Amra Naidoo: Accelerating Asia Founders, Social Impact vs. Startups & Navigating Diverse Cultures - E151

· Founder,Southeast Asia,Women,Start-up,Podcast Episodes English

It’s been three years now since Accelerating Asia started. And if I look back on it, I realized that we essentially started three different businesses at the same time. Because usually people start an accelerator or they start a fund, or they start a consulting business. We started all three at the same time and it was the right decision and that all three different parts of it power each other and build on each other. But at the time it was a lot of work. It was a lot of stress and it was a lot of work and it was a lot of things that were completely out of my comfort zone and that I had to learn in a very short period of time.-Amra Naidoo

Amra is Co-Founder of Accelerating Asia and General Partner at Accelerating Asia Ventures, an award-winning startup accelerator that scouts and propels the best founders in the region and provides pre-Series A startups with the resources and investment to scale their growth.

Amra is passionate about working to close the gap between commercial and social sectors and supporting for profit businesses to exceed commercial KPIs while driving social impact. She is the Asia Pacific lead for Shaper Impact Capital, a Singapore Global Shaper, an initiative of the World Economic Forum and is the host and creator of the Doing Good Podcast. For close to a decade this passion has driven Amra’s innovative approach to program execution and partnerships that intersect both business and social objectives.

Amra has spearheaded high-impact partnerships local, regional and globally. Her successful campaign and project outcomes consistently achieve results. Previously Amra led the award-winning UN Women Singapore global social entrepreneurship program, Project Inspire and was a key contributor to muru-D’s wide recognition as one of the top startup accelerator programs in Asia.

She has been interviewed and featured as a guest author on industry blogs, including The Straits Times, Techcrunch, Reuters and named as one of Harpers Bazaar’s Women Who Inspire Others. She also is a regular guest on 938Now’s drive-time show – Singapore’s national English news radio station.

Jeremy Au: (00:30)
Hey, good to see you.

Amra Naidoo: (00:32)
Thank you for having me. Good to see you too.

Jeremy Au: (00:34)
I’m so excited to have you on the show because you have such an incredible journey from the social sector to technology to Accelerating Asia. You’ve had so many hats from not just being an incubator and nurturer of so many great people, but also taking on that investor hat as well. I’m very much fascinated to share your story.

Amra Naidoo: (00:56)
Thank you for having me. I’m excited to share and I’m sure there’s going to be hard questions.

Jeremy Au: (01:05)
Tell us about yourself.

Amra Naidoo: (01:07)
I’m the cofounder of Accelerating Asia and general partner at Accelerating Asia Ventures. We run a startup accelerator, a venture fund, and a consulting arm that works with multinationals, governments, development organizations on startup engagement programmes. Outside of work, I look after Asia Pacific for an organization called Shape Impact Capital which is connecting impact investors and impact startups. I’m also a global shaper. I run a podcast of my own called the Doing Good podcast. I have a lot of hobbies. I’m really into aerial yoga right now and I feel I’m unleashing my inner circus being. Just got a dog. I’m into gardening…I could go on, I’ve a lot of hobbies.

Jeremy Au: (02:15)
Tell us more about what you were like as a kid.

Amra Naidoo: (02:20)
I think I was one of those overachieving kids who was always getting good grades. My dad’s Indian, my mom’s Chinese, and my dad, if I come back with anything less than an A, he’d be like “Why didn’t you get an A?” or if you come back with an A and he’d be like “Why didn’t you get an A+?” That was definitely ingrained in me. I think from my mom’s side, it was always about trying new things and I was always doing different types of activities and different types of dances, martial arts, arts & crafts, volunteering as well. My mom really made sure that I did a lot of new things as I was growing up.

Jeremy Au: (03:05)
It’s interesting that you grew up in Australia and you started working. What was that like?

Amra Naidoo: (03:12)
I was born in Zimbabwe and had my early childhood there. Finished high school and university in Australia and started working there as well. I always joked with people that when I moved to Australia from Zimbabwe, I didn’t know I was brown until I got to Australia and that sounds like a really dumb thing to say, but I think you only realise colour of your skin or your race when you’re a little bit different to other people or when that difference is kind of made known to you. That was my first interaction with Australia. To be honest, when I first moved there, it felt like a holiday because we were living on the coast, there’s the beach and everything. For the first couple of months this was really great. Then when you’ve been on holiday for too long, that’s when it started to settle down that this is the new home, you need to figure it out. It was tough, moving at a teen kind of age, you’re learning so much about yourself, you’ve made friends already, you’re uprooting your life, you’re moving from Zimbabwe, I know why my parents did it, there’s so many opportunities in Australia for us, very grateful that they did that for us.

