She’s Got The Power: Female Founders and Entrepreneurs in Asia

Startups. Entrepreneurship. What comes to mind when you see these words? Men pitching the next exciting industry disruptor. Men securing funding for groundbreaking products.

You get the drift. Guys dominate the startup scene, both in terms of funding and opportunities. According to Forbes, there is a whopping $189 billion gender gap in startup funding. In 2019, male founders raised $195 billion, a far cry from the $6 billion female founders raised.

Despite the challenges thrown at them, women are founding successful businesses. In this article, we cast the spotlight on three superwomen from Asia: Tan Hooi Ling, co-founder of super-app Grab; Christy Trang Le, chief financial officer (CFO) and president of Vietnam operations for 3D printing tech startup Arevo; and Soo Nahm, CFO of EdTech startup Mathpresso.

Their success stories are helping to bust the myth that women are too risk-averse for the startup world.

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Tan Hooi Ling: Co-founder of Grab

When Tan Hooi Ling and Anthony Tan first conceptualised MyTeksi (Grab’s former name) for the Harvard Business School New Venture Competition 2011, it was meant to deliver safe and reliable taxi services in Southeast Asia. However, the proposal was rejected, their professors believing that Southeast Asia’s market was too small. 

The pair proved their professors wrong. Beginning as a simple taxi service app in 2011, MyTeksi morphed into super app Grab. From ride-hailing and financial services to food delivery and online grocery shopping, Grab operates in 8 countries with an estimated valuation of $39.6 billion today.

Compared to the extroverted Anthony Tan, who many recognise as the ‘face’ of Grab, Tan Hooi Ling prefers to keep a low profile and take charge of backend operations.

“That’s actually the way I like it. We have complementary strengths – we are quite yin-yang. He is the guy who focuses on marketing, investor relations. I like the plumbing – going in to make sure the people who process things actually get them done.”

And that’s precisely how Tan’s employees view her: a driven woman who would quietly lapse into a problem-solving mode to tackle business and overseas strategies.

Tan didn’t always know that she would be an entrepreneur. Her enrolment in Harvard Business School (HBS) was sponsored by McKinsey & Company, and she intended to work for them upon graduation. And at HBS, she initially viewed Anthony Tan as a “typical rich man’s son” who did not need to work.

But all that changed when she got to know him as a fellow coursemate – he was “one of the hardest working people she had ever met.” The synergy of the pair’s strengths developed Grab into the success story it is today, with Tan’s net worth valued at $256 million.

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Christy Trang Le: From Misfit founder to Arevo CFO

Christy Trang Le never knew how invested she would be in the business of 3D printing. After all, she and her husband Sonny Vu had started out as founders of consumer tech company Misfit, specialising in stylish wearables for leisure, work, and sports.

But due to a combination of having their first child and fierce competition from Apple, the couple decided to sell Misfit to Fossil in 2015. With the money they had earned from Misfit, the couple were well poised to step into the world of investments – thus, the Alabaster Fund was born. 

At Alabaster, Trang Le and Vu focused on investing in deep technology. Trang Le was especially enthusiastic about the work that they did.

“Our passion was deep tech science – we like the crazy stuff!”

It was through this mutual passion that Arevo caught the couple’s eyes. Founded in May 2013 by Hemant Bheda and Wiener Mondesir, Arevo is a carbon fibre 3D printing startup based in the USA. 

The couple recognised that 3D printing had plenty of potential for mass manufacturing – much more than its seemingly slow and expensive process let on. This prompted them to bring automation into the 3D printing equation.  

The couple also changed Arevo’s focus from the aerospace and automotive sectors to the consumer market. This move led to the mass production of the Superstrata Bike, demonstrating the viability of 3D printing as a mass manufacturing technology.

“I think the limit to our imagination probably partly lies on how much and how quickly we can scale. Our print farm is not about a few machines that we can showcase, printing certain prototypes. We are talking about replacing manufacturing – that’s when we can capture the opportunities.”

Under the couple’s care, Arevo has secured a total of $85 million in funding to date, with $25 million raised in 2021 alone. It also completed the world’s largest carbon fibre 3D printing facility in the same year. This facility will focus on manufacturing continuous composite parts for Superstrata’s bikes and e-bikes and finalise product engineering for Scotsman’s e-scooters.

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Soo Nahm: CFO of Mathpresso

Formerly an investment banker with Citigroup and an investment professional at Qualcomm Ventures, Soo Nahm is no stranger to the complexities of the investment world. Combined with her vested interest in education, she fits right into EdTech startup Mathpresso as its CFO.

Founded by Lee Jong-heun and Lee Yong-jae, Mathpresso developed Qanda. This AI-powered educational app uses an in-house search engine to interpret text and mathematical symbols from photos. Qanda has also taken off beyond South Korea, with 9.8 million monthly active users in over 50 countries like Japan, Vietnam, Indonesia, and Thailand. 

Soo joined Mathpresso in November 2020, a few months after COVID-19 became a global pandemic. Her arrival on the scene was timely, as the pandemic saw a tremendous uptick of users in 2020, with “monthly active users [growing] five times” and “daily time spent doubling or quadrupling” in most countries. 

Speaking at the ASU + GSV Summit, Soo expressed optimism for Mathpresso’s post-pandemic future:

“Even as we’re coming out of COVID-19 in some parts of the world, our users and daily time spent are still maintained. So the emotional barrier that students might have had towards EdTech has now been knocked down.”

Soo secured $50 million in Series C funding for Mathpresso on 1 July 2021, bringing the company’s total funding to $105 million. This round also marked GGV Capital’s first investment in a Korean startup.

“I think it’s an exciting time for us to be here. With all of us trying to bring equity in education, I am very thrilled to be in this space.”

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Women: Powerful drivers of Asia’s startup scene

Tan, Trang Le, and Soo’s stories show that women can stand on their own two feet to lead their companies to success. And they’re not alone on their journeys, too – Caecilia Chu has also achieved success with YouTrip, as have Maliha Khalid with Doctory and Pocket Sun with SoGal Venture.

Through their stories, we hope that more women will be encouraged to break through the gender-centric challenges of the startup scene to found businesses of their own. 

As for the startup sector, it will need to speed up reforms to vanquish gender biases and inequalities to level the playing field. Imagine how much innovation the world could stand to benefit from when both women and men are allowed to let their creative juices flow!

And with Asia being the second largest region for gender lens investing (GFI), a female-centric form of investment, the future of female-led startups in Asia looks set to be a very bright one indeed.

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