a founder, to fundraise, to have everything that the VCs or the investor is looking for. There are many options, obviously, there are accelerator programs and Entrepreneurs First and other vertical focused programs, I think a lot of them are super helpful in supporting founders, getting there. Of course, it depends on what is the founder’s expectation what is the gap that founders have? Because often for programs like that, you know, it bounds for at least three months and you start on a certain date and end on a certain date. So that has some kind of implication of a timeline of the company. Yeah, so, and also it’s often it’s a program for more than 10 people, right? So, it has to be quite some time generic, so you kind of have to wait for a particular class too. If you know you have a gap and you had to wait for that particular class in order to start working again, so I think accelerator program all that is one way and then second way is also may be joining a network. I heard there are like SEA founders and other organization where there are mentors, you know, who can support you, help you address your gap. This is could be a good option, so for me I actually have been thinking about this as well like how do we support founders? Is there something that we can create which is not bound by time? People don’t have to wait like three months to go into a program and then work on that and their gaps yeah so I’m thinking maybe of like a more of a digital venture builder kind of program where, you know, there are like relationship managers that would pay to look at your business right now, what are the gaps and you even yourself as a founder address those gaps and then bring in either advisors or mentors who can help coach you over time so that get you to a stage where you are ready for the next funding round. So, let’s say for if next stage is angel round then, you know, we will work on certain aspect that bring you to that stage that you are angel investor ready and then after the angel stage, right, then help you in certain area like, for example, hiring your CXO so that you can and also helping you with the validation and VP building then you can get to the next stage of seed fund raising, yeah, and so on until you kind of raise series A and then you graduate from the system, in a way. And what I’m thinking about is also, you know, how can we provide part-time CXO? How can we provide non core service providers at discount rate for these entrepreneur so that they don’t have to spend too much time on the time wasters meaning like trying to do interview and find the right person which is a right fit for your culture and also to really just trying to assemble a list of investors that you should talk to and then like kind of arranging meetings after meetings with them. Yeah, so yeah, how can I help to really remove this time wasters so that what founders are looking at is saving that half year to one year and then being able to go to market much more quickly. I released my idea but I haven’t really got started with it, yeah. 

Jeremy Au: (31:26)

Yeah, that’s amazing. One thing that we’ve talked about in the past as well is that you know you not only have a heart, obviously, for founders who are kind of thinking about how to process and pitch themselves and prepare the business and build it out, you’re also very thoughtful about making sure that success for every founder as well. So, minorities and especially women, is something that you think about in terms of helping them get to next level. Could you share with me, obviously, because it can feel like and I’m not saying I believe, I agree with this, I’m just saying you can feel like this is a problem that is an American problem because the news about minorities not being able to access funding or if the research is on female founders, not having access to funding in the states, that discrimination etc, etc, and if I was cynical I could be like we don’t see any of that research in Asia. There’s no proof that women are struggling to fundraise or to do said stuff. What will be our response about what the reality is, for female founders in South East Asia?

Elise Tan: (32:31)

Sure, yeah. The fact that there is very little report, the little fact that there is little coverage on what’s really happening on the ground doesn’t mean that the problem didn’t exist. Yeah, it just mean that, maybe on a demand and supply level of media, it is not or the report is not worth doing it yet, in Asia. I’m a member of She VC which is started by Sylvia Ventures, you know, the founders include Pocket Sun. Yeah, so we often talk about the gaps for female founders in the US and also globally. There is actually really quite a bit of a gap and yesterday I was just chatting with Steve who founded A Petite Crew. He’s part of an enterprise organisation and they were discussing that the gender ration in Singapore or in Asia for our female founders is like 20%. 20:80 la. 20% female and 80% male, right? And if we applied that on US, on a global level, it’s actually 30%. So, actually, we’re below that global level, despite the fact that we are a developed country, right? Despite the fact that we women do have sufficient rights to, you know, kinda education and employment that we should have. 

There’s a lot of undercurrents when it comes to female entrepreneurship. Things that is not out there, yeah. And I think why I feel that way is because I do see female founders struggling, I do see the lack of support and I do see like because of how the society thinks, the kind of deeply-entrenched beliefs and mindset that we have, the bias, subconscious bias that we have that pose as obstacles that are, that people don’t see. Because it’s just, it’s not sometime tangible, yeah. Why I think that way is because at Entrepreneur First, there are, you know, all the female founders and I see some of the struggles they go through like especially in their fundraising so that’s one example I remember clearly - she’s fundraising and then one of the investors ask her, you know, if I invest in you, what will happen when you get pregnant? What will happen when you have a child? How can I be sure that the business is still gonna go on; how am I going to deliver that expectation to my investors and shareholders. And then also, you know, I think Shani and I, we discussed a bit on a, it’s not female only, but, some investors are particular about funding couples who start their business together because they are worried that their relationship would be a risk, right, for making sure the business carries on, yeah.

