Helen Wong: AC Ventures Managing Partner Leadership Journey, China VC Acceleration & Indonesia Growth Optimism - E423

· Podcast Episodes English,VC and Angels,Women,China,Indonesia


“Be ready to take on more risk. I'm quite a cautious investor. I like to think through all risks, besides the rewards. The internet boom does make you miss some of the big opportunities sometimes. This industry is not just about analysis. Though it’s very important, so is having the guts to follow through and have the persistence to follow through. Sometimes when you see breakout opportunities, you just have to go do it.” - Helen Wong

“In venture capital, we always look for huge markets. In the US, it was really for building for the world, in China, the market was big enough. Then if you look at Southeast Asia, the biggest market is Indonesia. I felt like Indonesia is definitely a place that you have to invest in if you want to be serious about the region. Some people from the West might look at Southeast Asia as just a region, but we are a collection of countries that are very diverse and very fragmented. So I felt like Indonesia was definitely one that you to look at deeply. They had very similar trends to China wherein they have a huge population, rising middle class, and urbanization.” - Helen Wong

“The hardest part of being a working mom is balancing family and your work. There were times when I really didn't want to travel. I didn't want to be away from my daughter, but I had to do it. My husband is very supportive and he says I have to go ahead and do what I have to do. It helps a lot. So I encourage people to choose their spouse wisely. Choose someone who supports you and who lets you pursue your dreams. You have to be very open to discussing your options, and your ambitions and decide what's better for the family.” - Helen Wong

Helen Wong, Managing Partner of AC Ventures, and Jeremy Au talked about three main themes:

1. AC Ventures Managing Partner Leadership Journey: Helen shared her extensive journey from Oxford University to investment banking to GGV Capital to INSEAD MBA to Qiming Ventures to Managing Partner of AC Ventures. She highlighted her 20 years of investing experience across the booming Silicon Valley tech ecosystem to the early rapidly growing China tech scene of the early 2000s. The Asian Financial Crisis with Asia corporate over-leveraging debt and Alan Greenspan's interest rate hikes reshaped her understanding of risk and investment. She shared insights on investing in 4 unicorns, 3 M&A exits and 7 IPOs, e.g. Alibaba's growth from 1,000 to thousands of employees

2. China VC Acceleration: Helen discussed the early days of China's tech ecosystem, where returnees and local entrepreneurs started to build unicorns across the internet boom and the mobile internet era, despite the nascent talent pool and then-lack of exit opportunities. She noted the intense competition, global liquidity pools, rapid pace of deal-making, and the strategic focus shifts from consumer internet to deep tech and enterprise software due to government policies and market saturation.

3. Indonesia Growth Optimism: Helen highlighted the significant growth potential in Southeast Asia, particularly in Indonesia, which she identified as a critical market due to its large 275 million population, rising middle class, and economic resilience. She drew parallels between the region's current tech landscape and China's early days, noting the opportunities for substantial returns. She also discussed Indonesia's favorable economic fundamentals, with Goldman Sachs projecting the country’s GDP to rank fourth globally by 2050, and the public and private debt levels being relatively low at about 40% of GDP, which indicates a healthier balance sheet compared to more leveraged economies.

Jeremy and Helen also talked about the challenges of balancing career and family, strategic investments like Akulaku, reflections on missed investments, and her advice to her younger self.

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(01:33) Jeremy Au:

Hey, Helen, really excited to have you on the show. It's great to have your story and share it with a lot more folks. Could you share a little bit by yourself, Helen?

(01:40) Helen Wong:

Sure. Hi, Jeremy. Thanks for having me. I have been in venture capital for 20 plus years. I started with GGV Capital as a founding team member. This is in the Silicon Valley. And then I moved to China with them. I arrived in Shanghai in 2005. And then I moved to Qiming Ventures. This was about 2014. And then I left China in 2022. Moved back to Singapore and joined AC Ventures where I am now as a Managing Partner.

