What people don't realize is that working with volunteers and working with people who you don't pay and have no obligation to you is really a masterclass in leadership because you continuously have to make sure that they believe in the vision that the organization is well run that they come in and feel fulfilled and then they get the structure and the support so that they can produce their best work with the amount of time and resources that they have. - Samantha Lee Siu Ling
With more than 10 years of experience in impact investing, consulting, and most recently venture capital, Samantha has worked with over 200 founders and social sector leaders to help them achieve their vision and goals. She is currently the founder and CEO of Stonesoup Partners, which helps build companies that do well by doing good through connecting them with funding and talent.
She was a founding member and CEO of Conjunct Consulting, a 1000-member social change consultancy in Asia. Her experiences include helping DBS Bank, the largest bank in Southeast Asia, launch an initiative to support social enterprises across 6 markets; leading the expansion of a global agriculture fund into 3 markets in Southeast Asia, and helping a Nigerian healthcare company commercialize and expand their ChroniCare Clinics to 6 cities in Nigeria. Samantha has a Master’s in International Policy from Stanford where she was an Asia Pacific Scholar, a Bachelor’s in Social Sciences (Honours) from the National University of Singapore, and spent a year at Yale University as an International Visiting Fellow.
Jeremy Au: (00:30)
Hi, Samantha. So excited to have you here. Always been a big admirer of you, especially since you were one of the founding members of Conjunct Consulting, where you are the first few people to say yes to really build out a thousand member social change consultancy in Southeast Asia as well as eventually rising up the ranks and eventually take over as a new CEO.
And then since then you grew it to the next level and then you built out and have a strong international development experience across multiple geographies; a master's degree in Stanford, lots of amazing things. I'm excited because one, you have a good heart. Two, you are super sharp. Three, you’re super hard working and four, you are savvy about what needs to change and the judgment required around that.
So excited to share your story as you plan out and start on your next adventure. So Sam, for those who don't know yet, how would you introduce yourself?
Samantha Lee: (01:23)
Thanks, Jeremy, that's super kind. I’m Samantha, as Jeremy mentioned. I've really built a career in impact. So across consulting in multiple geographies across Southeast Asia and Africa, I've also done impact investing. So try to channel all of the funding to companies and startups in emerging markets that I truly believe can help change the world and people's lives for the better.
So that's really my background. I recently graduated from Stanford, Masters International Policy, and I would say that a lot of the work that I've done and will continue to do, it's really around channelling the best resources to solving some of the world's biggest problems.
Jeremy Au: (01:59)
What was it like growing up as Samantha Lee?
Samantha Lee: (02:27)
OK, that's an interesting one. I think for me it's always been kind of a push and pull with the Singapore culture. In Singapore, there’s a very firm kind of narrative around what success means. So go to a good school, get good grades, come out, be a doctor, lawyer, CEO, tech entrepreneur…that one is fairly recent, I think a lot of times in Singapore, it's really kind of like the very set path as a highly skilled professional. So I think for me, like I've always kind of struggled against a narrative. I always feel like I'm going to be spending 40, 50, 60 hours a week doing something. I really want it to be fulfilling for myself, but also to try and do good for the world.
And I think I got a lot of good exposure to that. So I've always volunteered, I've always met a lot of really great social sector leaders that kind of mentored me along the way. So I think that's always been kind of an interesting journey because I had like push back from my parents to like, Why are you doing this?
Why are you volunteering so much? They did not see a lot of benefit in it and they’re like, you need to study harder and you need to figure out what you want to do your life. So I think it's interesting, when I went to the US for the first time and lived there for the first time, I remember this one open session with Dahlberg and the lady talked about their projects and the way they talked about the work that they were doing and just the amazing company that is.
I was like, well, all of these things I had considered a pastime and hobby before can actually be a career, and that really kickstarted my interest and kind of my path down development consulting.
Jeremy Au: (03:34)
I remember when I first met you, you were just starting out and just having that same interest, what you just mentioned of development consulting. What was that like joining Conjunct Consulting in the early days? I don't know what you remember about me, but what was those early days like?
Samantha Lee: (03:51)
Yeah. So I think for me it was trying to figure out what I wanted my career as an undergraduate to be. So I always knew that I had a heart for the social sector, and I think for me it was about how can I marry that with learning some skills as well as building something new. So I have always had it in me to want to build new things.
