ItChangedMyLife

Little Pocket’s big dream for women entrepreneurs

At 25, Pocket Sun is the founding partner of SoGal Ventures, a venture capital firm that helps female entrepreneurs link up with investors. She was recently featured in Forbes' 30 Under 30 list.
Born in a mining town in China, Ms Pocket Sun went to college in the US, and at 24, started the venture capital firm SoGal Ventures. The firm is an offshoot of SoGal, the global community of investors and entrepreneurs that she set up. Ms Sun travels
Born in a mining town in China, Ms Pocket Sun went to college in the US, and at 24, started the venture capital firm SoGal Ventures. The firm is an offshoot of SoGal, the global community of investors and entrepreneurs that she set up. Ms Sun travels the globe, from Silicon Valley to Vietnam, giving advice and talking business with start-ups and bright sparks. ST PHOTO: JAMIE KOH
Born in a mining town in China, Ms Pocket Sun went to college in the US, and at 24, started the venture capital firm SoGal Ventures. The firm is an offshoot of SoGal, the global community of investors and entrepreneurs that she set up. Ms Sun travels
s Sun (facing camera) was a speaker at the Echelon Asia Summit, held at the Singapore Expo last month.PHOTO: POCKET SUN
Born in a mining town in China, Ms Pocket Sun went to college in the US, and at 24, started the venture capital firm SoGal Ventures. The firm is an offshoot of SoGal, the global community of investors and entrepreneurs that she set up. Ms Sun travels
Ms Sun and her business partner Elizabeth Galbut (fifth and sixth from left) at the finals of the Her Startup global contest earlier this month. PHOTO: POCKET SUN

Founder of female-led venture capital firm wants to help women get a leg up in business

Just seven years ago, Pocket Sun was an unsophisticated teenager from a small city in China, trying to get used to college life in Virginia in the United States.

Even ordering food at restaurant chain Subway was a nightmare for the Shandong native.

"There were so many ingredients I'd never heard of, like avocado and pickles, and so many different sauces, dressings and cheeses. And the types of bread - multigrain and sourdough. I was like: 'What the hell is that?'"

But boy, has she come a long way.

Now a sassy and sophisticated 25-year-old, she is today the founder and partner of the first female-led, millennial venture capital (VC) firm. Just nine months old, SoGal Ventures is an offshoot of SoGal, the global community of investors and entrepreneurs she set up. The platform has more than 4,000 members in 26 countries.

She travels the globe, from Silicon Valley to Vietnam, giving advice and talking business with start-ups and bright sparks.

Her achievements have thrust her into the spotlight. Ms Sun made Forbes' 30 Under 30 in Venture Capital this year, and is the youngest person in LinkedIn's Top Voices in VC and Entrepreneurship.

It is sweet validation because detractors - including her professors - told her she was not thinking straight when she first came up with the SoGal idea.

GIVING WOMEN CHOICES

I wanted to bring young women together, especially people in college, before they made their first career decision; I wanted to let them know entrepreneurship could be an option.

MS POCKET SUN, on the idea for SoGal started germinating

"They told me that I was running ahead of myself. If people tell you you cannot do it, that's because they've not done it before. But they do not know what you're capable of," says the entrepreneur.

Bubbly and engaging, Miss Sun was born and bred in Dongying, a small city that was built after China's second-largest oilfield was discovered there half a century ago.

Her father is a project manager in construction; her mother is a former accountant turned homemaker.

"For 20 years, I was their only child," Ms Sun says, referring to the country's one-child policy. "But now, I have a four-year-old brother," she adds with a grin.

They were a family of modest means but their circumstances got a boost in the last decade, thanks to a paternal uncle who became a successful entrepreneur and now runs a successful maritime business in Singapore.

A precocious child, she had a voracious appetite for reading and devoured all genres, from translated editions of the Harry Potter series and Sherlock Holmes to Chinese swordfighting novels, as well as books on chairman Mao and the Gang of Four.

Music was, and still is, another passion. An accomplished pianist, she harboured dreams of becoming a music producer and lyricist.

"By the time I finished high school, I'd probably written the lyrics to about 500 songs. Many were written without a tune, they were more like poetry."

When she was 11, her parents sent her to a Crazy English bootcamp, pioneered by educator Li Yang, who believes that the best way to learn the language is by shouting phrases and sentences from behind buildings or on rooftops.

The experience was both stressful and useful. "I cried almost everyday because many of the kids were older and had a bigger vocabulary. But it also helped with my pronunciation because they taught us to articulate words in an exaggerated way," she says.

It certainly triggered a deep desire to master the language, something she did not just by reading books but also listening to and studying the lyrics of English songs.

At 18, she left for the College of William and Mary in Virginia, the second-oldest institution of higher learning in the US after Harvard.

Despite her sociable disposition, she went through some "very lonely times". Teamwork, making presentations and critical thinking, she says, were alien to her. Each presentation agonised her; she could not do it without a prepared sheet and she wilted when challenged. "In China, you know what to expect, but not in the US. That's exactly the point; you have to think on your feet," she says, shaking her head.

Her reticence earned her the ire of her teammates. "They went to our professor and complained that I was not contributing and pulling my weight. It was painful," says Ms Sun, adding that her confidence took a big hit.

