Jeremy shared how he became Chief of Staff and Head of Strategic Projects at Monk’s Hill Ventures after initially wanting to be a vaccine researcher. He talked about coping with grief through his experience in the army, his journey through Berkeley and Harvard, and becoming a VC and a podcaster upon returning to Singapore.
[00:00:00] Jeremy Au:
The military was a good time for me because graduating and not doing well at A levels and honestly being on autopilot mode in my grief meant that I was like playing computer games and being very unmotivated and crying, and grieving was a function. Avoidance and self distancing, different behaviors helped me cope.
I think the Army was great because at a very deep level, the military consumes your entire life with its routines. There's no space for rumination because you're forced to exercise a lot every. And you're asked not to think for yourself. You spend a lot of time out in the sun and being surrounded by people all the time. So actually it's a pretty good, enforced mandatory recovery routine if you think about it.
[00:00:46] Ling Yah:
Hey everyone. Welcome to episode 97 of So This Is My Wire podcast. I'm your host and producer Ling Yah. But before we start, I would love if you could leave a review for this podcast, whether on social media or on Apple Podcast to let others know what you think of it.
Every review does help this podcast to grow, and you have my eternal gratitude. Now let's get to today's guest, Jeremy Au. Jeremy Au is the Chief of Staff and Head of Strategic Projects at Monk's Hill Ventures in Singapore, and also the host of the Brave Southeast Asia Tech Podcast, which features tech trailblazers in Southeast Asia.
In this episode, we dive deep into why Jeremy's earliest ambition was to be a vaccine researcher and how they help him get into consulting later, how the tragedy of losing his first love when he was 16 years of age transformed his life and how the army saved him from his pain. He also talks about his time starting at Berkeley and becoming a co-founder and what his experience was like doing his MBA at Harvard University before finally deciding to come back to Singapore and his journey in becoming a VC at Monk's Hill and a podcaster. So, are you ready? Let's go.
Welcome to the So This Is My Why podcast where we talk to people about their whys and how they turn them into realities to inspire you to live your best life. And here's your host, Ling Yah.
[00:02:12] Ling Yah:
I read the story you shared once of how you had an argument with a friend whose life goal was to help his friends and family to be happy. And then you said, no, you want to maximize the number of people around the world to achieve the greatest possible happiness, which is on a totally different scale.
[00:02:28] Jeremy Au:
Yeah. So definitely was, I think, theoretical about my impact as a person, as a teenager. I think when you grow up reading a lot of science fiction, you think about what impact you wanna leave on the world. You spend time quantifying it and also comparing yourself as other people. So I think does it strive to be, you call it ambitious, but also larger. And I think for me, the debate at that point was whether you wanna help one person, your family, versus helping a lot more people. And I think there's better contrast in our friendship. I think we reunited like years on a row. We both reflected that the other side was more correct in another way. I think he acknowledged and felt that as a result, that initial goal had been able to be much more targeted, much more focused, and as a result helped a lot more people than he had.
I also reflected at the end of the day, you can't save the world and you can't help millions of people. And that at some level, helping the people around you is really the crux of it. So I think that was a really good learning that I had.
[00:03:39] Ling Yah:
Whether it's helping the world or helping a more targeted group, I've realized that a common theme throughout your life since you were young was that you were always thinking of, how can I do good? And that got me curious. Was there something in your life growing up that made you think in this way? It seems like it's such an integral part of who you are.
[00:03:57] Jeremy Au:
Doing good is not really how I would define it. I actually used that phrase in a different way earlier which is about helping people. I think there are many ways to do good in this world, like research, making money, building stuff. I always defined it more as helping people and supporting them. There's a very human-centric view of the world that I prefer to default to. I love reading science fiction where we're talking about how people would react in different situations. about what is reviewed by their nature or what's reviewed in a situation and circumstances that they're facing. It's just amazing what we individual humans have done collectively by helping each other, as well as individually.
It's quite exciting to see that huge trajectory to where we are today and where we could be in the future. That core of it is no matter how big the technology is, no matter how big the trend is, no matter how vast the company feels like, at the end of the day, it's all people. That's my frame of the world rather than THE frame of the world. So that's how I think about it.
[00:05:03] Ling Yah:
Was there something that happened early in the part of your life that caused you to think in that way?
[00:05:07] Jeremy Au:
I think there are two parts of my life. The first part of my life has always been growing up, I wanted to be a medical researcher, right?
[00:05:14] Ling Yah:
Just like a vaccine researcher, right?
[00:05:15] Jeremy Au:
A vaccine researcher as well. Before, I . Read Time and may have the yellow and you know, Asian American who had got on to the AIDS vaccine cocktail in terms of antivirals that helped make living with AIDS and HIV night and day different. And that was a huge inspiration for me as a kid because so many lives were transformed from an effectively a death sentence to something that is survivable to even having a thriving life.
In retrospect also, I think it was nice to see some representation as well for an Asian person to be featured on the cover of Time. That was why I said I wanted to be a vaccine scientist growing up. Yet after some exposure to what research actually is and realizing that you're stuck in the lab with very strong hypothesis testing, I realized that that wasn't really the right environment for myself to be passionate about.
The second aspect about it was, I think growing up, these wonderful stories, more like legends and myth, and recreations of the actual thing. We get to hear these stories about how they overcome various challenges, how they manage to get themselves to go to school, and things like. You can see the problem solving aspect of it, and then the storytelling aspects of hearing my parents' story, adversity and everything.
And I think that has made me really be both at one level, problem-centric, quantitative and logical about the problems that humans face, as well as being very curious about the stories that humans have in terms of how they address the problem and how they overcame that challenge later.