So even before college, I was working with a nonprofit actually called Youth Business International, this chapter is calling Youth Business Singapore. And so the two things I did there was to really launch a volunteering portal that will allow teenagers and give in Singapore to be able to clock in hours you're given volunteering to a youth bank, so that was great.
I helped to launch that. And so when I was like going to college, I was also thinking a lot about, oh, is there something new and exciting that I could join and be a part of? And so Conjunct came my way, I remember kind of like hearing you pitch at NUS. And I remember thinking, Well, this is actually a really good model. I really enjoy that. I get to work with actual nonprofits and other social sector leaders. I get to give my time and skills for good. So I really like the model and I really like the fact that you guys are just starting out. So it really made me feel like I could be part of the building process as well.
Jeremy Au: (05:06)
And what do you remember of those first few years of the mentorship of working with the social sector clients?
Samantha Lee: (05:12)
Yeah, I remember the first meeting we had to help people with disabilities to be able to get training and eventually employment opportunities. And I remember being so nervous that like and wanting so much for them to like me that I brought pineapple tarts because this was around Chinese New Year. I sit down and their first question to me was - You are really young, how can you help us?
And I was thinking wow, Jeremy just threw me to the sharks. What is this? I was not well prepped for this. No, but I also remember kind of like just telling them very humbly and say, yeah, I don't have your level of experience. And obviously you've been doing this work for so much longer and there's no way I will be able to value add that way.
They were manpower heavy due to research that I know nonprofits never really had the time or bandwidth to do with a fresh perspective. And, you know, I really like the vision. I really like the vision of this thing and helping persons with disabilities being included in society to be able to find meaningful employment, that will also then be able to give them the independence and dignity that they all deserve.
So that's why I felt like I like a vision and I'm willing to do a lot to help you bring that about. And I think that was somewhat convincing because they worked with us and continued working with us throughout the years.
Jeremy Au: (06:23)
Yes, made a deal with a very happy client for multiple projects and engagement. So you definitely did not fail if that's what you're saying, and I think you definitely more than succeeded based on the fact they kept coming back over and over again.
And obviously I remember that you went from multiple engagements in different roles. What do you think you learned from that period of time when you are doing this projects in the social sector, but also really being, I guess at the time, a junior member of the Conjunct Consulting community and team?
Samantha Lee: (06:57)
I think the biggest thing I learned was how to learn. And I think this is something that, like all consultants learn, which is that you need to go into a new industry or a new project or new subject area and be able to pick it up really quickly. And also that's the number one thing that I learned is just how to learn how to gain information and also be able to distil how that information could be used with your client.
I think the second thing I learned is really about kind of how to be a good listener. So consulting is really just about providing value. A lot of work in general is about providing value if you want to be a good person. And so being able to listen and lean into kind of where the problems that your client is facing.
And a lot of times it sometimes feels like a counselling session almost, and that's where the empathy comes in and that's where you both have to listen out for the emotions behind it. But also strategically, how can you best leverage this project to be able to help the client solve a problem? So I think those two things at the early stages are things that were really crucial and two skills that I still take with me today.
Jeremy Au: (07:53)
And one interesting thing, of course, is that there you were and I remember that you eventually spent a stint in the civil service. So you want to share a little bit about what you were thinking as you explored that route?
Samantha Lee: (08:06)
Yeah. My dream as a teenager was really to join a civil service, get a scholarship, go to Oxford, and then come back and be a high flying diplomat. So I think my foray into like civil service. But listen also two things, I had done like an internship with the World Trade Organization that was part of the Singapore government and delegation and I really enjoyed that.
And I think my boss and as an intern came back and was like, oh, you know, you graduated, would you want to come work with us? And so she really kind of helped set that up so I think for me it was just kind of exploring and seeing within the government because I had that job for so long within a government would still make sense for me.
I still really enjoyed the fact that I got to work at an international organization at such a high level working across seven countries. There was also a development angle I was working on like least developed countries issues. I was working on trade facilitation and environmental goods. So then there was like a little bit of alignment. So yeah, and I think it just felt like a safe route as well.
Like I mentioned before like a parent, so like, you know, civil service is great. Iron rice bowl is great. So they were not happy when I left. Yeah. So, so that's kind of my why I decided to join then and I had and it was a great experience. I still think that like there were no push factors.
