It was not even about applying for a job because nobody would recruit me. I’m from Thailand, I didn’t have track record, I didn’t go to Ivy League School, which is usually a feeder school. I would use my stipend and I flew in by myself, cold call people and cold email people and pitch that you should hire me. I got a bunch of rejections. Maybe like I, I think I pitched like 50 or sending 50 emails to senior economists and then one said yes. It was the highest return I ever had in my life because the rest is the history and those kind of moments that taught me that I should take risks like this and not afraid of rejections because the payoff, the 1% or 2% payoff is huge.- Jeep Kline
Ms. Kline is a Partner of MrPink VC, an impact venture fund targeting South American entrepreneurs. She recently founded SeaSky Lab, a project that bridges knowledge and resources from Silicon Valley to Asia for tech entrepreneurs. An advisor to several incubation programs, she is UC Berkeley Skydeck’s lead ambassador to 48 countries in the Asia-Pacific region. She is also a guest lecturer in the Sustainable and Impact Finance Group at the UC Berkeley Haas School of Business.
Jeremy Au: (00:30)
Hey, Jeep, welcome to the BRAVE show.
Jeep Kline: (00:32)
Oh my goodness! So nice to see you.
Jeremy Au: (00:35)
Oh, it’s been a long time that you and I were just chatting. I think it’s been what, over ten years since we were in person and then we were at UC Berkeley, I was taking a class as an undergrad with the MBAs and doing some impact consulting back in the day and I remember hanging out with you because you’re one of the few Southeast Asians in the school as well. Time flies.
Jeep Kline: (00:59)
Absolutely! Well, I’m gonna have to tell the audience here that when I was at UCB, Jeremy was in my class and he was the best student in class. I can’t believe that, then, he moved from Berkeley to the East Coast and we lost like the top student there. What’s going on?
Jeremy Au: (01:17)
Yeah, I have to say that I remember that my dad was saying there’s too much West Coast hippiness in me and so he was happy that I would get some East Coast capitalism which was like the most dad thing to hear. But also, like, what in the world? Anyway…
Jeep Kline: (01:34)
That’s funny. So good to see you
Jeremy Au: (01:37)
Yeah, really good to see you all the way from back then. I remember one thing that was interesting seeing you all the way back then was obviously the fact that you're Thai, studying and working in the US, and obviously seeing you do some incredible stuff not just in venture capital but also in being part of the diaspora of Southeast Asians across America. So, I would love for people to get to know your story. For those who don’t know you yet, how would you introduce yourself professionally?
Jeep Kline: (02:03)
Well, I’m an economist who turned a VC; turned into a VC later in Korea, not knowing in the beginning that I wanted to be a VC and then economist by training, grew up in Bangkok. Thai woman immigrant. I went to Graduate School. Here was my first stop in Michigan, Ann Arbor. Right after that I knew I wanted to work at the World Bank, so I found my way to get in one of the best international organizations working with the cream of the crop of economists from all around the world and I thought - Oh my gosh, I would never leave. It was one of the best experiences. Then I had a chance to travel to many countries, especially in African region. I serve ministries of finance in Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda. I went to Tanzania and I started to see the rise in technology industry. People used phones. Feature phone not even a smart phone for payment. So, they transfer money to their parents in different provinces. That was before PayPal became famous and I thought to myself. This is going to be big if people used phone for payment before the US when after 5:00 PM they didn’t even have electricity. So, I came back with that hypothesis in my mind, I was not sure what’s next, but then I started to learn more about tech and I decided that I did not want to do a PhD in economics, which, which was the plan at the time that after the World Bank I’m going to go back to school and get a PhD. So, I decided to move to Silicon Valley and along the way I got my MBA at Berkeley and that’s where I met you in school. So, it was quite a life changing experience coming here ‘cause I didn’t realize that, until today, I never left. It’s, it’s a big place, exciting place after Business School, I joined Intel. There was a leadership rotation program that recruited about 15 MBA students from targeted 10 business schools to work there and I was so lucky that I was a part of that program because it exposed me, not just through the…the hardest technology, which is called hardware from manufacturing to how to scale hardware, how to learn about software on top of hardware I learned from the very best leadership team who was once train by Andy Grove. So, it felt to me that the disciplines that I had and absorbed from those people kind of instilled in me until today. But then after that I stayed there for about 7 years helped the company launched the first Android based low-cost tablet business around the world, targeting emerging markets. The product was successful being at the right place at the right time, so I was asked to join a startup company as a COO, it was a roller coaster and I loved it. I got to watch from small Angel investors how to invest $2 billion fund VC on how to invest in a company and how to not invest in a company and why I was hooked. So, I decided that I want to expose myself more in the startup ecosystem. So, I became advisors at UC Berkeley Skydeck program and other incubation programs in the Bay Area, and then later, when the time was right, I launched my own venture fund. Alongside my friend who I met at HAAS in Business School, he founded his own successful company, exited a company, the second one is about to IPO, so we said it’s time that we have to give back and create an impact fund for emerging market and because he lived in Argentina and went back to Argentina, we decided to focus our investment in LATAM, so that’s the current fund that I’m managing. That’s kind of in a nutshell on how I moved from Thailand, an economist, moved from industry to industry and now having an impact fund investing in emerging markets’ entrepreneurs.