[00:06:55] Ling Yah:
When you were in entering college, 16, you had a really difficult period. I wonder if you could share a little bit about that and basically how you picked yourself up from that.
[00:07:04] Jeremy Au:
Yeah. The core of it was that, during junior college, I was deeply in love with this classmate of mine. She was just an amazing human being. She wanted to, in the medical field and be a pharmacist or even a doctor. Long story short, she contracted an unknown disease quite suddenly in the course of two weeks, which was a huge shock to myself, a huge blow to her family and her friends as well. When I think about that, I almost feel like there are three versions of Jeremy that have gone through this. The first version of Jeremy was this someone who's going through a lot of grief of having a loved one passed away who was such an unexplained disease that we never knew the reason why, and I think very focused on being grief yet also very reluctant to be vulnerable, and very focused on being both protective, man up to grief, the shock, the tears. The second Jeremy has really been someone who picked himself up from grief, as a result, I did very poorly in junior college and didn't have university offers. And so having to pick when I was in army to eventually decide that I did wanna study again. To apply for universities and at one level, really, I think from the outside, really look as if he was succeeding, going to a good, decent university, and then into the professional career and figure out how to be part of Social Impact consulting as a tribute to her. I think that second, Jeremy was also very shielded for, I would say 10 years.
I'd hardly talk about that story for everybody. People ask me, why am I motivated to do this or why does it matter? You know, the truth was I was compartmentalized and I saw that as a virtue. You freeze the top layer of the lake and the lake is very deep, or you're skating on top, then you don't know how deep the lake is.
And I think the third Jeremy has been slowly coming to terms with that through the process of using that to reflect on time, the progression of it, the articulation about the pain, and being able to share it and seeing it as something that happened. I can't control what happened. I can't change what happened, but I can reflect on what I learned from it.
I can reintegrate what that means moving forward to me in terms of my daily actions. And I, myself, now have a daughter and a second daughter on way. One thing I realized was holding my daughter was, my grief was a shared collective grief. I love my daughter so much now. Was also the same way that her mother and her father had grief for her.
And obviously at during that time, my grief was very solitary and I was helping them, but it was almost compartmentalized. And I also had no idea because I loved her, a boyfriend and a girlfriend, right? But not understanding what it means to love as a parent. Having a daughter of my own has realized the different dimension of grief that was there.
When you're middle-aged, mortality is in inevitable. That's just part of living, right? It's interesting to see how the same experience can be reflected and refracted through three different prisms. The Jeremy of that time going through that pain, the Jeremy that was striving and trying to rebuild yet a shield. Third is someone that's trying to integrate all of it together, and I think this is some self-awareness that there may be a fourth or fifth or sixth Jeremy down the road. The crazy part of being human is that even though the same thing happened once, you can have multiple experiences through it. At the end of the day, at one level, I am still the same Jeremy. I would trade anything for myself, be away, gone, and for her to be around, alive because she was this amazing human being who wanted to help so many people in her own way. That sense of mortality, also, I think a big driver about how I say to myself, what matters versus what doesn't matter. Like all this stuff doesn't matter because no one's gonna remember in 1000 years your experience of it matters, but the stuff doesn't matter. That's something I do think about quite a bit.
[00:11:17] Ling Yah:
I imagine when you went to the army you were still Jeremy one, you were dealing with all that feeling, all that while being in the really intense environment, that's the army. And while you were at the army, you said that you were studying for Berkeley, but that seems to be putting it mildly cuz you were studying by torch night.
You were cutting up your set books and putting in Ziplocs. What was that whole experience like? What was driving you to do so much?
[00:11:41] Jeremy Au:
The military was a good time for me because graduating and not doing well at A levels and honestly being on autopilot mode in my grief meant that I was like playing computer games and being very unmotivated and crying, and grieving was a function. Avoidance and self distancing, different behaviors helped me cope. I think the army was great because at a very deep level, the military consumes your entire life with its routines. There's no space for rumination because you're forced to exercise a lot every day and you're asked not to think for yourself.
You spend a lot of time out in the sun and being surrounded by people all the time. So actually it's a pretty good and forced mandatory recovery routine if you think about it. I really enjoyed all those things. I was actually writing in my diary from time to time, and I've got a chance to look at it a few times since.
The best thing was it gave me time and space away from everything else. The truth is, if I'd gone to university or somewhere else, I probably would have slowly reintegrated myself over time. The military was a special time. Once I had that integration about, okay, she passed away, I'm still around, I can't trade my life for hers. With that understanding, it became much more like, let's study the SAT because it's the alternate scoring system and it's a little easier to study for, right? Okay, let's buy the books, let's study during the breaks. If I'm going out the jungle for exercises and exam is coming up, maybe I have to cut it up and put it in Ziploc bags.
That was just a tough time in some ways, but not everybody was supportive about that. The good thing, again, was I was in the military surrounded by strangers. I will say that being surrounded by a cohort of other 16 and 17-year-old male teenagers, it's not necessarily a place for much introspection or peer understanding.
I think it eventually worked out. I was able to do well in SATs, put together my application. The reason why I also went to UC Berkeley as well, was that it is one of the few schools that didn't require testimonial from junior college teacher because I wasn't a great student. It was very kind to still write a decent testimonial, but I wasn't glowing because I was checked out and skipping school and out.
I'm glad I got accepted. I still remember being excited to finally go to university and explore new opportunities, hoping to bury everything that happened in Singapore when I moved to California, which I did in Jeremy V.2.0 slash dodging V.1.0, I guess.