The life stage pose as an issue when you start a business. Maybe it doesn’t pose as an issue, you know, if you have a great support system, but there is that subconscious mindset and bias that investors can have towards females. I wouldn’t say that it is the fault of the VC investor to think that way, right? Because after all, they are being responsible for the outcome that they bring to the investors, but I’m just thinking, you know, what else can society provide, what kind of support can the government give, what kind of programs, initiatives, events, grants, you know, that can be given to female founders or even from like the media partner’s point of view, you know, what can they do to help go forth in your founder so that, altogether, you know, we can make things easier for females. We can allow more females to become successful and that, and then they can become role models for others to follow. Yeah, there’s just so much that we can do and little ways that we can support and, together, these little ways become a wave or something of change, right, for female founders, yeah.

Jeremy Au: (36:27)

And I think it’s amazing because you are someone who, again, you know, walks the talk because you do actually spend that time, not just systematically coaching all founders but also making sure to invest in helping other female and minority founders. And I’ve seen you do that as well as use some of those events and campaigns to donate to charities as well underserved society. So, you really do that. So, I gotta ask. I think a lot of males, myself included, in technology. We kind of want to be helpful and allies, but also, frankly, we feel like it’s not our space. We don’t want to come across as the guy helping women in a paternalistic way or, worst case, come across as creepy right? That’ll look even worse, right? So, I mean, don’t get me wrong, there are creepy people out there, not trying to defend them. They should be blacklisted and blackballed from my perspective, but I think there’s a good group people who would just be like, okay, we understand that systematically women are not being well served as founders so on and so forth, and I’m supportive of women leaders, to support them and I should back off because I don’t want to be seen as being very all out for no reason, so I don’t know what advice you have for, I guess, the incumbents, the guys out there about how they should be thinking about how to help and be an ally to female founders?

Elise Tan: (37:48)

I think this is an interesting question. I would say that female founders don’t require favouritism. We don’t require special treatment because if we are capable, it will be, the results will show, but I think maybe empathy is important because there will be times where, you know, we can’t be in office due to family obligations, yeah, but I’m sure, you know, female founders who are responsible, they will still keep the business running in mind. There is still someone who is a backup who is there to hold like the stage while she’s not around. Yeah, so I think having the empathy and also the belief that the woman is responsible enough to keep the business running is important and would be helpful. And then secondly is I think I love what Cocoon Capital does. So, I know Michael Blakley well because invested in EF companies in London and then now in Singapore as well. So, what Cocoon Capital organizes is a female founder only mentoring session. I’m not sure if it happened every quarter or like ever half a year, but I think, you know, just coming up with a program initiative like that is quite tailored to female founders because, after all, there are differences between supporting female founders and male founders, to some extent, which are like empathy being one. And, also, the way female founders would run organization could be a bit different. Yeah, just because we have that family side right and, oftentimes, I think that mother instinct towards employees. Yeah, so the way we run businesses will be quite different. Yeah, so I think having this kind of female tailored initiative can be really helpful. And also, I think something that I would look into doing as well is providing virtual discussion forums where female founders had that safe space to share, like the challenges they face and I think just knowing that they are not alone is helpful already. And of course, if people, a few founders within a session can support each other, can either through sharing their own experiences. You know, how they overcome their experiences, what kind of solution they make use of that has been helpful to solve the problems, could be really helpful. Yeah, so in fact this is quite timely because I’m organizing this female founder closed door roundtable discussion during my Makan for Hope festival with our co-founder of Zook Inn and now board of director at ACE, so we are going to invite females founders from different stages of their startup as one ecosystem partners and then soon start talking about what are the issues that female founders face and what could be some other potential solutions. And I think this initial conversation could spark off to more conversation, more people thinking about how to solve these issues and then perhaps together, you know, we can create more support for female founders. 

Jeremy Au: (40:56)

Thank you so much. Starting to turn to the last chapter here, you’ve been someone who has really done a lot for the Singapore and South East Asia ecosystem. Have there been tough times where you’ve had to choose to be brave?