(02:05) Jeremy Au:

Awesome. So tell me more, what were you likeas a s a teenager? Were you like, I want to do venture capital and finance one day. How were you thinking about it back then?

(02:13) Helen Wong:

Well, It's a long time ago. No, I actually wanted to be a doctor. Like most, students that were top of their class. I think medicine was the way to go. And I had a very life changing moment. When we, I was hurt, I learned about the humanities program.

I'm not sure if you're familiar with it, but basically it selects students and prepares them for Oxford and Cambridge exams. So I went through that program and then I studied Politics, Philosophy, and Economics. After which, it was pretty open what career path to embark on and I chose investment banking.

(02:42) Jeremy Au:

Yeah. What were you like in the Oxford, right? Because, you were out studying philosophy, politics, economics and you were the founder of the Pacific Rim Society. So what were you thinking at that point in time?

(02:54) Helen Wong:

I think that it was just a very exciting time of my life, being away from family away from, Singapore and being plunged into a completely new world. Oxford was just a amazing place. You could be anything, anybody you want to be. And so when I looked at like the societies then I felt like there wasn't one that I felt really a part of and I felt very excited about, but I had a lot of friends who were Asians, it was not a very popular thing to be at that time.

Actually, it was just like a few of us from each college. And so we decided to set up this society and we called it Pacific Rim because It would like just have more people joining us. So we had people from America, for example, who are also feeling out of place in UK. So yeah, I mean, I love Oxford, but you know, the, the English are quite reserved. So we just decided to go ahead and do something that was more Asian and centric and also involving, including more people. So that was it.

(03:49) Jeremy Au:

And it's interesting because you're doing this humanities program and you said that you eventually started going to investment banking. Could you share a little bit more? Was there a recruiter who came to college and was like, this is a career to go for? How did you go about making that decision?

(04:01) Helen Wong:

No, actually, at that time, I don't think we had too many recruiters coming to visit us undergrads. It was also graduating in a recessionary time. There wasn't that many jobs. So I think that's part of the reason why I decided to go back to Singapore. And when I came back to Singapore, I did economics, right? So I did think about maybe becoming a research analyst. I actually did quite a bit of development economics.

So I thought, maybe working at the World Bank and IFC might be something to think about. And then I kind of stumbled upon investment banking and it was quite interesting, gave a more global opportunity. I thought that it was something quite interesting to maybe try out. And then, I was told I can always go work for the World Bank later, but if I go into the World Bank straight away, I might feel a bit disillusioned because it's a huge bureaucracy. So I decided to try investment banking and yeah, it worked out very well for me.

(04:53) Jeremy Au:

Wow. And what was that like back then? Because investment banking obviously has gone through several evolutions from then. What was your experience as an investment banker?

(05:00) Helen Wong:

It was a very exciting time. This was, when Asia, especially Southeast Asia, was going through a boom. And I was in the derivatives division, so it was more, what they call the third generation of banking. It was a lot about very complex financial instruments. That was like, a lot of learning. And then I was sent to London for about a year and then I spent some time in New York as well. In your early twenties and being able to meet people from all over the world and work in very exciting centers of the world was a great experience.

And it was such a go go days, right? It was, we were working late at night, but we were feeling so energized. We were working with some of the top corporates in the region in Southeast Asia to hatch their currency exposures and the interest rate exposures. Of course there were some that tried to take the bet that made it into investment instruments rather than hedging instruments and they got burned during the Asian financial crisis.

So I would say that my experience in investment banking started on a high note because we were at a kind of peak at the cycle and then ended a low note because the Alan Greenspan started to hike interest rates. The Asian currencies just devalued one after the other. So I still remember, I was at a meeting when bank of Thailand said we would not devalue the currency. And then the next day they devalued the currency. So it was a very it was a rollercoaster ride, but I learned a lot and yeah, I enjoyed myself, but when it ended, it's a bit like the end of any cycle. It was not so fun anymore. And we were not allowed to do a lot of things. And so I decided to do my MBA.