[00:14:14] Ling Yah:
So when you were in Berkeley, you said that you end up joining the Berkeley group, which changed your life, which is a very strong statement to make, and I wonder why you would say that.
[00:14:24] Jeremy Au:
Well, before I went to UC Berkeley, I had an opportunity to meet up with an alumnus. I had been volunteering at various nonprofits because I had received the benefit of some therapy and counseling services from my time while grieving girlfriend. I'd been helping out while I was in the military.
[00:14:43] Ling Yah:
Weren't' you giving kids like O levels during the weekend?
[00:14:47] Jeremy Au:
Yeah, I mean, good news is that if you poorly flunk at A levels, but you still could teach O level math, honestly, especially if they historically weren't doing well. So you still could get them paved away there because honestly, helping them with math, really looking more for like companionship and someone who's more like friendly, if that makes sense. You're not looking to get them to an A like when you are donating Math tuition classes, they're very much like just don't fail.
Don't fail. So just helping them pass is really good. I was bad at school and A levels, but turns out pretty if you go down a couple of levels and lower the threshold, it turns out that you have some value to have. And so, I met this alumnus and I think she found out and we're talking about it that I wanted to help out, volunteer.
At that time, I had also given up on being a medical researcher and a vaccine researcher because after seeing my girlfriend pass away a hospital and everything else, I was also kind of turned off by the whole medical field, like not wanting to be in the environment. So I decided that I wanted to take my second best subject, which was Economics and study there at UC Berkeley.
So she found out that I wanted to do Economics and I wanted to volunteer. She recommended that I check out a group called the Berkeley Group, which I'd need to find out was a very selective social impact consulting group. They problem-solve for nonprofits on a pro bono basis. They'll select the top 3 to 5% of the people who applied.
So I arrived on campus as a freshman thinking that would be something I would explore. I remember applying and getting selected for an interview after the resume screen. I went for the interview and I remember they asked me, Hey Jeremy, imagine you're an organization and you're given a hundred thousand doses of vaccine. How would you distribute it across the city?
[00:16:24] Ling Yah:
How do you answer that question? Cause I was very fascinated to hear that. I wonder how Jeremy answered that.
[00:16:28] Jeremy Au:
Well, as someone who was already a vaccine nerd at that time, I asked lots of follow up questions, right? Which is actually the tricky part. When you're doing a case study, you don't have all the information. You need to be thoughtful about the questions you're asking, asked lots of questions about what the vaccine does. Is there any differential impact across different populations? Are certain groups higher risk for side effects versus groups that have more efficacy for this vaccine? I ask if the vaccine, either they be stored in cold conditions with a cold chain or ask about a cost or those things that are very obvious to someone who's been reading about vaccines for a long time.
[00:17:04] Ling Yah:
All those who went through the pandemic?
[00:17:05] Jeremy Au:
Yeah. Back in 2008, I asked all these questions and then put together a rough plan of how to distribute the vaccine about equity and also the economics of the vaccine. And I got accepted. I remember the interviewer was like, wow, I have never seen anyone do an interview as good as Jeremy.
And when I was introduced to the rest of the club and it was like, you so good at problem solving and case studies and stuff, and I find out it was a very selective social impact consulting group. They problem solve for nonprofits on a pro bono basis. They'll select the top three to 5% of the people who applied.
And so I arrived on campus as a freshman thinking that would be something I would explore. I remember. Applying and getting selected for our interview after the resume screen. I went for the interview and I remember they asked me, Hey Jeremy, imagine you're an organization and you're given a hundred thousand doses of vaccine.
How would you distribute it across the city? How do you answer that question? Cuz I was very fascinated to hear that. I wonder how Jeremy answered that. Well, as someone who was already a vaccine nerd at that time, I asked lots of follow up questions, right? Which is actually the tricky part. When you're doing a case study, you don't have all the information you need to be thoughtful about the questions you're asking, asked lots of questions about what does the vaccine do.
Is there any differential impact across different populations? Are certain groups higher risk for SY effects versus groups that have more efficacy for this vaccine? I ask if the vaccine, either they be start a cold conditions with a cold chain or ask about a cost or those things that are very rare, obvious to someone who's.
I've been reading about vaccines for a long time. Oh, those who went through the pandemic? Yeah. Back in 2008. I asked all these questions and then put together a rough plan of how to distribute the vaccine about equity and also the economics of the vaccine. And I got accepted. I remember the interviewer was like, wow, I have never seen anyone do an interview as good as Jeremy.
And when I was introduced to the rest of the club and it was like feel so good at problem solving and case studies and stuff and I don't know what a case study is. I still don't. I just know about vaccines. And funnily enough, the next project I did was on Vietnamese microfinance. I had to do a lot of retraining because suddenly everyone was like, wow, he was very good at case study. That's supposedly generalizable, but turns out he's really good at vaccines. I was really lucky and fortunate that the very hard interview question that they had just happened to be on the one topic that I was a big nerd about. And that being said, being part of that group was amazing because everybody was happy to be there.
Everybody was passionate about society, about solving. It was really a great tribe of people who really wanted to make a difference. That was a really fun time. All of us have gone to do some really interesting and amazing stuff. Some people have become doctors, economists, entrepreneurs, and others have become social impact consultants, gives it a strong vein of passion and community that I really admire for having come together.
[00:20:04] Ling Yah:
And how do you end up, during Berkeley doing all this, you also found your first startup callec Conjunct Consulting with Kwok Jia Chuan. So how did that start?