There were only really pull factors which just really helps coming over to Conjunct but yeah, I still highly recommend it as an organization. I really enjoyed my time doing that.
Jeremy Au: (09:32)
That's where our stories obviously continue to be in parallel. So I had been watching you grow as a consultant and as a leader, and I had a whole series. I think we had over 100 folks turn up and apply to be the next CEO. And I did remember asking you and saying, I think you have a solid shot and encouraging you to throw your hat into the ring.
What do you remember about that process? Because there's two conversations. One is whether it's an organization you know, yet it's also a different role and executive role. Then, of course. Secondly, at a time you also had a choice to also continue being in the Singapore civil service. So what was that decision making there at that time?
Samantha Lee: (10:18)
Yeah, so I think for me, honestly, you didn't tell me that there were so many people applying. So I think I feel like if you had told me that, I may not have applied, been intimidated like bear in mind that I was 23/24 at this stage. So to me like the, the thought process is actually really simple was like A, do I believe in the work? B, do I believe I can contribute to the work. And three do I think that this is the right time to do this. And so for me, like in terms of the first time, do I believe in the work. The nice part of having come through with a different organization and been there from the start was that I could see the way the organization had an impact on everybody that it touched so from the individual consultants to the nonprofit leaders and social entrepreneurs to like the mentors to government bodies that you worked with, I think that we were really creating something very special.
Essentially, we were creating the market for like skills-based volunteering that didn’t exist before. Now, everyone sees it as a common thing in Singapore and there's been a bunch of organizations that has come up since then. But ten years ago, like no one was doing it. No one thought it be possible to make professionals already working 40, 50, 60 hours a week, give even more time.
Doing work that is very similar to the work that they're already doing. So I think I really have enjoyed that and I really believed in what Conjunct was doing in terms of bringing skilled talent and helping social sector leaders through that. I think the other thing also is just whether or not I feel I could contribute. And I think throughout my experience at Conjunct, helping to grow it as well was I just felt like there were things I wanted to bring to the table and the ways in which I wanted to grow Conjunct.
So not just in terms of scaling and growth, but also, you know, ensuring that the students continue to see how this ties into a potential career, continue to show how they can be high impact, socially conscious leaders and how they can take the learnings and take it with them throughout their careers and do something good with it.
So I think I have set a vision to how I wanted to grow Conjunct as well and how I could bring that about. And now last thing was timing honestly, that was the hardest one because and I think everybody who wants to be a social entrepreneur or take a leadership role in the social sector kind of always goes through that debate.
Like, do I first grow some professional skills, I have consulting operations or whatever, and then often make that jump, then take that corporate experience to the social sector or do I join it early on so I think for me that was a big debate as well. But I also felt like I was young and I had a lot energy…I still have a lot energy. I'm more experienced now, so that's nice. But yeah, so I was young, I had a lot energy, and I felt like I could take bigger risk and so I did. So I just felt like timing wise, it worked out really well too.
Jeremy Au: (12:48)
And one interesting dynamic about all of that was that you came in and the board was reviewing and screening and making decisions, and I was observing I think one interesting part and it came into it was and I remember you saying was that I think you were very frank that at a time versus other candidates, I think you were quite frank that there were things that you wanted to learn as well and you would continue learning versus other folks who were more experience in different domains, either in consultancy directly or in the social sector as well. So from that perspective, I guess you went on to take over from me. I went off on a nice long hike without Internet after that and did some silent meditation without devices and there you were just going and taking over. And what was that like?
Do you remember even running this job, preparing, getting the offer and then choosing to take it on? So tell us more about what it was like.
Samantha Lee: (13:44)
Honestly, and I think this was a nice part about being young was just like you take everything with such fearlessness because you don't know how hard it would be. So when I first took it on, I was just like, Oh, great, I got this job. I love this organization. I have all these plans. I'm just going to hit the ground running and execute so I think when I first took over, that was kind of like my mindset going in, and that's pretty much what I did.
Obviously, as the organisation continued to grow. And then we obviously had some financial difficulties as well. And then it became more about, OK, how can I grow this organization into something that's financially sustainable that's going to be around for the next like ten, 20, 100 years and that really shifted my mindset. I tell people that my experience of Conjunct is really like being thrown into the deep end and learning how to swim before you drown.