(06:27) Jeremy Au:

Oh, could you share a little bit more about the Asian financial crisis? Because, you had a front row seat from a finance perspective, but also from an Asian perspective as well.

(06:34) Helen Wong:

Yeah. The Asian financial crisis it was an interesting time because I think most people probably, in the tech ecosystem and not gone through it.

It was like what I said. It was a very exciting time because everything was booming and we had companies that were just spending a lot of money, raising a lot of debts. And I think what happened to a lot of Southeast Asian corporates was that they became over leveraged. And they became very risk taking.

And when the, bubble burst, it was very painful for them because they couldn't pay back what they owe to the banks, and they just some of them collapsed. And then even governments were very unstable, right? I mean, I still remember with Malaysian government started blaming, the hedge funds like George Soros.

And there was a lot of nationalism. And then Indonesia was like on the brink of collapse, right? Because of, I mean, the government so harder was chased out. And, I still remember like banks were airlifting colleagues out of Jakarta. And of course there were riots, which there's been various reports about. So it was quite a dramatic time. I was lucky I was in Singapore, so I didn't experience like firsthand, but I do remember some of the news that came out every day that were like, very very gripping. Just to maybe add a little bit was that, I mean, one thing we realized on the key learnings was that, when you see a lot of investment going into areas that are not very productive that is a danger sign, right? So a lot of the investment in Southeast Asian economies was going into things like golf courses, high end, Hospitals that, did not fit the general, demographic, you had very wide income disparity then between the rich and the poor in Indonesia that was not sustainable. I think this is currently where we are today. The economies are a lot better off, I mean, less leverage and also more equality, income equality. So that, I think is a very different situation.

(08:15) Jeremy Au:

Thanks for sharing. So you went off to do your INSEAD MBA. How was that like?

(08:19) Helen Wong:

It was a very wonderful experience. It was and INSEAD is a one year MBA. So I, and I went to Fontainebleau. This was before the Singapore campus was set up. Living one year in France, I think is really a lifetime experience. It was also very intense because we, once we started the year, I remember we just started the course and we had to start interviewing as well for our internship. I did an internship at the Lehman brothers. I would just also another story at the zone. And it was just very intense. But I made wonderful friends and I learned so much from that one year. I mean, I had some business sense because I was doing investment banking, but not as much, and because we were still much largely focused on the financial side, like hedging and interest rates and foreign currencies, but not in the real business itself.

So it was good to take more accounting classes, general management classes. But of course, I think nothing prepares you the way that you plunge into the startup ecosystem that I think when my VC career started, that's when all my learnings of business really started.

(09:17) Jeremy Au:

And it's interesting because you kind of changed and learned about different geographies and career paths while you were at INSEAD. So what were you thinking during that time? Did you think you were going to go back to investment banking? How did you make your next decision about career wise?

(09:31) Helen Wong:

Yeah, I wanted to leverage my finance background, but also to try something new. And also to try a different geography because remember I left Southeast Asia when it was quite depressing, right? The economies had slowed down. I wanted very much to go to the Silicon Valley when I graduated because it was the peak of the dot com bubble.

And a lot of companies, startups were going public, a lot of them were very young companies, but were just growing like weeds. I mean, it was the internet times. So I had people, people from my class that just did not even graduate and finished a course and they had just left to do their own startup.

So it was a good time to be in a startup. But for me to just jump into a startup, it was a bit of a stretch. I had never done operations. So I thought that venture capital could be an interesting path for me. And so when I went to the Bay area I just interviewed and I, in the beginning, I interviewed at investment banks and I got offers from Maryland and a few other investment banks. But then when this opportunity came up to be part of a VC firm from the very beginning this was GGV Capital, I was very intrigued and I jumped at the opportunity. I didn't know much about venture, but I had heard about the Rockefeller family. And at that time, GGV capital was set up, I don't know if you know the history as Granite Global Ventures we were going to be the later stage arm of Venrock Associates, which was the Rockefeller family venture arm and I knew that Venrock had backed really good companies like Apple and Intel. And so I was very fascinated. It also helped that Venrock's managing partner at that time, Tony Sun, was from Malaysia. And he wanted to give back to the region. So there was a Asian connection, I should say, a Southeast Asian connection.