Jeremy Au: (06:24)
Awesome. I’d love to ask you when you first moved from Thailand to World Bank, to America, what was that like?
Jeep Kline: (06:34)
When I first moved from Thailand it was…it was hard in the sense that coming to a grad school here, English was not my first language and I knew that I wanted not just to learn about the hard skill, but also soft skill. I want to learn how to be a team lead and want to learn how to negotiate. I want to learn what make people tick. I want to be able to convince, incentivize people, form a team, create a big mission, whatever I want to do is it’s very…soft skills are always very attractive to me, but it was also hard because I didn’t know what to expect and I’m the first person in my in my family who graduated from college like a lot of us in Southeast Asia, I’m a second-generation Chinese Thai. My dad had grade four education. So, nobody gave me guidance on what to expect, so I had to kind of discover a lot of things by myself through Graduate School, which was already competitive in itself and at the same time I had to try to get a scholarship because I didn’t come from high networth financial background. So, in order to get to and graduate from, from the grad school, I needed a scholarship so it was a lot of challenge. All of the challenge at once plus homesick plus this and that. But the good thing is, there’s something about me that…that I figured the very first year that I came to the US was I remember my feeling that this is actually the place I’m going to be for a long time. I felt that the opportunity that I had even in school. It’s all about who you are. It’s not a power game, it’s not a money game. If you want a scholarship. If you work hard. If you are good. If you’re a good student. If you were in our end, you know there was a path to get it. It felt more like a fair game to me and I was lucky that I had a lot of support from professors and what not, but, it’s kind of like opened up my world and at that point in time in a second year of the grad school, I thought, you know, if this is what I can achieve at school, I can go work at the World Bank. So, to me it’s not easy, but I was ready to fight for it.
Jeremy Au: (08:47)
Wow. Thanks for sharing. It feels like that’s a very common story amongst the Southeast Asian diaspora, right? Filipino, moving to America for studies and starting to realize it could be a longer time and similar for you as someone who’s Thai. One of the big questions obviously is - it’s one thing to go there to study because we want to study in a world class institution and then, at some point, a lot of people, Southeast Asians, are in America and saying like, should I stay, right? You know, do I want to continue building my career? Should I go back? And sometimes it’s more obvious, sometimes it’s less obvious and it’s kind of curious. How would you advise people who are in that situation to be thinking about how or when to go back? Or if to go back.
Jeep Kline: (09:31)
You know, I don’t really think about in terms of like the country or the region or the location. I think about what I wanted to do and how I can reach and how I can reach my own potential. I want to work in the area that, that really maximize my capability. I want to test my own personal capability and I always dream to create an impact since I was in high school. That’s why i chose economics. During Asian economy crisis in 1997 that drove me to study economics and I loved it and I felt that it’s in my bone that I have to do something that creates strong impact. Otherwise, I’m not motivated to do it. It’s, it’s just who I am. So, when I graduated, if the World Bank were in Thailand, I would…I would move back so it’s just the area that resonated me and I didn’t even apply for any other jobs besides the bank at that point in time and the way that I get in didn’t even...it was not even about applying for a job because nobody would recruit me. I’m from Thailand, I didn’t have track record, I didn’t go to Ivy League School, which is usually a feeder school. I would use my stipend and I flew in by myself, cold call people and cold email people and pitch that you should hire me. I got a bunch of rejections. Maybe like I, I think I pitched like 50 or sending 50 emails to senior economists and then one said yes. It was the highest return I ever had in my life because the rest is the history and those kind of moments that taught me that I should take risks like this and not afraid of rejections because the payoff, the 1% or 2% payoff is huge.