[00:20:12] Jeremy Au:
Conjunct Consulting was also a social impact consulting organization. I was at UC Berkeley, and I had received internship offer from Bain, which was my third choice, the first choice was based on vaccine strategy, which turns out they don't hire at that level, nor do they really hire internationals. And then the second choice was Bridgespan, which was also social consulting, but they don't hire again or, and they don't really hire junior people, to be honest. And the third choice was Bain.
[00:20:40] Ling Yah:
It's rare to hear Bain being third place.
[00:20:42] Jeremy Au:
I think Bain was a sister organization of British band, but for profit and for corporates, that was why I wanted to go there and train. What was interesting was coming back to Singapore and Southeast Asia, there wasn't an equivalent organization of the Berkeley Group and that sucked because I was missing my tribe. So coming back, I, discussing this with my old army buddy, Kwok Jia Chuan, and we decided, hey, let's do it. So we built an organization built to not only do good, but also be truly sustainable in terms of financial, human capital in terms of vision. We ended u able to do it because at my day job I was being a consultant, which was further deepening my skills and problem solving.
I was replicating the culture at the Berkeley Group at UC Berkeley, and at another level, the things that I felt could be better or improved, I could rebuild from scratch. And I think that I learned a lot from the experience of building an organization that's not just doing good, breakeven and profitable as a result, being able to scale that impact more and more, to be honest, because nobody had really done it at that point in time.
Back in 2011, the term social entrepreneur was new, even in the west and definitely new in Singapore and Southeast Asia and people didn't even call themselves founders at the time as well. All of us were calling ourselves executive directors or presidents.
[00:22:01] Ling Yah:
You shared at the time, the biggest challenges was facing skepticism and I wonder what kind of skepticism were you facing and what was it that kept you guys going and pushing through.
[00:22:13] Jeremy Au:
Skepticism was something that we definitely felt all the time ranging from, I don't think this is gonna work to I don't think that nonprofits should get help at all, to I don't think that a consulting approach makes sense, to I don't think Southeast Asia, Singapore's ready for it.
[00:22:29] Ling Yah:
You also said once that they also said, I don't think people in Singapore care enough, which surprised me, actually.
[00:22:35] Jeremy Au:
Oh yeah. That was probably the most common actually, because one of the big assumptions that assume social enterprise was that we believed that there were people in business or affiliated business who were willing to work in that structured approach to help nonprofits and social enterprises in a consulting approach.
The truth is it was a big commitment for people to give back. Within Singapore, there is a strong skepticism about our society's willingness at a stretch, and yet there's also a very strong push to make that different and to give back. In Singapore and to some extent Asian society, a lot of the help that we're thinking about is focused around the family, helping your family, helping your extended family, and helping society.
Helping society first is a little bit new and novel because I think it requires a certain level of societal substrates that happen. You can call it patriotism or nationalism, adding the awareness of causes and mass communication, the availability of free time to be able to commit and support a cause without feeling like you're jeopardizing the economics or security of your own family. Actually, substrate factors that are relatively recent for many societies. There's a lot more optimism today. There's a much deeper sense of a transnational, global and even local causes that resonate with our folks. I think that's very heartening to see all the social entrepreneurs, non-profit leaders, regulators, politicians, activists, and common people be able to kind of like pick that together and drive that forward.
My observation is that test, hopefully doubt down of the time as a point of skepticism.
[00:24:13] Ling Yah:
Given that you are facing all this skepticism, how do you even find the people who believe in the same cause as you?
[00:24:20] Jeremy Au:
Talk to a lot of people. I think there are three parts of it. One is you just have to talk to a lot of people. By talking to more and more people, you create serendipity referrals, and you get to meet people who share the same view. That's a big part of it, because if you don't talk to anybody, nobody will believe, right? The second part is being okay with the odds. The truth is most of us actually live in our bowls or communities where most of us agreee each other all the time. The tricky part is that when you're trying to build something new or something that changes the world in a significant way, it's unlikely it lines up with what your friend circle or your coworker circle is.
You know, I always remember a friend of mine and he was like, hey, Jeremy, you care about this. You care about that. Why don't you support me on this geopolitical cause that he cared about? And I told him as well, the reason why I don't care about that geopolitical cause is because I don't fundamentally care and I can't care about it on top of all the things I care about.
I feel sad about it yet is it really my role to be able to contribute to it? That's a very awkward thing to say cause everybody is like, okay, if that's sad, I wanna tweet about it. The truth is, at some level, the focus of your time is really the crux of it.
The third is really about what if you're wrong, how do you make your idea better? I was lucky because I was taking an idea that had worked in America and I was in many ways actually very experienced, and so I was uniquely positioned as an operator to build it from scratch. And not only build it from scratch at one university, but across small universities to make it profitable and sustainable, to find leadership, to take over the true voice.
A lot of other people who had the same idea, talking to lots of people and being comfortable with the odds. There were many other organizations that I observed that were just as compelling, deadass willing to hustle and talk to everybody, but eventually failed, improved the skeptics, right? Third point has allowed me to understand as an operator and founder, being able to talk to lots of people, hearing all the skepticism, being comfortable to skepticism, yet in your mind also being full and using that feedback to reassess your odds, right?
To improve your idea, to improve your pitch, to improve your other proposition, to learn from every person you talk to. It's a very hard mindset to have. Yet it allows you to get better, right? And so, in the perfect world, what happens is that you're talking to lots of people. You are not scared of rejection, and that allows you to keep talking to more and more people.