So I decided to help with the fundraising, raise the first fund. We had quite a few Singapore investors as well, LPs. So that's that's how we got started. Yeah, I still remember. And it was very dramatic times too, because 9/11 happened just as we were fundraising. And I still remember talking to my partner in, it was just me, right? As an associate and for founding partners my partners were mostly in Silicon Valley and one was in Singapore, but I still remember being on the phone with my partners in the Silicon Valley and saying, the LPs are like pulling out. They are too much panicked by this 9/11 situation. What should we do? And, in the end we closed the fund. I mean, thanks to our LPs who supported us during those tough times. And that was how we got going, but it was it was a dramatic time.

(11:54) Jeremy Au:

Could you share about what it was like in the early days as the only associate with all the partners? Were you all in a room? What was going on from your perspective?

(12:04) Helen Wong:

Oh yeah, it was very humble beginnings. We had a small office in Los Altos. I still remember the dry cleaners were like dust down the road. We weren't on Sand Hill Road. We did move to Sand Hill Road later, but in the beginning it was, just a humble office in a nice place, nice little town. And then we had, I had to do everything, as the only associate, I wrote the PPM. I wrote like I cold called on LPs I've never heard of, and you just have to just do everything, but it was great because, when the firm grew and from its humble beginnings and just went on from strength to strength, you feel like you were part of that journey, to build the firm and, in a way, I feel like that doing that now at AC Ventures as well.

Even though we're not at Fund 1, but, we are still a very young firm. So that process of building and people not believing in you, people not trusting you because you're still young and who are you, you're not BlackRock or KKR? And I remember those days people were like, who are you? GGV, you're not Venrock, but you have that. How should I say? You have that dream as a young firm that you would one day be as good as these incumbents, I guess. And yeah, that's what was exciting. We were the first among many Sand Hill Road firms to go to China at that time.

And there was that dream that one day we could find the Coca Cola in China, and be the Kleiner Perkins in China. So we were very small, but we were very energized and ambitious.

(13:23) Jeremy Au:

What was that move to Shanghai like?

(13:25) Helen Wong:

Shanghai was, you have to remember this was 2005, So at that time when GDP, average GDP capita was around 2000. Even lower than Indonesia today. And it was I think some people considered it a hardship posting at that time, but I was very excited by the opportunity because you could see that everything was just growing. It was a very early, ecosystem. I still remember you could put all the business in one room. And there were not that many strong founders at that point in time. You could see that there were a lot of quite raw founders. And also, I had gone from like one of the most mature ecosystems, the Silicon Valley to much, much more nascent ecosystem. So you could tell that a lot of things were just very different. I mean, like for example, in Silicon Valley, you can swap out the CEO easily. You can find people, top executives from various big companies or even established startups to join your company, but in China you were really betting on these founders who had to learn quickly, who had to deliver, execute result. And I think maybe in hindsight, it was like, Oh, anything you picked, if you had picked, I remember there was a, this Westlake conference and, Jack Ma from Alibaba and NetEase, James Ding and a few of these founders were all there.

And I think if you invest in all of them, they would have all turned out really well, but of course, that's not how you felt right at that point in time. I find at that point in time, you were coming across a lot of people that just didn't seemed very credible, especially when you look at them through your Silicon Valley eyes. And and you were worried about, of course exits, cause at that time, the exit market was non-existent. I mean, you had, you had Sohu, NetEase and Sina go public and then crashed to a dollar in their stock price. So this was still early days. Even a hundred million valuation seemed like rich. So it was very different times, but we were fortunate because, this was Jujubee at that time, we had invested in Alibaba. And and I still remember Alibaba had a thousand employees and they will look at talking about doubling to 2000 employees and everybody was like, are you sure you can handle that growth? But of course they went into tens of thousands of employees, but I have to give, credit to a lot of those founders. They went through a really tough times Jack Ma and the team, and they really hunkered down.