Jeremy Au: (11:20)
Wow, that’s really interesting. I like how you change the conversation from less about in the country or region, but where is it that you’re best able to maximize your impact and capability. I was there, right? Like you, I study in the States for a couple for studies. I also work there as well and I think for a lot of folks, it’s really also about the homesickness. It’s about not being able to see family or your old friends, it’s a new place. So, I’m just kind of curious. How do you think about that? Were there moments you were homesick? How do you self manage that tension, right? Because you’re increasingly becoming a globalized person from that country. So, you don’t….you’re not the same anymore, but you’re also not really American as well, so there’s that homesickness and tension, right? So how do you manage that, yeah?
Jeep Kline: (12:09)
Oh, initially, I called my family a lot almost I call my mom almost everyday. She's like “Oh my God it’s just so hard” and you, you point out something that is quite interesting. Now that I’ve been here in the US for half of my life, grew up in Asia half of my life now here, half of my life, people here still…they know they feel that I’m American enough, but I’m not American. When I went back to Asia, people look at me like I’m Asian, but I’m not Asian enough. I belong to no land, so it actually doesn’t bother me. When I went to Africa when I went to Eastern Europe, are some places out. I feel that I belong. It’s funny ‘cause I feel that I’m a global citizen. I’m curious about people. I want to get to know people when I travel for vacation, I travel actually to meet people. I don’t travel to go places and I think that’s something that is always attractive to me because of my curiosity in people why they act a certain way what they think about a certain way, why we are different or why we are the same. All those things, but interesting point.
Jeremy Au: (13:18)
So we’re talking about something which is interesting which is like the identity of this global citizen. The stereotypes are there, it’s the World Bank, globe trotter and I think it’s interesting because the world is also having this weird reaction to the word global citizen as well. So, I remember my secondary school used by all boys school and so that motto used to be like everyone is to become every student is a scholar and officer and gentleman. Those were the three paradigms we wanted every student to become and then when we became like mixed gender, it became a scholar and officer and a global citizen. That was considered is like OK get this like the more modern version of a gentleman, but I don’t think it’s the same now because when you use the word global citizen these days, there’s a lot of backlash, right? There’s a lot of like anxiety, and that’s not just coming from America, but also coming from Southeast Asian countries as well. So, I’m just kind of curious how you feel about that identity as a global citizen.
Jeep Kline: (14:14)
That’s a great question. I have to tell you one thing that I feel I always feel that I’m fortunate when I work here I say at Intel, I always bring in different perspective because I live in different countries. I travel and worked in different countries before working for Intel. And because of that perspective as a global citizen. It’s critical for me to be able to help create a product. A global product for emerging markets and that was one of actually one of the first Android based device for the company. Historically, Intel, up to that point, was Wintel it was like Windows and Intel and Android just emerged and I was able to structure their relationship in a way that created a product line after the iPad was launched and it’s because…I don’t think it’s only because of the data and the proposal. I think it because the experience that convinced people because I saw people use feature phone to do the payment. I knew people were going to be able to use that device for maybe education for maybe entertainment if they want to or for other purposes. And I always use the global mindset and my own differentiation to bring something new on the table, as a complementary to what people or strength that people have, and the same thing as the startup, or even when I advise a lot of startups today, I usually advise the founders here from day one that I want you to think global. It’s true that you want to conquer your market nationally, regionally, but ultimately you have to have a way to expand your market. So, all of these things kind of became who I am and use it, the global citizen for advantage so to speak.
