"We were fighting so hard to educate people through the media. And to educate our parents, that being an entrepreneur is the future or could be one viable career pathway. You won’t need to starve or die of hunger or something. And we were fighting against the norm, and that unites people. Look, I really believe that the greatest movements in our history of humanity; whether it's the women's emancipation movement or the LGBT movement, environmental, it all first started with small groups of passionate people in spaces like that in basements, in dodgy buildings and communal spaces like that. And they made their voices heard. And they created a new reality of what could be." - Grace Sai
Grace is the Cofounder & CEO of Unravel Carbon, an Asia-focused enterprise software that helps companies track and reduce their carbon emissions. She was the the Founder and CEO of Ravel Innovation (Acquired by Dalberg), a reputable innovation agency that helps corporations and governments innovate by working with startup and social good ecosystems globally. She is also the Managing Partner of Found Ventures, a seed fund investing in early-stage tech companies.
Regarded as a node of entrepreneurship and social entrepreneurship ecosystems in Asia, she speaks widely on that topic and has been invited by the Prime Minister’s Offices in Singapore and Malaysia, Angela Merkel, Mayor Park, Prince Constantijn of the Netherlands, amongst others; to share her inputs. She is an Entrepreneur-in-Residence at INSEAD, TEDx Singapore speaker and a Kauffman Fellow. She was also the founder of Books for Hope, a social enterprise in childrens' education in Indonesia, where she lived for 3 years.
She resides in Singapore and has an MBA from University of Oxford where she graduated with Distinction and was a Skoll Scholar (funded by Jeff Skoll, the co-founder of eBay). She speaks 6 languages."
Jeremy Au (00:29):
Hey, Grace, good to have you on the show.
Grace Sai (00:31):
Hi, Jeremy. Well, it's an honor to be here, thanks for having me.
Jeremy Au (00:35):
What honor, we've been friends for so long now! Well, thank you, it's an honor for you to be on my show. I look at you as the fairy godmother of Singapore's technology innovation scene. And I don't think you get enough credit, honestly from the early days. So, I'm happy to share a little bit of history, the unofficial history of Singapore's startup and entrepreneurship scene, but also go into a little bit about why the challenges we see still for Singapore and founders today.
Grace Sai (01:03):
Yeah, sounds good.
Jeremy Au (01:05):
So, Grace, for those who don't know yet, could you share a little bit about who you are and your professional journey?
Grace Sai (01:11):
Well, I'm Grace Sai and I’m the founder and CEO of Ravel Innovation, we are an innovation firm that helps government and large corporates innovate by working with startup and social good communities around the world. This is a spin-out of Found 8, which was a large co-working platform for innovators. I'm also a mom to a 22-month-old girl called Leah, that itself is a second startup. Yeah, that's about it for now.
Jeremy Au (01:43):
Well you've done a little bit more than that, right? You've been a consultant, you're an Oxford MBA, you've been a founder, you led Impact Hub Singapore, you've been advisor for MAGIC, the Malaysian Global Innovation Creativity Center, you’ve been on the advisory board for Ben & Jerry's, you’ve an EIR at INSEAD. You know, so there's a long list, right? So, Grace you’re going have to give us a little bit more. Maybe how about we go back to the beginning? When did you start becoming an entrepreneur?
Grace Sai (02:15):
Okay, I think we might not know it, but I always feel like our true life calling already sort of reveal and manifests itself when we're like, below five years old. I am the fifth child of my dad, and the first child of my mom. Actually, that itself has a lot to unpack, because there's something called the Birth Order Theory that will affect largely your outlook in life, your perspective of the world, your psychological development.
Anyway, so long story short, I come from a big family. We are a middle-income family. And we were given a lot of freedom, just because our parents didn't have enough bandwidth to take care of six kids. So, we will do a lot of fun things that, at the back of it are and enterprising. We would, for example, every year-end and during the Christmas season, we would turn the house into a theme park and each child will be in charge of one station, which is one room, and you can convert it to whatever you want without capital, and you would sell real tickets, you know, like for 50 cents to your neighbors to come. I would always take the bathroom because our bathroom has a window up top. And I would fill it with water, so that it becomes a tank- as simple as get people to pay 50 cents to jump into it. And I would always win this kind of like family entrepreneurial project, because, it’s fun creating something out of nothing.
