Whether building libraries in rural areas of Southeast Asia or creating co-working hubs for entrepreneurs in Singapore, Grace Sai has not been afraid to pursue her ideas and do it what it takes to bring them to life.
Today, Sai, the Singapore-based, Malaysian founder and CEO of co-working company Impact Hub Singapore, is bringing that energy to fostering truly supportive entrepreneurial communities for her members. Recently, she raised 1 million Singapore dollars ($710,600) to create a venture capital fund to provide funding to entrepreneurs, along with the community and educational support available at her two downtown co-working spaces. She sat down with us to talk about the budding Singapore startup ecosystem, how it differs from Silicon Valley and how she got where she is today.
This interview was originally published on Prabha Dublish’s blog featuring international women entrepreneurs. Edited excerpts of the interview follow.
How did you get the idea for Impact Hub Singapore?
There was no flash of inspiration that one day led me to wake up and decide to start Impact Hub. But I do feel that every decision made and every experience I’ve had has led me here. I feel like I’ve been challenging the status quo my whole life. When I was graduating university in Singapore 10 years ago, I refused to let mainstream definitions of success influence my decisions. In Singapore, success is often defined by going to work at corporations or the government.
When I told my Chinese father that I wanted to be a social entrepreneur, his response was: “Don’t be crazy. Be successful first, and then give back.” But I refused to believe that I couldn’t start making an impact now. My dad and I didn’t talk for 6 months, and I went ahead to work on building libraries in rural areas of the world.
This work would eventually open up the door to Oxford, where I got my MBA. Oxford exposed me to luminaries and innovators who were changing the world. How could you not be affected by these incredible people who are your classmates and friends? The support from those around me at Oxford played a crucial part in my decision to build Impact Hub and help Singaporean entrepreneurs change the status quo. I wouldn’t be where I am today building Impact Hub without my social impact work, my time at Oxford and all the experiences I’ve had.
Can you describe your fundraising efforts?
I’ve raised funds in two different capacities. I raised SG$3 million in capital to expand Impact Hub Singapore to two locations, and I also raised a separate venture capital fund to invest in startups. For the Impact Hub, we only had one investor, who happened to be a pioneering family of Singapore.
Our venture fund is currently smaller than some others out there. But, we seek to pool investments with many of our successful alumni and team members investing alongside us. Seed rounds would go up to a SG$2.5 million valuation (pre-money), and companies would normally raise SG$300,000 to SG$750,000.
What types of businesses do you tend to see in Singapore’s startup space?
Seventy percent of our members are tech companies. Fintech is very relevant because Singapore is a huge financial hub. There is also some insurance and logistics technology, since we are a shipping port. Anything that is inherently relevant to our main industries here in Singapore is ripe for disruption by startups.
Is there a typical persona for entrepreneurs in Singapore?
There is no one typical profile. Research has shown that the most successful entrepreneurs are over 40. They tend to have worked corporate jobs, have networks, know the problems and have the capital. They come out and have a great foundation for starting a company. In Singapore, there are more young people who are challenging the status quo. There are some people who have turned down their Stanford admissions to become entrepreneurs. Here these people continue to be celebrated whereas in [Silicon] Valley that has already become the archetype.
What’s is like being a female entrepreneur here?
I haven’t felt discriminated against in Singapore based on my gender. It is not something that’s actively on my radar, so I haven’t spotted gender bias or heard of cases from my peers. I have heard that it has been an issue in corporate [jobs], but I guess not as much in the startup space.
The best VC funds here have a good representation of female founders, but there are very few female VCs, so that could be improved. It was completely unintentional that our venture capital fund ended up being led by female operators.
However, I’m part of the Kauffman Fellowship, where I’ve met many other women based in the Silicon Valley, and they tell me that there is more discrimination there. I even see portfolios of the best VCs on Sand Hill, and most of their CEOs look like each other: the male, white, 40+ persona.
Do you have any advice for college entrepreneurs in America wondering how to start their business?
First piece of advice: Get out of America and travel! There’s so much more to the world than America, and the best way to grow is to put yourself in new environments. I went to 45 countries before I was 32 years old, and those experiences have changed me. It has helped me develop a broad global mindset.
The second piece of advice is to not start a business for the sake of wealth or gaining fame. These will come as a byproduct of success.
The third piece of advice is to kill the notion that there is always someone out there who knows better. We often think that the people who are currently in power in an industry know better than us. But I can tell you it’s not true. If you start thinking someone else is better than you and that you can’t solve the problem at hand, you will always stay in your comfort zone.
Prabha Dublish is an undergraduate business student at Babson College in Wellesley, Mass., and co-founder and president of Womentum, a nonprofit pay-it-forward crowdfunding platform that allows anyone in the world to donate to women entrepreneurs in developing countries.