Jeremy Au: (16:13)
Yeah, that makes a lot of sense and I think, basically, what you’re saying is that, you know, global citizen is less about identity we take on, but more like something we build out, especially with the opportunities to work at a global level. I guess the tricky part is there’s so many people I know and now that I’m back in Singapore and everything and a lot of people who are in Southeast Asia always ask me this question, which is should I go overseas? Should I take on this global citizen or should I stay because Southeast Asia is growing very quickly, there’s a lot of opportunity. So, what advice, I’m sure you’ve given this advice to your friends and family back home, what advice or how would you advise them to think through the decision about whether they should go out to study, go out to work, become a global citizen? Versus focusing and concentrating at home being Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, Singapore.
Jeep Kline: (17:04)
Honestly, I don’t think it matters where you are. What matters is how you learn and how you continue to learn. Especially today, when the technology industry has grown a lot and it is very hard to avoid, let’s say, getting disrupted by a certain sector or technology. So, it’s more important for people to know that they have to broaden their mindset. For example, if you are based in Singapore, you wanna create a startup. You want to know how people have done it before in Silicon Valley, for example, so that you can scale and then you, you take the idea you learn from the failure and mistakes and also successes from other entrepreneurs and you take it home and then you build it and you localize it, you adapt it into the local market and you scale successfully and you, you know the example like Grab. That’s a prime example of today, right in Southeast Asia, and there are a lot of other companies as well, like SEA Group, Shopee and what not. So, it’s more about mindset than where you are and you can travel, hopefully, soon after COVID, you can be anywhere. You can raise fund from anywhere. You can raise funds through Zoom, you can attract the best advisors through Zoom and even work remotely. What I would like to encourage people to do is to continue learning. Continue asking questions and there’s no boundary. It shouldn’t be any boundaries or limit, if they are very talented.
Jeremy Au: (18:35)
Yeah, that’s really good which is really focusing on where and how you can really maximize your own personal learning. That’s good. One interesting thing is that you also learned a lot along the way, which is that you’ve not only learn how to be an operator, you learn from being an economist to being an operator at Intel. And then, interestingly, you made a transition from Intel to venture capital and the investor role, which is very different. I’ll say from the economist mindset which i always joke the economist mindset is like the joke about; like give a $20 bill is on the street, it doesn’t exist because the market is efficient enough to pick it up. There’s a lot economic like that, right? There is the world as it is today versus obviously an operator where you’re building, but as a VC you’re very much like trying to invest in that future thing. What would you say were the big things that you had to, I think, change your mind or unlearn in order to transition into VC well?
Jeep Kline: (19:30)
It’s interesting ‘cause when I transitioned into VC and what I realized being a VC is you invest in startup company and you help your startup companies or portfolio company becoming successful, and especially in early-stage startups. What you need as a VC or fund managers, you need to have operating experience. It’s always better to have operating experience before becoming an early stage VC because you understand what the founders and entrepreneurs are looking for, what kind of challenges they are facing - they need to form a team, they need to get additional customers, they need to prepare for scaling and fundraising. To me, the transition is more about I’m actually sitting on the opposite side and giving advice based on what I see in a market and experience that I’ve learned from doing the hard things and including, by the way, hardware and software. So, I thought this is something that’s perhaps is a myth. That being a VC it means you have to be very good at finance and then think yes you do. It’s a financial industry, but what makes your company successful or increase the success rate in VC investment in early stage is actually the fund managers operating experience because you have to help coach them. At least you understand them. What they are going through and you help them along. It’s almost like working in partnership instead of investing and then just step back and watch and what’s happening and then take the financial benefit out of it. There is also that business model too, but usually the highest return comes in the fund that has partners who know how to operate a company.
Jeremy Au: (21:14)
Awesome. Well, these are the things that are good that you’ve brought from point A to point B, but I still have to ask – what did you have to unlearn or change in order to be successful as a VC?
Jeep Kline: (21:26)
Being a VC is an add on in a sense that being an operator you really know really well in one sector and you get deep into it. You know who are your customers, you know how to create a product road map and whatnot. You know the cause, you know like the bottom line and all those things because you are in it. It’s kind of like 1 inch wide and like 1 foot deep. Being a VC is the opposite of that. So what I have to learn is I have to pick up other industry vertical very quickly, especially I’m investing cross sector. I’m trying to leveraging from the strength from one sector to another. Is it hardware? Is this software? If I do say IoT hardware and now I’m doing e-commerce or health service delivery so that are the new kind of key information that they need to learn very clear on what is the newest and greatest and who are the best in those industry. What I need to unlearn or be less focused on is, you know, is actually not my job or the VC job to understand the nitty gritty detail about oh why this particular manager or technologies or developer doesn’t perform and how am I going to feel in my team. Things like that. So, I have to be less concern or worry about that because even though it impact my invested company, but I have to kind of step back and look, it’s going to be solved. That’s not my job. The founders will come to me when they need help or they need advisor to help recruit talent and whatnot. So those are the things that I have to switch hats and realize that okay, these founders are very talented. They’re going to take care of it even though it’s a problem and I need to get on it. But, actually, it’s not my job.