And then, I also remember, I love being a ‘Love Doctor, I would create like what you're doing not as glam, but I would create a fake radio station when I was maybe nine years old; line up all my soft toys, my Peter Rabbit, you know, my Monty Cheese, and I would make them tell me their love problems. And I would solve them hypothetically. And then I would do that every day after school, for a month until one day my dad found out about my underground activities. And he was like, “What the? What are you doing and like, you know, you can't you can't be this when you grow up because no one will pay you!” And I was like “Everyone will have love and love problems. And there are no doctors for that right now- as far as I know, and there are no schools for that. Not like there are schools now for education, literacy, cooking, driving whatever else. And love is the most important thing.” So, I think that time I had already developed thinking in first principles theory, go back to the basics, regardless of what people say. And I found through my years as well through help supporting other entrepreneurs. Very often, it's the closest people around you that are the naysayers because it's out of protective instinct, right? So, my dad, for the longest time had sort of tried to suppress my entrepreneurialism, but I would always argue my way out, like, using the first principles theory until now, I think it's super useful.
Anyways, I went to MGS in Ipoh actually. I was in a top class where it's filled with daughters of High Court judges and lawyers and doctors, and I saw them filling up this form called the ASEAN scholarship form to study in Singapore for junior college. And I was like, I've never heard of it. None of my siblings actually went overseas to study because we didn't come from a very wealthy family, you know both my parents were educators. And we would just make ends meet in in many ways. And so, I just tagged along FOMO right?! I also filled out that form, so we had to take IQ tests, take English tests, Maths tests, so don't forget in Malaysia that time our whole syllabus, except for English was taught in Malay. I learned math in Malay, I learned chemistry and physics in Malay, which really was ridiculous. And it was really a long shot. But yeah, I remember the eve of Christmas of the year 2000. A letter came and it said that I was chosen to be an ASEAN scholar, and I kind of kept the letter away from my parents because I didn't want to go, I wanted to, you know, to follow the track with my sisters. They had a lot of fun in pre-university, they were directors of school plays. They were like conductors of their school choirs and had boyfriends and, so I just wanted to like, follow that. But then my elder brother found out that he kind of like burst my bubble secret.
So yeah, in like five days, I had to pack my bag. We took a bus; we couldn't even afford a flight ticket. You know, my dad and I took a bus to Singapore. So, drama, right? And then, you know, came to the hostel with the other scholars started arriving. It's like, classic Malory Towers, Enid Blyton book, you know. And then yeah, I spent two years at Saint Andrew’s junior college, as a scholar, and I remember all of us were failing everything in the first three months because of the switch to English. But I survived. Not every of my friends survived, like if you get bad grades a few times, you get sent home. So, it was quite nasty to go through as a 17-year-old, but that was my introduction to Singapore, Singapore's education system.