Jeremy Au: (04:40)
You said that the difference in culture and colour was made known to you. That didn’t sound fun. How’d that happen?

Amra Naidoo: (04:48)
Put it this way, high school, I was the only brown person in my high school and so. Yeah. You know you’re pretty different. You stand out. Australia has changed a lot, in particular the Gold Coast where we moved has changed on lot since then. It’s very multicultural now, but yeah, just not even that long ago. It wasn’t that way. I think there were definitely some uncomfortable experiences. But I think a lot of them came out of just ignorance rather than being malicious, or if it was malicious, I have interpreted it as being ignorant. It’s good for me because you can kind of brush it off if you look at things that way.

Jeremy Au: (05:38)
How do you think that changed you growing up because that’s an awkward fact to know about yourself.

Amra Naidoo: (05:47)
I don’t know how it changed. I think I was lucky in that when I went to university, I went to an international college and so I lived on campus and it was half Australian and half international and from my parents as well. We’ve always travelled, they come from completely different backgrounds. My mom’s Chinese. My dad’s Indian. They travelled all over the world. They’ve lived in so many different countries. The idea of having a lot of different cultures and being open to different points of view and different cultures has always been there. In terms of being uncomfortable about it. I think that just happens when some people just don’t have that view of the world. I don’t think that that is necessarily my problem, something that I should take around and carry as a weight with me. Yeah, so I don’t. I don’t know if that really answers the question, but it’s a tough that’s a tough question to answer.

Jeremy Au: (06:47)
Why is it tough?

Amra Naidoo: (06:49)
Because I guess I never really thought about how it would impact my growing up and I’m sure it has because it’s a memory that is, I guess, etched into the back of my mind. It’s also, I guess, part of the reason that I’m now based in Singapore, because Singapore, to me, is the ultimate global city. Everybody here thinks about not just Singapore, they think about doing business with everywhere in the region and all around the world, whereas I always found working in Australia, it was very Australia first. Let’s look inwards before looking out. So yeah, I think it’s definitely impacted my life, but I think I was probably always destined to travel if that makes sense. If I’m looking at how my parents have lived their lives. I don’t think settling in one place was really in my future.

Jeremy Au: (07:42)
Let’s talk about that. After graduating from university, you moved to Singapore. What factored into your decision?

Amra Naidoo: (07:51)
I was working in Australia at the time and one of my friends is Singaporean and he was moving back to Singapore and he was like, you know what, you should come too. Literally what kickstarted the whole thing. At the time, I just wasn’t really enjoying my job. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do with my career. It was kind of just a bit lost. The idea of going somewhere new, trying something new was really appealing. I reached out to basically everyone I knew that had some kind of connection to Singapore. I think at that time I’d only been in Singapore for a day stopover, so really didn’t know the place and one of my other friends who was living in Singapore at the time she came back to me and she said, hey, UN is based here, they have an office here, they’re always looking for interns. Why don’t you just try because the best way to kind of come and get settled in Singapore is to be physically here and to network and just meet people. That’s what I did. I applied for a three month internship. I ended up getting it. I was super excited about because I’d always wanted to work for the UN, it was a big dream of mine and I remember them saying to me at the start, before I started the internship, typically we are any hiring new grads, you've got a few years of work experience already, just want to set the expectation that you're not going to get a job with us and I'm like doesn't matter, it's the UN. I even had a little UN Charter book. I still have it with me. This from a politics course in university ‘cause. I was like, I’m going to work for the UN and I brought that over with me to Singapore. So just so excited about it. But yeah, that’s what kickstarted now over eight years in Singapore.

Jeremy Au: (09:48)
Do you remember what it was like because you knew that you’re always going to be traveling to be that cosmopolitan point of view? Do you remember what it was like moving to Singapore?