Jeremy Au: (23:14)
Yeah, that’s one of the dynamics I’ve noticed myself, transitioning from the founder side, like so deep like you said versus the breadth that you have to know in VC, which is a depth of his own because you have to know so many different industries and so many different verticals. One interesting thing about the way that you’ve approached it as well is that from the US, you are really focusing on emerging markets, you know, Asian markets, so you’re not only broad in the sense of the sectors of verticals, but also you’re broad in the geographies that you’re tackling, right? So, I would love to know and hear about how you think about that dynamic for not only understanding the different verticals but also different geographies and emerging markets.
Jeep Kline: (23:54)
Yeah, that’s a great question, so maybe you can step back a little bit and tell you the story about investing while at AmFirst, even though I’m from Southeast Asia and a lot of people ask that question too. It’s the opportunity and the timing. So, when we launched the fund last year, we already saw the landscape in line America that there were the amount of venture money that went into the region pretty much double every year, I mean, the last five years and a lot of money actually went into Brazil, probably around half, and then the rest is throughout, I call, Spanish speaking countries. There are a lot of talents who do not have access to raise funds successfully in Silicon Valley, in the Bay Area. So, especially in the seed round. Usually when they went through the early-stage incubation program, they might be able to get some seed funding from friends and family and angels, and then SC, they kind of fell off the map even though they were super talented and COVID kind of made it an opportunity for VC like us who like to focus on seed because we are early stage. We are all operators before becoming a VC. So, we came in we look at entrepreneurs who really understand and have insights in different verticals in the local market and those verticals include Fintech, healthtech, direct to consumer, e-commerce, food tech, supply chain and sustainability to give you an example because it matters a lot. It created a lot of impact in local economies immediately. And so when the seed fund or the seed round, there aren’t a lot of VC’s who give money as seed, so we kind of like fill in both those gaps and then we follow on round in the area that creates strong impact. We don’t fund every single thing we don’t look yet, at least into biotech ‘cause we don’t believe is the competitive advantage in their local economy, but this is the area that present itself. If you look at IPO, if you look at the unicorn that coming out of the region and it’s the same, I believe for Southeast Asia, the structure of economy between Southeast Asia and Latin America are quite similar, so there are many countries, many languages spoken. The country is a quite fragmented, the level of economic development is different in terms of GDP per capita. Singapore is above the rest and Brazil is ahead of the pack. And all these things, so it’s being now the right place at the right time because there are market opportunity, because they’re entrepreneurs readiness, because it has good enough ecosystem so that we can carry them through when they need to raise fund in a later stage round and then we can bring them and raise funds over here in the Bay Area as well. So that’s our thesis in a nutshell to kind of answer your question, why emerging markets and why Latin America.
Jeremy Au: (26:52)
Yeah, makes a lot of sense because you already have that experience from that American point of working in emerging markets and the familiarity with some of the dynamics there, so you have the skillsets. I’m sure you get this question all the time, but why is it called “Mr Pink” for the LATAM fund?
Jeep Kline: (27:07)
So, we founders, we think of ourselves as an underdog and when we watch a movie called Reservoir Dogs which was created by Quentin Tarantino and it was actually quite violent. It’s a gang movie and there was a character named Mr Pink who was the only person came out alive after the gang fight. Everybody underestimated him, he was an underdog and we felt like, yeah, that’s kind of like our character. We have fun, we are distinctive, and a lot of time in our career people underestimated us and our fund is to invest in underestimated and overlooked founders. So, this is perfect name.
Jeremy Au: (27:51)
I love it, it’s awesome. I think it’s great to have that name. Well, I’m glad I learnt that, for sure. One thing I’d like to ask you is could you share with us a time when you have been BRAVE?