And then I went to uni- wasn't so great here in Singapore, I shouldn't name which one, but I think it's gotten better. And then one thing led to another, you know, I had to work to get pocket money, right? So, I remember manning a booth for an alumni event or something and a Professor of Marketing, he was writing a book with Philip Kotler who is like the world's marketing guru, they were writing textbooks and case studies that were localized to Asia. And they were looking for a case writer, and someone told him that I could speak a few languages, I think at the time was like five or six languages. And then he was like “Do you want to work on a side-gig, I'll pay you $3,000. And you would pump a case study every three days, based on research, and the accounts and all the scholarly journal databases” And I was like $3,000, that's a lot of money at that time! You know, I don't think I've ever seen that much. Anyway, so I said, Yes. And, yeah, I helped write the textbook that my friends were using, you know, and that was also my first venture into really studying, through data, and through a lot of research how successful companies become successful. And I started recognizing patterns, right. And so that's what I thought, Okay, I’d like to be a consultant, but I don't think I want to be in Singapore, because I felt that Singapore at that time was very stifling. You know, it had a very uni-dimensional view of what success was like, you have to be a trader, banker, lawyer, doctor, something like that, right? And not the more entrepreneurial kind
So, I agreed to go to work in Jakarta with the other co-author of the book. And I was in Jakarta for three years at the end, you know, the first year I was a consultant. And then my sister who runs a family business, we financed the construction of telco towers, all over a few countries. They got bought by a public listed company, and then they wanted to expand to Indonesia, and I was there. So my sister was like “Okay, you have enough connections, you kind of speak the language. Can you set up our office there?” And then I agreed, and I worked for her, basically for a year. And then what happened was, and this is really a pivotal point I, and I think a lot of young people go through this moment as well, perhaps without realizing, but I had what psychiatrists would call a quarterlife crisis. I'm 24. And I was seriously depressed, because I felt like what am I doing with my life?
And I just felt very deeply and very passionately that my life on this earth is meant to do something unique. It's meant to live on a purpose that is beyond making money. And that is to be used for the betterment of others. It was just a voice. It was just a hunch, you know, and I wasn't a charitable person per se. But I embraced it. I actually dreamt that I started building a library with 342 big rooms as well as a library for homeless children. It was so strange, like, it was very vivid. Anyways, I woke up, I drew it out, I still have the drawing. And I started contacting people you know, because as a consultant, you make a lot of friends, right? And you know, in three weeks, I had 4000 books in my apartment. I'm like, I haven't even prepared warehousing facilities, you know, we were indexing books, we set up a team.
And then slowly but surely, people started giving us as well, context of village parties. They call it like village mayors, who would welcome a library, you know, in their villages. And this marked the next few years of my life where every minute I had, every weekend (because I was working for my sister), we would go to a village very like deep inside a jungle, eight hours from an airport. And we would camp there. And we would set up libraries with at least 700 new books, we would also localize the books to the economic profile of the region. So, for example, if I'm in a palm oil plantation, there'll be a lot of books on agriculture, right, and things like that. And I remember there was even a library in a mountain between Jakarta and Bandung where the social economic problem was that a lot of the moms were sort of shipped away to the Middle East to become wives, without them knowing. So yeah, so they were like, an illiterate population there. Because they were made to find contracts without knowing what they're signing.
So, we really tried to adapt. And we at the end of it, we brought over 30 libraries to 30,000 children, you know, and new school bags, and new stationary. And that was my first foray into like doing something that has direct impact. And it's so rewarding, even though it's not by the normal sense, financially rewarding, but that was amazing.
So, one thing led to another, I got a full scholarship to do my MBA at Oxford, thanks to Jeff Skoll, Thanks, Jeff! So, he's the Co-founder or first President of EBay, And when Ebay filed, I think he made like, 5.2 billion or something. And, you know, poor people got problems, rich people also got problems, because he was like, “What do I do with all this money?”. So, he actually went interviewing the smartest people he knew for three years, to figure out how to spend his money. Again, he's very smart, you know, Stanford grad. But he always wanted to use capital for good as well. So, at the end, he used 1 billion of that to set up the Skoll Foundation, which produces the Skoll Forum, which is like the World Economic Forum, but for social entrepreneurs and NGO leaders. So then, a portion of it, he went to fund or the Skoll Center for Social Entrepreneurship at Oxford Business School. So I was the only scholar ever from this part of the world, I think till now. Yeah, the timing of it was life changing, right. Like, I'm sure HBS did the same for you. For us, it was one year, it's like, double packed, we hopefully achieve the same, employment rates and results and all that but in half the time, right?!