And it really was that. I also think it was a master class and two things in leadership and in sales. So I think what people don't realize is that like working with volunteers and working with people who you don't pay and have no obligation to you is really a masterclass in leadership because you continuously have to make sure that like they believe in the vision that the organization is well run that they come in and feel fulfilled and then they get the structure and the support so that they can produce their best work with the amount of time and resources that they have.
And how do you just continue to keep them engaged and accountable and motivated? And so all of that was really a great learning experience. And I think that it really helped me grow as a leader because so many times you can’t use the same things that a lot of corporate people can because it's like, oh, bonus structure or financial incentives or things like that, you don't have that.
So it's really about coming to the core of the mission and the vision and just understanding people. Then why did doing what they doing and how to put them in the best place possible so that the strengths can really shine and they can find fulfilment. So that was a masterclass in leadership. And the second thing, it's really around kind of like a masterclass in sales like what people don't realize is that one of the hardest things to sell in the world is selling something that people are used to getting for free.
And because it started out with such a non profit, we were raising money and giving our projects for free. Moving that towards a more social enterprise, financially sustainable place. I charged a cost recovery fee. There was a lot of process involved in terms of like, OK, now I have to sell this thing to nonprofits.
Some of them don't have a lot of money. I just sell in a way that they see value in that they actually get value out of it. So I think that was also really kind of like when I talked earlier about how I really lean into like listening to the challenges and the problems that these social sector leaders have.
It's really also about then tying that to the value that could bring in how I can improve these projects. And really grow a product and service line that was able to really meet the needs in a way that's so powerful that they would be willing to pay for it. So I think that's also a second thing.
I think selling to corporates when we started a corporate engagement arm was also like truly powerful because there's a nonprofit side of it. But the other thing that's also really hard to sell in the world is selling to a company when they not only think they can do it for free and themselves, but also they're giving the time and the effort with employees to work.
That has nothing to do with the company. So as a result, like not only should you lend us your employees for a set number of hours in a week or over a couple of months to work with these nonprofit leaders or social entrepreneurs, you also have to pay us for it. So that was a masterclass in sales. And I think it's really the same thing as well, figuring out what is it that companies need, what do they want, and how can these projects really fulfill the need for them.
Jeremy Au: (17:09)
What did you learn about yourself in that as you kind of surmounted these different challenges while I was off hiking? What did you learn about yourself along the way?
Samantha Lee: (17:20)
That's a great question. I learned to not be afraid to do things that I've never done before. I think that's actually really powerful one, and I learned that I was resourceful enough and could learn quickly enough to be able to deliver in something, even if it's something that's relatively new to me and relatively something that I didn’t have a lot experience in. I also learned about the power of having a community.
So part of the reason why I can do all of that, it's also because I had good people who were on my side who were willing to step up and help and really willing to give their talents and resources. So I think the power of community and building that movement and building that group of people who are the tribe of people almost in a village to raise a child and a social enterprise and how powerful that can be, and that's truly how anything gets done.
So yes, I definitely learned an ability to galvanize and rally people there.
Jeremy Au: (18:10)
There's an interesting dynamic where you're building, you're building, you're building. What would you say are some myths and misconceptions, I would say, about the Singapore social sector and the adjacent interaction the partnerships are associated with that?
Samantha Lee: (18:28)
So not even the Singapore social sector. I think the social sector as a whole gets a lot of misconceptions. So one of the very big ones is that like the social sector is the least innovative of the three sectors. So I think everyone always assumes that the private sector is the most innovative like move fast and break things and then after the public sector, especially in Singapore, the public sector that you've seen very well and seen as like probably more innovative than a lot of governments out there.
And then a social sector is kind of like the younger brother who is kind of like always lagging behind and always very bureaucratic and always try and short of resources. So I think a lot of people have this impression that the social sector as a whole isn't as innovative and it's kind of like always backward and stuck. But I think something that I see and this and cuts across both in Singapore as well as in the communities I've seen in like Myanmar, Vietnam, Cambodia and Nigeria, it's really that people when they are in adversity and in difficult situations are able to use the little resources that they have to come up with really innovative solutions.
So for example, like I was in Myanmar and there's this big group of farmers. So Myanmar has the highest numbers of small farmers, which means that they have less and like an acre of land and so what happens there is that because they don't really need and do not have the resources to buy like a tractor or inputs, etc. What they do is that they have like a rotating shared system and it's something that they were able to work out.