Amra Naidoo: (09:59)
I was more excited than I was scared. I don’t remember being scared. I think I was scared before I made the decision and the reason was the stipend for an internship is really low. Singapore is not the cheapest country to be living in and, essentially, I’d be leaving my job, my family. I’m going to a place that I didn’t really know and just trusting that the friends that I ended up crashing on their couch would be okay with it for a few months. I think that period of time where there was the uncertainty, I was really scared, I guess not scared, anxious, anxious about it. But as soon as I made the decision, as soon as I was at the airport flying over, it was just excitement. Absolute excitement. The whole three months to me of that internship was just amazing.

Jeremy Au: (10:56)
Which you converted into a full time job, which is where I met you.

Amra Naidoo: (10:59)
Yes. Yeah, that’s right. Yeah. A month into my internship, my manager resigned, and then I applied for her job and ended up getting it. And yeah, that three month internship turned into three years there.

Jeremy Au: (11:12)
I remember being part of Conjunct Consulting and meeting you, talking about the social sector and some of the needs there. I gotta ask, you love the UN…so, why the social sector? You did this and then transition to technology. What did you learn from that time working at UN?

Amra Naidoo: (11:40)
Yeah. So I think the transition started before UN, my jobs had always been bouncing back and forth between non profit and for profit. I guess the theme was for profit, loved the fast paced nature of it. The pay obviously is better for many for profit organisations, but there’s this kind of question of why am I doing what I’m doing. I’m the kind of person that needs to have a purpose and a reason for doing my job. I’m not just going to just do my job and that’s something that that kind of world never really satisfied for me. And I’d also done non profit roles before that. Where it’s great you can really see the impact of the work that you’re doing, but they tend to operate a lot slower. There’s usually bureaucracy involved, the fund raising process I hate as well because they’re like you’re always out there with your hands out and asking for money. This the whole issue of not wanting to fund operations and people salaries, which just blows my mind because some of these organizations are solving the biggest problems in the world and you don’t want to attract the best people to come and solve these problems or even compensate adequately the people who are working on it. So this just always being a back and forth between the two industries. At the UN what really, I guess, awoke at the back of my mind was the whole idea of social entrepreneurship. It was my first time really interacting with social entrepreneurs all around the world. I’m seeing all the different types of business models that they had and the way that they were approaching some of the causes that they were working on. And then at the same time I did do a lot of fundraising for the organization, working with a lot of multinationals and got to see how they looked at social impact from a more of a top down perspective and how some of them were integrating it into their businesses or purely using it for marketing and greenwashing right? There was a whole spectrum of how they were approaching it. That’s what really got me excited about technology and how it could be a tool for scaling some of this work, and in particular the startup world or, I guess, the business world as well, I think many entrepreneurs go out there to solve problem. There’s no reason why business needs to be bad or considered bad all of the time. So yeah, that’s the part of me that awoke during this time.

Jeremy Au: (14:20)
Why did you decide to go found Accelerating Asia?

Amra Naidoo: (14:25)
Yeah, I don’t know if it was a conscious decision that I was going to be a founder. I didn’t one day wake up and feel like I’m a founder now. It just kind of happened so myself and my cofounder, Craig Dixon. We’re running a startup accelerator in Singapore. It was backed by Telstra and they were winding down the program and at the time we had a lot of startups reaching out to us, funds as well. People in the ecosystem saying you can’t let this thing die like, what are you guys going to do about it? And that’s really when we just started to explore the idea of potentially. Setting up something of our own, I guess the challenge of that was figuring out a business model that had been independent, accelerator programs in the region before, but they tend to not do so well because I mean just the business model is really hard. So when we first started, the goal was really just to figure out the business model. We gave ourselves a couple of months to make it work. Otherwise we would go find jobs and I guess part of the attraction of starting something ourselves is that. You know, we kind of know what to expect with the job. We’re going to some kind of innovation role in a big corporate. But when you start something of your own, you have no idea what to expect. And so I guess that’s kind of why I say I didn’t really think about it as its founding something. It was just a natural progression of this is what we’re gonna try. This is what we’re going to test and see how it works.

Jeremy Au: (16:01)
What did you discover and learn?

Amra Naidoo: (16:04)
Looking back. So we’ve just been three years now since Accelerating Asia started. And if I look back on it, I realized that we essentially started three different businesses at the same time. Because usually people start an accelerator or they start a fund, or they start a consulting business. We started all three at the same time and I think it was the right decision and that all three different parts of it power each other and build on each other. But at the time it was a lot of work. It was a lot of stress and it was a lot of work and it was a lot of things that were completely out of my comfort zone and that I had to learn in a very short period of time.