Jeremy Au (13:58):
And that's when we started across our paths together was I first met you because you were looking to build the Impact Hub Singapore, right. Which was an amazing thing, amazing moment. And I remember, I think our conversation was very much like, “Hey, do you want to be part of this co-working space? This community, we're going to be impact focus is going to be something magical.” And I remember you're very enthusiastic at that time from that conversation, and I remember that I had been working out of Starbucks for, you know, a couple of months. And after that, I was working out the pantry of Calvin Chu from Eden Strategy Institute. And when you came to me, I was like, “Oh, for sure, I would definitely want to join” And I somehow ended up becoming a founding member. So, I was like, one of the first 10 members to join
Grace Sai (14:46):
You started Conjunct already right at that time, 2012?
Jeremy Au (14:49):
I was running Conjunct at that time. And I remember us moving into the space together. So that was an interesting time.
Grace Sai (14:54): Yup
Jeremy Au (14:55):
Tell us more about founding at that time it was called Impact Hub Singapore. Tell us how you went about founding it?
Grace Sai (15:01):
Yeah, so it's really, you know, part of the opposite story, right? Because there I was exposed to literally kings, queens, the Malala’s and Desmond Tutu’s of the world. And I feel like, Oh my goodness! These are not unachievable versions of myself. These are literally people who are having dinner with me, who have dedicated their lives to change the world in a way that they know how. So, when I, I spent a few months in Silicon Valley and working for Jeff’s Foundation, a friend was telling me “Hey, there's this new concept called The Hub down in on Market Street in San Francisco and I think it's so you, you should check it out.” So, I stepped into that building was 20,000 square feet in the Old San Francisco Chronicle factory. It was amazing the energy, it was filled with people who are using business and technology to change the world, and I contacted them. And I found out that there was no hub in Asia. So that's when I came back. I worked for a couple of months to line my pockets a little bit. And then I spent nine months, basically having 400 coffee chats. Well, you were one of them possibly, right? And just to find out if something like that was needed, I didn't want to do something that people didn't want. So, I really had 400 coffee chats and, and I had money enough for seven months of not earning salary. And then you know, it's always like that right? It always takes longer than you think. So, at seven months, I had nothing yet but those coffee chats. I had no building no team, no, no investor, nothing. And I was like, at that time. Do I want to stop? Do I want to continue? But at that time, I was super convinced that Singapore needed a place and a community where the smartest people come together and and mingle and share and build shit together. And I sort of continued, but I had no more money. I literally have like enough to buy a few meals left. So, I was like, how do I make money. And I told I told my mom to make 30 Fruit cakes, and I sold it for $100 each. So, it lasted me for two more months.
And then everything happened, right it’s that path to momentum where things are slow and like BOOM everything fell into place. So yeah, we had the Red Building in partnership with the National Youth Council. And you know, we open our doors to the 50 founding members. And then very quickly, we became 400 members in two years or something. And then we were packed. It was only a 4000 square feet space. You know, there were great companies that came out of the hub because it was a great place number one, also number two because there was nowhere else to go right Jeremy
But honestly, it was it was a great place. You had Chris at the cafe, right? Always greeting people every morning “Good morning darling!”. And then do you remember like Golden Gate Ventures were there. Grain didn't have money to pay me and they and look at Grain now, I think they are a series B or C company now. They even bribed the security guard to let them stay and shower and sleep over. I didn't know until someone told me last year that they did that. They were so poor. So yeah, it was in a way that building in my dream, you know, for homeless people. Homeless entrepreneurs who needed a home basically. And it was great. Those were magical years.
Jeremy Au (18:16):
So, it was interesting, right? Because, in retrospect, so many great companies came out of that space, right? So, we talked about it like, obviously, Jungle Ventures, Golden Gate Ventures, Tech In Asia, Glints, Grain, Conjunct Consulting, there was actually a lot of…
Grace Sai (18:33): A lot of impact ventures too
Jeremy Au (18:36):
A lot of Impact ventures as well. So a whole bunch of different folks, right, that were just there. And I don't know, I think I was part of it. And I didn't realize how special I was. I mean, I was also there working a lot. And having an awesome time actually there, weirdly enough. And I think it's interesting, because I remember that time, like none of us really called ourselves founders because you're still a very weird term. At that time, right?
