Singaporean is top woman investor on Forbes list

Shanghai-based Toa Payoh girl is 36th on list of top 100 tech investors

Singaporean venture capitalist Jenny Lee, 41, has the golden touch, and business magazine Forbes thinks so too.

On its 2013 Midas list of tech's top 100 investors, the partner in American venture capital firm GGV Capital is ranked 36th, the top woman investor globally.

(The list ranked two other women: Ms Mary Meeker of Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers at 47 and Ms Theresia Gouw of Accel Partners at 82, with her colleague, Mr Jim Breyer, topping the list.)

A Shanghai-based investor, Ms Lee has completed five major deals in the last three years. She listed four Chinese companies in her portfolio to raise US$500 million (S$626 million), three on the American stock exchange, Nasdaq, and one on the Chinese exchange, ChiNext.

She was also the architect of the merger between HiSoft and VanceInfo to form Pactera, the largest IT services provider in China with a market value of US$700 million.

Ms Lee has barely glanced at the Forbes endorsement. "As a venture capitalist, the only measurement of success is the returns on investment," said the girl from Toa Payoh who was hired in 2005 by GGV Capital (GGVC) to start its business in China.

Though she now lives, breathes and dreams tech companies, that's not how she got her start.

The CHIJ St Nicholas Girls' School and Hwa Chong Junior College student was a Singapore Technologies scholar who studied engineering at Cornell University in New York between 1991 and 1995. Upon her return, she joined ST Aerospace as a systems engineer.

"I spent time at the Paya Lebar airbase working with technicians and pilots to upgrade the wireless communications systems for the the A4 Skyhawk fighter jets."

A two-year stint at The Kellogg School in Northwestern University in Chicago, studying for a Master of Business Administration, opened her eyes to a different career path.

She helped a professor organise a business idea competition, and another to provide consultancy to a Chicago supermarket that wanted to expand nationwide. This plus a part-time job with a Chicago venture-capital firm got her adrenaline going.

"The US stock market was in upswing when I first arrived and then it crashed in 2001 with the bust. It was interesting to see how the capital markets affected not only the financial community but also everyone else, including technology and jobs," she recalled. "I realised there was a big world outside of Singapore Technologies, and I wanted to get out there and learn some more."

In 2001, she returned to Singapore and broke her bond.

"It was a big risk, as the stock market was reeling from the bust," she said. "On reflection, it was the right decision. Today I understand what it means to leave a steady job, and have no safety net. I can empathise with entrepreneurs who leave their jobs to start a company and chase their dreams."

She credits Singapore Technologies with exposing her to high technology and providing a critical foundation for her current work.

She also found a mentor in Mr Boon Swan Foo, then the chief executive officer of ST Engineering, the parent company of ST Aerospace. From him, she learnt how businesses are run, invaluable knowledge for her today.

Leaving the iron rice bowl behind, Ms Lee went to Hong Kong where she found a job with Morgan Stanley, focusing on tech companies in China. The job helped her repay the debt she had incurred in paying off her scholarship bond.

A year later, she moved to an Asian venture-capital firm, Jafco Asia, before going to Shanghai with GGVC.

In the last three years, GGVC has helped 15 companies to list, mostly on Nasdaq. About half the companies were based in the US and the rest in China.

As an expansion stage venture-capital firm, it does not invest in newbie start-ups, but companies about four to five years old with a clear business strategy and good customer or revenue growth, or both.

"They want to expand and need not only our funding, but also our expertise in marketing, business strategy, pricing, marketing and networking to help them grow globally," she said.

Ms Lee focuses on the Internet and digital media, and views about 600 to 700 deals a year. Only five to six make the cut.

And even among that handful, there will be one successful company for two or more duds.

Ms Lee's interest is in video gaming, which she tracks closely, though not for fun.

"We focus on casual games or communications tools for gamers. We have an operating matrix that lets us track various factors like daily or monthly active and unique users. So we know what to look for, and it helps us cut down the number of duds," she said.

"Forget investing in a company trying to develop a killer game for a massively multi-player online game like World of Warcraft. It takes about five years to develop one and by that time the market could change and you're stuck with yesterday's game."

Ms Lee brings the same analytical bent to knowing when to close a company - a heartbreaking business, she says - yet keep on a friendly footing with the entrepreneur in case "when they try again, they could be the next Google and we want to be able to invest in them".

The younger of two siblings - brother Hong Meng is an engineer - Ms Lee got married 13 years ago, around the time she got into the VC business. Her husband, Mr Vincent Koh, works for Google in California.

Asked how the long-distance relationship works, she said: "I'm a maniac when it comes to work, so it's good to be alone. I guess my investee companies are my children. Also, I travel regularly to the US which lets me see him. The GGVC office is in Menlo Park, not far from Google and my home there."

Weekends find her on the golf course. Each year, she goes hiking and camping in places such as Nepal, Alaska, Russia and Patagonia.

She visits her parents in Hougang every few months but Singapore does not figure in her future yet.

"When I left ST, my boss told me to get experience working for multinational corporations, then return to contribute to the economy here. I will do that one day."

Not yet. The venture-capital business still captivates her, as bigger firms, with trophies like Twitter and Facebook, swallow up smaller outfits. But if they came to Asia, the top venture-capital funds would not be competitive without knowing the ground.

Ms Lee will be ready for them.