The more people you talk to, the wiser, the more articulate you become, and in that perfect world, then your hit rate gets higher over time and then you know, you build that tribe over time when it's a very unique set of skills to have because it requires you to be thick-skinned, and shameless, and a good communicator, yet also vulnerable and willing to learn and willing to execute. And I think that was something that I tremendously enjoyed being part of. I think that unique set of those three attributes are really, really hard to find, and frankly, a prerequisite to really become a strong founder.
[00:27:22] Ling Yah:
And what was it like to then go into your two plus two MBA at Harvard? What was your personal mission statement?
[00:27:29] Jeremy Au:
So it is a goodquestion. What's interesting is that I also had the opportunity to reflect a lot. I had an opportunity to build various mission statements and vision boards over time. I think growing up as a teenager, I think the word honor was very strong as a core word because of growing up in a school that was concerned about chivalry and gentleman leaders and all those things.
So I think the word honor really resonated with me as a teenager. I think that as a working professional, I remember that the three values that I really cared about was really, I remember writing this down before my MBA was really about encapsulating dedication, integrity, and courage and also three values that I felt were really important.
And one thing to use those values to really catalyze and mobilize change movements was something that I really cared about when I was going. And the reason why I built these mission statements was because I had gotten some advice from graduates of the Harvard MBA program, that being able to come in with a set of values and a set of focus areas that you want to explore.
I think the best way to use your time or Harvard, I think the Harvard MBA program is a very special place, which is within the Harvard ecosystem, which is within the Ivy League, MIT, and Northwestern and Boston ecosystem, which is also part of the American ecosystem. And so there's a very unique set of opportunities that you have.
And the truth is you only have two years of time to be part of it. And so the truth is you could do everything very superficially or you could do some things really well. I took that time to really be thoughtful about going into my Harvard program and I remember I set a little three objectives I want to do right. I said the first thing I wanted to do was first of all, meet a new person every day. That's one. The second was, Really building my skills to be a great CEO and builder. And the third was drawing something that reflected my values and if not, build something that did. So those were my three goals I had during my Harvard MBA program.
I think the first one was great because it's pretty easy KPI because instead of trying to say I wanna meet 900 or 1,800, or you just even meet one person every day. I think it's a pretty achievable thing, right? Just go out, meet new people at the start, and then by year two people start forming cliques and then you just have to be okay getting to know people at different groups or coursework or clubs or societies, or mixer s.
What I realized was that, there's a bunch of old friends I started to really like, and so I wanted to have that deeper conversation. So to me, it's like if I had deep conversation today, then I don't need to meet a new person.
I think the second about building up my skillset, I think it was a reflection of feeling like I had understood what you meant to be a consultant and be a problem solver. And also knowing what it meant to be a social entrepreneur. Yet I also felt like there was a lot of stuff that was really building on a fly. And so really wanting to learn from the management science, which I think people are confused by, but there's actually a real science to management and leadership that exists. This just happens to be behavioral economics slash leadership class. Pop psychology, right? And so this is weird mishmash of stuff that actually there's some truth to it about what it means to work with people at scale at the frontier. And I wanted to learn that knowledge.
Thirdly, I really wanted to do was, be part of something that reflected my values and I had the opportunity to really be part of so many different societies. It's just interesting because healthcare is a fundamental good, and obviously there's some very deep organizational structural challenge. Running hospitals and clinics and telehealth networks and being obviously looking at the social entrepreneurship club profits and social enterprises and advocacy groups as a way of helping in technology club, which was really about what we consider tech today, right? Startups and big tech and building the future. And it was just interesting for me to explore different iterations of all of that.
[00:31:28] Ling Yah:
You wrote a blog post with advice for people who want to apply to Harvard. Links of how to prepare for it, and there was one thing that you said people should think about before going in. Think about what you should not learn at Harvard, and I wonder what your answer to that is.
[00:31:43] Jeremy Au:
Just because I give advice doesn't mean that I follow my advice, right? So there's a cardinal rule of competence, in case you don't realize. Through entering Harvard, I wasn't as explicit about what not to learn, and I think that's why I gave that advice other folks to be thinking about.
Why are you choosing not to prioritize? Why are you choosing not to learn? One aspect, for example, was that one part of the healthcare club, the reason why it didn't really resonate for me at that point of time was that most of what the healthcare club in the Harvard MBA set was really exploring what's really unique to the American healthcare system in terms of how the insurer network set up, how the billing is set up, how the hospitals work, et cetera.
Obviously, there are some generalizable features of our system, yet is well understood by everybody around the world and by Americans themselves that the American healthcare system is uniquely underperforming around the world versus how much they spend versus how much they get. And so one thing I realized was interested in learning about healthcare and hospitals and mega systems, and yet what I don't want to learn is about the American healthcare system, that we either are trying to solve it on a structural level, which means probably going and learning how to go to Congress to lobby for change of the system, which was something I didn't want to learn.
Even though I read about it, I'm curious about it. I'm not an American citizen, so it doesn't mean I just didn't want to learn per se, and I also didn't want to learn as a result to build startups that were uniquely tailored to the American healthcare systems. Remedying the shortfalls. And the truth is, there are many startups that honestly only work for America in terms of pricing, transparency, or helping with intra codes, like those are things that just doesn't exist in other countries. And because if you're going to an emerging market where it's rarely to healthcare, then you gotta learn a very different approach.
[00:33:37] Ling Yah:
And you mentioned the healthcare club. Is that where you start to really explore mental health as an issue? Because you were doing other interviews, doing hundreds of interviews that led you to starting your second startup, CozyKin?