So they’ll come together, pull money and then just rent a tractor from a neighboring village. And so, you know, that's something that was truly remarkable. You are able to work out cycles of who grows what at what time so that everybody can earn enough because different crop cycles have different kinds of price points. So there's a lot of innovation that happens, especially more so in cultures and communities and areas that have less resources because they're forced to be more innovative.
They're forced to be more resourceful. And that's something that a lot of companies and even the public and private sector can learn from. I think the second misconception that happens a lot is that you can't grow a company that's both financially successful and do good. I think a lot of people still have in their heads that there's a consistent tradeoff that you always have to trade off profits and revenue for the sake of the greater good if you want to do both.
And I don't think that's the case. We've seen a lot of really great examples of that. So, you know, sometimes a great company that uses autonomous drones to deliver medical devices, blood, vaccinations, et cetera, to rural areas. Started out in Rwanda and Ghana, and now they're expanding Africa and expanding the US.
So there is huge company now. They raised $250 million, their value at $2.75 billion, definitely comparable to any other kind of like private startup out there that's commercially based so I think more and more I see examples like that. They’re still far and few in between and I think part of me wanting to do more work in the space is to be able to grow more companies like this until it becomes much more of a norm than say exceptional examples.
Jeremy Au: (21:25)
And one interesting aspect of it, of course, is that you've always had this interesting aperture between what I call the Singapore social sector and the international development lens, which is, you know, I think the same set of issues, but really, really different geographies. And so you eventually wrapped up successfully, hand it over and you went off to build out that international development expertise as a consultant and impact investing. So talk to us about what you learned in this new leg of the journey.
Samantha Lee: (21:54)
Yeah. So when I left Conjunct, I still very much believed in the organization, and I think I just had built a team where I feel confident handing it over. So to me, when I left is really for two reasons. One was to be able to, like you said, get more experience in developing countries and two, be able to explore social financing.
So I think something that came out through my time in Conjunct and all my work in the nonprofit sector was really the idea that money is really hard to raise. It's really hard to find funding for truly innovative things. But I really wanted to kind of delve deeper into that problem and to take that step and seeing how other people have been solving it.
So I tried to elevate social businesses which you see part of the foundation is split up. And so and I was helping that expand to Southeast Asia doing agriculture investments. I loved it. So I basically spent like one big in sample one week in either Myanmar getting over Cambodia. And I think that was like once again, being dropped off into the deep end and a lot of times we had to hire our own drivers who were also our interpreters and go out in these rural areas. Woke up at 6 a.m. in the morning with the sunrise, same time the farmers woke up, went down, spoke to them, interviewed them, talked to buyers because we do a lot of contract farming. Yeah, it was really a remarkable experience. I really got to understand kind of the challenges of working in a developing economy. So a lot of things that we take for granted in Singapore are so like a transparent regulatory system, things like having easy lending, things like that don't really exist in quite the same way in a lot of these countries, especially out in the rural areas.
So I think for me, just being able to see that in a very tangible way was eye opening and the other part of it is also to get inspired as well by the people that I met. So I met a farmer that was growing long beans and I guess because it's me and I ask weird questions, I was like, oh, so you know, are you happy doing this?
And he was like, yes. Even though I don't earn a lot of money, I am glad that I can make a living out of doing something that makes me happy and I was like, Well, isn't that what all of us just really want to do? Isn't that the dream and the fact that, like, this farmer is not making very much out in rural areas in Myanmar can feel the same way, too, and feel the way that a lot of us want to feel about our work is remarkable. And I think that continues inspire me to want to ensure and build an ecosystem around how can we help these people be able to continue to do that and make a better living out of that as well.
Jeremy Au: (24:18)
One interesting aspect about all of that is that, you know, you're building all these expertise and dynamics and you decide to go do a master's at Stanford. So what is your thinking behind that?
Samantha Lee: (24:30)
So I was able to do that and then I was also helping to structure social impact bonds because I wanted to see how I guess a different funding mechanism that's more performance based, outcome oriented, also tied in both private donors and investors, as well as government funding so I think that kind of gave me an introduction and a little bit more in-depth knowledge of person experience structuring these deals and also evaluating investment opportunities and for me, the question was always do I want to start my own thing, do I want to join something? What do I want to do with all of these experiences I was getting? At a point in time, I had decided that, OK, the burgeoning of the idea was starting to come to me about kind of raising a fund for like, how can I raise a fund to be able to grow companies that can do well by doing good?
