It’s 2020, and the “old boys’ club” in venture capital should be a thing of the past. Only that it isn’t, especially in Asia. A look at the data from the Global Women in VC Directory, the world’s largest global directory for women in venture capital, shows that among the top markets where women in VC live, only Singapore makes it to the list at a weak 1 percent.
How should women, especially Asian female founders, navigate this male-dominated VC circle? Monthida McCoole, an angel investor who is Thai by birth, raised in the U.S., and currently living in Singapore, shares her experience on what it’s like to be (at most times) the only woman in the room.
There are definitely good initiatives to support female entrepreneurs in Southeast Asia, but it’s not the same in each location. In Singapore, there are a number of strong female communities such as She Loves Tech, and you will always find a female-focused side track or roundtable at tech conferences or events. However, in Thailand, it is really few and far between. That’s why I took the opportunity to organize the first female-centric event in Thailand, Fortius Females (stronger females) in 2019.
The Thai mentality and culture values subservience, not speaking up, and not calling attention to yourself. This in itself dampens confidence, especially for women. A sure sign of this was the alarmingly low signup rate for the first Fortius Females event. I realized that there were only a handful of female founders in Thailand and even fewer who would be open to ‘sticking out’ by speaking or attending the event. Once the event was repositioned to include all females who are in tech or are interested in getting into tech, we eventually saw over 100 participants attending.
Being a mentor comes with some level of responsibility for the startup or founder’s success, but I have a mindset of learning, and really enjoy engaging with the German founders that come through the German Accelerator Southeast Asia program. I would like to see more females supporting women in business, whether in a mentoring capacity or simply as someone who can contribute meaningfully without attaching any labels to it. I don’t necessarily think you need to find “a mentor,” but instead broaden your network of people whom you can learn from and develop meaningful relationships with them.
You just can’t be shy! In Asian culture, most women wouldn’t dare to approach a group of men to raise questions or insert themselves into a conversation. They would just stand on the sidelines and wait for an opportunity or let the chance go by just because they are shy. Of course, culturally, it is not easy to step in and interrupt a conversation, but it is a fine art that needs to be mastered. The more you do it, the better you get.
I have lived in the U.S. and Singapore, and being an Asian female in a male-dominated VC world does not allow you to show signs of insecurity. Even if you are introverted, you must make an effort to be seen and heard. Confidence is a learned skill. I’m not a natural presenter and actually hate public speaking, but each time I am invited to give a presentation, I make sure to prepare, make notes, and practice. If I don’t prepare and deliver poorly, I would have wasted the time of the people who had, for example, braved the horrible traffic in Bangkok to listen to the talk, and got no value out of it.
We beat ourselves up so much over feeling exposed and worry about the risk of putting yourself out there. Even if you embarrass yourself the first time, at least you have taken the first step, and things will get incrementally better with practice. A simple trick is to remind yourself that not all eyes are on you. Set small goals such as, “I’m going to talk to five new people today,” and increase that to ten the next networking session that you go to.
Females indeed have to work and prepare harder to counter unconscious bias they might experience out there. More often than not, when a female co-founder or CEO enters a room with their male co-founder or colleague, unconscious bias kicks in among the investors. They immediately assume that the man is the CEO, and you lose the opportunity to give yourself the presence you would like to establish with the party you are trying to get attention from.
The next time you manage to secure a meeting, tell your male co-founder or colleague to give you some time in the room before he walks in. This gives you an opportunity to get the conversations going and set the tone before bias kicks in.
Another reason female founders find it harder when fundraising in Southeast Asia is that in this part of the world, it is still a thing for male investors to try and ‘get lucky’ with females. It’s happening in Thailand, Indonesia, and other developing nations in Southeast Asia, but less so in Singapore – although it was still a pretty common thing just 5 years ago.
My advice is, if you feel just a little bit uncomfortable or feel the other party is encroaching into a grey area, be cautious and suggest meeting in a more public setting. Or you can pull back, recalibrate, and try to get another meeting rather than going through with having drinks after the meeting because you feel the need to impress your potential investor. It is also important to remember that in Asian culture, there is still a need to preserve the other party’s reputation (or ‘face’ as we call it) even in awkward situations. If it is a mild advance, politely maneuver yourself out of it instead of making a scene by calling them out.
Definitely that you have to be yourself, and trust your instincts! In Thailand, there are not many vocal, outspoken Thai female investors – that has unintentionally raised my profile in the startup community. I am direct, and I tell you things just the way it is. I became more active in Thailand, after returning from the U.S., and my directness shocked people initially. Over time, people came to accept that I’m just straightforward. Yet communication is an art. You can be direct, but not rude.
I’m either wearing a mentor hat or investor hat. Most people come to me for advice, and you generally get an idea or a vibe around the person, whether they are listening or being defensive. You need to accept that not everyone will take your advice.
The second crucial thing is my ethos of doing what I can to provide value to the community. I started in the startup scene in JFDI to help out, from there moved to muru-D, to a VC, and now I’m an angel investor. This ethos has helped me build strong connections in the startup community. The people I interact with realize that once they’ve built a relationship with me, nine out of ten times I would offer to help if they asked. I’m of this nature: If it’s something new, if it’s something I can add value to, I will do it, because you learn something new by trying.
As an entrepreneur, you need to start by putting yourself out there, hustling, networking, and engaging. If you’re known as someone who isn’t willing to give up time to help and add value, and only ‘takes’ within a small community, you might as well forget about building your profile. At the end of the day, it’s about human relationships – you need to show value and the engagements will come naturally.
Firstly, be realistic about your expectations. Really think through why you want to start your own company and why you are the right person to start the business you are thinking of. If the answer is simply because it’s cool, then perhaps it’s not the best decision.
Being a founder can be hard, tough, and lonely – especially for females. It’s not always secure, it’s tough to raise money, and you don’t always get the support. You have to be prepared that even your family may not support you. They will want you to get a ‘proper job’ and not run around meeting customers and securing funds.
If you are ready to accept the challenge, think of the best and worst-case scenarios. What’s your game plan? What’s option B? That will prepare you to face the uncertainties and help you stand firm on your own two feet.
Monthida McCoole is one of 300 mentors in the international German Accelerator network, an early-stage investor, and previously served as Investment Partner at Cocoon Capital. She is actively involved in the startup ecosystems both in Singapore and Thailand and was recently awarded Thailand’s Prime Minister Award for (Startup) Evangelist of the Year in July 2019.