Elise Tan: (41:10)

If you have seen some of my interviews with CAN, 938, or my own blog, then you may know that my family background has been relatively low income and I do have to make do, right, growing up and then when it’s time for me to apply for universities, there was a time where I actually was quite fortunate to receive the provisional for the SAF scholarship. SAF stands for Singapore Armed Forces. I actually went through six months of the being in the BMT which is Basic Military Training and then, later on, two months in the Officer Cadet School. I was also awarded the best physical training. I actually didn’t follow on with the scholarship because, ironically, the three months made me realise that I’m not a good fit as a military personnel. Yeah, it’s not me to think about a strategies, to think about how do I fire a gun at somebody so I actually walked away from the scholarship, but what helps as well is that, I didn’t do well in my last interview because I was so tired after the seven day boot camp where I didn’t sleep, I didn’t have time to prepare for my interview. I wasn’t awarded the SAF Merit Scholarship, I was awarded the SAF Academic Overseas Scholarship instead. Yeah, so, I decided to walk away even though I know I would probably have troubles like trying to pay off my university school fees. Yeah, but I know that I can’t go through the six years of bond that I have to serve after that because my heart wouldn’t be in it and, looking back, I’m glad that, you know, that time I was 18 or 19 years ago and I had that realization because, like, right now what I’m doing right, I wouldn’t have chosen a different path.

Jeremy Au: (42:57)

Wow that must have been so scary, right? Because I mean, obviously, I also did the military service as well. I was fortunate to have two female instructors who gave me a very different view on the army back then, but I just imagine as you coupled with the fact that you’re gunning for that scholarship to help you cover your school fees in conjunction with your family situation. It must have been tough. How did you feel like it must have been so scary to do this, I don’t know, send in that rejection/withdrawal email or letter, right? I don’t know how you did it. Can you tell us what it was like, you know, walking away? 

Elise Tan: (43:32)

Yeah, I need to build on what you say just now that it’s not just about the security of paying for my university fees it’s also that I know if I say yes. Probably I have career life that is shut out for me, so why do I want to choose a more difficult and uncertain path? Adding in, at the time, I don’t know, I think maybe it was more of a really serious discussion with my father and I told him that I really didn’t see myself having a military career and he was supportive of what I was thinking at the time. Obviously, he did hope that I take on the scholarship because that would lessen the burden for our family because I have another sister. She’s four years younger and then she also want to have a university education like I think he was really putting the perspective of what I want to do with my life that helped me to find the courage to make that decision. Of course, it takes some time and took some time to come to that decision finally, but I’m really glad that I made that decision. Yeah, I’m not saying that having a military career is not good for female and all that. I think it is because I see so many of my friends who do have fulfilling military career, but then I realized that it’s just, it’s just not for me and I couldn’t be happier being where I am. 

Jeremy Au: (44:53)

What a tough decision to make right? That would be a tough one for sure. Yeah, I can imagine that being a tough decision and, again, I love the fact that very much rhymes with what advice you give to founders as well, right, about being in a place that you love and loving yourself enough and valuing yourself enough to do something that you want to do. In this case, for your case, not doing something that society and the army wanted for you as well. So, wow, that’s rough. 

Well, starting to wrap things up here. Elise, you know, thank you so much. I want to kind of summarize the three big themes I saw surface from this. I think the first, of course, was just thank you so much for sharing about your experience as someone who is thoughtful about being exposed to technology and being a role, being a bridge, and what you love about being a bridge and communicator at your heart for both startups and VCs and helping translate that. And I thought that was a very nice dynamic where you got to talk about your trajectory but also the things you learned. 

And that brings a second theme which is, you know, I love the advice that you gave the both founders and VCs. Of course,for founders, very counter intuitive because normally most people advise, you know, their VCs like find product market fit, make more money, become profitable, and you’re just very much like – woah, hey, you know, you encouraging a founder to do what they love and to find the ikigai, right? It’s just amazing advice about how to be thoughtful about the role, how to change your role for yourself and for the company and I thought was this really good advice. In parallel also, you know, I love the advice that you gave to VCs about being thoughtful about, you know, people and profit. And about near the upside of you call it ESG, but also being thoughtful about the impact to society. 

And, of course, lastly, I really appreciate you talking about the last chunk which is about you being thoughtful about your own personal journey over time; about respecting yourself. And I think there’s a big theme where I see and hear about how you struggle in the past and how you overcame that struggle. And I love the fact that you’re helping other people go through that same process and learning that you did in the past in the context of just founders, but also female founders who are looking to get past the barriers that barred them from access to capital and the next stage of the business. So, Elise, thank you so much for being someone who not just talks the walk but also walks the talk and has proven it multiple times honestly, so I really respect you about that, yeah, thank you Elise. 

Elise Tan: (47:26)

Thank you, Jeremy, for the interview, I really enjoyed it. Thank you.

 

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