(15:33) Jeremy Au:

You know, I love what you shared about how you were at that conference and everybody was still very young and it was very unclear about how to make the decision. Could you share a little bit more about those meetings? Were they when you say young, I guess they didn't know how to pitch. They weren't showing stuff like the Silicon Valley style. What was that gap that you said between the Silicon Valley, like what you were looking at versus the very young, early Chinese ecosystem slash founder quality at that point of time.

(15:57) Helen Wong:

Yeah. I think in the early days in China, it's a bit similar to what you see in Southeast Asia. You see a lot of returnees. And you see people who had come from banking or consulting just similar to the first wave of entrepreneurs in Southeast Asia, even some foreigners. And then, over time, we saw more people from the big tech giants, the BATs, and also more local entrepreneurs who, in the beginning, it was a disadvantage, we couldn't pitch in English. And because a lot of the ICs were still from overseas. But over time, the Chinese founders just, basically, you don't have to speak English at all.

And I think that was also one of our learnings. We missed Focus Media, for example, because the founder didn't speak good English. And we also missed some non-tech investments at that time, because we were still coming from a more tech-centric investment perspective. So we missed The Homeinns, which is like a budget hotel chain. So that was what I refer to as in, founders are a bit more raw and I think unlike in Silicon Valley, they were very polished, they had very elaborate presentations. They were also very willing to take just 20% ESOP, whereas in China, everybody wanted to be majority shareholder, and they had to be the biggest shareholder at the very least, and as they raise bigger and bigger rounds, they had to have the majority voting rights because in China, you had to be perceived to be the boss, otherwise, it's hard for you to do regulators and and other business partners.

In that aspect, it was quite different but I think on the whole, it was a very good partnership between VCs and founders because the ecosystem just grew and grew. And both VCs and founders just had a sharp learning curve and I think that some of the strongest companies were started in that period of time.

(17:37) Jeremy Au:

And you had a very long, kind of career with them. And then eventually you decided to join Qiming venture partners. Could you share a little bit more about that shift?

(17:45) Helen Wong:

Yeah, it was largely for personal reasons. I really enjoyed my time at GGV. I learned a lot, but my husband was relocated by his company to Europe. So at that time I also wanted to have a baby before it was too late. So I took a career break and I had my baby and then we decided to move back to China. So that's when Qiming Ventures found me and I joined them as a partner looking at the consumer and the mobile internet at that time.

And it's interesting because you now have a second time at VC in China. What did you decide to do differently, in the second arc, within VC in China? It's also a later time as well.

Yeah, I think both firms were actually quite similar in that they were true partnerships and very much merit-based, Western style management and also focus on more growth capital. So it was not difficult at all to switch from one firm to the other but I think what was very different was that from 2013 onwards, you can see globally there was a lot money pouring into venture capital.

I think that was just more and more liquidity, governments around the world started printing money. So what I think the biggest change was that you could see the pace of deal making pickup. So companies will be raising rounds maybe two times a year. Valuations were going up very fast. And in the past, I think I mentioned, it was rare to see a company reach a hundred million or have a billion dollar exit, but in the second half of the internet, which is the mobile internet era, it was getting more common. And I think it also meant that competition was more intense. You had to make decisions much quicker. You had to chase after founders a lot more. So I think it was different. And when I first arrived in China, it was like scarcity of capital was driving a lot of the deal making. The second half was really just excess capital, chasing very few good deals, but we were fortunate. I mean, I invested in Mobike, which had a good outcome. And also my team invested in Musical.ly, which became TikTok and also others like Bilibili. So we had pretty good outcomes, but I think on the whole, we felt like more and more, we were just swept along.