Grace Sai (19:04): It was still looked down upon
Jeremy Au (19:13):
Yeah, exactly. You call yourself a founder, everyone was like, “Oh, this is a shady company”. So, we'll call ourselves like CEO, President of our one man, two men, three men, teams, just to feel like you know, we had a standing. So, when you look at a time, obviously, when we were at that National Youth Council, and with the help of obviously the government sponsorships and everything, what do you think made that community special back then?
Grace Sai (19:36):
I think we were all marginalized in a way, by at that time, what was still the primary definition of success. We were fighting so hard to educate people through the media. And to educate our parents, that being an entrepreneur is the future or could be one viable career pathway. You won’t need to starve or die of hunger or something. And we were fighting against the norm, and that unites people. Look, I really believe that the greatest movements in our history of humanity; whether it's the women's emancipation movement or the LGBT movement, environmental, it all first started with small groups of passionate people in spaces like that in basements, in dodgy buildings and communal spaces like that. And they made their voices heard. And they created a new reality of what could be. And I think that united us because at that time it wasn't, a startup in Singapore was not celebrated, like it is today, right? In fact, at that time, I remember the government had or attempted, but failed a few times. Do you remember, like 2009 to 2012? There were a couple of attempts and, and therefore I think what we all wanted to do was, we are the people that you're making the policies for, right? We have a voice, we are physically proximate, we stand for something, come and listen to us, right. That's why at the heart, we were like having 20,30 events a month, almost every night, there was something for four years, it was like that. So, my team and I were all burned out, right- Because there was so much going on that was just beyond building a company, you know, and it was so exciting. We knew we were at the nexus of change per se. Right. And, and for me, I was living in Tiong Bahru at that time, and I remember, they were like kids who would set up lemonade stands, and sell lemonade for like, one two bucks, right for pocket money. And you know what, I literally cried when I saw that. They were adults, right locals who would complain to the NEA, because these children did not have the proper license to sell drinks. I'm like, that was so fundamental to me, because you are muting the creativity of children at that age. How can you ask them to be entrepreneurial and creative when they grow up when the economy needs them? You know, so when you mute people's creativity like that, you mute everything else as well. So that upset me a lot. And I knew that if we want to really create a path for entrepreneurs to be celebrated and not misunderstood. We need to change it systemically, by just doing things and being successful.
Jeremy Au (22:28):
Wow. I never saw it that way. You know, because I think for me at the end of the day, I was a consumer at a time I was coming back from the States. And just,I remember walking into that new office space and on day one, and I was like, oh, you know, Grace has it under control under control. So, you know, I mean, you think it was like crazy and burned out. But I was like this is great. I told all my friends about it. I walked out day one and I was like, Oh, this is awesome it’s way better than Starbucks, and, you know, kitchen tables. And I was very happy as a consumer, obviously of the space. It's interesting, because you talk about that hardship, into marginalization, from your perspective. And I, I laugh because now that I'm older, I also see that for myself, right, you know, because I know empathy for what you were going through, because I always saw it as you as the boss, right of the place. And at that time, I wasn't seeing you as a founder who was going through the tough times in terms of cash flow and getting a voice and get your foot into the door and burnout as well. Yeah. And I think secondly, of course, I concur with you I think does a huge amount of like at that time nobody was fans of the word entrepreneur, founder. So, it was a very weird thing to be doing at that time. And I still remember like hanging out with Soh who continues to be a great friend of mine today and he was building Tencent Movement and a bunch of different things. And one day he was like, “Hey, Jeremy, I'll do this thing called Fit Fuel. Can you like evaluate these different glass mason jars? And I was like saying, Okay, this mason jar is too hipster. This one is more like, you know, not hipster enough. You know, this is just right. And also, I think there's a beautiful amount of serendipity that happened in that group, right? It was like that cluster where, you know, we're all busy doing our own stuff, but we could collide with each other and do something amazing.