Jeep Kline: (28:03)
Yeah, I would like to go back when I was four. My mom kept telling me this story that I was in a preschool, a daycare, and I usually ride the school bus. One day, I had to get on a bus and there were many buses around, it was quite sizable school and I was waiting in a bus waiting for my younger brother, who was two at the time, to come in. I waited and waited. Every other student already got into the boss, my brother never show up. The bus was about to leave. The teacher didn’t even call, didn’t even do the name check or anything. So, when the bus was about to leave, I basically screamed and I opened the door by myself and I ran out and I search for my brother. Like where was he and I was like so scared that he was not gonna be able to go home and I found him in another bus. He went to a wrong bus. Basically, we’re gonna go to different direction. So, I brought him back into our bus and close the door and then I started crying because I was so scared that I was going to lose him, and then the teacher told the story, this story to my mom and my mom said that, you know, I can rely on this person that she’s going to take care of herself and she’s going to take care of her brother and people around her, and she was not wrong. So, she always told this story to people because it became something that defined my character later on in life.
Jeremy Au: (29:39)
Wow. That’s an amazing story and so heart-warming. That’s totally an American movie.
Jeep Kline: (29:49)
And another, I have to tell you another recent one that I feel it’s still new. I don’t know the outcome yet. Recently I launched a new project called Sea Skylab. When you were talking about diaspora going to different country, this is the project that I would like to bring and connect being the bridge between San Francisco Bay Area and Southeast Asia, especially Thailand. I, in the last 20 years, when I looked and learn about technology industry, it brings a lot of positive changes in the society, but it also bring about negative changes. Income inequality has been so high between a group of people or the countries that have access to technology and other countries that don’t know how to access to the technology industry in a meaningful way. So, I’m being a bridge and building a bridge between the two region, injecting knowledge, sharing resources. And the network that are built in the Bay Area and in my previous life at the World Bank for 20 years here to get people to learn to share and, hopefully, we will start seeing more entrepreneurs and more emerging fund managers coming out of the countries in the region.
Jeremy Au: (31:12)
Wow, amazing. Thank you so much for generous initiative, to share what you’ve learnt with so many different folks. So, love to wrap up with one last question here. If you could travel back in time, back to when you were studying at university in Thailand and you could travel all the way back in time so you could meet at a cafeteria or something like that, what advice would you have given yourself back then?
Jeep Kline: (31:40)
I would play more. Study a little less, play a little more, experiment myself a little more. I studied really hard and I love the subject that I learned. Some time, it comes with a trade-off that I didn’t go out and party as much as I did and at the end of the day, 20 years later, everything is fine. Everybody is fine. Life is too short to not enjoy yourself and that’s what I would tell myself in college.
Jeremy Au: (32:11)
Amazing, thank you Jeep. So, I would like to paraphrase I think the three big themes that I got from this conversation. The first is, thank you so much for sharing your journey from Thailand to becoming part of the Southeast Asian diaspora in America to becoming a global citizen and I love that progression not just in terms of university and academia, but also in terms of your work experience and your attitude as well, and I think that was really interesting to have that conversation more deeply about how the world is thinking about global citizens and how we should be thinking about it.
The second part I also really enjoyed was the way you continuously reframed, I think, the very transactional or rational debate about whether to be in Southeast Asia or in America for so many different folks in the diaspora about when to return or for people in Southeast Asia but went to go overseas and I think you framed it up, I love it, as where and how can you maximize your personal learning, impact, and capability, and I thought that was a great way to push in a new heuristic. There’s less about the market differences or country differences, but more about where would you best thrive as a person.
And, lastly, thank you so much for sharing your expertise as a VC and sharing a little bit about, obviously, this back story about why you’re looking at emerging markets from LATAM to Southeast Asia. How you’re sharing knowledge and also why you chose the name Mr Pink and I thought that was just a great window moment for a lot of folks who are operators and thinking about maybe, they, themselves, eventually transitioning to VC, and I thought that was a good discussion that we had.
Jeep Kline: (33:45)
I appreciate it.
Jeremy Au: (33:46)
Thank you so much, Jeep, for coming on the show.
Jeep Kline: (33:48)
Absolutely, thank you.