The next semester, she went on a "study abroad" programme and attended the American Business School in Paris. "I worked with French and other foreign students and discovered that I wasn't so bad."

The programme gave her confidence such a fillip that she enrolled in a class on Global Business Immersion and Analysis, with a focus on South-east Asia. "It was the first time I got to know about this part of the world. It was eye-opening," says Ms Sun, who made several field trips and visited businesses in Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia.

Realising that she was creative and had a flair for marketing, she scored an internship with a public relations firm in Chicago in her senior year. She was hoping that her background would come in handy and nab her a permanent position after her graduation, especially since the firm had offices in China.

"But I realised that PR offices operate on a very localised basis, and my background did not affect my daily work. What I was doing was not value-adding so I didn't choose to stay," she says.

She found a sales job with Louis Vuitton next - she wanted to do something fun before going home to China. She became the top sales person in her first week on the sales floor. "I was good at connecting with people, sizing up their mood, whether they had any intention to buy. It's all about figuring out what triggers them and making them feel so good that they have to buy it that very moment," she says with a laugh.

Cupid came along next and bulldozed her plans to return home. She met and fell in love with an immigration lawyer and found a job with telco equipment provider Motorola Solutions.

Unfortunately, she failed to get a working visa. Heeding her boyfriend's entreaties to stay, she decided to pursue a Master's in Entrepreneurship and Innovation at the University of Southern California (USC) in Los Angeles.

It changed her life.

"The programme opened my eyes to a lot of things. I realised that everyone can become an entrepreneur. We all have something to offer and value to add and we should never underestimate ourselves. It doesn't matter what age or race or gender, we can do something great."

The idea for SoGal started germinating after she realised how rarely she met female entrepreneurs at the many networking events and talks for start-ups she attended.

"If you're not exposed to it, entrepreneurship is mysterious. And because you don't know what it is, you tell yourself you'd rather work for the Big Four," she says, referring to the four largest accountancy or professional services firms.

"I wanted to bring young women together, especially people in college, before they made their first career decision; I wanted to let them know entrepreneurship could be an option," she says.

Ms Sun started SoGal as a class project and organised her first event at USC, with speakers and panellists for about 40 people in November 2014. It grew organically and she set her sights on organising a summit four months later.

"Even my entrepreneurship professors were sceptical. They thought I was doing things too quickly. They said, 'You can't do it; it's too hard.'"

But she pulled it off.

"I had 60 speakers, mentors and judges and five different panels going on at the same time in different classrooms in USC. Several hundred people attended the event," she says, adding proudly her speakers included some of the best female entrepreneurs in Los Angeles.

What started out as a student organisation now has several global chapters and a few thousand members. After that pivotal SoGal summit, Ms Sun started networking with female entrepreneurs on a massive scale.

"I wanted to build relationships with them, feature them in our next event and get to know them. In the process, I discovered that the constant theme was how difficult it was to get funding. I wanted to know why," she says.

That curiosity prompted her to attend a one-week programme called Insider's Guide to Silicon Valley Investing, conducted by the Stanford Centre of Professional Develop- ment and 500 start-ups in May last year.

"I met all these investors from Silicon Valley and from all over the world. There were 35 people from 16 different countries in the programme and half of us were women," she says.

The programme was game-changing in more ways than one. She gained more than just venture capital know-how - she also met her business partner Elizabeth Galbut.

They decided that a female-led venture capital fund was in order, not just to provide funding to millennial entrepreneurs and help them grow a global business but also to connect women globally so that they could share stories and lessons.

Since then, SoGal Ventures has invested in more than 20 projects all over the world on a deal-by-deal basis. Its criteria? Businesses which connect the world and improve quality of life. "The smallest cheque I've written is $1,000, and the biggest, $10,000," says Ms Sun, adding that one of her investments is in Guavapass, which offers members access to high-quality fitness studios around Asia.

The investments, she says, will be bigger - between $100,000 and $300,000 - once they have raised funds from other investors, including high net-worth individuals and corporations.

Ms Sun, who is based in Singapore, is in the process of finalising her first close; the amount, she says coyly, is "less than $10 million".

Earlier this month, her outfit organised the finals of the Her Startup global competition, which involved 12 rounds of competitions in 10 different cities to find the best female focused start-up. The prize was a week's immersion in Silicon Valley, with different mentors and coaches, as well as visits to the likes of Google and Facebook.

The winner, Ms Adrianna Tan, from wobe - an Indonesian start-up that makes mobile business and finance tools for women - says: "I'm delighted that people like Pocket are supporting female entrepreneurs. Some people may perhaps think it's so great to be a female founder, you get so much support! But this type of support exists only because there was none elsewhere... She's very driven and she knows how to get things done."

But SoGal Ventures does not just invest in female entrepreneurs. "Diversity is so much better than that. We made sure we addressed both men and women and help them equally, even though we have more women in our community."

Her name Pocket was inspired by her childhood nickname "Xiaodou", or little pocket. "It's unique and people remember it. 'Pocket of sunshine', some say. It's very good branding, you know."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 31, 2016, with the headline 'Little Pocket's big dream for women entrepreneurs'. Print Edition | Subscribe