Grace Sai (24:23):
Yeah. And one of our first members, she told me once and she summed it up so nicely, because people were asking her what made the hub so magical at that time, and we were trying to recreate it at scale? And she said that in that space, everyone had each other's backs- we wanted each other to succeed even without saying so. And that was the magic. You know, you come in you know that people are there to help you
Jeremy Au (24:49): Yeah
Grace Sai (24:50):
and I don't know where else in Singapore, people feel like that anymore today.
Jeremy Au (24:54):
Yeah, I think that’s the truth there, right? Because I think, at the end of day, you know, what the Impact Hub Singapore brought was You right, and the team that you brought that had that sense of mission, I think that cascaded to the rest of the whole community where all of us saw ourselves as impact creators at a key level. And kind of like, looked at it as a co-working space, honestly, second, to the community that we were getting and the connections we got to make and help each other along the way. So, you know, things have changed since then. Because, you know, one, interesting thing we've seen is that entrepreneurship has, to some extent, stopped being marginalized. And it's, I think, a little bit more mainstream, maybe in some areas may even be cool. Right, you know, so how do you feel about that transition because you've been part of that transition? Because you've been out there advocating, talking about failure, you've been there advocating about entrepreneurship, you've been there talking about mission and impact as well. And I've heard you speak multiple times, and that in a very compelling way. So, I think, to some extent, you know, the fruit of your work and other people like you is kind of starting to bear fruit. What do you think about that trend?
Grace Sai (26:00):
Well, right now, definitely the ecosystem has expanded in magnitudes, that you can't really name everybody now in the ecosystem. In the past, we used to know everybody, Personally, I think that's great. I think its providing, a new playbook for young people to become the Stanford themselves and to create something that they want to build in the world, that's always good. And we always need more of that. I think where it can be better is always to insert the reflective piece, right back to the ecosystem. What are we building this for? Right? Why are we doing this? Why are we taking personal and professional financial risks? At the end of the day, what will all these achieve? I feel that now you know, it's a game of the next round of funding, the valuation of the next round, VCs being incentivized to balloon up each round; you’re a VC to sorry- but I am too right, but so I know, I know, the rules of the game, the good and the bad. And it starts from there. And the name of the game is such and sometimes round after round, there are a substantial number of companies that are truly creating value. But there are also others that are just shifting value around. And that is not so great. Because not only does it distract or sort of, you know, channel capital, but more importantly, talent away from more deserving companies and founders and causes? So, I would just say that I think what we have going on in Southeast Asia in general is great. What is it 14,16 unicorns now? How many jobs created? But I would go back to, you know, Gojek’s original purpose. It was a social enterprise in the beginning. Grab’s original purpose, it was to make transportation safer for women in Malaysia. All these original purposes. Can it find a place in the world of elevated valuations and venture capital funding and SPAC’s and all that?
Jeremy Au (28:06):
So, you hit the nail on the head a little bit. Because both of you and I have done that transition right. We started out as social entrepreneurs. And we've both been more classic founders, as well
Grace Sai (28:17):
Classic founders you mean founders who prioritize cashflow and profitability?
Jeremy Au (28:23):
It’s called the brutal reality of P&L statement, right. But also choosing to build a second one or a third one in a different way just to know, at least for me compare and see what are the differences as well. But you know, we've seen actually quite a few folks do that same transition, right? There's a lot of folks from the Impact Hub Singapore, that started out as social entrepreneurs, and now they’re in venture capital, running a classic tech backed startup. So, what do you think about that? I'm just kind of curious, why do you think we are doing that shift right now, between all all those three things, right, the social entrepreneur side, the VC backed entrepreneur, and a VC we've been like changing hats or shifting roles or exploring different aspects of it. So, I'm kind of curious why that fluidity, right.