[00:33:48] Jeremy Au:
So what was interesting was that I had been interested in mental wellness for a long time. So all the way from 2013. I think part of it was just, again, reflections on my own grief and my own experience was range from positive to ambivalent about the value of counseling and therapy during that. I was being quite thoughtful about exploring, building up mental healthcare, add up actually, and long story short was there are a whole bunch of users testing and not to nerd out too much, I think some aspects about mental wellness is really challenging to do on a commercial basis. To be fair, I think a lot of great founders since then have figured out different ways to approach it or make it more accessible.
So it's just amazing. The interesting part that I realized was, one insight I've shared on my own podcast was that what's interesting is that for most problems, the worst problem is, the more they want your product. And what that means is that if you are slightly hungry, then you are willing to pay five bucks for food. And if you are very hungry, then you're willing to pay a lot of money to get some food, right? What's interesting is that if you are mildly depressed, you don't think it's a problem, and so you're not willing to pay a lot for healthcare. But if you're very depressed, then you can't even get off bed and access any healthcare at all.
And so this interesting dynamic where for depression, the intensity of the problem is not correlated. At one level, we can say willingness to pay by even the readiness or openness to get help, which is I think, the uniquely challenging feature about this one disease. And so what happens is that you have a bunch of people who are very depressed and effectively hiding from you. If you're like trying to find people to give free therapy or medicine, therapy, I mean, it's interesting where that category is hidden from you, right? Because there's so much of the stigma, but it makes it uniquely difficult to figure it out.
We ended up changing tech and saying, okay, you know, instead of trying to nip the problem about when they have very severe depression and caring for it, how do we prevent the emergence of mild or moderate depression?
One of the things that we realized was that there were certain clusters of depression. There were university students who were far away from home and isolated from family and going through of obviously their own identity awareness issues. I think second cluster was in first responders who were dealing with PTSd like soldiers or firefighters or policemen. Third category was grief. People who're suffering for the death of a loved one or personal loss was a big chunk of it as well. And the last group that we saw was really about postpartum depression, like mothers who had gone through a tough time.
And one of the things that we realized was that when we did that zoom in on that category of mothers to be and recent mothers, the interesting challenges was really about the lack of childcare. We interviewed 107 moms, pediatricians, husbands, and I think we really came to understanding that at least in America, there's a very unique challenge about the unavailability of childcare was compromising the ability for mothers to go back to work.
The compromising their ability to have a steady paycheck for the family, compromising their ability to resume the identity that they had of being a working professional because they couldn't find childcare that they could trust to care for the most precious thing in their life. And so that was just an interesting experience for us to pivot in that sense from a mental healthcare startup approach to saying, okay, how to prevent postpartum depression to, okay, let's just solve the childcare situation of very deep love.
And so I think it was just a fascinating experience to found it up, get funding for it, and eventually sell the company to daycare chain, was this bonkers chapter of my life as well.
[00:37:37] Ling Yah:
What's the solution now that you identified the issue, which was childcare or lack of it?
[00:37:41] Jeremy Au:
Childcare. More childcare. If you don't have childcare answered, the solution is more childcare. It was just amazing because I remember, when we were talking to the doctors and we were like, oh, all these moms are depressed. They're sad because they can't go back to work and or they can't have a paycheck.
And then, doctors were like, oh, maybe you should give them therapy. Counseling sessions from their perspective to help them come to grips that there's no childcare. And if you think about it, it's actually very logical because it's fair if you're a doctor or a nurse and you're hearing this, that this is a problem and they understand the problem, they hear the problem, but from their perspective, because they're doctors, the only way they can solve the problem is giving them therapy or counseling to accept the fact that they can't go back to work and accept the fact that childcare is really bad in your area.
And guess what? You should become a stay home mom. Even though you didn't want to, or you're gonna have to sacrifice a bunch of your living conditions in order to make it happen. So that was a really tough set of conversations to have and I think where it came down to was you had to figure out how to provide more childcare.
You build out a sharing economy approach where you know, you manage to popularize the concept of, we call it then nanny shares, childcare pods, but a concept of sharing childcare in a distributed manner with your neighbor, so you and your neighbor. Partner app to share childcare or going to a local home daycare to access a local pod instead of like very large impairs that are not systematically, fully serving the needs of the population.
And what was interesting was that there was a deep realization that at some level, we were doing a commercial approach to solve the problem, and yet it was actually a public health or societal slash governmental decision. Because America is one of the few countries in the world that doesn't have maternity leave.
And so there's this bonkers gap, I think, at early stages for American childcare slash families where there is hardly any support for young children. Which is a shame. I think it was always that deep sense to be like, why are we solving this? Shouldn't government be solving this at minimum because of writing is due, so that was just interesting reflection over the time, and I think was also a big reason why I eventually moved back to Singapore.
After having sold the company and just working on the problem for so long, at some level it was just, what's the future for me? What am I really passionate about? And it was really more about Southeast Asia and the opportunity of millions of people. So, so far, I was on our level, this like affinity which is that I fundamentally resonated more of Southeast Asia and the future rather than working on some of these structural gaps that in America that felt like should have been resolved by governmental community. So I think that's why I was quite excited to come back to Singapore.
[00:40:18] Ling Yah:
What was it like coming back to Singapore and how do you end up at Monk's Hill?
[00:40:22] Jeremy Au:
Coming back to Singapore was interesting because Singapore is a story about the world and Southeast Asia and Singapore itself. What's interesting is that being able to come back as a professional having worked in the US, is that you have a fresh set of eyes on your own place. And I think part of it was coming back to Southeast Asia, was exploring different opportunities, different roles, different companies, and also exploring whether to found business again.