This one had like a Genesis story, kind of like a like Spark moment almost. So I was actually talking to Jun Kit from Ojoy, who financed basically a nonprofit solution price that provides some care services for the elderly. And so obviously the aging population is a big issue in Singapore by 2030, 1 in 4 Singaporeans are going to be over the age of 65, which is crazy.
So I was like talking to him just catching up with him and he was like, oh, you know, I had this great vision like I really want to be able to build smart homes for the elderly. Like everything's fully integrated. I'll have like of Wii program that will help them do their like daily exercises. I'll have like a telehealth system set up so they can have like the consultations from home and I will have like medications delivered to their door.
I have like lights and sound systems. It can be like voice automated, like all of it, like everything. This is like state of the art, like just like future of aging at home, like, truly like it was a rock wall. And so I'll say, well, this sounds really great. What are you going to do? What are you doing to make it happen?
And you say, Oh yeah, I put together a plan, a proposal. I already found tech providers to do this. You know, I'm just trying to raise funding for from like do we get this going and can go pilot together? And I'll say, OK, great. Then like, how is it going? And he's like, you know, very hard to raise funding because if I go to a government agency that's typically in social services that tell me, Oh, but this is a tech company that you’re trying to build it, why don't you go to like IMDA or something?
And he's like, Oh, but if I go to IMDA or like a tech office and you're like, Oh, but you know, you're solving a group of beneficiaries, why don't you go to MSF or another like community related organization. Like, you know, it’s really hard. I was just like, No, I get that. I think it's hard to navigate the government system.
I think that's always the case, especially across different sectors. And so it's like, OK, how much money do you need really to just get a pilot off the ground? Like minimum money? He thought about it for a while and he was like 50k and I was like, You know what? I have 50k, I have 50k that I'm not really doing very much with.
It's part of my savings, but I'm not doing anything with it. So like I can give you an interest free loan for 50k. Wow. I didn't know you believed in this as much. Yeah I mean I buy the vision, I worked with you before, I know that you can do this and I was like you know yeah I'm willing to do this.
So in the end he was like and I'll say I'm willing to help you do it too. I can be like, have you be like a part time employee just to help you grow this out. He’s like, OK, let me think about it. He was like I’m still talking to a couple of funders and we'll see what happens. So in the end, he was able to raise funding 100 grand to be able to get the pilot off the ground and he didn't need my 50k, but that really got me going and I was just like I only have so many 50k’s but if I could raise money from other people who want to do the same, I can really take my 50k and scale that up like a hundred times a thousand times a million times. And so that's how the idea of building a fund came about. That was something that happened three years ago. And by that time I felt like I wasn't ready. I wasn't ready. I feel like if I want to do this, I want to be truly global. So that's why I went to grad school. So that's why I decided, you know what? I also want to learn from the best. And so I'll say, where in the world has a best practices in terms of like and the best thing in terms of like philanthropy, in terms of like helping to build great companies, I was like OK, the US.
So I applied to Standford, got very lucky. They offered me a full ride, which is nice. Yeah. Two years later, I’m here and the rest is history.
Jeremy Au: (28:39)
What did you learn from Stanford?
Samantha Lee: (28:42)
A lot. I also learned a lot from the COVID experience. I think three main things I learned at Stanford one is bias towards action. I picked a bunch of different grad schools. But I also was very clear that I wanted to do well when you apply to grad schools that had both a really good policy program and a really good business program so that I could was able to be able to attend courses in both schools, basically.
So Stanford obviously had both that. So I took a lot of classes across both my international policy master’s as well as in the graduate school of business. One thing I learned a lot in the GCSB was really this bias towards action. So they say, like, you know, you can have the best laid plans, but you're waiting for like the hundred percent, the perfect idea, the perfect plan, you’ve waited too long.
So I think there's a big culture of like you know what, you have an idea, you don’t know if it’s great. The only way to know and to find out is to do it. The only way to know you can do something is to do it. So I think that was like a big part of the journey of my experience in Stanford was just like the bias towards action. And the second thing as well as just like a team thing, which I learned that just reinforce the idea that I learnt in Conjunct which is like people is everything. So having really good mentors, having really good advisors and really good friends who can help you like really refine your idea and think through things was really powerful and useful.
