VC maven's best investment decision? Venturing to China

The tech scene in China is awash with capital-hungry start-ups. But even in the world's most populous country, Ms Jenny Lee, managing partner of GGV Capital, has an uncanny knack for spotting the next big disruptor.

Ms Lee, for instance, was an angel investor in Xiaomi in 2010, back when the smartphone maker was still in the prototype stage.

Xiaomi has since enjoyed phenomenal success, rising to become one of the world's top smartphone manufacturers and going public in Hong Kong.

Ms Lee similarly saw potential in the early days of Chinese social media start-up YY Inc in 2009. The company later listed in 2012, and five years after that, GGV Capital exited its investment at a whopping 15 times return.

Ms Lee, a Singaporean who joined GGV Capital in 2005, was in fact crucial to setting up the venture capital firm's operations in Shanghai.

With her contributions, GGV Capital is now lauded for its foresight on China's Internet explosion.

GGV Capital focuses on US and China tech companies, with seed-to-growth investments in areas including new retail, enterprise and frontier tech.

Speaking at the Cutting Edge forum yesterday, Ms Lee credited her success to her atypical route into the venture capital world.

With an ST Engineering scholarship, she studied engineering at Cornell University but also gained exposure to the business world.

"I first learnt about venture capital when I was 21, and that was when I opened up to the world of entrepreneurship," she recalled.

However, she also kept in mind some wise words from a professor: "If you want to be a good venture capitalist, you have to make yourself a partner to the entrepreneur… If you've never been in the battle, you'll never know what empathy is. If you've never seen how businesses are built, you won't understand. So go find any start-up or big organisation and stick it out. Stay, not just float around."

With her scholarship, Ms Lee easily abided by this advice and spent five years as an engineer at ST Aerospace, constantly "out in the hangars" upgrading aircraft like fighter jets.

Realising that she had technical expertise but lacked marketing know-how, she then embarked on an MBA programme at the Kellogg Business School at Northwestern University in the United States.

After she graduated, the global economy was in chaos in 2001. But with her "high risk appetite", Ms Lee was drawn to burgeoning business opportunities in China.

"Without even having been to China before, I decided, I'm going to break my bond (with ST Engineering)," she said.

Pursuing her passion, Ms Lee then moved to Hong Kong to work at Morgan Stanley, and later on to the venture capital world, starting off with JAFCO Asia and then at GGV Capital.

The rest is history, as she built a name for herself as among the industry's best.

Ms Lee's standing as a self-made woman has attracted plenty of accolades. She has appeared in the Forbes Global 100 VC Midas list, clinching the top spot among females and ranking 10th overall in 2015.

In 2016, Ms Lee was ranked 17th among the top 100 VC investors globally by The New York Times and CB Insights, being one of only two selected from mainland China.

That same year, she also clinched the Business China Young Achiever Award for representing Singapore on the global venture capital stage.

The awards continue to roll in. Last year, she ranked 87th in Forbes' World's 100 Most Powerful Women list.

Beyond her achievements, Ms Lee has also contributed back to the Singapore community of entrepreneurs by sharing her knowledge at various industry events.

She is well respected by and often quoted in both Singapore and Chinese media.

Not complacent with her success, Ms Lee continues to make bold bets.

Her recent investments are in emerging fields like artificial intelligence and even flying cars.

Reflecting on her journey thus far, she concluded that the "best investment decision" she has ever made was not one of her start-up bets, but in her own decision to venture to China.

"I went to China alone, I had no relatives or friends in China. Back then, my Chinese was pretty bad... But just that ability to see through the challenge step by step and break each barrier, I think having that persistence and resilience was also key... It's a journey that I really love."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 26, 2019, with the headline 'VC maven's best investment decision? Venturing to China'. Subscribe