Jeremy Au: (16:50)
How’d you learn how to do it?

Amra Naidoo: (16:52)
Trial and error?

Jeremy Au: (16:55)
So, you didn’t learn by learning, learnt by doing. Just gave it a shot.

Amra Naidoo: (16:59)
Learn by doing… but also I think this is a question that I get asked a lot by students ‘cause they do a lot of school talks and they’re always like what kind of things do you need to know to be an entrepreneur, especially the female students are so concerned with trying to learn everything before they decide that they’re going to start something. I guess at the back of my mind had that mentality. As well, without really being conscious of it. But what I’ve learned is that you don’t need to know it. You just need to know when to ask for help, who to ask help from, and you also just need to be adaptable. I think I’ve realized now that if I really put my mind to something, I can learn whatever I need to learn. Which is not how I looked at education or self-development before. That’s kind of how I’m looking at it now.

Jeremy Au: (17:50)
You’ve been part of the social sector and an incubator helping others and now you’re a founder yourself. What would you say are the misconceptions of being a founder?

Amra Naidoo: (18:06)
There’s so many, but I think one is that you need to know everything. The second thing is that one of the things people ask me is what kind of skills do you need or how are your skills transferable? How did your education kind of play into what you’re doing? And I think that goes back to the point that. You can learn whatever you need to when you need to learn it. I mean, obviously there are certain professions being a doctor. A lawyer. There’s certain skill sets that obviously in order to practice in that space, you need to have a level qualification, but for everything else, I think if you put your mind to it, you can learn it. And I think the other misconception is about hustling, that you always need to be hustling. Founders don’t sleep. They like, don’t eat. They don’t have a life. You’re certainly seeing a change in that messaging, especially when people are talking about mental wellness and things like that. But I think you can be really smart with your time too. You don’t need to be working ridiculous hours in order to get things done.

Jeremy Au: (19:15)
That’s a true part. Founders don’t eat or sleep. What’s the reality of a day in the life of you founding in the early days versus three years on?

Amra Naidoo: (19:37)
Yeah, I think three years ago. Starting out was a lot of naïve excitement about different things, just really not realizing how hard some of the things we were trying to do would be or end up being. A day in my life was actually, if I was to think about it, I felt like I was stumbling around in the dark a lot, at the start. It didn’t really is trying to find my footing, didn’t really know what I was doing. I was a lot more anxious about things because you don’t know what you’re doing. You’re probably more anxious about it. I mean it’s the first company office, first three companies that I started. So there was a lot of that, whereas I think Craig was a lot more chill because he started companies before and his personality in general is a lot more chilled than I am. I think I’m a bit more high strung. I think now I’m definitely a lot more chill and I feel like I’m more confident in my ability to make decisions. It’s funny, so I don’t know if you know fingerprint for success. So basically it’s a tool that measures your different motivations. So kind of like Myers-Briggs, how they come out with all the different personalities except that this is not your personality. It’s kind of environment that you thrive in or the way that you make decisions. The way that you communicate. And the thing that I like about it is that everything there can change, it’s not saying that you are set in stone, this kind of person and saying at this point in time this is how you’re working. So I’ve benchmarked myself since I started Accelerating Asia and now and there is a massive difference between the two that were there. I think one. because I wasn’t really sure of myself like back then. I was just making a lot of decisions with other people’s input. So I think one of the friction points that Craig and I probably had early on is it would take me ages to make a decision because I’m asking this person, that person, I’m doing research and trying to get all of this information, and then I’m making the decision but you can’t do that all the time. Sometimes decisions just need to be made quickly, so that was kind of one of the friction points we had. Whereas Craig just makes a decision like he maybe consults a few people and he's like down. He just made a decision, whereas now four years later my decision making has completely changed. I’m very quick to make decisions, maybe too quick sometimes probably, but I think when you’ve been running a business for a while, you start to see similar patterns come up and then you can make those decisions quicker. So a lot more chill now.

Jeremy Au: (22:25)
When you and I caught up recently, we were laughing about the similarities between the social sector and the tech world. What is your point of view on similarities?