In some cases in the whole frenzy of deal making, I still remember mid-autumn festival, like people are maybe having a break, but I'm just writing my investment memo because we have to get this done. You had to get the financing closed, so it's just a lot of very intense periods where we just were just doing deals and just putting a lot of money to work and it all slowed down over the past few years, unfortunately.

(20:13) Jeremy Au:

Yeah. And what's interesting is that you've obviously seen the early start of this Chinese arc, and then you obviously saw that acceleration and then the maturation. And you were there as well until I would say the start of that decoupling between USA and China. So could you share a little bit more about how you saw that arc especially towards the later end of it?

(20:33) Helen Wong:

Sure. I think there were two big trends, underlying trends that affected the VC industry. One would be the decoupling, which meant that the Chinese government had different objectives. In the past, they were very relaxed and actually left a lot of Internet companies alone, which I mean, Jack Ma attributed to the success of Alibaba, just being able to grow without much government intervention but I think with the focus of the government on strategic objectives such as making sure that there was no bottleneck on the semiconductor supply chip supply. So it meant that the focus went to what's like deep tech and especially so then, decoupling, right? From US especially US supply of software or chips. So I think that coupled with the second big trend, which was the maturing of the internet cycle.

So basically, internet penetration, mobile internet penetration has had gone so high that, Wechat had a billion users. So there's no more new users to acquire. And you found that, it was very hard for startups to break through. Most of the user base was in the hands of the large companies and they would be basically competing for time share right among each other. It was very difficult for us to do more on the startup side, so a lot of people started moving more from internet to consumer, like traditional consumer, like consumer brands and retail or you move to B site, right? So more like enterprise software, SMEs maybe deep tech, robotics. I think Qiming was very visionary in that they had started a few years ago. Even when I joined, we had a team for the whole more deep tech and software side of investments even though it wasn't popular at that time, everybody preferred the consumer in a net market because it was fast growing. It was it was more like you could see exponential growth in both your revenues and your valuation.

But we will always have this focus on different sectors, including the to B side. So which made it possible for us to reap a lot of returns. So yeah, I think those two trends were very impactful to our industry. And I think the decoupling side, I probably have a more balanced view compared to a lot of people. Like they feel that, a lot of negative thoughts about what the government is doing, but I actually think that the government had also, in considering its options, had to direct resources away from maybe what was overly cash burning and not very in their eyes, not very productive investments in the internet sector to what they consider a very strategic, very important sectors for them, right? Yeah, that was why and then how things happened, in a very simplistic summary.

(23:04) Jeremy Au:

Yeah. And what's interesting is that after this, you rotated back to Southeast Asia and you joined AC Ventures. Could you share a little bit more about those things?

(23:12) Helen Wong:

Yeah, sure. So in 2018 I think around the 17, 18 timeframe I started looking at Southeast Asia because we felt like in China, the internet had matured but Southeast Asia was growing very fast. I think my first time to look at this region again was in 2016 when I attended a Kauffman event and I was the first Kauffman fellow. I'm not sure how much you know about Kauffman fellows, but basically it's a VC network. And so I was invited to attend the first event in Singapore. And then that's when I got to know about companies like Gojek, that was like at that time still hundreds of millions of valuation and I was amazed because Southeast Asia VC had not seen those kind of numbers for a very long time since the dotcom bubble.

I started looking at some of the companies and I came across Akulaku which I then ended up investing in and it was a Chinese management team, but focused on Southeast Asia, in particular Indonesia. And I saw that they were riding two trends. One was e-commerce and one was FinTech. FinTech being very different from China in that a lot of the population was underbanked and had no access to credit. So I liked the way they were riding both trends. And so we decided to make our first investment. So after that,, actually my managing partner at Qiming asked me to focus more on Southeast Asia because he felt Akulaku was playing out well, and I'm from the region. And China was maturing, so that's how I started to shift more and more of my time to Southeast Asia. And I actually broadened it out to India as well but China and India had a geopolitical tensions. And so they basically shut down the whole market for Chinese investors.