So being able to surround yourself by like really smart, really dedicated, very passionate people, same thing. It's still kind of like it's the be all and end all. I think lastly is just really kind of being able to stay true to who I am. And I think being in school and being in grad school is like you get pulled in all sorts of directions.
So there's a lot of things explore. You're like, Oh, fintech’s really great. Like, oh, you know, like there's this new thing. Like, tech is really interesting. Crypto is really interesting. Like, AI is really wonderful to think about. So there’s like so many different roles you could go down and everybody has like an interesting idea all the time. I think I ran into a great idea and I wanted to get all this that I wanted to build through my experience, and I came out of it still very much believing in that. And I think that actually gained even more conviction because I also told myself that, OK, I'm going to give myself two years to go out and really look at every single organization that's tangentially related to what I want to do this kind of thing because I never really considered being an entrepreneur myself. Because I think if there's an organization that exists, there really cool ones who want to do what I want to do, then it makes more sense for me to just lend my support and effort and go to the organization, help them grow so I'll say, OK, I'm going to just spend two years looking for that organization.
And I think I found a lot of really great organizations like a lot of wonderful folks are doing a lot of really great work. But two years later and talking to hundreds of different investors and hundreds of different organizations in this area, I still haven't really found something that truly aligns with what I want to do and how I want to do it. And so two years later, I still think that this is something that I want to build.
Jeremy Au: (31:33)
The problem you’re targeting is really what you mentioned earlier is like really that impact funding and the dynamics associated with that. So what is the problem? I mean, you said the government has been funding, there was a lot of hype about social impact bonds. And so far I think we've seen some traction, but not to the magnitude I think people were hoping. So what's the problem from your perspective? Or a set of problems?
Samantha Lee: (31:57)
Yeah, sometimes we know a little bit and talk about the problem with funding. First, the UN estimates that there is a $2.5 trillion financing gap every year in meeting the SDGs. But if you do so, if you do meet that, it opens up $12.5 trillion in market opportunities. So the question is why is there still, even though there's all these activity going on, there's a lot of philanthropy, why is there still a $2.5 trillion gap?
And the reason is that because it's hard. it's hard to raise funding for that. We can only go so far. And as long as the funding remains very much a one way flow, which means that it never gets recycled, never ever comes back and never, ever grows the same way, then we'll always have that gap. So if you talk to investors and I think it's still a relatively small portion of obviously all of the development in money as well as like all the money, it's still about relatively small portion.
And so I was like, OK, if there isn't enough money, where is all the money in the world going to? The answer to that Is really private investment. There is $70 trillion of private investments. There is about $300 billion of that went into venture capital in a single year alone in 2020 and $300 billion is for perspective, twice amount of total global ODA which is international aid going to developing countries.
So if you think about scale and just where the funding is going in the world, obviously to going to private companies and also going to startups, so then the question is how can I channel some of that money towards companies that are also doing good? So I think to me the problem bias kind of comes from that the problem that like funding is very much for development is still a very small portion of global money.
The fact that people care deeply about financial returns and don't believe that companies that do good can bring those returns, I think lastly, is really kind of like and is true. It is hard, right? And also there aren't a lot of companies that can do that, that can do well financially and also do good socially. So those three factors, impact investors say I would love to give out more funding, but there just isn’t a pipeline. If you talk to like companies that are trying to do that, like, you know, I would love to be able to grow my organization, but I don't have enough funding.
And then you're like, if one side has a lot of money and the other side needs more money, why isn't there a match? Why isn't this problem solved yet? And the answer is that because they really fundamentally look for slightly different things the organization needs a lot of patient capital, a longer time, the right support to grow but the impact investors obviously need to have a certain threshold of growth before they can invest. So a little bit of chicken and egg. So I think that's also kind of why that problem hasn’t been solved.
Jeremy Au: (34:41)
So why didn't something like social impact bonds solve the problem?
Samantha Lee: (34:45)
So any social impact bonds definitely is contributing to the solution. I think there is definitely a place of social impact bonds will continue to have a place I think the goal of social bonds is really more about government efficiency. What I see is the greatest value of social impact bonds is really helping governments be more efficient in their government spending which is really important, if your government doesn't have a big budget to begin with. But as the structure, it's not very well suited to help companies grow, especially if the company is structured as a private entity. Social impact bond takes typically two years or more to structure. And as you know, in the startup scene that if you're a small company, you can’t wait two years for funding to come in and really just need the funding and you will grow quickly.