Amra Naidoo: (22:42)
Yeah. Well, we may be talking about fund raising as a similarity. So one was that especially with us going out and raising a fund. We’ve also been on the other end of the fundraising process. So going out with our hands out, it’s very interesting to see the similarities in the way that people look at investing or donating. And one of the things in particular I mentioned earlier with the operational cost side of things, people don’t want to kind of give in that space

Jeremy Au: (23:16)
Similarities, we all want to make the world a better place.

Amra Naidoo: (23:19)
Yes, yes, that’s true. The amount of startup founders that come to us with these air grand visions and how they’re going to make the world a better place, which I love by the way ‘cause I think. In general, everyone wants to do good. I don’t think anyone...well, very few people will go out and want to create chaos or would do bad. You know, everyone genuinely wants to contribute in some way. Just go back in different ways and startup founders in particularly in this region by nature, countries that were working in and there are so many big problems to be solved and often entrepreneurs at the forefront, they’re solving these problems, so it’s very similar to the social impact space.

Jeremy Au: (24:03)
I agree. What would you say are the differences?

Amra Naidoo: (24:07)
Pace. The pace of work in the startup world is so much different to the social impact space and the jargon. I think there’s jargon in five sectors, but I feel like the jargon in the impact space ironically excludes people from being able to be involved in that space, which just goes against everything that that whole ecosystem stands for. Examples are, you know, we work with early stage entrepreneurs who are creating impact in different ways. And just setting up a simple impact measurement framework for some of these startups is an absolute headache because the standards that are out there are just these ridiculously bureaucratic governance heavy type things which are just unrealistic for any organization to implement. So yeah, I think generally the pace. The bureaucracy, the jargon is a big, big difference.

Jeremy Au: (25:13)
I agree with you about that because the pace has definitely been different, I think. But I think what’s common is the feeling of being called on to do a lot with very little.

Amra Naidoo: (25:24)

Jeremy Au: (25:25)
On the impact side, you’re expected to do a lot but given very little. In the startup land, no matter what you’re given, big or small tickets, you’re still expected to do a lot as well. I think there is that difference.

Amra Naidoo: (25:40)
And both aren’t getting paid, right?

Jeremy Au: (25:43)
Another commonality! What a shocker. I think you’re entirely correct on that one. Another one is certain companies if they’re blitz scaling in a negative way, then they actually turn out to be biggest charities in Southeast Asia because they’ve been running losses for the past ten years on a net basis which goes to the consumer.

Amra Naidoo: (26:18)
That’s so funny. That’s the question about the whole VC world. Are we essentially propping up companies who would have otherwise died and continuing that journey.

Jeremy Au: (26:35)
On that end, all the founders are banging on their doors saying “Why aren’t you giving me money”?

Amra Naidoo: (26:40)
It’s kind of the same as the whole charity space. That organisation is not going to be self-sufficient or self-sustainable, just purely reliant on funding from donors coming in. Some startups build their business that way, purely reliant on raising VC money. I guess that’s a similarity as well.

Jeremy Au: (27:07)
I think the tricky part is what’s the core or the engine. I think for social sectors, it’s a bit more obvious which is these are groups of people that society is not taking care of in one way or another and so we are trying to figure out how to redistribute something for them – time, attention, services. It’s dependent on government grants, donations…I think it’s a straightforward attempt to rebalance.

Amra Naidoo: (27:39)
I totally agree with that. There are many social issues…generally issues out that are not appropriate for businesses to be the model that is making that change in that space so I totally agree with that.

Jeremy Au: (27:57)
What’s interesting for startups is that it’s trying to lend money for the future to be accelerated into today which is a bit different. In the social sector, these are the people I’m helping to day, let’s redistribute today.

Amra Naidoo: (28:11)
Many charities go out there saying we’re essentially trying to put ourselves out of a role, but the way they’re doing that, it ends up creating more dependency and actually putting themselves out of a job.

Jeremy Au: (28:29)
I always hated that phrase so bad.

Amra Naidoo: (28:31)
We’re trying to put ourselves out of a job.

Jeremy Au: (28:33)
I always hated that phrase. Nobody says that. Does a baker say “My job is to make myself out of a job”? No! If you’re a great baker, you should…keep…baking. Nobody goes around saying…a vaccine scientist doesn’t say “Well, my job is to create a vaccine that’s so good that I’ll never have a job ever again”. No, if you made a great vaccine, you should make more vaccines. I always hated that phrase because I felt like it was going in the wrong direction, basically.