So then, it coincided with COVID. And during COVID, there was less interest among a lot of Chinese firms to look outside of China because the borders were closed and China was actually having a mini-boom in that a lot of the sectors were doing very well, like healthcare, right? Healthcare at Qiming, we had an IPO almost every month, like healthcare, some tech, but mostly healthcare. So it was really exciting. And then also semiconductors. I remember my partner who was looking at semiconductors saying, only in China and only in our lifetime, this is an opportunity, that was perfect, right?

So for me, to advocate a deal from Southeast Asia, it's oh my god, to them it's so small, so fragmented. And then I remember I was advocating this coffee chain and they were like, why do you want to go so far and set up stores? Isn't it too heavy? I felt like it was quite tiring to be educating people about Southeast Asia. And then with COVID, I decided that it was time to move back, actually escape during the lockdown in Shanghai. After two weeks of being completely locked down and by that time, my family had, especially my husband wanted to move back, would say the stars were aligned. So yeah, we decided to make the move back to Singapore and get out some of the craziness that were happening in China. So I think on the whole, it was a good move. And it was at that time that AC Ventures found me and I knew Adrian for a long time because he had pitched to me when he was an entrepreneur in China. And he told me about, they had just come together with Pandu and Michael at Gaiti. So it was a young firm and they were willing to offer me a leadership role. And also the fact that they have very strong Indonesian connections, which I don't think I have much. So I think, where, what I can bring is more the international experience and more the investment experience and then, what they can bring is more the local connections and the local market knowledge. So I felt it was a strong combination and that's why I joined them.

(26:42) Jeremy Au:

That's amazing. And what's interesting is that AC Ventures is very focused with Indonesia Core as well. You mentioned that you see some parallels between Southeast Asia today versus the China that you saw across the stages. What would you say are some of the similarities, but also the differences in the Southeast Asia slash China story?

(27:00) Helen Wong:

Yeah, sure. So I think in venture capital, we always look for, huge markets, right? In the US it was really for building for the world for in China, the China market was big enough. And then if you look at Southeast Asia, the biggest market is Indonesia. I felt like Indonesia was definitely a place that you have to invest in if you want to be serious about Southeast Asia and you have to be good at it. I think some people from the West might look at Southeast Asia as this region, but we are really a collection of countries, very diverse, very fragmented. So I felt like Indonesia was definitely one that you to look at deeply and also they had very similar trends to China in that besides having a huge population, you have the rising middle class, you have urbanization. So these were factors and then, you have some of the China Plus One strategy as well benefiting Indonesia and also this region. But I think there are differences for sure. I think China is very unique in that it was a perfect storm. In a way, the way it wrote the economic growth for the last 30 years.

I mean, they had cheap land, cheap labor, cheap capital. You don't have that right now, but you, what you do have is you have a big domestic market. We talked about, you have commodities, which in the last few years has benefited Indonesia. To be honest, the fundamentals are not bad. I mean, it's not highly leveraged. I think public debt and private debt is about 40% to GDP. And if you believe Goldman Sachs report by 2050, it would be the fourth largest economy. So I think if you, RBC and you look around the world, where else, can you invest in maybe you can go to India, but you know, I'm not Indian. So I think Indonesia is actually a good place to be right now.

(28:34) Jeremy Au:

That's amazing. And from your perspective, you've obviously gone through multiple geographies and multiple companies. I'm just kind of curious that if you could look back on all that time period, could you share about a time that you personally have been brave?

(28:47) Helen Wong:

Yeah, I think all my moves to different, regions was pretty brave. When I went to the US from France, right from INSEAD I only knew two people and not very well. So I just took the plunge and start networking, start making friends start, being very thick skinned and calling founders and hunt them down. So it was just kind of brave in hindsight. And then when I moved to China, I also hardly knew anybody. And it was such a different environment, right? It was dirty, it was rough, it was I remember even smelly sometimes. I have to put out with the cigarette smoke and whatnot, but it was exciting. It was just like, I can tell you some days were just, heaven and hell in one day. Yeah, lots of stories there, but when I moved, I guess Indonesia and Singapore is less brave, but it was quite brave to join a young firm like AC Ventures.