Grace Sai (29:05):
Yeah, yeah, I hear you. I think you and I as well right. Like my first six years were in Impact. And then the last four were in tech and VC and now I'm coming back to Impact with everything learned. You know, I think if we are truly talking about moving the needle in the world, right, for whatever cost that you care for and you want to or whatever technology that you want to put out there. It does require systems thinking right? And systems thinking require you to be proficient, not no need to be professional but proficient in several domains. So I think people coming from one background, dipping their toes in another background, learning the rules, learning the network, learning that the actors in those in the ecosystem, having the third domain, having the fourth domain coming back, merging it combining in different ways. I think it's not a bad thing. I think the risk there is that the more impact mission folks entering the VC and tech world, and also sort of like, just be completely disillusioned by for, for example, right. I think that's a different story. You know, I think we shouldn't lose the the intent of why we were there, and, and come back to it with it, you know, I think I think our life, if we live by statistical standards, I think we have the opportunity to maybe have eight, nine different careers, you know, if every trajectory takes seven years, then you have like, 50, over years of productive life. And in that we can experiment with different things, you know, Jeremy, like what you're doing as well. And but at the end, I think we mustn't lose sight about what really makes us sparkle.
Jeremy Au (30:50):
Yeah, that's amazing. I love the idea of sparkle. And, you know I think the VC backed startup I built was in early education . And the reason why I did that was because I felt like it could bring that spark, all right, where, you know, still had a mission of bringing education for young kids, while also letting new moms be able to return to work right, without worrying about their childcare arrangements, as well as giving and creating better living conditions and wages for childcare workers. And so, I think that was what I was thinking about. And that's how I was marrying that with venture capital as well, that was looking for that, you know, financial return. And it was not easy. And it was worthwhile in that sense.
Grace Sai (31:32):
But if you haven't done that, you know, I think maybe you wouldn't have enough content and enough sort of data points within you to be at Monk’s Hill now and doing what you're doing.
Jeremy Au (31:44):
Yeah, definitely true. And I think what I liked about Monk’s Hill, personally, is because out all the VCs, I felt like they had the right. I think mission, I think mission is a big word, I think, you know, that heart for what they want to do is transform like millions of lives across Southeast Asia. It has a mission statement, which sounds if you think about it, like every nonprofit, right?
Grace Sai (32:02):
Peng is very purpose driven.
Jeremy Au (32:04):
Exactly. And I think that's the second part is like the actual people, the behaviors, the actual way of being present in the room is actually a huge part of it. And so, you know, love to kind of like ask second last question here, is will you talk about when you see all of this, change and everything? What advice would you give to someone who is thinking about, okay; I've been a social entrepreneur, and should I do a corporate career first, and then I should do like a social entrepreneur- the phasing, the timing- what advice would you give them in terms of thinking through how to sequence or prepare themselves for the tough times that we talked about, right getting your parents to sell cakes, help you sell cakes and stuff like that? How would you think about that?
Grace Sai (32:53):
You know, as we know, there is no one prescribed recipe for the sequencing of things, I just think that you have to weigh between the value that you can truly create and therefore appropriate, like obtain back in whatever thing that you want to start or do versus the the risk and the trade off of it. If I think that the Hub would failed, for example, I wouldn't have built it after seven, nine months, but I use that time to calculate my risk, right. And still, at the same time, I needed to test my marketability in the job market applying for jobs like getting in and rejecting and things like that. So, I think it really depends on what what you're bringing to the table. Is it novel enough? Is there a white space that you can create value in? Is the market big enough? Do you have the necessary networks or components to get the right financing in the right talent in for that vision to materialize, right? If you think that you have like 60% chance of getting there then do it. You know, it doesn't have to be 90%, 100% unless you start doing it. So yeah, 60% would be my own benchmark. And if not right, it's always good. It's always fine to learn from others first. Because I think the benefit of joining the industry or joining being part of a company, if you are smart, and if you're still in tune with your, your actual intent, you will find problems, you will, you will know intimately the challenges of that particular industry. That's why if you look at, say insurtech or FinTech today, right, that's getting so much of VC funding. A lot of the founders are from the industry themselves, right? ex-Allianz, ex-Aon, ex-, you know, whatever bank and they saw the cracks, they have enough capital enough network to make the change, and then they come up to do it. And also, research shows that the average age for the most successful founder was like, 42. Yeah, so what happens before 22 to 42?