Amra Naidoo: (29:06)
I guess the theory behind it is that you’re doing such a good job about ending global warming that your organisation would not exist anymore after that. But I think the reality is that there’s always going to be different types of things that need rebalancing in the world. So, you’re not really out of a job.

Jeremy Au: (29:29)
Exactly. Can you imagine someone like Jeff Bezos – my job is to create a company that puts myself out of a job. Everyone is going to be like that’s bonkers. It’s weird to encourage people to say that, I think, because it’s such a double standard. We want our baker, we want our artist to keep doing what they’re doing and never work themselves out of a job; if it’s such a great job, do more of it. It’s also weird when the practitioners are saying that as well.

Amra Naidoo: (30:00)
It’s honestly the only industry I’ve heard people say that about themselves.

Jeremy Au: (30:05)
Right, which is so sad. I think if you have a great number of it, you should go in because justice for women’s rights is not going to end.

Amra Naidoo: (30:18)
Well, hopefully it does.

Jeremy Au: (30:22)
Ten years, fifty years, a hundred years, the issues will change, but the problem is still there. You want someone who has cut their teeth on tackling that problem for the past 100 years, right?

Amra Naidoo: (30:34)
Yeah. Some of those issues are so complex that for someone to say that in their working career, they’re not going to solve that issue, is what you’re trying to say here.

Jeremy Au: (30:48)
Starting to turn here. What would you say was a time when you have been BRAVE?

Amra Naidoo: (30:53)
So I think it would be the move to Singapore because that had no guarantees of working out and essentially was a three month internship that I was coming for changing while leaving my job and it was actually something that my then boyfriend now husband said to me at the time was what is your worst case scenario? For me? At that time, my worst case scenario was it didn’t work out in Singapore. I come back home and I would have probably chewed through quite a bit of my savings at that time, probably living with my parents and then I find a job that I probably didn’t like. One of the things he said to me was if you're comfortable with that worst case scenario, then you've got nothing to lose. And I like my parents. I get along with them really well. Very lucky. It was already in a job that I didn't really like. So for me this was three month experiment of life. What if it could be something more than just that three months and it's actually shaped how I make most of my decisions now it's like am I comfortable with the worst case scenario. Yeah, I am. Let’s go for it. That’s how I made a decision about starting Accelerating Asia, about starting our fund, all kinds of things. So it's really guided, how I’ve made decisions since.

Jeremy Au: (32:15)
When you say that was a worst case scenario, was it a very logical conversation to ladder yourself in the bravery or was it more intuitive thing? How would you think about it?

Amra Naidoo: (32:25)
It’s very logical. I think if I’m comparing myself against my husband, he is a very logical person. It’s very, very logical how he makes decisions. And in the past I probably lead with more emotion and feelings than I did with logic. So I think that’s one thing I learned from him is, hey, take a step back. What does this actually mean? How is this actually gonna impact me? I think it’s OK to feel things and to go with your gut on certain things. In this case, my gut was not happy with what I’m doing right now, and I knew that I knew I was not happy before that I had, like, anxiety. I had breakdown, so I knew my gut that it just wasn’t right. So combine that with the logic kind of gave me the push that I needed to just go do it. Yeah.

Jeremy Au: (33:24)
Amazing. Amra, I’d love to wrap things up by paraphrasing the three big themes I had from you. The first I love what you said about growing up and the differences being made known to you, which is probably the most diplomatic way I’ve ever heard it described. But you know, it was interesting way just to hear about, you know, your view on the world and how you grew up and saw like the borders, but also culture and your dynamics around what you wanted. And the second thing is really interesting, of course was the inside story about how you came about to actually start to found Accelerating Asia, which so many startup founders all know about and apply to and go for it and interesting to see yourself. In that transition, as a founder and operator who is doing this for other founders. And lastly, of course, you know, it was a fun discussion and debate between the similarities and differences between the social sector and the tech world, for example, making the world a better place is that the same fund raising is the same and working very hard for very little is the same. Thank you so much for coming on the show, Amra.

Amra Naidoo: (34:30)
Thank you so much for having me.