I was approached by the opportunity to join the VC world and see the other side of the table. And I think what was unique about Monk's Hill Ventures was the fact that everybody in the company is a former founder and operator, and it meant that I had already heard good things about the team, about the culture, that the fact that they understood what it meant to work with founders because they were former founders.
And on the other hand, also being curious about what the other side of the table looked like and understand how the capital was distributed, how founders select of capital. And I think being part of that transition was interesting because being a founder, The truth is I really didn't like a lot of VC and I had to go sit down and do some thinking with my executive coach, and was the realization that I didn't want to be a VC.
And if I was to be a VC, it would have to be on my terms in terms of norms, values and approach. But yet, if you asked me, are there people that you respect in the VC world, I've told you yes. I respect Brad Feld cause he's someone who's open and vulnerable and has been transparent about his own mental health issues and grief, but also been able to talk through and provide so much help.
I admire Jason Calacanis again for being a podcast host and for being transparent, but information and sharing for being authentic and for being frank about A, B, and C, and therefore being a great source of knowledge and information. So there's so many different aspects that there were individual VCs that I respected, but I didn't like VCs. And so while I realized if I'm going to enter this role, I'm gonna step in with intentionality and say I'm not gonna be just like every other VC, which I write down as EO VC. It was one of those notes like, I'm not gonna be EO VC, every other VC I want to be. Doing it in a very human, humane, authentic way.
I think it's a very high standard because I think the norms of VC, the incentive structure, and that the normal behaviors of your peers actually incentivizes you to be EO VC. You know the act in that dynamic and it's actually, honestly, it feels like swimming against the current, try to carve out time for people who need help.
It's hard to be on time for meetings because back-to-back to every other meeting, it's hard to be thoughtful in your answers when you're time compressed. So I think I have a lot more respect for my role model slash heroes because I just have no idea how to do it and answer probably is, they probably don't feel like they're doing it either.
[00:43:17] Ling Yah:
They have a huge team behind them. We can say that people like Jason Calacanis, his podcast is a good reflection of what it's like being a startup founder and working with VC.
[00:43:27] Jeremy Au:
Well, he's a good reflection of how VC thinks because he is both of Angel who is working as a VC. So he understands the way of work.
He's part plugged into the network in America, and so he represents a very strong community. An affinity set of knowledge that is pretty uncommon from my perspective. Yet he also doesn't represent Southeast Asia and there's no need to be. Obviously, I think the American view of startups and approaches, and I think one interesting challenge has been the fact that to some extent, Southeast Asia's ecosystem, like many other technology ecosystems around the world has really taken their cue from America, which is right, because America is where a venture capital was built as an idea. So much technology has been built there. I think there's a very growing understanding that similar to China and similar to India, Southeast Asia technical system is maturing and growing into its own right.
This is interesting trend where I think someone like Jason Calacanis is a great reflection of how American ecosystem think. And also actually is a good reflection of the American leaning trend of technology thinking around the world because people in China or India would listen to Jason Calacanis as a result, be inspired by the way he thinks and talks. For me, that was also a big inspiration of why I eventually launched my own podcast, was because I was getting to chat with a bunch of friends and acquaintances that were really about Southeast Asia.
And I remember looking up Southeast Asia Tech podcasts several years ago and realizing that what they're talking about in a very superficial way. So I thought that was a great opportunity to build up, why we eventually become the BRAVE podcast and getting to talk in a human and humane way about what technology is.
[00:45:17] Ling Yah:
So just before we jump in debrief, we haven't set up what exactly you do at Monk's Hill. So you are Head of Strategic Projects. What does that mean? What does your day look like?
[00:45:27] Jeremy Au:
I'm also Chief of Staff as well. I think what that means is, I think there are three big aspects about it. I think the first aspect, of course is like every other VC, is deal flow, which is a nice way of saying, of helping founders. Selecting founders in terms of prioritization. As well as choosing which founders to back of capital, to grow to the next stage. And doing that on an individual basis, but also on a repeated basis, on a day in, day out basis. Instead, for example, today I met with six founders today actually. We've ranged from helping them think through their business in a very positive way cause they're growing very well, thinking about how to hire and how to support that all the way to the other end where the business is really struggling and they're trying to decide what they personally should do. Whether they should close the business or sell the business, the business. So there's a very wide range if you think about it, about what that daily flow is. And I think that really takes on what I call like the coach and the problem solver aspect of it, which is at some level you're always solving problems, right? Growth problems and technology and so, so forth. But being able to do that in a way that's very human can be difficult at scale.
I think the second aspect is why I call the structural approach or it means that beyond me doing as a human, how am I re-engineering and upgrading our company's ability to source, screen, prioritize, and learn from the way that we are making investments. And that deal engine is something that I'm working on because it only helps me by supporting me, but also helps the rest of the entire majority teammates who are also out there day in, day out representing the company.
And third, of course, is I would say ad hoc projects, but they're really key to the company. Company are cross-functional, but important to the organization for it to be spearheaded. And in that capacity, I probably act most as a PR consultant slash coordinator role to help shepherd these projects from point A to point B and all of those three roles honestly, one person on the team that's there.
So tripod league one is find great companies. Tripod level two is help the company as a whole, find great companies, and a third is very much like help the company be a better company. So ways that I think about it.
[00:47:50] Ling Yah:
You invest in early stage, primarily series A and you spend a lot of time with on this. So what are you looking for? What kind of founder has stood out for you?
[00:47:58] Jeremy Au:
From my perspective is that founders are really the hero of the company, and the truth is having a founders able to build and keep building is the prerequisite. Because if you come up to me and you have an idea, you got my attention, but you probably will not have my support.