Jeremy Au (35:00):
Learning on someone else's money.
Grace Sai (35:00):
Yeah definitely, trying different things.
Jeremy Au (35:04):
Yeah. Last quick question is obviously, you've had some good times, you had tough times, you were hinting at some of them along the way. Could you share about a time when you had a tough time, and you had to choose to be brave?
Grace Sai (35:16):
Yeah, for sure. I think when WeWork entered Singapore in December 2017, we knew that they would be changing the market dynamics, of demand supply, pricing. And so, 2018 was very much a year of consolidation. And true enough, we were approached by at least three companies that were going to fight WeWork, and they made acquisition offers, I think we had two term sheets, and I entertained them. One was in China, and I really learned the whole M&A game there and, and really explored that they would have made me very, very comfortable financially. And it would have been a nice exit. I think, however, I ended up rejecting that, and that took a lot of courage. And my friends were like, what, because me, mainly because I knew that I needed to work for because there was a locking period, right, with a lot of these acquihires and acquisitions. I knew that I very much would not be able to survive without a purpose led company leader, you know, for them, the purpose was profit full stop. They made it very clear to me. And credit goes to them but no, I wouldn't have survived that.
Jeremy Au (36:29):
Wow, Grace, I respect that decision a lot. Because that's a tough one to walk away from, and I'm not sure if I would have been measured up to you in that decision
Grace Sai (36:40)
No but you see at the end it ended up okay, too. I still had an exit, I still could hold on to my values, I still could do the stuff that I want to. And now I'm free to do my next thing for the next 10 years.
Jeremy Au (36:53)
That's amazing. Wow, thank you so much Grace. Well, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. And obviously, I want to kind of like, as usual paraphrase, like the three biggest themes that I saw for the podcast. The first is thank you so much for sharing about your entrepreneurial childhood and your professional journey, it was an absolute blast hearing about you being a love doctor, as well as charging the relatives for activities and how you started as an entrepreneur back then. But also, I think a lot of the lucky breaks in that sense, but also the opportunities you took to work hard and leverage to get there. You know, the scholarship wasn't just you being lucky you being chosen, but also you taking the bravery to write it in, and to actually even apply and raise your hand, right. And that's something that's amazing and really inspiring. And I hope my daughter also learns one day, oh, you'll be learning, I'll show her this podcast to be a good role model for her. Thank you. The second thing, of course, thank you so much for sharing your like the window into that special moment that we had that bubble of time, of memories, at the Impact Hub Singapore with the Red Bus outside the National Youth Council building. And it was just interesting. And I'd love to go deep into one day how that small environment of like you said marginalized rejects, who didn't dare call ourselves founders ended up founding a lot of really great, you know, names that everybody knows today, right within the technology world. And it's interesting to see how we've gotten from point A to point B in terms of getting it mainstream, but also talking a little bit more about, you know, how it's starting to shift till today and how to be aware of that third thing I really appreciate this and, you know, we covered is about a high level throughout the entire thing is, I think you're quite consistent in really talking about at one level it's like, you know, bringing the best of both worlds right I think the sense of mission but also the rigor and thoughtfulness of like classic lean startup or VC backed principles like, and you started talking about product market fit in terms of the resource networks. And also, you started talking a lot about founder market fit right about whether you have to sparkle for the problem that you're tackling. And I really appreciate you kind of capturing the experience by sharing about, like you said, why you found Impact Hub Singapore, because it fit your sparkle, and also why you made certain decisions about the trajectory of the whole network because of it would mean to stay true to your sparkle. So, I really thank you for sharing this with everybody.
Grace Sai (39:28)
Thanks. Thanks for having me. That was fun.