A big part of the social impact bonds is also that there is a rigorous evaluation component to it because a lot of it is around kind of find effective solutions. So that also means that the program actually needs to remain fairly consistent throughout the evaluation period. But versus in a startup, everything's changing. In six months’ time, your company goes very different from like the six months before because of those different components.
It's not as well suited to helping to grow like a high growth company that wants to grow really quickly and scale really quickly while also doing good.
Jeremy Au: (35:57)
Great. Thanks for a very quick summary about the fact that social impact bonds are useful. It’s just that they are very limited in the scope versus the huge requirements that are needed to hit our UN SDG goals. Could you tell us about time that you have been BRAVE?
Samantha Lee: (36:12)
Oof! Yeah. So I talked about how three years ago I had this idea of setting a fund and wanting to invest in and help founders who want to build companies to do well by doing good. So three years ago, I didn't feel ready. Today I launched a company and I still don't feel ready. And I think it took a long time for me to get to this place.
I think if you grow as a Singaporean where you're in a very risk averse culture, the fear of failure on one side, it's always going to be something in the back of your mind. And so I think there was a lot of hesitation there, like, Oh, what if I do this and like it's just so likely that I could fail.
And so there was a lot of fear associated with that that comes with just kind of growing up in the culture that we grew up in. But on the other hand as well, counterbalancing that was the was a fear of regret. Just like, if I never try this and 20 years down the road, 30 years on the road, will I regret not having tried, will I regret not having done it?
So I was like battling between the two fears and there’s this weird thing I do when I get overwhelmed. So I lie in the middle of my living room on my rug also because I just moved to this apartment two weeks ago and I my coffee table is taking another month to arrive. So I was lying on my rug and staring at a ceiling and just kind of processing my feelings and just being like, why do I feel so afraid?
And then it just slowly kind of like as a process, it came to me like because I'm stuck between two opposing fears, like the fear of failure and the fear of regret. And I felt like I couldn't move forward, and I didn't want to apply for another job. And then eventually, for me, the fear of regret won out because all I realized that it's not about me, it's about all of these really wonderful founders who I met along the way.
It was like these visions of how they can make the world better. And it's all about the people who I met on the journey, the farmers in Myanmar, the patients in Nigeria with chronic conditions, yet still managed to turn the condition around and see it as a positive way to be able to make sure that they live a healthier life, make sure that the exercising and eating right and they still have so much energy and just the ability to see people who turn adversity into opportunity has been so powerful and so inspiring my life. If I can do this thing and I'm able to help them do more of it and to help these people, these communities lead better lives and help these founders be able to achieve that vision, I think they would totally be worth it. Yeah, I picked myself up off the ground literally and started building a website. So yeah, that was my brave moment because it was not easy.
Jeremy Au: (38:40)
Amazing. Samantha, thank you so much for sharing all of that. So let's wrap things up here by really paraphrasing the three big themes that I got away from your sharing.
The first is thank you so much for, I think, really sharing about the things you've learned along your professional journey. I think the way you defined as masterclasses at one point around leadership, around sales and also I think what you learned along the way at this stage as a consultant in the civil service, as CEO of Conjunct consulting, as international development consultant and where you are now. So I think a lot of learning along the way, that has been really amazing.
And the second of course I think that the articulation from a domain expertise of around that $2.5 trillion impact funding gap between today and the UN Sustainable Development Goals and how that unlocks another $12.5 trillion of opportunity and upside and how you see past solutions versus what are the upcoming requirements of which you have decided to tackle in your own way now.
And lastly, you know, thank you for sharing what I call the bias towards action that you've always exhibited at every stage. And I really love how you were self-aware about how you felt about things, the different tradeoffs that you stage and how you eventually made a decision to push forward at each stage of your career, ranging from exploring your passion for impact all the way to taking on the leadership role, as you mentioned, of being taking over me at Conjunct consulting all the way to what you learned at Stanford and pushing forward with being a founder of StoneSoup Partners. So, Samantha, thank you so much for coming on the show.
Samantha Lee: (40:18)
Thanks so much, Jeremy, for having me. It was really great speaking with you. I'm super excited to be here, and I'm really glad I did this. So, yeah, so thanks for giving me the opportunity and I hope to see you around soon.