A lot of people ask me why not go to a big, established one, but, honestly, I have been at big established firms, and I kind of enjoyed what I went through at GGV, like building from the very beginning. So I guess that's my definition , that's my story of when I was brave.

(29:50) Jeremy Au:

And what was it like, because you moved geographies and you also set up a family with your husband? How has that discussion or, all these set of moves from a family perspective then?

(29:59) Helen Wong:

I'm very grateful to my husband for being very supportive. I couldn't have built my career without him. People talk about gender equality, right? And I think the hardest part of being a working mom is how do you balance your family and your work. And I always tell people that, there were times when I really I didn't want to travel. I didn't want to be away from my daughter, but I had to do it, right? And I think my husband, being very supportive and saying, look, you just go ahead, do what you have to do. It helps a lot. So I encourage all, single women to choose wisely, choose your spouse wisely choose a supporting husband, who can let you pursue your dreams. But it's never easy to balance, especially when we were both working. And he had a pretty intense job as well. I think you just have to be very open to discuss your options, your ambitions and decide what's better for the family.

(30:48) Jeremy Au:

And if you could travel back in time to your much younger self, all the way back in, junior college or in a university. What advice would you give your younger self?

(30:58) Helen Wong:

I think I would say, be ready to take on more risk. I think generally I'm quite a cautious investor. I like to think through all the risk, besides the rewards. And I think in the internet boom, it does make you kind of miss some of the big opportunities. And also I think that sometimes, this industry is not just about the analysis. I think the analysis is very important but then is also having the guts to really follow through and really having the persistence to follow through because sometimes you miss the first time and assuming you're at a firm that can just do for later stage deals, you can chase that deal that you miss, and you can get in.

So like for example PDD. PDD, when we first met the company, it was losing money on every order. So I think on an analysis basis, it was probably the right call to say we'll skip, but then when they started pivoting to a marketplace model, when they started growing very fast I know Sequoia chased them and just went in and, but we or at least, I shouldn't say we, I should say at that time. I didn't chase it because we were very much focused on keeping the valuation reasonable. But I think sometimes when you see this breakout opportunities, you just have to be persistent and you just have to go do it, be able to really get it. I mean, so it depends a lot on the cycle, of course, right? I think now we are no longer in this very bubbly cycle. And I think caution is maybe correct for this time, but I think when you do see certain breakout opportunities, you should not hesitate to really hunt them down.

(32:25) Jeremy Au:

On that note, thank you so much for sharing, Helen, for your advice. I'd love to summarize the three big takeaways to come from this. First of all, thank you so much for sharing about your early career as an, student figuring out what kind of career you want to do in global finance, all the way to actually doing a lot of that in investment banking, but also in your early venture stage capital career. So really interesting to hear your career decisions across each station chapter.

Secondly, thanks so much for sharing about your experience with China. I thought it was just fascinating to hear about both your personal as well as your professional perspective, right? So adding from a personal perspective, what was it like to move? What was it like to learn about the country and to meet with so many founders at that early stage of the ecosystem? And it was also interesting to hear about it from a professional perspective as well, about what was some of the, macro factors that was really driving, I think China's rise and growth, but also its maturation as well.

Lastly, thanks so much for sharing about throughout this all, like this angle around Southeast Asia. So obviously you talked about it in terms of the parameters of what kind of markets you're looking for in terms of debt, in terms of resilience, in terms of tailwinds. And so it was interesting just to hear about how you rotated back to Southeast Asia, but also the opportunities that you see in Indonesia and the markets that you see in Southeast Asia as well.

On that note, thank you so much Helen for coming on the show.

(33:36) Helen Wong:

Thank you. Thank you, Jeremy. I hope it was helpful for our listeners.