It'll be how to get the support of any VC because all you have is an idea that's verbal. You have not done the work of making something of nothing. So yeah, being able to build something out of nothing is key. And being able to snowball that into more of a growth is really the crux of what every VC is really looking for one level. I think the second part is just at some level would be the belief that you're solving huge problem, right? And being a VC kind of like, that scratched my itch. Going back to the first question you asked me, making a huge impact, right? I think in VC, youre looking for people who are trying to impact lots of lives at a large scale.
There's not such as a small VC back startup, they're small now, but their vision is large and so I think it does tie nicely . Where at VC the equivalent of it will be like scouting elite athletes right into it. I want to change the world at scale and the back, both, not just with capital, but also time, attention, problem solving, coaching, mentorship.
I think the challenging part, everybody wants to play soccer, but not everybody is gonna play soccer on the English Premier League and within the English Premier League. The truth is that are many clubs that are bad, average, good, and great. The great clubs are looking for the best soccer players. And so there's this interesting matching assortment game, and I think it causes a lot of dichotomy, which feels challenging. And I think me having now been on both sides of the table finds it a little bit easier to both articulate, also be sympathetic, I think on both sides of the table.
[00:49:49] Ling Yah:
And you mentioned BRAVE podcast earlier. I wonder because you have spoken to so many people by now, what is your general view on where the Southeast Asian tech scene is?
[00:49:59] Jeremy Au:
Southeast Asian tech ecosystem is composed to stories. I think the first story is about Southeast Asia as a market, and then the second part is Southeast Asia as a pool of entrepreneurs and capital and ecosystem. I think the former is straightforward in the sense that Southeast Asia has, on average across the region, a lower GDP per capita than China, but more than India. And so there's an interesting dynamic where servicing the requirements and needs from a technology perspective means that more people in Indonesia or Singapore or Thailand or Vietnam or Malaysia or the Philippines get to get some excess more to things they couldn't get before, right? Either through more availability of e-commerce, goods they could buy, all the way to making it easier to travel from place to place, to this information availability on ways to be a better parent.
Those are things that technology has allowed to happen because there's more internet, but there's more GDP per capital for time. And so there's that pent up consumer demand slash adoption of technology that Southeast Asia has to not just improve the quality of life, but also leapfrog. Anyways, the old ways of thinking customs. I think the other side of it is really about the entrepreneurship ecosystem, so I think the increasing risk appetite of founders, the fact that talent is more and more competent or fluent about what startups look like or what are norms are.
The transparency about who's a good VC versus other approaches to capital. I think the maturity of the Southeast Asia ecosystem is really deepening, and what that means is that 20 years ago, I think the same growth story about Southeast Asia as a market was still true 20 years ago, but 20 years ago, most of that requirement for new ways of thinking, new approaches, it really being serviced by multinational corporations and expat rates who are really solving it because they had that risk appetite, because they had that extension capability.
I think what's really happened over the past 20 years with ecosystem is that all those requirements are actually increasingly and often better serve earning by domestic and regional and local entrepreneurs working hand in hand with local ecosystem partners like Venture Capital or angels or local service providers to service that local need.
[00:52:19] Ling Yah:
Do you feel like you found your why?
[00:52:21] Jeremy Au:
Broadly, yes. I think one thing I realized is that having written multiple mission statements over the years, the why is really a moving target . And it's not a static thing that you have, it's not something you set up as a kid. The why for me now, I think, that's amazing is at one level, I love science fiction. I love reading science fiction. I could talk to you about science fiction for a day. I think technology's amazing because you're making the opportunity to make all the science fiction become reality, and so you gotta think about that time scale, but also you gotta see about how you're gonna be helping people over time.
I think that being a VC and being a founder has allowed me to work with people because, People who are willing to build something amazing and build something thoughtful and to rally people, it's not just inspiring to the people around them, but it's inspiring to me for me to hang out with them and I feel better for hanging out with them.
And then thirdly, I think, is that my why is also being back in Southeast Asia, right? Because when I was in America building a startup from pre-seed or the seed, or Series A and selling it, I mean I was helping America, but I was always a bit disconnected cause I felt like I wasn't really helping. And to be able to do this in Southeast Asia where I feel like it's home makes it much better.
[00:53:27] Ling Yah:
And what kind of legacy do you wanna leave behind?
[00:53:29] Jeremy Au:
I had opportunity to visit Pompeii over the past year, and one thing I realized was that town 2000 years ago, I don't know any of the names, right? So I think legacy is a very temporal thing. The truth is, in 2000 years, the truth is nobody's gonna know what my legacy is.
And so I think for me, the way I should define legacy is more like, I hope that I live life in a way that was true to myself as much as possible, so that I was growing, made the best at that time, and that the people around me felt that too. And that they, too, feel like they got a chance to see me as who I was and who I am.
And I always tell people, when I have a funeral, no one's gonna recite my achievements. I think people are just gonna share about how you made them feel.
[00:54:11] Ling Yah:
The Maya Angelou quote.
[00:54:12] Jeremy Au:
Exactly. And I think for me, I hope that, at that funeral, I think everybody had a good time that we are wearing tie dye shirts and multicolored balloons and we're playing some dance music and cracking some jokes, maybe some dark humor along the way, since it is a funeral.
But I really hope that when I pass my legacies is that people were thankful that I existed for this very temporal period of time. And I honestly, that's the best I can hope for from my perspective.
[00:54:39] Ling Yah:
And that was the end of episode 97.